ARK: Survival Evolved (Switch) Review
ARK: Survival Evolved has always been a game I’ve kept my eye on. An open world full of Dinosaurs? Sign me up! When I did finally get it on the PC I never really got a chance to delve into it. Initially, PixARK was announced for the Switch, a game that looked more like Minecraft with ARK creatures and elements. I figured given how graphics-intensive ARK can be on a PC, that the Switch would never get the main game. But to my surprise we were also getting the full ARK experience, now would be my chance to make a life for myself amongst the Dinosaurs.
You unceremoniously wake up on a beach, a mysterious device embedded in your wrist. Initially, you’ll find yourself starting to freeze or burn under the extreme beach conditions. Then you’ll notice you can quickly starve without food to eat. Welcome to The Island. ARK is all about survival and exploration, at the outset you won’t be told where berries can be found, or that you have to pick up rocks and can’t harvest them the same way you can wood. In fact, there’s a lot ARK won’t tell you. Eventually, you work out what you’re doing, and you level up at a fairly decent rate. This is what allows you to upgrade your stats and to spend points on unlocking more ‘engrams’ or crafting recipes. The more you can craft the more you can do, and the more resources you need. Fortunately, you’re not stuck punching trees for long. Although you will be chopping a lot more down with axes, especially to build the most basic hut with a bed and storage. Early on you learn to avoid most living creatures. It doesn’t take more than a hit from a pickaxe to have a giant spiky tortoise (Carbonemys) from messing you and your hut up (if they aren’t busily glitching out caught up on a tree trunk). As you build up more engrams and have access to better equipment, leaving the beach area is less daunting and you explore the different biomes of ARK.
One of the games big draw cards is the ability to tame Dinosaurs, keeping them as your pet or riding them around the world. There’s hunting them and harvesting their meat and hides, but when you tame them then they can help you hunt instead. While taming Dinosaurs sounds like a really cool premise, actually doing it is another matter entirely. You have to tame them gradually either by feeding them, or knocking them out and feeding them until you fill the appropriate meter. Like harvesting resources and levelling up it’s just another grind, and like everything else in ARK there’s no guidance to how to do it so be prepared to keep a wiki on hand. While survival games do involve lots of working things out for yourself, using trial and error as you explore, there still is a point where too much is left unspoken. There’s a game like ARK that through the early access program that has become so bloated, that there is so many things to build and use in this game that it feels needlessly obtuse to not include some kind of in-game guide. There is a handful of notes you can access from the main menu that explain the basics, but leaving the bulk of the game impenetrable unless you’ve already sunk a lot of time into ARK on other platforms.
There’s way too much in ARK that is unintuitive and unfriendly to new players, from the controls to the inventory/crafting and even the basic starting a game. I will admit I wasn’t even aware that ARK had a single player mode initially. In all fairness from the main menu, the first option is to join a game, where you pick from worldwide servers that are either PvE (Player VS Enemy) and PvP (Player VS Player) modes. I was managing in a PvE server but I was getting tired of losing all my materials every time I left the game. So at this point, I looked up if there was something I was missing, and there people were discussing a single player mode! I thought maybe I missed something obvious, but it turns out you need to go to the ‘Host/Local’ option where there’s a single player option, essentially sitting there as a toggle to hosting your own game. Stumbling across single player mode was a godsend for making progress in this game. When I leave the world I can restart from where I left, and with all my inventory intact. Finding the single player mode was also a big plus because it meant it can be played offline. Surprise! There is something to actually do in the single player mode. ARK will have you exploring caves and fighting mighty beasts to ultimately uncover survivors notes and more about the nature of the island. Like the online servers, playing the single player mode will take a lot of time to get into the good content, only you won’t have tribes taking up all the prime real estate.
Then there are the clunky controls and interface, most importantly inventory and crafting section. Pressing B brings up the inventory, the least useful place to keep it and even worse you can’t move it. When you bring up the inventory it’s a little bit slow, just enough to be annoying especially when a Dinosaur could leap out any time and kill you. Using the inventory is awkward and feels sluggish, worse is if you also want to craft something. If you’re playing in handheld be prepared for lots of squinting at tiny text, it’s only just readable. It feels like they kept the interface from the PC version and never bothered to adapt it for consoles. Going through the online servers is a nightmare.
ARK as a game doesn’t respect your time, and it’s felt immediately. The first night you’re stuck out in the dark with a torch barely able to see with nothing to do but blindly beat up resources, hoping you’ll get enough thatch from a tree because you’ll need plenty early on. Instead, there is a really uneven ratio of thatch to wood resources from trees. The early parts of the game are largely spent harvesting as much as you can then dumping all of the useless items as you wind up encumbered too quickly. You’ll spend a lot of time grinding and foraging to get yourself out of the Stone Age and into the high tech metal fortresses and energy fences. In the case of the Switch port, you’re going to have to tolerate of visual and technical issues to get to that point, unless you join a tribe that can give you access to that. Tribes can mean safety, and chances are you’ll be able to keep your characters items next game should you store them or hide out in a tribe shelter.
If you do get sick of how long things can take or any number of factors sapping the fun out of the game, the good news is you can make your own server with a multitude of options to make your time on the island more bearable. You can increase (and of course decrease) player or Dinosaur stats, make waiting times and taming a much faster process. You make it as easy or difficult as you like.
There’s been a number of game ports that have held up even with less detailed graphics, but ARK is easily a few steps behind those. In handheld mode, you’ll often wake up to an area filled with green and grey blobs where the trees and rocks are meant to be. In portable mode this is more prominent than when it’s docked, when blown out to a full TV screen it’s only slightly better, but everything still looks awful. Even worse is when the game looks alright on the mobile, it looks like you’re looking through a lens smeared in vaseline. Everything looks smudged, like it’s back in the Nintendo 64 days. Far worse is when it rains, at times it’s beyond belief. Draw distance is also pretty bad throughout, I often had things appearing out of nowhere, or partially appearing. All too often boulders would appear in the way where there were none before. Partially appearing objects were often creatures, leaving it unclear if you’re approaching something safe or something about to spit acid in your face. That’s not to forget the technical issues that plague this game, the creatures would often get stuck on the scenery, the frame rate is inconsistent, and loading times can be way too long. Single player mode takes minutes to load up, just enough to really draw attention to it.
While I’ve been overly negative on ARK, and while the game has its issues, it is simply that the Switch version is the worst running out there. Whether it’s joining a server, playing in Single Player or hosting a game, there is a lot of content here, well into the tens of hours even. For those who want to play ARK on the Switch no matter what, it is still as playable as any other port of it, but some major sacrifices have been made and they’re hard to overlook.
ARK: Survival Evolved is hard to recommend on two fronts. The Switch Version is an ugly technical mess, and if it does run well the game happens to be unwelcoming and an unfun grind to obtain the actual draw cards to the game. As a big Dinosaur fan, both issues disappoint me so much. True it would be awesome to ride Dinosaurs around and taming them, but not on this console. If this warning isn’t enough at the very least check out the mobile version (which looks better and has a better interface) and see if the game is for you. At the end of the day, ARK is playable, parts of it are even fun, but all the game and technical issues drag this behemoth-sized game back down into the tar pits.
- ‘Defecating’ is funnier than it should be
- Underneath all the smudgy graphics lies a game
- Really bad Visuals
- Lack of tutorial or guidence
- Poor performance all round
- The game grind is too long