Xbox One Preview: ARK: Survival Evolved – impressions so far

ARK: Survival Evolved is among the earliest titles to join the Xbox One's Game Preview program, via ID@Xbox. Its unique blend of crafting, survival, and dinosaur hunting gameplay has been quite a hit.

Games in the preview program are still in mid-development. ARK keenly informs users on its welcoming screen that aspects of the game might be broken, or even suffer from crashes.

Even in its primordial state of development, the time I've managed to spend inside ARK: Survival Evolved has been intriguing, even exciting. The game will see many months of development ahead of its planned June 2016 launch date, and here are my thoughts so far.

At its core, ARK: Survival Evolved, as its name suggests, is a multiplayer survival game. The genre hinges on character progression and player-driven emergent gameplay – and ARK delivers on these ideas well. As mentioned, ARK is still knee-deep in active development, and even the biggest budget titles have issues at this early stage. Thankfully, titles in the preview program are required to offer a one hour trial, so jumping in to try it out is a risk-free affair.

Minecraft popularized the early access development model, shipping as a bare bones Lego-sim before growing into the blockbuster craft 'em up we know and love. ARK uses a similar model, offering players both on PC and Xbox One a chance to jump in early, for a discount, to try out its features and help shape the game by sending feedback over to the official forums. ARK also actively uses its Xbox One game hub to deliver updates and communicate with fans.

ARK: Survival Evolved for Xbox One has overtaken the PC title to become the most popular version, forcing the developer to open dozens of extra servers to accommodate demand.

ARK: Survival Evolved is targeting a June 2016 completion date, and even in this early state, ARK is an impressive, engaging, and incredibly fun title.

Survival Evolved

ARK: Survival Evolved's greatest achievement, so far, is its feature set. ARK allows players to do things that are typically resigned to quirky mods of other games – ride dinosaurs, build castles, and defecate on defeated foes. Okay, maybe that last one isn't super desirable, but hey, ARK is all about freedom (and perhaps those suspiciously detailed piles of slime have a gameplay use).

While ARK still has a quite a long way to go on the optimization front, it's lovingly detailed, and quite a beautiful game – built in Unreal Engine 4. To qualify for ID@Xbox, your company needs to be below a certain revenue threshold, making ARK's budget-defying visuals all the more impressive. Gigantic Brontosauruses roam majestically in dense forests, sunshafts penetrate the trees and dynamic shadows make those coveted camp fires all the more inviting.

Speaking of campfires, survival is key to ARK's gameplay, and you'll be managing more than hunger. Maintaining your character's warmth and thirst, in addition to scavenging for food and building shelters keeps you firmly on your toes – providing they haven't been chewed off by an angry Compsognathus.

When your character lands in ARK: Survival Evolved, you'll find yourself completely naked, save for a mysterious chip embedded in your wrist. Actions you take in the game, whether it's punching dodos to death or stripping a bush of its fruits and fibers, accrue EXP. Higher EXP means higher stats and new crafting patterns. To start with, you'll find yourself punching down trees and gathering stones to fashion your first mining pick, aspects Minecraft fans will find familiar.

In-keeping with the Minecraft similarities, should you find yourself injured, either by enemy players or unruly beasts, your health will regenerate providing your hunger has been attended to. If you die in ARK, you'll lose your inventory, and respawn in a random location – but retain those all-important levels and crafting recipes. Death is punishing which makes your survival skills all the more meaningful and therefor rewarding. Until you've established yourself a shelter, complete with a locked door, respawn-point bed, and adequate supplies, it's frequent to find yourself in dangerous situations, particularly if you haven't joined up with a tribe.

Experience points are shared among tribe members, making collaboration not only fun but rewarding as well. There's a primal joy about working together to build a functional shelter, complete with farms, tamed beasts, and defenses, and ARK taps this feeling masterfully.

As you ascend in levels, you'll learn how to craft ever-advancing tools and buildings, from stone hatchets and straw shacks, all the way up to rifles and fortresses built of stone and steel. Should you find yourself with the right tools and skills – unlocked as you level – you might find yourself riding atop a personal Tyrannosaurus Rex pet, or soaring the skies of the game's 50 kilometer-square map on the back of a Pterosaur (complete with gun turrets).

The game's 70-player servers support all sorts of emergent gameplay. Gigantic wars between feuding tribes, the destruction, and plundering of large and established bases, an enormous map to explore filled with secrets and end-game content, and an ever-evolving development cycle, bringing bug fixes, optimization, and new features.

ARK: Survival Evolved seems like a safe bet for fans of survival games, but there are some key issues that the development team needs to address before the game's full release this summer.

Feedback: Some of the biggest issues so far

ARK: Survival Evolved is an ID@Xbox title in the Game Preview program. As mentioned, development is on-going, both on PC and Xbox – bugs and other issues are to be expected.

The biggest problem I encountered with the preview version pertains to the server browser. Demand is high, with the Xbox version beating out the PC version for traffic, but simply adding more servers doesn't help with the game's biggest problem – getting back into your character's existing server can be a pain.

Between frequent connection issues and full servers with the inability to queue, I've found myself unable to continue the characters I spent several hours investing my time into. I've also found it impossible to accept invites from other players into specific servers, probably an extension of general connectivity issues.

Of course, you can circumvent this by playing solo or in a personal private match, but you'll lose the dynamism found in a populated dedicated server in the process. Even when you are on a private server, the players need to stay within 200 meters of the host, which is equal parts strange and frustrating. More robust connectivity features are a must, and given the amount of complaints I've seen, I'd say they've heard the message loud and clear.

The visuals, while detailed and beautiful, need a fair bit of optimization on Xbox One. Screen tearing is rife, anti-aliasing is minimal, and the game can stutter quite frequently. Thankfully, though, it is stable, I haven't yet experienced a full crash to the dashboard.

I'd also like to see the UI get some love, as it's quite clearly designed for a mouse. Also, the game could use some form of in-game tutorial to help new players as well – as it stands, you're thrown in at the deep end (sometimes in the midst of hungry beasts).

Hopefully, most of these are issues that can be rectified with further development. I haven't found much to complain about as far as the game's direction goes, and the development team seems generally diligent at taking fan feedback.

ARK: Survival Evolved has a solid foundation

Issues aside, ARK is receiving frequent feature updates. The most recently posted PC patch notes include beer brewing, tribe alliances, and tribe member rankings in addition to the traditional bug fixes. January will also see DX12 support hit PC, new terrains and boss battles. The Xbox One version will soon gain feature parity with the PC version as well, adding ridable Procoptodons (giant Kangaroos – awesome).

However, ARK's developers recently hit some of the game's most powerful tamed dinosaurs with the nerf bat, reminding us that ARK is still a work in progress. Although, PC gamers who have invested dozens, occasionally hundreds of hours into the game aren't taking the news too well – but this represents one of the downsides of Early Access. By jumping in early, you're signing up to help test and develop a game in mid-development.

ARK: Survival Evolved is a unique title, managing to not only balance some wild gameplay ideas but also give them depth and purpose. While the server issues and poor connectivity features make it hard to recommend in its present state, if you're a fan of the genre, you should at the very least keep tabs on the game's development.

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!