Early access is a bit of a strange concept. It’s essentially allowing you to play a game while it’s still in development, to explore an evolving gamescape that’s entirely subject to change. Sometimes it produces surprisingly coherent experiences. Elite: Dangerous, for example, is a solid space sim with a huge universe full of possibilities. There’s a way to go until it can be called a “full” experience, but it’s perfectly playable as it is.
Ark: Survival Evolved is, if I’m honest, closer to the other end of the spectrum. It’s in no way unplayable, but there’s a definite sense that it’s simply not finished. The main game mode is multiplayer, but you can choose between PvE or PvP servers. Getting in isn’t easy, and I regularly struggle to find a room that isn’t already at capacity.
You begin by creating your survivor, but for all the weird and wonderful body shapes you can fashion, you can only choose from a handful of pre-made faces. You pick your own starting zone, which determines initial difficulty, and then you’re ready. I picked a spawn point near the beach, and jumped in full of expectation.
Waking up on the mysterious island I was immediately confronted by a mass of vegetation, a gently lapping seafront and a brontosaurus. In the distance a strange machine towered above the prehistoric landscape, pumping a kaleidoscopic beam of colours into the clouds. In my wrist I spotted a blinking implant, a personal device able to track my vitals. Beyond a stern warning that I was cold and needed to find warmth, I received no indication of where to go or what to do.
So, the first thing I did was attack a nearby bush. Tapping Y allows you to harvest fibre (needed for a basic shirt and pants) and berries. There’re a variety of them, some more effective at fighting hunger than others, but initially that’s all you’ve got to eat. I saw someone spear-fishing in the shallows, but I was a long way off from that. Everything you do earns XP towards leveling up, and each time you do you can improve an attribute (from strength to stamina to hunger tolerance) and spend points on “engrams”, which are skills that allow you to craft items.
Hitting trees yields wood and thatch, which you can mix with gathered stones to make a pick-axe. In turn, this will allow you to harvest flint, with which to make a torch or a campfire. A fire requires material like thatch or wood to keep it burning. Similarly to Klei’s Don’t Starve, Ark: Survival is a game based around steady progress. Eventually you’ll craft a club for defence, a spear to hunt with, a shelter to hide from the elements and the wildlife.
It doesn’t take long to reveal Ark’s fledgling beauty, from tropical jungles to sparkling watering holes, but there’s still a lifelessness to it that you can’t ignore. The animals, dinosaurs, giant insects and ancient mammals, wander around one another without displaying much individuality, but many will attack you if you get too close. I died within minutes when I went exploring and was attacked by a pack of little bipedal predators and was unable to defend myself. Death allows you to respawn, albeit with an empty inventory (you can find your cache if you return to where you died), or simply start again.
There’s a rogue-like feel to the multiplayer mode, as you struggle to survive for as long as you can, while the solo mode allows you to save your progress when you exit and you don’t need to worry about server issues. I preferred solo mode anyway, as it seems more natural to forge on alone in such an environment. If you woke up on a mysterious island full of dinosaurs, why the hell wouldn’t you band together with the other people in the same predicament?
Combat is incredibly iffy, with floaty physics, a lack of impact feedback and no way to aim your blows effectively. Early weapons have a tendency to break and don’t do a lot of damage, so you’ll often find yourself running from danger. It adds to the sense of helplessness, though.
Ark: Survival is another game that delights in telling you nothing. It happily deep-ends you with no tutorials or explanations and demands that you survive, so if you like that kind of zero hand-holding adventure you’ll be right at home. You’ll need to be tolerant of trial & error gameplay, inconsistent textures, iffy physics and vast swathes of nothing to do though, because Ark has all of them in abundance.
It’s early days on console, and the ever-evolving PC version has proven popular enough, but Ark does little to support the argument for early access titles on Xbox One. What I’ve played has left me with more questions than answers, and although I like a good survival adventure, I’m simply struggling to have a lot of fun with Ark now the initial “Wow, dinosaurs!” thrill has worn off. Obviously the developer will continue to patch and improve the experience as time goes on, but as it stands it’s a hard game to recommend to any but the staunchest survival enthusiasts.