ARK Survival Evolved Preview (Xbox One): God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers.

Ark puts you in the shoes of a customizable avatar that awakens in a tropical jungle inhabited by various species of prehistoric wildlife, from man-eating ants to the fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex. And like most other online survival/crafting games, you begin with nothing. Naked and afraid, the first thing you’ll want to do (just like in real life) is start punching trees. Which nets you a neat pick axe, as well as letting you take out some aggression on harmless fauna. Once that’s done, you can punch other things! Yep.

You guessed it, like all those other mining/survival/getting beaten to death by bigger kids games, you’ll be smacking a lot of things to gather resources and craft more stuff to punch other, slightly bigger things with.
Many, many punches later, you’ll be able to unlock crafting recipes and create dino-taming tools. From the little ‘uns to the great big ‘uns, you’ll be able to tame them all! After befriending dinosaurs, you can have them attack other players or animals (depending on the type of server you’re playing on). They can even patrol your home base (once you’ve punched enough trees to construct it) and fend off warring tribes that might attempt to sack your treasure trove of spark powder and flint in the middle of the night.

ark trex
After all that walloping, you can level up.  This allows you to thump even bigger things. Other players, impressed by your ability to punch inanimate objects and gather materials from them can be convinced to join you! Amass a tribe of followers, and they can aid you in taking down the massive bosses which (in the very late game) includes some type of dragon and a mechanical T-Rex so graphically breathtaking that the sight of it would turn Grimlock’s cheeks a delicate shade of crimson. In fact, the game is a bit of a beauty. Gorgeous sunsets, starry nights and lush green foliage all look fantastic and polished to a perfect spit-shine. By joining the fraternity of Xbox One’s preview program and handing over 35 of your hard-earned dollars, you too can jump into Ark: Survival Evolved and experience the wind rushing through your locks as you stride atop a newly-tame Optimus Rex.

All of this and more is what Studio Wildcard and Xbox Preview are selling you. The problem is that it’s not what they’re giving you (at least, for now). At the moment, the first major hurdle to enjoying ARK is the lack of available servers. Even after adding a few more a handful of days after it’s Xbone debut, Studio Wildcard just can’t keep up with the demand for spots. Not only are there simply not enough servers to handle the demand, but the capacity of each one is painfully small. Whether the low server cap is intentional, a technical limitation or simply a lack of publishing funds isn’t clear. Further adding to the challenge of actually playing the game is a lack of ability to save character progress independent of a server, which is common among server-based survival adventures. What is uncommon, however, is not being able to support the game’s server traffic, making it impossible to get onto the server where your character is saved.

To sum up the experience, once you boot up Survival Evolved, you’ll (hopefully) see a list of servers with at least (and usually only) one spot open. Because spots on a server are rarer than papal porno, you’ll want to try to select and join that server as fast as humanly possible. More often than not, you’ll be greeted with a message that the server is full because some other bugger beat you to it. Many tries later, you’ll join a server, and get to customize the look of your avatar, and give them a name. Once you’ve done that, your character will spawn in a random location on the island buck naked and with no clue what to do.

Once you’ve figured out how to gather resources for crafting, pick berries to keep from starving to death, drink to stay hydrated and build a fire to keep yourself from freezing in the night, you can get onto the important business of levelling up. Levelling affords you the ability to add to your base stats and unlock recipes, which allow you to craft new items. Many more hours of wasted time and aborted efforts later (which is the norm in these games), you’ll end up making some clothes, weapons, and food. Many (in-game) moons after that, you’ll die an agonising death because some other dickhead on the server kind of wanted those shoes you’re wearing, and got lucky with a rock.  You then wake up, naked and stripped of all your possessions, on a random part of the beach. Much, much later, you might just be able to train your very first raptor.  Which is about the size of a large cocker spaniel.

ark dino
You’re well on your way to becoming monarch of your primitive (evolved?) society! It’s time to take a well-earned rest. But before you do, remember that guy with the lucky rock?  Yeah, you don’t want the same happening again. You’ll want to lock up your encampment for the night, and set your paleontological pup to stand guard in your absence because the persistent game-world designed by Wildcard is…persistent.  And it certainly doesn’t sleep. If you aren’t careful, while you are away, enemies could besiege your fortifications and leave you to pick up the pieces the next day. Don’t worry yourself over it though, because it really won’t matter.

It won’t matter because you’ll never be able to log into that same server to continue your progress. On PC, you can set up a local server so even if you can’t find a public server online, you can continue playing without starting over. Since Xbone’s preview of the game doesn’t offer that same feature, you’ll have the pleasure of not only experiencing the server runaround I mentioned previously, but you’ll have to wait for another player to relinquish their death grip on that one specific server where your cold-blooded companion awaits. Or, you can log into another server and start from scratch.
Early hours of the game are enjoyable enough, even if replayed multiple times (trust me I know) so I didn’t mind have to start over a couple of times, except for the fact that the lag was terrible. It’s constant and it’s unbearable. It’s not just a blemish on the gameplay itself. It’s frustratingly bad. It makes an otherwise enjoyable experience nigh-on unplayable. In an effort to relieve this lag-hell (or taunt you into madness), Wildcard displays each server’s ping at the server select screen, but you know what they say: beggars can’t be choosers.

ark action
Those rare moments unhampered by lag give a glimpse of what this game is aiming for. The beautiful environments are as good as any of ARK’s competitors, if not better. Its crafting system is fairly robust considering it’s young age. Having the ability to move around the world on the back of archaeological specimensm building fortresses complete with automated defense systems and banding together with tribes-people to dominate monsters of mythological proportions is the dream of every kid that’s ever played Minecraft and Turok.

Unfortunately for me and for you, it’s my job to tell you that you can’t have this experience on Xbox One yet. If you have a PC capable of running ARK, its large (and somewhat longer) following through Steam’s early access program suggest that these server issues have been solved on its parent platform. Yet as of this writing I can’t recommend anyone buy into this seemingly-attractive preview because of the discrepancy between what it’s offering and what you’re actually getting.

As a preview game, it’s understandable that it’d have hiccups. Not being able to find your server every once in awhile is expected. The developer and publisher having to work together to handle maintenance and strain on the servers is something to be expected now and again. It’s perfectly normal for ARK to experience some of the growing pains it’s exhibiting, but the extent to which it’s exhibiting them should actively repel anyone thinking of paying half the price of a full AAA release on a game they (ultimately) won’t be able to play.

If I had my druthers, I would have preferred Wildcard do anything they could to make the experience on Xbox One smoother.It might have meant limiting the initial available features, or pushing back the release date, but at least the game that made it to Xbox would actually be playable. At least that way I could have enjoyed a portion of this offering without drowning in technical difficulties.

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