A huge, sprawling, lovely-to-look-at mess of a game, ARK: Survival Evolved has itself evolved since its early access days in 2015 into an immense sandbox survival experience that now has a single player campaign of sorts, as well as the emergent and often annoying free-form gameplay that is a hallmark of the genre. Played entirely solo, ARK can be both rewarding and tedious. Played on a public PvP server, it can be rewarding, tedious, and hugely frustrating. As we all know, internet communities can be both helpful and toxic, and ARK seems to bring out its players' worst impulses by design.
ARK: Survival Evolved gives the player a ton of options right out of the gate, from experiencing the game as a lonely solo player or cooperative PvE play to all-out PvP where dozens of hours of gathering and crafting can be wiped out by another player in a matter of minutes, even while offline. Interactions with other human players --whether helpful or adversarial -- are at the core of games like ARK. Sympathetic players can offer a jump start up the tech tree, share sometimes spartan crafting materials and offer protection from the world and its reptilian and human denizens. Make no mistake, there are vast swaths of players whose only goal is to mess you up.
Without much ceremony, new players awake and find themselves on a tropical beach bereft of all but a loincloth and a prickly sense of well-placed fear that one of the roaming dinosaurs might look at them as a tasty snack. Stone and wood are gathered, rudimentary tools are fashioned and a few hours later, one has built a small shack and campfire. Those tentative first few hours give way to dozens or hundreds more, as new tech recipes are unlocked that eventually lead to fortress-like enclaves defended by automatic weapons and laser-guided missles.
Gathering and crafting are time and danger intensive, taking players out into the open where they are vulnerable to attack from wildlife and other humans. In one of the game's coolest features, dinosaurs can be tamed, ridden, flown and befriended but past the basic levels, it is a process that can seemingly take forever. Sticking to the single player campaign -- a lengthy and unexpected bonus that involves a lot of exploration and several imposing boss battles -- eliminates the problem of belligerent homo sapiens but involves a roguelike level of loss upon death and a lengthy process of reclamation of resources.
There's just no way around it (except perhaps to set up a private server and tweak the settings): ARK is a grind heavy game that only becomes more so at later levels when crafting ammo and other supplies can be day-long affairs, all the more infuriating when raiding humans or tyrant tyrannosaurs can wipe out a storehouse of gear.
Some of the pain of grinding will at least be tempered by the generally attractive environments, weather effects and variety of reptilian, bird, and mammal life, most of which can be hunted, harvested or tamed. That isn't to suggest that enemy AI is terribly brilliant-- it isn't -- or to excuse some pretty persistent graphical glitches, texture pop in, framerate dips, and overall buginess. Perhaps excusable in early access, ARK is still beset by a feeling that the game isn't quite finished.
Like so many survival/crafting games, from Minecraft to Subnautica, ARK presupposes a player with a lot of time to dedicate to the experience, a high tolerance for repetition, and a fondness for chaos and the unexpected. With its sci-fi inflected single player campaign, ARK at least offers a solo player the chance to get the gist of the game without the threat of anti-social humans ruining whatever progress has been made. For the past two years, ARK has been helping to shape the genre and now that it's "finished," it feels like the genre is due for the next stage of evolution.