You know, I almost became a paleontologist. Growing up I loved dinosaurs. Jurassic Park was my favorite film. I loved The Land Before Time movies. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story remains one of my guiltiest pleasures (and goddamn it the scene at the end with Screweyes was fantastically creepy and well done). Disney’s Dinosaur is a personal favorite of mine. I could go on (but I’ll be nice).
Right around the release of Jurassic World a few friends of mine reported playing a new survival game still in development (by Studio Wildcard) called Ark: Survival Evolved, available right now in early access on Steam. I haven’t played many survival games before; Minecraft was easily the biggest one and captured my attention for a few years, but playing alone got boring after a while (and playing on servers never worked out too well for whatever reason). After that came DayZ, which was fun in theory but terribly unfun in practice as time wore on because I had no friends to play it with. Not a large list, but there’s a clear issue; survival games aren’t that fun to me without friends to play with. Ark immediately caught my attention for two reasons. One; because I could play it with friends and might actually have some fun with it. Two; you can tame and ride DINOSAURS.
The world of Ark is actually rather interesting. When you first join a server you have to create your own character. Options are, at the moment, limited in some respects (only one face for both men and women, one hairstyle, etc.) and open to extreme customization in others (alteration of the size of your various body parts, plus a huge range of skin, eye, and hair colors). After selecting your spawn area on the game’s one large island you wake up dazed, confused, and naked (but not too naked; don’t want the censors tripping). The first thing the first-person view focuses on is your left wrist, where some sort of diamond-shaped gem is embedded into your flesh. This, according to your inventory screen, is a “specimen implant.” Based on that information I presume that we, the players, are part of some sort of grand extraterrestrial experiment.
I say “based on” because we really don’t know much about the story of Ark, why we are on the island, or why there are dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures running around. There are three alien-looking obelisks floating above the island (sometimes called “arks” themselves, or just towers); one red, one blue, and one green. All three are situated above a basin with some sort of computer terminal in the center of a dais (this is where you can upload your character and tamed dinosaurs “into the Ark,” allowing you to transfer them to a different server) and alien machinery all around it. The island seems man-made (or at least something-made), as the ocean surrounding it is apparently not saline; you can drink that water safely. Periodically you will encounter bright colorful towers of light through which supply drops are slowly lowered to ground level and which players can loot for various items. The whole experience feels to me like the three-way bastard child of The Truman Show, The Hunger Games, and The Lost World television series; are we perhaps cloned or captured humans, thrown onto an island full of some of the largest and most dangerous animals ever to walk Earth so extraterrestrials can watch us for their amusement?
Whatever is happening (and we’ve been assured some form of explanation will be provided) your mission on the island is simple; survive. Like Minecraft, Ark features crafting as a staple of the survival process. For example, one of the first things you’ll want to do in the game is gather some wood and other supplies; namely fiber, stone, thatch, etc. and build yourself a stone pick, maybe a stone hatchet, a torch (it gets dark at night) and a campfire to cook meat. As you kill and tame animals and craft items you’ll gain experience which will allow you to level up, giving you points to unlock crafting engrams which allow you to craft other, more complicated items (so unlike Minecraft you don’t inherently know all crafting recipes). At the higher levels of the game, around 50 and up, you’ll be able to craft complex machines like an air conditioner, forge metal armor, and make high-caliber guns (though servers exist which only allow “primitive” technology, like bows and hide armor). The devs have even promised a sci-fi tier, so presumably we’ll get shields and ray guns, too. And of course taming dinosaurs is a huge part of the experience. Each genus has its own strengths and perks which make it valuable. Dinosaurs like Stegosaurus and Triceratops are great for harvesting berries, which are a source of food and necessary for taming herbivores and keeping dinosaurs unconscious. The Pteranodon provides a fast-moving flying mount, allowing you to reach supply drops and other areas of the map quickly. Phiomias, ancient ancestors of elephants, aren’t particularly fast or do a lot of damage but do have a high carrying capacity (and are thus often used like pack mules) and defecate a lot, making them valuable for anyone needing fertilizer for a farm.
Speaking about the dinosaurs, I am actually very happy with them in this game, and in more ways than one. First and foremost, they are beautiful. Hell, everything in this game is (you need a very decent rig to be able to run it). But the dinosaurs in particular are very well modeled and have a host of fantastic and beautiful colors (morphs, I suppose, for you sciency types). But what I really love about them that every single species in the game is fictional. Now, they are all based on a real-world genus; Tyrannosaurus, Parasaurolophus, Sarcosuchus, and a bunch of others. However, the species in the game is fictional. The T. rexes for example, are not actually Tyrannosaurus rex; they are instead Tyrannosaurus dominum (though we still call them rexes out of habit/simplicity). The parasaurs are not Parasaurolophus walkeri (nor are they P. tubicen or P. cyrtocristatus); they are P. amphibio. And the Sarcosuchus are Sarchosuchus excubitor, not S. imperator or S. hartti. I love that, because there is no fear of inaccuracy (at least for me); these aren’t real species and, as such, the devs have a lot of creative freedom. The Dilophosaurus, for example, is frilled and spits venom just like the popular Jurassic Park iteration that most people imagine. In real life Dilophosaurus wetherilli didn’t have these features, but the fictional D. sputatrix in the game does. This pleases me greatly. Go ahead and do whatever crazy shit you want with your dinos, Studio Wildcard; you won’t hear a peep out of me.
I really do love this game, and the devs are fantastic. A new patch comes out almost every day to fix any bugs that have arisen and introduce new content. They are very open to fan suggestions and extremely transparent; Studio Wildcard is developing this game the right way, and it shows. If nothing else I think that’s something to talk about.
However, I need to be brutally honest; as much as I love the game I just can’t play it anymore. Not right now, anyway. And the reason is the other players. Open world survival games like this, I have found, tend to slide into an unfortunate direction. People tend to be jerks in video games; it’s an unfortunate fact. Games don’t carry the same finality as real life, and people will be jerks simply because they can. It is, after all, just a game. And in Ark you have a big PvP draw; you’re playing with dozens of other people (provided you are on a multiplayer server, of course) and shit will go down. That’s all well and good; I’m not against valid PvP. But the problem is that I have other duties in real life that need my attention; a girlfriend, a job, the desire to sleep, etc. As such, I can’t sit on the game 24/7. And when you log out your character basically collapses into an unwaking sleep wherever he was standing. Raiders can and will attack your base essentially unprovoked, take all your stuff, and then you’ll never know who burgled you (kinda like real life, and real life sucks). You can build things like defensive turrets and set dinosaurs to a protective stance so they attack anyone with grabby hands, but the turrets can’t be constructed until very high levels (and cost a lot of expensive and hard-to-acquire resources), and dinosaurs are pretty easily killed from range.
I’m not sure how to fix this particular issue; like I said I think it’s just an aspect of survival games; give people too much freedom and they will abuse it, and boy do I feel abused. For three or four days straight my tribe was offline raided. We lost all of our armor, weapons, our stash of valuable expensive resources like oil and metal, and had our entire pen of Ichthyosaurus and a goddamn beautiful Brontosaurus murdered in cold blood (despite the very clear server rule that no one should be killing anyone’s dinos if they are set to passive). And then shit hit the fan when the (presumed) offending tribe suddenly started attacking everyone else and causing as much destruction as they could. The admins (presumably) did what they were able, banning the offenders, but the damage was done and a lot of people left the server. And so then I decided I was done playing for a while.
My tribe and I have had to server hop a good five or six times because of stuff like this; inevitably every server we join seems to run fine for a week or two, with tribes generally being kind (though weary) toward each other and any raiding being reasonable. But then shit hits the fan, people freak out, someone hacks or violates server rules, and everyone leaves. Even that very first night we were raided I wasn’t upset; they destroyed only our door and an industrial grill (by accident, I’m sure; it was near the door and probably got hit by the C4 as well) and didn’t take every single thing not bolted down. Nice people as far as thieves go, or so I thought. I was able to replenish a lot of our supplies that day. And then we were hit the next night, and then the night after that, and then some of our dinos were killed. And then madness just poured from every nook and cranny on the island.
It takes time to build up a nice base, level up your character, tame dinosaurs (which can take hours), and ultimately have fun in the game. Seeing your hard work destroyed overnight because you made the mistake of deciding to actually sleep and be a functional person in reason life is shitty and does not make for a fun experience. Not only that, but having to move to another server usually means starting over from scratch with a new character (many unofficial servers don’t allow character transfers precisely because of what happened in the server I described above). Ultimately games should be about having fun. And if I’m not having fun I’m not gonna play. I’ll go play something that is fun. My tribemates moved on to a private server where we would be able to play in peace, but that’s not for me. I enjoy playing with other people; not having them around makes the game feel empty. Who cares if I tamed a rex on a private server? I could tame 10 at once with a console command. Playing on a public server provides a sense of challenge and requires effort and thus my accomplishments mean something. But with that sense of value comes the double-edged sword of losing all those accomplishments to one guy who lives and sleeps in a different time zone. A PvE-only server is an option I might push for, but that still might require us to start from scratch with new characters. And I just don’t think I can handle that right now.
Ark is a very fun game that I enjoyed a lot (and hell, I still want to enjoy it). Unfortunately, it’s left a sour taste in my mouth that I’ll need to thoroughly rinse out before I can go back. I hope the game continues to develop well, and I’m excited to see what the devs have in store. But for now I’m content to play something else. Hmm… Witcher 3 has been calling me back…