Thursday, November 9, 2017

ARK: Survival Evolved Review (XONE, PS4)

After nearly two years in the Xbox Game Preview program, ARK: Survival Evolved has finally reached a 1.0 full release and can be considered a finished product. Studio Wildcard is going to keep working on it, of course, so it still isn’t really “done”, but you can now go to a store and buy ARK for a full $60 MSRP. Unfortunately, even after two years, it still isn’t really ready for primetime due to performance problems, glitches, and other issues that were never fixed during early access despite being present from day one. On the other hand, though, ARK does have amazingly awesome dinosaurs in it, which does actually count for a lot. The result is a game that is a technical mess, but is also probably the best dinosaur game ever, so I have to admit I’m a bit conflicted. Continue reading our full ARK: Survival Evolved Xbox One review (now with PS4 impressions) for all of the details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Studio Wildcard
  • Developer: Studio Wildcard
  • ESRB Rating: “T" for Teen
  • Genre: Action / Survival
  • Pros: DINOSAURS!; sliders; lots of content
  • Cons: Performance issues; glitches; long grind to the good stuff
  • MSRP: $60

I want to start out by noting that this review is exclusively about the single-player experience in ARK. I’ve played hundreds of hours solo and exactly zero hours online, so I’m going to review my experience. While most of the marketing has been about the online multiplayer aspect of ARK – forming tribes with other players, building large bases, working together to survive, and going to war with other human tribes, oh and also dinosaurs - it is still a viable and very fun single-player experience. Probably better in multiplayer, but still solid solo.

ARK: Survival Evolved is an open world survival game set in a land of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures (and even mythical creatures like dragons, depending on what map you choose). The game comes with three large maps and features dozens and dozens of species of animals. It can be played either in single-player, local multiplayer with splitscreen, or online with dozens of players on the map. In terms of the amount of content you’re getting for $60, it is hard to argue you aren’t getting your money’s worth here.

You begin the game as a lowly level 1 human and, similar to Minecraft, have to start out by punching trees and breaking rocks in order to get materials to build simple tools like axes or picks. As you gather materials and build items, as well as kill animals, you earn XP that allows you to level up. When you level up you also earn engram points that you use to learn how to build new and increasingly more powerful and technically advanced items.

ARK’s upgrade and level up system is fascinating because it starts you out with sticks and rocks and simple thatch buildings, but you eventually end up with guns and lasers and metal buildings and all sorts of crazy stuff. This is also a problem, though, because it takes a long, long, long time until you actually get to the good stuff and the grind just to survive for the first several hours isn’t particularly fun. High-end items also require a large number of rare materials, but your character can only carry a limited amount, so traveling all over to find enough materials to actually build stuff is, again, a grind. You can tame dinosaurs and other creatures in order to help you harvest materials and carry things, but that in itself is a convoluted pain due to clunky associated systems and a poorly designed U.I..

I mentioned “survival” above because, yes, ARK: Survival Evolved is a survival sim. You have to drink water, eat food, maintain your body temperature, and other associated survival-y things. And it’s all a huge pain in the butt. Just like it is in every survival game.

Thankfully, ARK: Survival Evolved does a couple of very smart, very clever things to help make the game more fun and accessible. First are a ton of sliders (see how sliders work here) that let you adjust pretty much every aspect of the game. You can change (or turn off entirely) hunger / thirst / other survival elements, you can change how much damage dinosaurs do as well as take, how much materials you harvest at a time, how much XP you earn, how fast the day / night cycle passes, how easy it is to tame dinosaurs, and much, much, much more. You can fully customize your experience to be as easy or difficult as you want, and that is freaking amazing. I love it. If you want even more control you can also use PC-style console commands (yes, even on Xbox but you’ll have to look up how to use them on your own …) to basically cheat your ass off. With the console commands you can fly, activate god mode, give yourself tons of XP so you level up quickly, instantly tame animals, and much more. Again, I can’t stress enough how much I love that ARK gives you so much control to play the game however you want. This is an amazing feature.

While the sliders and console commands can solve one set of problems with ARK – the slow grind to fun stuff and annoying survival aspects – there are some fundamental issues that still remain. The menus and U.I. are clearly meant for PC players using mouse and keyboard and are awkward and clunky to use at best with a controller. Nothing you can do is easy in ARK: Survival Evolved. Everything is always multiple awkward menu screens away and it just feels really damn clunky. The normal moving around and shooting stuff and exploring controls just fine, but taming animals or building structures or even using the menus to make items is just awful and unintuitive.

A bigger problem with ARK: Survival Evolved is that it performs like an absolute pig on Xbox One. The framerate fluctuates wildly and the game regularly drops all the way to 0 FPS even as you’re just walking around. It seriously just stops for a second or two and you can’t do anything. I can’t say if the game is pausing to load stuff, which I suppose would be understandable, because it does it even if you’re focused on just one small area (like building a structure). The constant stutters and stops and pauses are incredibly annoying. There are lots of graphical glitches, too, where textures won’t load properly and shadows only activate 10-feet in front of your character. When you’re standing still, ARK can look really beautiful. Start moving, however, and it all falls apart. Speaking of glitches, dinosaurs will regularly get stuck in environmental objects and all sorts of other weird stuff happens, which really ruins the immersion.

The most disappointing thing about all of the problems I mentioned in the previous paragraph is that they have all been present from the start of early access and have never been fully addressed even after nearly two years. When ARK first hit Xbox Game Preview in December 2015 everyone was optimistic that things would eventually get fixed. Well, we’re in September 2017 now and it’s the same as ever, so I can’t see the performance ever really improving. Maybe it will get better on Xbox One X (even though high-end PCs also struggle to run ARK), but almost certainly not on standard Xbox One. For a game to be full MSRP $60 “finished product” I think it is fair to expect it to be a little more polished particularly when the problems have been so obvious for so long.

With all of that said, however, I’d by lying if I said I didn’t still have a lot of fun with ARK: Survival Evolved. It’s basically Minecraft with dinosaurs, and that is very, very appealing. This is probably the best dinosaur game ever, too, and the sheer number of species present is absolutely incredible. I wouldn’t say the A.I. behavior is particularly realistic or believable, at all, but just exploring this world even if it’s full of dumb stupid idiot animals that just stand around while predators constantly chew on their butts is still freaking awesome. I’ve loved dinosaurs ever since I was a little kid so ARK: Survival Evolved, even with its many problems, is like a dream come true.

I also have to say that ARK can be pretty darn great looking when everything loads properly. The water is incredibly good looking and the lighting is really quite impressive. The game is also really lush and dense with plant life and can be stunningly realistic looking. The dinosaurs and other animals also all look really great, too. And then you actually start moving and the screen starts tearing and the framerate dies and the shadows start popping in and out and the textures don’t load and it all goes to heck, but for brief moments at least, ARK is gorgeous.
The sound, on the other hand, is pretty universally mediocre. The animals all make different noises, sure enough, but only like one sound each, so you hear the same sound effects over and over and over again. Likewise, there are only a couple of musical themes so you hear the “Oh crap, animals are attacking you” music pretty much constantly, which gets annoying pretty quickly.

PS4 Version Impressions

We have also had the opportunity to play ARK: Survival Evolved on a slim PS4 (no Pro, sorry) and the performance is a little better than on Xbox One. The game doesn’t just die and go to 0 FPS every so often the way it does on the Xbox One version, I can happily say. The framerate is still somewhat unstable overall, though. V-sync seems to be better (or simply present, maybe?) as the game isn’t tearing itself apart right in front of your eyes like on Xbox. Other problems still persist, though, such as extreme pop in as plants and ground cover will suddenly pop into existence mere feet in front of you, textures can take a wile to load, and there are still tons of glitches and wonky things happening with dinosaur A.I. all the time.

In other words, ARK: Survival Evolved is kind of a technical mess regardless of what platform you’re playing on. Maybe they should have spent the 18-months+ in early access on sorting out the performance rather than adding a bazillion creatures and crafting items. Sorry if I’m being passive aggressive, but ARK is a game I want to love but just can’t.

Bottom Line

All in all, ARK: Survival Evolved is a game that I would definitely say I like, but I also know it isn’t objectively very good in its current state. It’s hard to justify paying $60 for a game that still needs a lot of work and, judging from how early access went, may not actually ever get better. I’m not saying you can’t have a good time with ARK: Survival Evolved, especially if you love dinosaurs, but it’s best to know what you’re getting into before you decide to buy it. I also want to add that while I didn’t cover multiplayer at all, if you do have a dedicated group to play with that will definitely make ARK more appealing and worthwhile. Dinosaur lovers should definitely check ARK: Survival Evolved out, but I’d recommend waiting for a sale.
Disclosure: A review code was provided by the publisher.