It’s survival of the dimmest in Ark: Survival Evolved as we embrace its silly side and have a Jurassic lark

To paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, Studio Wildcard’s sinfully ugly, thoroughly borked sandbox sure is “one big pile of shit” in its worst moments. You don’t have to be a kooky chaotician to see that it’s an obscenely fussy, consistently flummoxing heap of Triceratops’ dung – especially when the game’s many, many problems stampede over you like a pack of feral Gallimimus within seconds of booting up this prehistoric open-world.

And yet... there are times when I dig Ark: Survival Evolved. Well, a teeny bit, at least. A more accurate description? I can just about tolerate the game’s extremely unwelcoming systems in exchange for those brief moments of levity that come from screwing around this lost world with a friend in tow.

Enter OXM’s staff writer, James Nouch. Without this magnificent dodo- punching, thatch-crafting, fireplace- building hero (emphasis on the HERO) my virtual caveman would have lost the will to live after suffering his sixth grizzly death at the talons of horribly high-level Velociraptors. With James at my side, though? Fugget about it.

James is also *whisper it* a terrible, TERRIBLE human being. Well, at least his Ark avatar is. His survivor may build me a shelter and a toasty fire to roast dino meat around, but he also acts like a complete Cretaceous jerk. Kicking dodos. Stabbing a poor level-ten Moschops – whose mangled corpse proceeds to clip into (and under) a boulder, denying us both that sweet, sweet lizard meat. Routinely sauntering around topless, just so he can body shame my caveman by flaunting his deeply awesome, incredibly enormous hips in my face. Honestly, what a dastard.

I’ll say this for Ark: it’s a good time in co-op. Join together with a bud, and all those bugs and other annoyances melt away in the face of constant (deeply farcical) cave person camaraderie. Knocking heads together with a friend can also help you overcome the game’s truly baffling logic. Sweet, merciful dino Jesus does nothing in Ark make sense.

I have so many questions: Why do I constantly keep getting stuck in the emote menu? Why do I have to press A twice to put on a pair of trousers? Why does navigating the disgustingly messy menus while vainly trying to level up make me feel like I’m attempting to perform brain surgery with a dessert spoon... while drunk? And why oh why does almost every craftable weapon in the game demand I gather 37 bits of fibre, wood and rock before I can build the damn things? Grrrgh, this is not going to plan.

There’s an overwhelming lack of direction about Ark that’s both demoralising and weirdly alluring. When you’re dropped into a prehistoric sci-fi land with nothing but a pair of y-fronts and a weird mark on your arm, not to mention no clear objectives in front of you, it’s tempting to simply screw around. Ark is too rough around the edges to compete with the sandbox greats – though seeing as it remains in the Game Preview Programme, it could still receive further polish. Yet in spite of these very obvious blemishes, there’s no denying it can be a great *ahem* ‘screw-around-‘em-up’.

Because you lose all your items whenever you bite it (more precisely, when something bites you), there’s a real sense that all your endeavours in Ark are pretty pointless. After all, why spend 20 minutes whittling spears when you’re going to be lunch for the next passing level-14 Allosaurus? Resist the urge to actually do anything semi-constructive with your time, though, and the game blossoms in the strangest ways.

Myself and James’ best moments come when we’re simply doddering about with no tangible plan. We hit a sad-eyed Iguanodon with hatchets for what feels like seven straight minutes before realising its level-78 hide is immune to the advances of our puny starting weapons. Then we stand between a Brontosaurus’ legs, just so we can pick up its poop... for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Oh, and while I’m on the subject of bowel movements (as I usually am), routinely informing each other of when we’ve defecated – handily, an onscreen message always pops up when this happens – has to be one of my early favourite gaming moments of 2017.

You really have to cherish these endearing (if pointless) moments of survivor bonding, because Ark really is a savage beast. Every damn thing in this game wants you dead. The dinosaurs I can handle. But the flowers too? Come. On. If it’s not massive, spitty daffodils trying to pelt my face with skin-melting acid, its prehistoric piranhas nibbling at my Luddite shins. Even the bloody weather wants to kill me. I’m perennially either too hot or too cold. And unlike Goldilocks’ pilfered brunch, my internal body temp is never juuuuust right. Not fair.

Faced with this relentless circle of death I decide to try to walk to one of Ark’s many resplendent towers. I have no idea of what their point is, but they sure are shiny. Of course, they could be covered in graffiti up close, but I’ll never know. That’s because every time I try to complete one of my little strolls to these landmarks, some bastard dinosaur decides to chew on my colon. And here I was thinking Dino and the rest of his species were cool. You lied to me, Flintstones.

Annoyingly, James’ survivor soon starts to fare far better than mine. I’d wager that’s because he actually bothers to learn the crafting system. Before too long, Mr Nouch’s cave dude is covered head-to-toe in actual clothes (the rotten show-off) while my man continues to walk around Studio Wildcard’s steamy jungles in a tattered pair of underpants. I can just about tolerate James lording his hut and fire over me – mostly because he lets me visit for Stegosaurus steaks from time to time. But rubbing my nose in his freshly knitted prehistoric beanie? That really is the final straw for our budding, super-cool bromance.

After parting company, I spend the following hours of solitude pondering whether Ark actually is an Xbox One game or not. Now granted, I can physically see my lovely Xbox One S is turned on and running the game, yet view Ark in motion and you’d swear it’s an Xbox 360 title. I know graphics make noteth the man, but DAMN. I say this with only the tiniest tinge of hyperbole: Ark may well be the ugliest game I’ve played in the last three years. And I’ve played a lot of ugly games.

Honestly, it’s hideous. Terrible textures. Plummeting frame rates. Screen-tearing every three seconds. It’s a blurry, stuttering abomination for most of my playthrough. Then again, perhaps I’m just a superficial boor. No wait. It really is one of the very worst looking games on Xbox One. My poor besmirched eye sockets. Please hand me a copy of Forza Horizon 3.

Amazingly, I’m still going to interject with one last, ever so jolly ‘but’. BUT... I absolutely do not hate Ark: Survival Evolved. Yes, it’s undeniably ugly at all times, and entirely too concerned with making you jump through hoops at every possible turn. But it’s also gleefully daft and fun in the most life affirming fashion possible. Thanks for sharing it with me, Mr Nouch. Now please, leave that poor dodo alone.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.

Dave Meikleham
Paid maker of words, goes by many names: Meiksy… Macklespammer… Big Hungry Joe. Obsessive fan of Metal Gear Solid, Nathan Drake's digital pecks and Dino Crisis 2. Loves Jurassic Park so much, may burst at any moment.