Ark: Sur­vival Evolved

PC, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - CONTENTS - Pub­lisher Devel­oper For­mat Ori­gin Re­lease Stu­dio Wild­card In-house PC, PS4, Xbox One US Out now (Early Ac­cess)

Open-world sur­vival mixed with craft­ing and avail­able now via Early Ac­cess: it’s the call that mil­lions who by now might know bet­ter still find them­selves help­less to ig­nore. Ark: Sur­vival Evolved sold over one mil­lion copies in its first month and yet is built on a fa­mil­iar for­mula. Any­one bail­ing on Rust or Stranded Deep in search of some­thing less rough-and-ready will in­tuit the rules, punch­ing trees for wood, rocks for stone, and do­dos for meat. They’ll take these ma­te­ri­als and use an in-game recipe book to spawn tools that beget big­ger, pointier tools with which to fend off di­nosaurs and pro­voke the neigh­bours.

En masse, how­ever, small de­par­tures from the tem­plate sug­gest that there may be more than swag­ger be­hind the sub­ti­tle. This is evo­lu­tion through in­ter­breed­ing rather than spon­ta­neous change: each of Ark’s core sys­tems has im­bibed some part of the RPG, from player pro­gres­sion and craft­ing to death it­self. Ark’s vo­cab­u­lary shares al­most as much with MMOGs as sur­vival sims, pack­ing in tribes (guilds), ride­able rep­tiles, and a de­fined endgame for those who want clo­sure. A lowlevel group boss named Brood-mother is al­ready in place to pro­vide the lat­ter.

“Let me say that I don’t think it’s a prob­lem for play­ers who want that [tra­di­tional sur­vival] game­play,” says Wild­card Stu­dios co-cre­ative di­rec­tor Jesse Rapczak. “But to open sur­vival up to those types of play­ers who want more of a pro­gres­sion or more of a point to what they’ve done, I think it’s good and it’s im­por­tant to pro­vide that. Where we’ve tried to dif­fer­en­ti­ate with Ark is to give that rea­son to play that’s not just, ‘I need to eat more, drink more, pro­tect my­self from the weather.’”

As tra­di­tion dic­tates, upon se­lect­ing your first server, you wake on a beach with noth­ing, not even clothes. The next few min­utes in­volve some dab­bling in the shal­lows, some press­ing E to ex­tract berries from veg­e­ta­tion, and some flee­ing from the T rex you spawned by. Then the un­ex­pected oc­curs: you level up, and a point be­comes avail­able to boost your stat of pref­er­ence, in­clud­ing health, lung ca­pac­ity and craft­ing speed. Also un­locked are points to in­vest in ‘en­grams’, neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal jar­gon (ap­pro­pri­ated by Scientology) that slyly jus­ti­fies your sud­den mas­tery of bushcraft. En­grams are the sta­ple recipes that chew up re­sources and spit out axes, walls, spears and smithies.

Cru­cially, you can’t learn them all, mean­ing you’ll need to work with oth­ers if you’re to stay ahead of di­nosaur and hu­man preda­tors. Meet your end, how­ever, and though your items will be long gone by the time you find your body, this knowl­edge stays with you.

Death is in­tended to be less de­mor­al­is­ing while still some­thing to fear. Like an MMOG,

Ark aims to keep peo­ple log­ging on even af­ter cat­a­strophic de­feat, their level and knowl­edge a public dis­play of com­mit­ment. And yet Ark servers still easily be­come petri dishes for the sav­age be­hav­iour of fel­low play­ers, and Steam re­views make it clear that there’s dis­com­fort with the loss and un­pleas­ant en­coun­ters that can re­sult from free-loot­ing PVP.

“We’ve done a lot to make it a very com­mu­nity-driven game,” Rapczak says. “It’s com­mu­nity choice on any given server on how you want to play. Now, that be­ing said, the av­er­age per­son who’s never played a sur­vival game be­fore and joins an of­fi­cial server may be a lit­tle bit shocked by what PVP sur­vival games mean and what our de­fault mode is!”

Ark’s so­lu­tion is twofold: in ad­di­tion to hand­ing ad­mins a full tool­box with which to cus­tomise their servers, char­ac­ters can be trans­ferred to any other server that al­lows immigration. If you in­vest 20 hours be­fore Hannibal Lecter sud­denly moves in next door, leav­ing the neigh­bour­hood won’t cost you your progress. And it’s not just ad­mins be­ing in­vited to tinker – Ark’s Un­real En­gine 4 mod­ding kit is al­ready in public hands.

“This is the Minecraft gen­er­a­tion,” Rapczak says. “A lot of peo­ple in this in­dus­try have come from mod­ding and got their first start in mod­ding, and so there is a huge wealth of tal­ent there. Peo­ple are plan­ning to cre­ate en­tirely dif­fer­ent games in­side of Ark, which is com­pletely pos­si­ble with the mod tools, and this stuff couldn’t make us any hap­pier.”

That fo­cus on longevity and com­mu­nity is what Wild­card in­tends to set Ark apart from other games en­joy­ing dino-vogue. Hori­zon:

Zero Dawn’s blend of sur­vival and spec­ta­cle may have the rapt at­ten­tion of PS4 own­ers, but Rapczak is grate­ful that Early Ac­cess al­lows Wild­card to post­pone that kind of pol­ish, mak­ing per­sonal and col­lec­tive at­tain­ment Ark’s pri­or­ity. Its tame­able beasts are War­craftian sta­tus sym­bols as well as deadly preda­tors, while top-level blue­prints (dis­tinct from en­grams and a way to save your com­mit­ment there for other skills) can only be dis­cov­ered in dark corners of the de­fault is­land map. The ran­dom stats bonuses they of­fer might be seen as a cyn­i­cal at­tempt to in­crease Ark’s life­span, but serve a sec­ondary pur­pose of draw­ing peo­ple out to ex­plore a dan­ger­ous hand-made world, a risk that’s ei­ther un­nec­es­sary or un­in­ter­est­ing in the game’s pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated cousins.

Wild­card is well aware that the com­mu­nity isn’t al­ways on-side when it comes to Early Ac­cess. When you oc­cupy the same space as

The Stomp­ing Land, which fos­silised mid­de­vel­op­ment, ev­ery up­date is nerve-rack­ing. Rapczak es­ti­mates two-thirds of Wild­card’s re­sources are spent re­act­ing to feed­back, the re­main­der go­ing on fea­ture up­dates, such as the forth­com­ing swamp and snow biomes.

“Our team has been try­ing to make peo­ple un­der­stand that we are not one of those [high-pro­file fail­ures]. We’ve got our part­ners on con­sole and Steam – they know what our ship dates are. We’re push­ing for a tar­get of next June; we’re push­ing to end Early Ac­cess tin­ker­ing by the end of this year. We’ve re­ally tried to treat it as a phase of de­vel­op­ment that we’re ex­it­ing at a given time.”

The hunger for un­fin­ished games of­fer­ing pri­mal sur­vival and di­nosaurs sug­gests that hit­ting re­lease alone might be enough, but Wild­card is also in­vest­ing in the dead space that comes af­ter sur­vival – what hap­pens when the en­vi­ron­ment has been mas­tered. At this stage, much is draw­ing-board am­bi­tion, and whether this vi­sion for an endgame will get play­ers co­op­er­at­ing and com­pet­ing as in­tended is un­known. But it no longer has to: even if fu­ture up­dates fail to grip, or Stu­dio Wild­card folds, po­si­tion­ing Ark as a plat­form for mod­ders and ad­mins at the peak of its hype has guar­an­teed that sur­vival won’t come through this process with­out new traits.

Rapczak es­ti­mates two-thirds of Wild­card’s re­sources are spent re­act­ing to feed­back

The deeper into the de­fault is­land’s woods and caves you ven­ture, the hun­grier the glares you’ll feel on your neck. Not that the start­ing beaches are a safe haven: T rexes and venom-spit­ting dilophosaurs treat them as a buf­fet of fresh meat

Jesse Rapczak, Ark’s co-cre­ative di­rec­tor

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