Monday, July 13, 2015

Game Review: Ark - Survival Evolved

By Bixyl Shuftan

The latest game that my friends have gotten into is one called "Ark: Survival Evolved." It could be thought of as "Rust meets Jurrasic Park." Like Rust, one is in the wild, gathering food and crafting resources from wood, rocks, and other resources around him to build weapons, clothes, and shelter. Unlike Rust, instead of an abandoned series of buildings, you're on a primeval looking island filled with dinosaurs, which can be tamed, but any wild meat eater is going to go after you for a snack.

The timing of the game's release was certainly noteable, right about the time the movie "Jurassic World," the latest of the "Jurassic Park" sequels was released in theaters. Like Linden Lab's choice of a velociraptor as it's freebie birthday avatar, it's obvious this was no coincidence, but to take advantage of the resulting "dino-mania." So far, it's worked, with PC Gamer reporting a million copies of the game sold in less than a month.

To begin with, once you log on a server, you're asked to customize your character, male/female, height, build, skin color, etc. This is purely cosmetic and won't affect your strength or running speed. Once that's done. you're shown an outline of the island, and asked to pick a zone to spawn on. Once you choose one, you wake up to a flash of light, and find yourself on a beach. One will find most other players traveling on or near the beach, and the creatures here are mostly less dangerous than those inland, mostly. Typically there's just almost all herbivores such as triceratops, along with a few dodo birds, with the most dangerous thing being a dilo, which you should be able to beat once you have a pickaxe or hatchet (better weapons are preferred, such as spears). Unfortunately larger predators on occasion make their way to shore, so if you see big feathered birds, raptors, or what looks like a T-Rex, avoid it if you can, and run if you can't (press the Shift key while moving forward to run) Low level players without weapons who can't get away will end up lunch (Insert "Barney" parody music - "I eat you, you feed me .."). Be careful of any scorpions you see as a few stings are enough to put you to sleep, and you can only watch as the bug slowly eats your character alive.

The island is a strange mix of the prehistoric with strange futuristic technology. You begin with a strange implant in your arm. Around the island are strange alien-looking monoliths. One can help you save your character and transfer to another server. Beyond that, supposedly there are secrets to discover later in the game.

Your first concerns, besides avoiding danger, are getting some basic tools. To get stones off the ground, press "E" to collect some. To get wood and thatch, without a tool one has to punch tree trunks, either live ones or dead ones lying on the ground. This will damage you a bit, costing some health points. But when you have nothing, this is the only way you can get wood and thatch. To make your first tool, a pickaxe, you'll need one stone, one piece of wood, and ten thatch.

A level one player isn't able to build much, just a pickaxe and a torch. You'll But it isn't long before you level. Once that happens, you can increase an attribute, such as the amount of weight you can carry, running speed, stamina, etc. Then you get an amount of points to spend on "Engrams," or skills. Now you can learn how to make a stone hatchet. You'll need to use your pickaxe on a rock to get a piece of flint, along with the piece of wood and ten thatch to make it. Something else you'll want to learn is how to make a campfire (if you see one someone else made nearby, you can wait a little to learn to make one). Other skills for your first few levels include cloth clothing, and thatch building parts. Doing actions can help you level faster. Just going around gathering things such as stones, fibers, and berries, can help you level fairly quickly early on.

When night falls, it's not quite as hazardous as "Rust" as you can still see a little, especially when the moonlight isn't obscured by trees and other large objects. But still it's possible for a player to run into a predator or a pack of them, especially if running. The terrain is uneven, so running at night over unfamiliar ground could get you falling off a cliff if you're not careful.

Both the pickaxe and hatchet can be used on trees, rocks, and dead critters, as well as close range weapons. But they yield different amounts of resources. For instance when building, using the pickaxe will yield more thatch then pieces of wood than if you use the hatchet. The pickaxe will get you more flint than stone from rocks. And if you're harvesting the body of a dead critter, a hatchet will yield more hide than if you use a pickaxe.

Once you have a stone pickaxe and hatchet, along with maybe a torch if it's night, its time to get some food. To get berries from bushes, along with fibres press "E." Of the six kinds of berries you'll find, three are good as food. Stimberries will help keep your torpor, or how easy you can slip into unconsciousness, down. One will help you with cooking later, Narcoberries will just put you to sleep. Each berry will help with food and thirst slightly. When your food and water levels run out, you will begin to starve and dehydrate and lose health points. Once your health reaches zero, your character will die and you'll have to respawn. If it rains, your character automatically hydrates when in the open. If you plan to be active, running, fighting, chopping wood, etc, stay near some water. Don't go too deep in the water as there may be a shark waiting for you. Rivers may have mega-piranha, so you have to be careful there too. If a school homes in on you in the middle of a big stream, you're in deep trouble.

Besides thirst and hunger, heat and cold are also problems. If you're too hot, you will sweat and lose water faster. If you're too cold, you'll burn up food faster. If you're *really* hot or cold (a larger flame symbol or your snowflake turning into an ice cube on your HUD), you'll start loosing health points as well. Getting in water can help keep you cool if you're hot, but conversely can be bad for you if it's getting cold. Clothes, torches, and campfires, can help keep you warm. Buildings help insulate against temperature extremes. There's also an energy meter. If you run for too long, it runs out, and you have to stop to catch your breath. While you're swimming, it runs down very slowly. If your energy level reaches zero while you're swimming, you're in danger of drowning.

Since berries help with hunger only a little, you'll probably want some meat. As some objects need hide, such as shoes and gloves, that's a second reason to do some hunting. Dodos are ideal for beginning players as they don't fight back, but clumsily waddle away, and after a few hits they're as "dead as a dodo." You may find fish in shallow waters and rivers for meat, though the problem with mega-piranha is obvious. Once you have a couple spears, you can go after the lowest level predator, the dilophosaur, or "dilo" as they're called in the game. The problem with them is they can spit venom at you and blind your vision. But if you're not fighting a pack, you shouldn't have too much trouble. As you progress higher, you'll be able to make hide clothing, which protects more than cloth.

Different dinos require different tactics to fight. Raptors can be a challenge as they like to zip around and attack you from the side. I had to keep backing up to avoid getting flanked when fighting one (if near a cliff, turning away first). When attacked by a croc, my strategy was to flank it by going to the side and spear it in the ribs, taking advantage of it's slower turning ability, taking care *not* to get caught in it's enormous jaws. After some time at this, had a load of hide and meat on my hands.

Eventually you're going to need a home base to both store items as well as a place to safely leave your character when you log off as anyone left out in the open is liable to be found by a predator (or a hostile player in PvP servers). Building just the base and four walls without a roof won't guarantee 100% safety as a low flying monster bird or large carnivore walking nearby can spot your sleeping body. At first, you'll be limited to building thatch buildings. But they're not very strong, and can be torn up by a large carnivore that sees you run into one for refuge ("Little pig, little pig, let me in!"). So eventually you'll want to learn and build wooden building parts. When gathering items while making a wooden building, you can become encumbered quickly. So you may want to build some parts while in the field to lighten your load.

Once you have a building set up, you're going to want to build some things to help you out, such as storage boxes to keep stuff in, and a sleeping bag or bed to ensure you respawn in the shelter if killed, the former being one-use only. As you progress, you can make a preserving bin to slow the decay of meat and fruit you collect, a mortar and pestle to make ingredients, a forge and smithy to make metal tools, and more. You'll also be able to learn and make stone and metal building parts, making your home safe from wild dinos, and in PvP servers resistant to all but the most determined raids.

You might not have to make everything. On various spots on the island, beacons will shine and a crystalline supply crate will slowly float to the ground. In contrast to "Rust," supply crates are easy to see, so it's not as hard finding them. One will still have to contend with any predators nearby, as well as any hostile players in PvP servers. They are color coded, with white being lootable by anyone level three and up, green for those level 15 and over, blue for those 25 and up, with higher ones being purple, yellow, and red, which is accessible only to those level 60 and higher. White supply crates will typically deliver thatch building parts, cloth clothes, or simple tools and raw materials. Green will get you wooden parts and hide clothing.

Besides hunting dinos, one can also tame them. They can help you go around faster, notably those that can fly, help you haul goods, help with defending your base (or attacking a hostile one). This is done by knocking out the dinosaur without killing it, then giving it the appropriate food, berries for herbavores, meat for carnivores, and keep it unconscious with narcoberries and narcotics. In PvP servers, large dinosaurs make excellent deterents against attacks. Conversely, they also make great raiding weapons. I've seen from a distance a party with a T-Rex patrol the length of a beach, and take out begining players' thatch huts.

Besides taming dinos, players can also band together to form tribes for help. In a tribe, players can protect one another as well as specialize in different skills and make for others what they can't. All buildings and goods are shared by everyone in a tribe. You can also do farming, building small plots and plant the seeds you find.

Of the issue of PvP, there have been comparisons to Rust. In the Second Life "Furry Gamers" group, at least one player refuses to play the game outright because it appears in *any* server. After the group's experiences in Rust, Nydia was frustrated with the "PvP kiddies" to the point she got her own server coming to Ark. Trouble is, these personal servers are not always on. Looking for an official one. Confused by what really was a PvP server and what wasn't, I chose one that was labeled "OC." It turned out that it was, with some characters being relentless about it. A few people would swoop down with monster birds, grab lower level players, then drop them from up in the air to fall to their deaths. At least on the middle part of the eastern shore, which was the default location for spawning. Trying in the west, I found things much easier, running into fewer people, and those who were tended to be less hostile ... tended to be. Sadly some people will take the opportunity to kill and steal when they can. On the other hand, it can be pretty satisfying to turn the tables on a raider, and some players take satisfaction in keeping a structure up in defiance of raiders.

Looking further, there were a few servers that were labeled "PvE" (Player versus Enviroment), and while I was there no one raised a hand to me. It was a bit crowded though, with lots of buildings. It's also notable only a few sims were labeled PvE. Other kinds of servers include the "hardcore" in which if a player dies he doesn't lose just the stuff on him, but has to start all over again as a newly created character, presumably with his old character's building, and it's stuff, locked to him. It's fair to say each server has it's own cast of characters with differing attitudes.

As one progresses in levels, you'll be able to go deeper inland and brave the dangers there, and perhaps uncover some of the strange secrets of the island, maybe even escape. Eventually you'll be able to make metal tools, guns, and more technological items. But these require metal, which I've found hard to get. I've heard there are mines, but have yet to see one, possibly because they've already been claimed and are behind someones walls.

Personally, I give the game two thumbs up. It's more versatile than Rust, and a more exciting feel. One small problem, it takes longer to load, so one can get a little frustrated when waiting to get back on the island. Also, the game is still in beta. So it is frequently updated, about once a day on average at the time this review was written. So more time to wait. But once in, there's a number of things one can do, building, crafting, hunting, exploring, etc. Rumor has it a future update will allow for the breeding of dinos for certain traits.

And of course, where else besides Second Life can you ride a T-Rex?

*Correction* I had thought "PvE" meant "Player vs Enemy." Someone corrected me, saying it was "Player vs Environment."

Bixyl Shuftan