If you’ve been playing games for more than say, 5 years, you’ll have heard of Ark: Survival Evolved. It’s been in “Pre-release” for what feels like ages and the day has finally come for a full release. Ark isn’t for everyone but then, it was never really intended to be. Think of it more like Minecraft but with actual gorgeous graphics.

Ark: Survival Evolved falls squarely into the category of hardcore survival. There’s no other way you can classify this game. And knowing that means that you should be prepared for what is going to come. I was not. Firing up my PS4 and loading Ark was an exercise in excitement and impatience, tempered by the knowledge that I was soon going to be dominating a landscape populated with epic dinosaurs and grand, majestic structures that I’d meticulously crafted.

I opted for a single player game, not being up to the challenge of PVP quite yet. The character creation screen is fulsome and detailed and you’re free to make yourself look exactly as you’d like. I opted for extremely pale, tall and emaciated with a teeny, tiny head on top of ultra-broad shoulders. Because this is the pinnacle of the ideal human physique.

Finally ready, confident of my place at the top of the food chain, I launched myself into the mysterious world of Ark. It was naturally something of a surprise, then, when I died in the first 60 seconds of gameplay. I did mention that this was a hardcore survival game, didn’t I? For a first-time player, it’s easy to be confused about your role in life. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why do I have a strange, apparently itchy stone embedded in my arm? These are the kinds of philosophical questions that keep us all up at night, I’m certain that Descartes had something to say about it somewhere in Principia philosophiae, but for the life of me I can’t find the exact passage.

I abandoned this line of existentialist wondering and went wandering instead. Feeling particularly brave, I ambled into the sparse woods for about 100 meters before being mobbed by a group of compys (compsognathus). They may look like the chickens of the dinosaur world, but in a pack they’re basically land-borne piranhas, and they soon dispatched me to the respawn screen.

Feeling brave again (Ed: Some people just don’t learn, do they?), I headed in the opposite direction of the compy horde and, after literally punching some trees down to gather their wood, crossed the tiny river to find shelter and was promptly eaten by a mega piranha, also known as compys of the water.

So as not to dwell on my failures as an apex predator for too long, I’ll just point out that the list of creatures just waiting to eat your face is extremely long and you’ll find yourself exploring death at the jaws of everything from Megalodon to Giganotosaurus and everything in between.

You would imagine that this would be discouraging but, if anything, it simply forces you to survive longer and breeds a healthy fear of anything that isn’t a little straw hut. Unless it’s a dread gazebo in which case you should run like hell.

Knowing that most things are deadly means instead of striding out into the tundra to dominate the world, you skulk and scurry, gathering berries in the grass before quickly killing a dodo to drag back to your huddling spot.

When the game warns you that you’re too cold, you take it seriously. When it tells you that you’re starving, there’s no temptation to simply wait it out – you will eat those dodgy looking berries for just a few more seconds of life while you find something more substantial. You’re a nothing in this world and you’ll remain so—that is, until you discover the magic of crafting.

Gameplay

Ark drops you off in the middle of a beautiful island, surrounded by palm trees, waving grass and water, you are given no information and no equipment besides the wholly inadequate underwear you first see when creating your character.

While Ark: Survival Evolved has been modified to work with the PS4, there are still some niggling irritations about the controls. Using and crafting items can be less than intuitive because of the limitations of a controller vs keyboard and mouse but there are no deal breakers; it simply takes a bit more time to get used to it.

World

The Ark world is incredibly diverse, and like other survival sandbox games, runs along the lines of “Biomes”. In Ark, these include beach, canyon, river, grassland, swamp, jungle, redwood forest, mountain, snow, ocean, and lava. If you’re a Minecraft fan, there’s no mushroom biome. Sorry. On the other hand, it feels highly organic. Each biome has its own distinct characteristics, dangers, and rewards for exploring. Some of the richest resources can be found at the bottom of the ocean.

The beach, where the game starts, is the safest and lowest-resourced area, with the lava biome only being available as a DLC: The Center purchase. You’re free, however, to build whatever you like wherever you like, but we’ll get into those details in a bit, as soon as I’ve saddled up.

Taming

Not satisfied with simply building a gigantic steel structure to lord it over the landscape? Tame some dinosaurs and ride (or fly!) them in a majestic display of your mastery.

While taming is something of a grind, it’s ultimately worth it for the benefits. Each dinosaur has unique properties that make it useful for anything from farming to combat, traveling and just looking awesome riding on the back of a triceratops. And who hasn’t wanted to ride a triceratops?

Crafting

Crafting is one of the most diverse and engaging activities in Ark, and it’s easy to get lost in the detail and the glory of it all. After spending ages taking down trees with bloodied knuckles, there’s a very real sense of achievement at making your first flint axe and finally gathering enough to make a fire, a grass platform and glimpse the freedom this will all give you in time.

The list of items that can be crafted is exhaustive and, since Ark has been around for a while, the list is readily available on any number of Wikis and guides. There’s even a companion app that gives you some excellent advantages. No true survivalist would resort to such banal and easy methods of surviving this game, though.

As you scale up through the tech tree, you’ll notice that it takes more and more effort to craft items. Once you start hitting the ammo stages of the game, it’s possible to spend an entire gaming session just farming enough items to craft ammo. Not exactly glamorous, but that’s where both cheats and tribes come in. Not that I cheated. Not that you can prove.

Tribes

Playing Ark: Survival Evolved as a single player game is certainly possible and, if you’re like me, enjoyable. I don’t go in for the chaos of PVP servers and prefer exploration to mutual destruction. However, even I saw the need for tribes once I’d played Ark for more than 24 hours.

Sure, it’s possible to craft all the way up to steel structures by yourself (note: NOT in 24 hours), but then that’s also missing the point of the whole Ark experience.

A tribe lends you strength, enables you to combines resources, and helps you collectively achieve bigger goals. With shared structures, items, dinosaurs, taming, and bonus XP, it’s hard to justify not belonging to a tribe, certainly not if you want to reach your full potential. With the new patches, PVE tribes can even declare war on each other just to mix things up a bit. Because clearly dinosaurs aren’t enough of a survival challenge here.

Cheats

If your main goal is to explore and see everything you can see, Ark comes with a fully explored and accessible list of cheats that give you full command over the environment, including creating and destroying items, creatures, and supply crates. Instant taming means you can quickly go for a little aerial sortie with your pet pteranodon, or throw up a building with the same kind of ease as being eaten by piranhas, whether the land kind or the water kind.

Verdict

Ark: Survival Evolved is a complex game, and it has its issues, but they are far outweighed by the sheer exuberance of pure survival in a hostile world where almost everything is stronger, faster, deadlier, and hungrier than you. It is filled to the brim with exotic creatures (see the screenshot above: A FREAKIN’ DRAGON) and every possible crafted item, it’s a work in progress that can only get better and better. If you have the patience to explore this game (I am still less than an hundred hours in), you will reap the rewards. Quick fix junkies will need to seek elsewhere: if you pick this up, you’re in for a long, glorious haul.