We sent our survival specialist into the tropical paradise that time forgot.
Studio Wildcard has set themselves a lofty goal with ARK: Survival Evolved, but given what we've seen so far, they're well on the way to achieving it. Their game has been on sale for just over one month, and in that time it has proved so popular that it's attracted one million players to its servers. In a genre that boasts popular options such as DayZ, Rust and 7 Days to Die, that kind of traction is hugely impressive.
ARK: SE is an open-world survival sandbox, but its very specific angle is dinosaurs. Surviving them, taming them.
Players wake up on a beautiful sun-kissed island, but one that's inhabited by a range of dinosaurs, many of which are trying to eat you. There's sandy beaches around the coast, and in the interior there's lush jungles, lakes, mountainous areas; it's your typical tropical setting.
Survival means dealing with a variety of different elements; the day/night cycle means keeping warm when darkness falls and cool under the sun, and you need to eat well and make sure you get your five a day (make that six, as you can eat your own faeces should you get desperate. It's not à la carte), and of course avoid the local wildlife. Day to day activities include gathering food and resources, not getting eaten, and taming a dinosaur if the opportunity presents itself. Players can work alone to create their digital home, or team up for more impressive, elaborate structures. Those who can organise themselves can aspire to building huge bases - the sky's the limit.
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There's a fantastic array of dinosaurs already in the game, and there's more on their way. Those already on the island range from Dilophosaurus and, of course, the Tyrannosaurus rex. On the friendlier side of the spectrum players have access to childhood favourites like Triceratops and Stegosaurus. But it is possible to tame all of the dinosaurs in the game (with the exception of a couple of big insects), which'll be one of the game's biggest hooks.
Taming is an arduous process, but it's also very satisfying once done. You must render a dino unconscious, either using your bare hands and pummelling it into submission, or by crafting tranquillisers. Trying the former on anything other than the most docile beast isn't recommended. Our heavily-armoured high level character got chomped by a T-rex in three hits.
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Once the dinosaur is unconscious you must stay with it, guard it, then feed it until it becomes your pet. You'll need to stick by the creature to successfully tame it, and different species require different times. During our play we found taming a Pteranodon took two hours, with Raptors take around 45 minutes. There's a level system (similar to that of the human characters) in play, so those dinosaurs with lower stats are easier to tame than those with high numbers. It's in place to stop you immediately making a beeline for the biggest predator on the island.
Once tamed, as long as you can craft a saddle, you can ride the dinosaur, or it can follow you and carry the items you scavenge from the island; your very own pre-historic packhorse. Your dino will also defend you if you're attacked, and although it can be the difference between life and death, it's very disheartening to watch your loyal lizard become extinct once again. We had a pair of Raptors - Bonnie and Clyde - and watched Clyde go the way of the dodo (also in the game, a nice touch) when defending us from the advances of a T-rex.
We've not managed to tame a T-rex yet, but some of our neighbours on the island have, and others living near to us have also domesticated their very own flying Pteranodons. Noting which beast has been domesticated by your fellow islander's is important in accessing potential threat level when approaching, or being approached by, other players in PvP.
The first time we went on a PvP server we built our own house, started to gather resources only for a group to come by and ask us to join our clan. When we declined, as we were waiting on a friend, they promptly attacked and killed us and set about destroying our home.
We switched to PvE shortly after, and have had a much better time.
We were able to build a house without someone trying to destroy it every five minutes (there's a countdown timer, which changes depending on the server, that gives you a certain period of time between play sessions when people can't destroy your property - helpful when building your own little empire). There's the potential for nice close-knit communities where you get to know your neighbours. You'll soon find out who's friendly, who likes to work alone, who'll help you out when you're in a pinch. In our own little peninsula there's a variety of buildings, and we know most of our fellow islanders; there's a few groups, some lone wolves, and they're all set with their own little bases, each stocked with dino-pets of every shape and size.
Building a home, and the furnishings within it, requires you to learn skills which become available to you as you level up. The levelling systems has you rise through the ranks by completing actions in the game, from basics like chopping down trees to collecting berries, through to building structures and defeating dinosaurs.
Each time you level up you're given stat points to buff your abilities, and Engram points to spend on unlocking items that you can later craft in the game. There's a massive selection of choices to pick from, from buildings to weapons to armour. As you develop your character you get more options. Your first home might have a thatch roof, where later you can build a metal fortress. With weapons you start off with the humble spear, but at a later date you can craft your own devastating rocket launcher. Those working in collaboration can specialise and therefore increase the range of advanced crafting options available to them.
You have to make tools so you can extract materials from the world, and this sends you to some interesting places. For example, at some point you'll find yourself heading down into the cave system that veins the island while looking for treasure; it's a claustrophobic place full of horrible beasties. Alternatively, after a while you'll need oil to create more complex machinery and to run generators. This takes us to the deep blue; the only place to find oil is in the sea, which is home to the giant prehistoric sharks more commmonly known as the Megalodon. The oil is located deep underwater, and trying to access it alone will only see you drown. The only way to reach is to punch a Megalodon, tame it, and then ride that bad boy down to the seafloor.
Collecting oil is a late-game activity (we're only just doing so, and we're level 50 of 60 - though the developers are planning on raising the level cap in the future) which will lead you to crafting the tools needed to tackle the three giant obelisks that are dotted around the map and dominate the skyline - you'll see at least one wherever you are on the island.
Each obelisk floats above an altar which offers a shopping list of items for players to collect, from Megalodon teeth to T-rex arms, that when placed will summon a legendary creature of epic proportions for groups of players to do battle with. We'll not spoil them here, but you can see one in the below trailer.
Visually, ARK is pretty. There's some optimisation issues at the moment that the developers are working on, but overall it's an impressive game, even stunning when compared to other titles in the genre. The detail on the dinosaurs is fantastic, and the art design is rich, with vibrant colours and plenty of environmental variety. Player models are customisable, and there's loads of options so you can add your own physical quirks if you want. The audio is solid, with ambient effects complimented by a contextual score that chimes in during moments of notable activity. You'll wander across the island and hear footsteps behind you, and you'll not know whether you're being stalked by a sabre-tooth tiger or an Ankylosaurus - it keeps things tense, even on the less cut-throat PvE servers.
We're impressed with how the developers are supporting and developing the game as it moves through Early Access. There's ways of doing it right and doing it wrong (The Stomping Land offered a similar experience but lacked support). Studio Wildcard are talking to their community and offering regular (near daily) updates; they're doing a fine job. Which is good because the game is shaping up to be a very good survival sandbox as long as the few rough edges are smoothed over.
In our opinion the crafting is best-in-class, the visuals beautiful (note this is a demanding game: you'll need a Titan X to run this on ultra). The setting - the island, the dinosaurs - provides the backdrop for a rich adventure. This is one game that we'll be sticking with for a long time to come. It's out now on PC via Steam Early Access, but it's also planned for Xbox One and PS4, so console players can start looking forward to embarking on their own dino adventure in due course.