It’s Time for ARK: Survival Evolved to Get it Together

In June of 2015 Studio Wildcard quietly unleashed an unfinished build of its prehistoric survival simulator ARK: Survival Evolved through Steam’s Early Access program. Since then, it has sold millions and consistently been among the most played games in the world on that platform, topping both Team Fortress 2 and Grand Theft Auto for third place as I type this. Its release on Xbox a year later, and finally a few months ago on the PlayStation 4 was met with similar aplomb and servers that were routinely packed to capacity.

Now bear in mind that this was done by an independent studio with almost zero help from the mainstream media. If you search for “ARK” on IGN, the game is the tenth result down, it has no wiki on that site, and the total number of all-time articles referencing the game is around the same number you get covering Overwatch every month. For a game with a lot more people playing it than Overwatch, that’s pretty nuts. And it’s not even finished yet. It’s still an early release game, so you can’t find it in stores, you have to go looking for it online, and the entire advertising campaign consists of posting the occasional bare bones Youtube video of new features. I wonder how many AAA games would fare as well with these handicaps?

But I also wonder if all of this underground success hasn’t made Studio Wildcard complacent. Their game could only have been a bigger success if the gaming media wasn’t built on a pay to play model (how else do you explain how the third biggest game in the world gets almost no coverage?) and, you know, maybe if it was finished. But it’s been around a year and a half since the Steam Early Access launch and still no official release date in sight.

Now the game is already the single most addictive thing I’ve ever played, and my praise for it has been unending. In fact, I could pretty much have just turned my column here into a weekly ARK journal (which I did do for two weeks) if I was feeling lazy and been fine with it seeing that it’s damn near the only thing I’ve played since December and I’ve still only scratched the surface. And this from a gamer that seldom sticks to one game for more than a few weeks. ARK’s deliriously possessive nature and Minecraft meets Elder Scrolls MMO gameplay has had me locked down tight and unable to tear myself from its grasp.Until now.

The devs have always played it fast and loose, releasing paid DLC expansions, making questionable tweaks without notice, and allowing griefers to run rampant while their game continues to be buggy and laggy as hell. But hey, it’s early release. The whole point is to observe, experiment, and figure out what’s going to happen in the game so you can fix it up before it’s ready for prime time. But I’d say two years of that across three platforms should be enough.

It’s not really buggier than Skyrim was nor laggier than Overwatch was when they released and I’d argue that including the expansions, ARK possibly has more content than those two games put together with comparable graphics. Throw in some tutorials and better menus and you wouldn’t think this game was unfinished at all. Just flawed, which is pretty universal. Although, to be fair, their attempts to fix the crashes and lag on the PS4 have somehow only made those problems worse than when it first came out.

A lot of gamers have decried the constant influx of new content while these problems remain as though a) new content is a bad thing, and b) the people making the new content are the same ones working on fixing technical issues. The lack of engagement from Studio Wildcard has been an issue too, but frankly with millions of players on three platforms all yelling in your ear, I don’t think answering every message board post or personally retrieving every stuck or lost tame dinosaur (as they used to do) is really an option anymore.

But recently the developers did something so insane that they’ve almost lost me. For a while they’ve been toying with the animal spawn rates. Personally, I feel like it was pretty perfect at the start, but having set up shop on a PvE server (where people can’t destroy bases for shits and giggles) means there is a high population with a lot of buildings blocking dino spawns. After a while, there just weren’t many animals around anymore. People complained about a dinosaur game with no dinosaurs, and fair enough. So they fixed that problem. They fixed the FUCK out of that problem.

So last week I’m pretty much playing Dynasty Warriors: Survival Evolved. There were dinos and prehistoric mammals everywhere. All over. By the dozen. My base was under constant assault, traveling overland meant wading through an insane melee of creatures battling to the death and running a gauntlet of predators and aggroed herbivores rushing me from all sides. Three rexes taking on five mammoths, packs of wild sabertooth tigers and wolves by the buttload, all vying for death at my hands. Mountain passes were so choked with traffic that the only way through was chomping a path with my T. rex, Teresa, stopping every so often to dump off some of the hundreds of pounds of meat I was accumulating. A week prior, I was having problems finding enough meat to feed my pet carnivores. Now I had so much it was a nuisance.   

ARK was always meant to be a challenge, but this was just stupid. Were the devs trolling due to the complaints about low spawns, or are they really that inept? Anyways, combine the sudden overpopulation with the existing issues and you now had a game that ceased being fun for me. It’s one thing to get randomly disconnected from the server when there’s a small chance of being attacked before you can log back on, but it’s another situation entirely to get dropped from the game when your avatar is constantly surrounded by mobs. I can’t imagine having hundreds more AI animals on the server at all times is helping the lag and crashing either.

While making a simple supply run to fortify my new base on the northern coast of the island with a sea pen to store my soon-to-be-tamed ichthyosaurs and megalodons and protect from the constantly rampaging wildlife, I lost my tribemate along with my oldest, most faithful mount, Lil Suzy Carno, when they got stuck on a rock and then assailed by a pack of high level direwolves. I then tried to avoid the choked mountain pass by going an alternate route over the mountain, and while evading multiple rexes of unknown level I ended up stuck in a crevice packed with trapped sabertooths and allosaurs, which I killed.

While raging and trying to deduce a way out (turns out blind anger and fast critical thinking don’t always mix), a massive rex came in and killed me. The fate of Teresa Rex and the massive amount of supplies she was carrying is currently unknown as I made multiple passes on my pteranodon (in the freezing cold in my underwear, no less) to locate her when I respawned and was unsuccessful. There’s no message in my tribal log that she was killed, but that enemy rex was really high level and came in from behind her so she was defenseless. Anyways, having to remake all of my gear, gather the resources to do it, and then having to gather even more and resources to recraft all of the supplies for my seabase to do it all over again and maybe tame another rex for another try at this simple run and perhaps meet a similar fate again….just no.

And my mobile base that I built on my paraceratherium? Ha! The idea was a platform base on the back of a giant herbivore with some guards so I could log off on the road and feel safe, but now no place is safe as multiple rexes will likely kill any number of guards and then my basebearer. It’s worthless now. Even stepping outside of my base to cut some wood is a major risk with roving bands of poisonous troodons sneaking about to ambush and render me unconscious in seconds. Everything is a pain in the ass, and not in the cool way it was before.

I would have thought that after this long since the Steam release, Wildcard would have a handle on this sort of thing. I was hoping that the benefit of playing on the last system to get ARK would be a more polished experience, but after dying so often because the server disconnects or the game crashes and now with the game not even being that fun because exploration and gathering resources and food is now a joke since it either throws itself at you en masse at every single turn or is not worth the risk, it’s clear that’s not the case.

Naturally, there are a lot of players cheering this change because now there’s no need to hunt and everything they need for the early game once they’re established just flies into their lap. Casuals get to sit in their bases and not have the challenge of hunting for rare animals to tame (as they’re everywhere now) and can just kill, kill, kill all day long. But that’s not the game I want to play. I want a survival game where encounters are unpredictable, every animal you meet is a surprise, either pleasant or unpleasant, and starving is an actual possibility. Teresa Rex doesn’t want to be fed. Teresa Rex wants to hunt. And so does this gamer.

Whether the devs are trolling and this will all go away, I don’t know. They’ve just added more content, including some much-needed avatar customization (one thing that was and is SORELY lacking) in the form of hairstyles that persistently grow (mind the ‘fro) and science fiction technology so you can have a frickin’ rex with frickin’ lasers on its head, but until they get it together, I may have call it quits for now. It’s great that they keep releasing new free content, but for the final product to be what it needs to be, they need to handle their balancing issues.

Too few dino spawns is lame and unpopular (if more realistic), but turning a survival sim into an action game when there are way better action games out there is a signal that the developers themselves are either not sure what the hell they want this game to be or they are just not taking it seriously.

After a year and a half in early access, it’s time to start prepping for a real release, and this isn’t how you do that. The experimental phase should be over. They need to be concentrating on tweaking minor issues, fixing major glitches and stability, and more customization for avatars, not overloading the game with dinosaurs for lulz or because a bunch of noobs are whining or alpha tribes say they can’t find enough meat to feed their twenty spinosaurs or whatever, even though pretty much whatever you want do with twenty of them in one base, you can do with two.

Like I said, ARK has been all but ignored by most large gaming sites, and while it has flourished without the spotlight and manufactured hype AAA games take for granted, it’s easy for people to write it off as some “early access forever” game that’ll never be up to snuff, and seeing the devs release paid DLC for an unfinished game gives the wrong impression, even if the DLC is far more impressive than what people pay more for in other games on the market and the unfinished game is deeper as is than anything else on the market by miles.

As successful as it has been, Wildcard needs to get it together and get this thing released to the wide world. As an online social experiment (think Lord of the Flies meets Jurassic Park) Survival Evolved is fascinating to say the least, but until the game is on shelves, a large segment of the population isn’t going to see it as a ”real” game. And its faithful players who have struggled with the lag and crashes are beginning to feel the fatigue, especially when other aspects of the game start going wonky too.

ARK could be the single best hardcore gaming property of this generation, and its massive, persistent, and still growing playerbase is a testament to that. But if they want the rest of the world to hear them roar, Studio Wildcard has got to focus on polishing this game’s existing features instead of scrambling to react to complaints (which will never, ever stop) and dicking around with things that should have been set many months ago. They’re breaking things by trying to fix what wasn’t broken when they should be getting the final version of the game out the door. Yeah, the game has already made a ton of money, but if they want ARK to reach that next level and prove itself to be the fittest to survive in the current gaming landscape, it’s time to step up.    

Five Must-Play Dinosaur Video Games

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This week we’re seeing the triumphant relaunching of Hollywood’s blockbuster dinosaur franchise after an almost fifteen year absence with Jurassic World hitting theaters and breaking records, so there’s no time like the present to look at some of the coolest dino-themed games to hit our favorite consoles over the years. Dinosaurs make everything cooler, and video games are not an exception to that rule. So to celebrate the successful return of giant prehistoric creatures to the big screen, here are five of my favorite dino-themed games. Hold on to your butts.

Jurassic Park: The Gametelltale jurassic park

Not to be confused with the original Jurassic Park game for the SNES (which was cool, but not cool enough to make the top five), this slice of awesome was brought to us by Telltale Games just before they became the toast of the gaming world following the massive success of their take on The Walking Dead. Reading the reviews for this one, you’d think it wasn’t as good. You’d be wrong. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners, it’s not too late.

Telltale’s Jurassic Park suffered from being just slightly ahead of its time and utilizing a franchise that hadn’t been cool since the mid-90’s before lackluster sequels made us forget that the original film was one of the most amazing things ever put on the big screen at the time. Jurassic Park: The Game has the memorable characters, smart writing, unpredictable story, tension, and interactivity we love from Telltale, but with the massive action set pieces and killer visuals of a summer blockbuster.

The story runs parallel to and beyond the events of the film with species not featured in the original narrative -including the Mosasaur featured prominently in Jurassic World– and goes so far as to attempt to fill in some of the gaping scientific holes left in the film by further expanding on details from Michael Crichton’s original novel. In spite of its linear path, this game does not half-ass. If you’re a fan of Telltale Games and Jurassic Park and haven’t played this, you’ve missed out.

turok evolutionTurok: Evolution

While this fifth game in the Turok: Dinosaur Hunter series didn’t gather as much acclaim as the original, I still remember it really fondly as one of the first awe-inducing shooters to come out in the Xbox/PS2 /Gamecube era. The original game was a big win for the Nintendo 64 back in 1997, but I recall being really frustrated by the terrible first-person platforming mechanics. Still, a lot of it was blowing up dinosaurs with insane firepower so rest assured, that sucker was badass.

Turok: Evolution upped the wow factor for the new console generation in 2002 with an almost unheard-of attention to detail (with respect to Halo: Combat Evolved). While stalking through the jungles, dinosaurs would relieve themselves and you could walk up and look at the droppings. Even cooler, when you shot an enemy with a poison arrow, they’d throw up and die horribly. You could also go look at the vomit. What’s wrong with me that I spent so much of this game being impressed by looking at poop and puke? I was like like the Grizzly Man of dinosaur games.

Another thing this game had that the original didn’t was the Cerebral Bore. “What the hell is a Cerebral Bore?” says the young gamer. Why, it’s only the awesomest weapon ever devised for a video game. How many other fictional guns have a death metal band named after them? That’s cred. The gun fires projectiles that home in on your target’s skull, attach themselves to it, eat their way inside of it, and then blows it up. It’s like having a gun that shoots explosive Sentinel Spheres from Phantasm. It debuted in the second game, but Cerebral Bore’s inclusion in Evolution and the resultant memories of playing split-screen multiplayer with friends and relatives -I almost made them cry because it was so overpowered- helped me decide on this one over the original.

Primal Rageprimal rage

In 1994 arcades were in a full fighting game explosion following the inescapable popularity of Street Fighter II and the media-baiting gore-fest of Mortal Kombat. Then came Primal Rage, which looked at all of the ninjas, karate men, and street brawlers throwing fireballs at each other and said “Screw all that. Dinosaurs, man. Dinosaurs.” And who could argue? The popular game was ported all over the place from the SNES to the PlayStation, but somehow we’ve never gotten a sequel.

You picked one of several murderous prehistoric God beasts and set out to take over the post-apocalyptic “Urth” by slaughtering all who dare oppose you. Villagers gathered to watch the titanic duels to the death and cheer their monster of choice and got routinely knocked around. They could even be eaten for health. The game pioneered a lot of features, some of which stuck around in the genre, such as showing combo damage percentages onscreen.

It was definitely a breath of fresh air in the genre at the time and it’s kind of a bummer that it didn’t really catch on because this thing was seriously cool. How cool? Well, after you defeated your opponent, among many other things you could eat them. Instead of some over-the-top cartoonish fatality, some characters could literally begin devouring the corpse of their fallen foe. And if you played as one of the giant ape monsters, you could dissolve them with your piss. No matter how insane and ignoble Mortal Kombat gets with their fatalities, it’ll probably never be so awesome that you can literally piss on your opponents’ corpse after beating them and watch the flesh melt from their bones. Flawless victory.

dino4Dino Crisis

Fun fact: Dino Crisis was the first game I ever played on my own Sony PlayStation. Not coincidentally, it was also the first to scare the crap out of me. Having clung for too long to my SNES, I was a late comer to the PS era, and didn’t have the baggage of realizing that this game was pretty much just Resident Evil with dinosaurs. But it was done really well for a total rip-off.

Raptors dove on top of you through doors to keep you on your toes when they weren’t chasing you down hallways, and in one particularly memorable moment, a motherflippin’ T-Rex busted through a massive second-story window and devoured me while I did psychological battle with the utter confusion of my body telling me to run out of the goddamn room irl while my brain was telling me to do it in-game, stupid. I was not used to cinematic horror in interactive entertainment, needless to say.

Dino Crisis was a hit at the time and retains cult status to this day. It spawned two sequels; one on its native PS, and an Xbox-exclusive trilogy closer that I somehow didn’t play. There have been almost constant rumors of reboots and remakes ever since. I have yet to see anything official, but I definitely won’t be surprised if Capcom brings this one back from extinction soon.

Jurassic Park: Operation Genesisjurassic park operation genesis

Shooting dinosaurs with shotguns, grenade launchers, and crazy sci-fi tech, playing as dinosaur tearing the flesh from my enemies’ bones, and even running for my life from dinosaurs is all really fun, but I’ve got to admit that out of all the dino games I’ve encountered, this is the one I really want to play right now. Take the theme park/wildlife simulation gameplay of Zoo Tycoon, add dinosaurs and the Jurassic Park branding, and enjoy it any way you see fit. This one is all about you.

Think that old John Hammond was a hack and you could build a better Jurassic Park? Or maybe you just want to lure a bunch off sap tourists in so you can tear down all the fences and laugh as nature takes its course. Want to create your own dino fight club? Or maybe you’re as big a nerd as I am and you just want to create and observe a prehistoric ecosystem where these majestic beasts can roam free of enclosures and live out their lives. Like Cheap Trick, whatever you want, Operation Genesis gives it to you.

I’m a sucker for creative business simulator games, I was correctly pronouncing ridiculously long dinosaur names since first grade, and Jurassic Park is among my all-time favorite novels and 90’s films. So allowing me to design and run my own dinosaur theme park was like a dream come true to say the least. Once you’re up and running, there are lots of different ways to enjoy your creation; by helicopter, by jeep, and even through the eyes of the tourists. Just observing the dinosaurs and the way they interact with each other is fun and there’s a lot of satisfaction in seeing your visitors have a good time. Plus, the game throws curve balls like destructive tropical storms to make sure Chaos Theory is in effect. In addition, the Site B mode let you build your own ecosystem with any species you want without any constraints and let dinosaurs really rule the Earth.

But you know what else is fun? Wrapping up each session by setting all of the dinosaurs loose in the park. The big predators challenge each other, herbivores stampede and defend themselves, and the visitors? Well, they should have known better than to come to a park run by a gamer. Welcome… to Jurassic Massacre.

 

dino6

I’ve got your chaos theory right here, buddy…