I've been playing Ark: Survival Evolved for almost two years now, and I'm still not 100 per cent sure if it's a good game. Strip away the appealing dinosaur-themed veneer, and developer Studio Wildcard's long-in-early-access survival adventure starts to look surprisingly routine. Its core systems are overly familiar, uninspired even, and more than a little wobbly; it's devoid of depth or nuance, and it's a survival game where the only resource that's required most readily is your time. Yet, for all its foibles, I've poured hundreds of happy hours into Ark, and I'll doubtless play even more.
A huge part of Ark's appeal, I think, is pure wish fulfilment. Like many, I was obsessed with dinosaurs back in my early years: I'd spend hours with my head in books of bones, memorising complicated names, and gawking at the pictures of sharp-teethed behemoths and big friendly giants. Eventually, that paleontological fascination subsided, but somewhere in my heart, my love for those beautiful beasts of a bygone era lingered on. And Ark taps right into a thick vein of nostalgia, letting you live out those childhood fantasies in a world where dinosaurs still roam.
It's a game of pure adventure, of unspoilt lands and long-dead civilisations, of fearless explorers and ancient mysteries, of mighty beasts, impenetrable jungles, sun-dappled forests, steaming volcanoes, crumbling ruins, terrifying oceans, frozen wastelands, and endless sand dunes; it's a game where triceratops and stegosauruses graze lazily in verdant pastures, where brontosauruses tower majestically beneath brilliant blue skies, where drooling, screeching carnivores can come crashing through the trees at any moment.
Ark isn't just a prehistoric showcase though; its real strength is that it gives you the irresistible opportunity to live among its beasts, forging an existence through hard, but satisfying graft: gathering food, collecting resources, building a home, domesticating animals, and gradually asserting your dominance over nature and - in the brutal, relentless battles of PvP - other tribes. Ark's narrative through-line - in which you wake on a secluded beach, scrape together a soggy thatch hut, then slowly, doggedly establish a presence through weeks of toil until you're finally atop some fearsome beast, surveying your vast domain - can make for an incredible journey.
Take a look at Ark's feature list and it really does seem like no stone has been left unturned: there are more than 100 water, land, and air creatures - from the humble dodo to the mighty giganotosaurus - nearly all tameable, and nearly all have distinct utilities for gathering and fighting. It's a sandbox game that's positively bursting with opportunities: you can explore, build, farm, craft, fish, trade, live high among the forest branches or deep beneath the waves; you can kill bosses, raise baby dinosaurs, or wage wars to assert your domination - and all while playing with other humans on massively populated servers across the world.
Ark's breadth is spectacular, and it's easy to lose hours to its tight loops of resource gathering and expansion. And once you've got to grips with the basics, your options grow even further: you can play peacefully on PvE servers, aggressively on PvP server, or offline as a single-player game. You can abide by Wildcard's rules on official servers, or brave unofficial servers where anything goes. There are servers where dinosaurs can never be tamed, primitive servers with no advanced technology, extinctions servers which reset once a month, servers with procedurally generated maps, and endless combinations of mods and user-created additions. In terms of pure stuff, Ark's scope is mind-boggling, and you'd be hard pressed to call any version the "definitive" one.
Beneath all the variables and permutations, however, and beneath the prehistoric surface dressing, Ark is, in truth, a pretty formulaic survival game. It sticks doggedly to the familiar, slight resource gathering and expansion loop that, from Minecraft to Rust, has become the well-worn mainstay of modern survival games. You know the drill already: punch rocks to make weapons to chop trees to build structures to level up to access more things to smash and build and craft. It's compelling but only insofar as you quickly find yourself locked in inextricable loops of menial busywork and delayed gratification. For some, Ark's relentless surface distractions will delight, but for others less easily swayed by the smoke and mirrors, it'll feel like a banal, repetitive drudge.
Ark's prehistoric theme does go some way to mitigating this: there's a definite thrill in ownership and acquisition of its mighty beasts (even if it doesn't take long before they stop being things and start being functions again), and there's certainly pride to be had from setting your own goals and admiring your achievements after the endless toil and grind. But when you're not in the naturally obfuscating turmoil of PvP, it's hard to ignore just how anaemic Ark's core systems really are. Wildcard does seem to have recognised this, and attempted to create more fulfilling secondary goals beyond pure survival - treasure hunting, end-game bosses, spelunking - but even they fall into the trap of grind and busywork, and can't disguise Ark's overall lack of elegance and depth.
Ark too often foregoes nuance in favour of sheer overwhelming volume, and it's an approach that, while thrilling at first from a purely sensory perspective, leaves the experience feeling a little hollow. You need look no further than Ark's idea of a balanced survival challenge: there's barely any attempt to lead new players into the experience gracefully; step out into the wild and you'll immediately run slap-bang into a wall of death beasts, stretching away in every direction. Progress comes through sheer brute force perseverance, endless repetition, and more than a bit of luck. And, as a result, success is rarely about skill and more about the quantity of time you can dedicate.
In its official guise, Ark is not a game that's shy about frittering away your free hours. Resource gathering, building, farming, taming, and breeding can all take huge amounts of time, even during an Evolution Event when all of Ark's official server multipliers are cranked up so things happen faster. Building a modestly size based can take hours of resource harvesting, and taming a mid-level creature can take even longer. Baby raising, meanwhile, can require days if not literal weeks of constant attention. Even regular maintenance and upkeep requires significant time investment if you're playing online, as gas supplies dwindle, and your creatures begin to starve.
To get the most out of Ark on official servers, you'll either need to be incredibly time-rich, or you'll have to knuckle down and join a tribe of friends or strangers. That might sound intimidating, but when it works, when you find a good group of people to play with, and on the right server, the sense of community and camaraderie can be wonderful. The best servers will buzz with barters and trades, you'll strike up friendships and alliances with neighbours, maybe even share resources and explore together - two years on, I still chat to the kind soul that rescued me from raptors when I first started playing, selflessly swooping down to help while I ran around naked and confused.
The darker side of this of course is the trolling, the griefing, and the often interminable toxicity. It's part and parcel of online games, of course, but I think that it's exacerbated in Ark by the pure time investment that lies at the core. It can create wonderful bonds, and a sense of collaborative pride, but online is awash with negativity and paranoia, borne, I suspect, from the fear that, at any given minute, hours of hard work could be undone. When it takes so very long to do anything meaningful, people grow naturally, aggressively protective of their investment in the game.
One of the most frustrating aspects of Ark, though, is that its biggest design problems have been long evident, and there's the sense that, rather than addressing them, Wildcard has simply elected to shove them to one side. Countless features have been added in the last two years, but few have received notable improvement or refinement afterward. Building is still unwieldy, breeding is still mercilessly dull, tree house building - a lovely idea in principle - fell almost immediately flat. Elsewhere, its rushed UI update can be hugely unwieldy on console, balance passes have been halfheartedly fudged, and performance is still not great, even on a high-end PC - and that's just for starters. Post-launch improvement is a definite possibility, but right now, in its "finished" state, there's still an unshakable, slightly uncomfortable sense that Ark might collapse in on itself at any moment.
Yet despite its issues, Ark can so very often be a wondrous, rewarding thing; a fascinating, beguiling sandbox of possibilities and story generation. Many of my Ark adventures will stay with me long after I stop playing: the terrifying first time my tribe mate and I rode a rickety raft all the way around the island to collect a spinosaurus from a generous neighbour (and then hilariously sailed its oversized heft all the way home again); the tense, thrilling hours we spent shivering in arctic climes, endlessly warding off tyrannosaurs to acquire a woolly mammoth with a particularly nice hue. Or the day we took a trip to ancient caves in search of artefacts, only to end up with half the server helping us liberate our favourite wolf from a particularly stubborn hole. Ark's undercooked systems and wobbliness can infuriate, exhaust, and even bore, but it's hard to begrudge a game capable of generating so many memorable tales.
In the end, Ark is a game that's impossible to recommend unreservedly, but it's also one that isn't easy to dismiss. It may frustrate, and flounder, but, at its best, it's a game capable of delivering true wonder and spectacle; one full of endless possibilities, thrilling exploration and discovery, tense action, satisfying social collaboration, creativity, destruction, and, yes, dinosaurs. It's rarely a great game - and there's a strong argument that, by this point, it really should be - but when Ark's improbable wealth of moving parts properly click, the result is almost always an incredible adventure.