Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Ark: Survival Evolved
Developer: Studio Wildcard
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release dates: Already out on Steam Early Access; 2016 for PS4 and Xbox One
I couldn’t help asking a member of the Ark: Survival Evolved development team to pause during an E3 demo as he scrolled through options on an onscreen action wheel. “Wait a second, what’s the ‘Poop’ command for?” I asked. The game’s PR rep chimed in with a bemused smile and informed me that in-game feces could be used for a number of helpful tasks: fertilizer for farming, a makeshift weapon, or a tool to consume orally in case an enemy captures and imprisons you—see, because eating your own poop causes you to die and respawn.
A game that turns the phrase “eat shit and die” into a built-in feature may not quite live up to the “evolved” part of the title, but there’s a crude brilliance to Ark: Survival Evolved. It’s part action game, part sociological experiment—an open world game that takes a similar hardscrabble, Lord Of the Flies approach to virtual life as the popular zombie-themed PC game Day-Z, with players locked in a life-and-death battle over scarce resources on a lawless island.
The obvious difference from Day-Z is that dinosaurs, rather than the undead, provide the game’s main threat, and that’s not a superficial distinction. Unlike single-minded zombies who always want to eat your face, the prehistoric creatures of Ark can be potentially pacified, trained and, yes, even mounted. Taming a dinosaur is performed in a very PETA-unfriendly way—punching it repeatedly seems like poor method of inspiring devotion—but most aspects of life in Ark favor the Machiavellian approach. Did you really expect a dino whisperer?
Your hands are your only available tool when you boot up Ark for the first time. You begin the game half-naked, alone, and hungry, so you’re forced to quickly adapt by finding food and shelter while avoiding the island’s many threats. Punching a tree for wood or a boulder for stone proves inefficient, so you’re prompted to craft primitive tools and goods out of raw materials. Once you’ve taken care of the bare necessities, stage two of your Robinson Crusoe experience is to establish a more permanent dwelling, though many players die repeatedly before they even get that far. In my demo, I clubbed a dodo bird to death (it’s not like they’ll go extinct or anything, right?) and collected enough wood and tinder to start a campfire and cook my meal. But as I lit my fire, an enterprising dilophosaurus snuck up behind me and murdered me with its poisonous spit.
I didn’t encounter another denizen of the island during my playthrough, but I wished I had after speaking with a member of the development team who owns a maxed-out character on the Ark PC servers. (It’s available now through Steam’s early access program.) He’s seen some of the game’s 70-person servers turn into frenzies of looting and marauding while others exhibit limited cooperation: Players will form factions or tribes, cobbling together villages that dot the island’s 49 square kilometers. There’s even a group of players who regularly hold cockfighting events with dodos. In other words, Ark makes Jurassic World sound like Disneyland.
Ark obviously isn’t for the weak of heart or stomach (especially considering all the poop)—and I don’t think the experience will soften for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions—but it’s a fascinating experiment that shows how limited most so-called “open world” games truly are.