Okay, so if any of you are old school Gamemoir readers (do we have those? Is that a thing?) you might have noticed my enthusiasm for the long-delayed PlayStation 4 release of Studio Wildcard’s prehistoric survival sim ARK: Survival Evolved. The early release game took Steam by storm, earning allegiance from millions and a truly outstanding collection of entertaining user reviews filled with insane and captivating stories. It currently resides in the top ten most-played games there, occasionally surpassing even the mighty Grand Theft Auto V. Not bad for a game that isn’t even finished and has been largely ignored by the gaming media.
The months of waiting for a game PC and Xbox One players had been playing ate at me, as did the cancellation of the free-to-play multiplayer mode Survival of the Fittest, but suddenly word came down that ARK was coming to my console of choice in three days. The wait was over. As a dinosaur fanatic with MMO aspirations, I was on cloud nine. But even with all of the word-of-mouth hype and anticipation, I was not prepared for the first week of this game. The following is the first half of a journal of the first seven days of my life after ARK: Survival Evolved happened to it.
Day One: You Died
Today I woke up with the knowledge that soon I would be playing my most anticipated game of the year. I love that feeling. 2016 has had a distinct lack of truly great games, and I had a feeling about this one. That feeling did not do it justice. ARK combines the best and most addictive elements of games like Minecraft and Elder Scrolls with the infinite promise of an MMO. Oh, and Dark Souls in single player. Because if you don’t die almost constantly in this harsh and horrible world at first, you’re doing it wrong. Plus, you can get all your stuff back off of your own corpse if you can make it back.
Unable to get online right at the start (something I haven’t had an issue with since the aforementioned GTAV), I settled for learning the ropes in single player. What I learned is that this game just doesn’t give a damn. It’ll spawn you in the pitch black dead of night right in front of the jaws of a gang of predators just to say “tough luck there, buddy”. While From Software is a vengeful god who crafts worlds distinctly to misdirect and harm the player, Wildcard is an uncaring Lovecraftian elder god. Our petty needs and concepts of fairness are nothing to them. The world of ARK simply is and whether we live or die in it is none of its concern.
Today, after having my “Welcome…to Jurassic (P)ARK” moment watching a gigantic sauropod rumble past I was chased into my beachfront hut (a lifelong dream) by a velociraptor who then began tearing my day’s work apart. I escaped out the front door while it raged at the walls and sprinted up to a ridge where I saw the enraged predator continue smashing down my house. As I despaired the loss of my hard-won assets and my pet dodo, I heard a roar behind me and turned around just in time to see a carnosaur end my life. This is ARK’s singleplayer in a nutshell.
Day Two: Anarchy in the A-R-K
Early in the day, I managed to get onto a multiplayer server. I was really excited to be getting in on the ground floor of an online community as it is being born. The tales of tribal cooperation and warfare on Steam are legendary. What I found waiting for me was a bunch of idiots in their underwear brawling on the beach. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but there’s enough to kill you in-game already I’d hoped that the multiplayer would be less PvP-ish. The baddest of the bad managed to craft axes and they felt that made them cock of the walk. Then this sheriff came to town with a spear. They literally fled from me. That’s right. Run. Run from the man with the shirt and pointy stick, you savages!
When night fell in-game, I was cooking some meat around a campfire and two imbeciles assaulted me with their bare hands. By this time I’d crafted a slingshot so I knocked one unconscious while backpedalling and then stabbed his friend to death with my spear. I finished off the unconscious one, chopped them both up and cooked them for supper. Yes. One hour in multiplayer and I’ve already acquired a taste for noob flesh. It occurred to me too late that I may have been able to defecate (there is a command for that) on the unconscious one, then pick up my own shit and feed it to him before I ended his life. I really regret not testing that out.
After a few hours, the server disconnected and I couldn’t get back on so I decided to go back into singleplayer, where the carnosaur that killed me last night appears to have taken permanent residence in my neighborhood just to make my life miserable. I almost never see it coming until it’s too late. Once I swam out into the surf and climbed a rock where it couldn’t reach me (like The Shallows with a dinosaur instead of a shark) and began raining stones from my slingshot on it. The bastard turns around, marches straight to my newly-rebuilt hut, and begins smashing it while I scream “NOOOOO!!!!” in real life. I think it may be time to move.
Day Three: Man Plans, ARK Laughs
Down the beach there are no carnosaurs. But there are dilophosaurs, whose M.O. is to spit poison in your face and then rush you down while you’re blinded. They’re also fond of group tactics. But at least I can handle them. There’s nothing I can do about the towering monster who destroyed my home. Yet. Besides, my new goal is to train an army of dilophosaurs to do my bidding.
My first try is a success, I slingshot the smallish predator, sidestep the poison, and backpedal when it rushes me, pelting it with rocks until it’s unconscious. Then I drug it, let it gorge on dodo meat until it loves me, and then name it Phlegmy. Easy peasy. Soon, Phlegmy is joined by Loogie, and my dilo-posse is rollin’ thick. My hut is now surrounded by spike walls to deter larger predators (I’m looking at you, carnosaur!), and the scope of my ambition is taking shape. I shall be the god-emperor of the Dilophosaur Kingdom. Those who resist subjugation shall be spat upon and summarily devoured. So shall it be written. So shall it be done.
But Phlegmy and Loogie have a bad habit of savagely murdering their own kind after I’ve knocked them out. And I want to win hearts and minds. So I tell my bodyguards to stay back as I approach my next conquest. After a few stones to the gourd, this dilo decides it’s had enough and sprints in the other direction. I give chase and am hit from the side and blinded. I run like crazy while being attacked from god knows where and find out that there’s one thing that can take out a posse of dilophosaurs: a bigger posse. As I run for my backup, I’m hit again and blinded, coming to just in time to see at least four of them savaging the species traitors as I die.
And those spike walls around my hut? Turns out dilos can squeeze in between them and get glitched between those and my hut’s walls and they can attack me from the outside. I literally ended up dying on my own spikes trying to do something about it. Screw you, irony.
Day Four: The Lost World
Whatever the dinosaur equivalent of the internet in ARK is, I’m convinced somebody on it has been posting “predator party at Nick’s house!”, but the good news is that now the servers aren’t disconnecting anymore so I can play multiplayer. In singleplayer, I’ve hardly seen any of the island because I am constantly under assault. I tried wading through the swamp near my base and got stuck with about five giant leeches and murdered by three terrifying new species of predator at once. This was in one minute. In multiplayer, I don’t need to outrun a predator. I just need to outrun the guy next to me.
I spend hours just exploring. This game is massive. This game is beautiful. This game is amazing. The population has settled down and players are now calmly going about their business so I don’t have to constantly worry about some jerk with a hatchet killing me whenever I go into my inventory. There isn’t too much cooperation apparent, but I see evidence of some really amazing stuff. Irrigation pipelines spanning mountains watering farmland, multi-level fortresses, and the like. I really want to join a tribe, but nobody is home. Those individuals I do meet often reach for their weapons to defend their stake, but only seem willing to attack if you are aggressive. It’s progress, at least.
I end up on a beautiful river with perfect spear-fishing, ample resources, and some industrious neighbors. Also, a roving giant scorpion. I avoid that for now, although some day I would like to start a giant scorpion biker gang. But I need to build a bed to spawn at before I get too cocky. I build my nicest house yet, but the lack of wildlife is a double edged sword. I’m not constantly bein attacked by predators, but I can’t find anything non-fishy to kill to get the hides to build the bed either. I made a sleeping bag, but that’s a one-time use item. And it gets used that night when I turn around and find that scorpion standing right behind me waiting for the jump scare like Michael Myers.
An epic battle ensues where my neighbor jumps in to help and I stupidly attempt to knock the bug out to train it instead of going for the kill when it goes on the run. I pursue and corner it against my home and beat it with a club (thinking it’s almost done for) and then it suddenly turned and stung me. Funny thing. One sting from a scorp can render you unconscious and helpless. Duly noted.
When I respawn I make an amusing discovery. The massive T. rex that has been stalking the opposite side of the river and menacing our sister community has made its way over here and we’re all dead now. I respawned at a random point and then spent five hours wandering the wilderness and every river bank I could find trying to remember where the hell my home was. The in-game map is like a real map. That is to say that if you don’t already know exactly where you are it doesn’t help you. Fuck you for treating us like we’re grown-ups, ARK. Also, you’re awesome.
My first four days playing my most anticipated game of the year did not disappoint. It was a brutal tutorial for me and plenty of other players. But through the literal dog-eat-dog gameplay, I’m beginning to make out a fantastic vision of how great this game could be, even as it kicks my ass again and again. Stay tuned for the second half of my Week One experiences playing this remarkable game next week. Same dino-time, same dino-site.