I first played Ark: Survival Evolved when it came out in 2015 as an early access game. It was such a rush, injecting a breath of fresh air into the quickly-stagnating survival game genre. It was such an obvious choice: I mean, survival game with dinosaurs in it? The recipe writes itself. But man, was it rough at the beginning. Ark was—and still is—notorious for being a poorly optimized jumble of a game. Modern graphics cards more or less run it under brute force, but in 2015, if you didn’t have a GTX 980, good luck running Ark without disabling everything from the shadows to the skybox.
With a few tweaks and a lot of patience, though, the game was playable. But, looking back, it’s hard to say whether it was the novelty of having dinos in a survival game that made the game enjoyable or it was the actual core gameplay mechanics themselves. You’d be forgiven if you thought someone was playing Rust just from watching a gameplay video of Ark, as there’s not much innovation from Ark in terms of gameplay until the dinos show up.
It was for these reasons that I ended up letting the game sit unplayed in my library for years after that. Ultimately, at the time, there wasn’t anything that much interesting about Ark unless you’re lucky enough to be part of a tribe that had members on 24/7 to defend the base and tame dinosaurs. Even when the game left early access and officially launched in 2017, I didn’t feel the urge to play it all that much.
And then, one day, Epic Game Store released Ark: Survival Evolved for free. This thing brought the game roaring back into my attention as, thanks to that giveaway, I could get my friends to join. For those who haven’t played survival games before, adding friends or at least a regular playgroup into the mix completely transforms the game. Everything becomes a little less grindy; every action becomes its little anecdote.
Although the launch on the Epic Game Store had issues such as sudden influxes of newbie players causing problems on official servers, incompatibility between EGS and Steam versions of the game, and people using free accounts to grief, most of these issues have been patched. Moreover, while the core game hasn’t changed all that much, there’s plenty to talk about when comparing the Ark of 2020 versus the 2015 and even 2017 versions.
Ark’s Battle Royale Mode
Even before it was launched, Ark’s devs tried to jump in on the battle royale bandwagon by releasing the Ark: Survival of the Fittest game mode in March 2016. It allowed up to 100 players to form tribes and compete in 30-minute to 3-hour battles with all the mechanics from the base game, but slightly adjusted to suit the faster-paced nature of arena-based gameplay.
One of the more unique aspects of Survival of the Fittest was its “Evolution Events.” These events would randomly occur throughout the match and make the tournament more interesting. From spawning poop-flinging monkeys on every player’s head to suddenly raining guns & ammo, these events would spice things up and could either be a boon or a bane to the surviving players.
Its presence and popularity, though, was a brief flash in the pan. Studio Wildcard no longer actively develops this game mode, and instead focuses now on the main Ark: Survival Evolved content. The studio’s co-founder, Jeremy Stieglitz, has provided no clear confirmation about whether or not this game mode will be developed again in the future.
Ark’s Four Expansions
Shortly after the launch of the Survival of the Fittest battle royale mode, Studio Wildcard released Ark: Survival Evolved’s first paid DLC in September 2016 called Scorched Earth. For those of you paying attention, yes, this game wasn’t even out of early access yet when it got its first paid DLC. This thing didn’t sit well with most of the player base, and the reviews for the DLC were pretty much universally panned. It’s a shame, as the expansion includes a new desert map, new engrams (craftable items), and ten new creatures.
The second paid DLC, Aberration, was released in December 2017. This seemingly horror-inspired DLC added more to the story of Ark than ever before (yes, there’s a story) using a new underground/alien-themed map and 15 similarly themed creatures, and new engrams. Two of these craftables, the grappling hook and wing-glider suit, are meant to help the player traverse the weird new terrain—which is markedly larger than the previously-released maps.
The third paid DLC, Extinction, came out in November 2018. This dystopian version of Ark introduces “corrupted” creature variants that aggressively attack players regardless of the original temperaments of the base creature. It also added a PvE horde event that would trigger when attempting to pick up orbital supply drops, and of course, features a new map and items as per usual.
The most recent paid DLC, Genesis: Part 1, launched in February 2020. Part 2’s release has yet to be announced. Instead of the new map being one contiguous landmass, this expansion’s map features five segmented minimaps that can get teleported to at will. Each minimap features different biomes: Bog, Arctic, Ocean, Volcanic, and Lunar. There were new engrams and dinos introduced, and the most exciting part is the addition of an NPC companion and story missions that all add to Ark’s steadily-growing lore.
Ark’s Free Maps
There have been several free, non-canonical maps developed by the Ark modding community. And this was adopted by Studio Wildcard as official content. The Center, released in May 2016, was the first new community map and had an island theme. It’s the only one that doesn’t include new creatures. Ragnarok, which came out in June 2017, is a Norse-themed map that also introduced new creatures, most notably the griffin.
Valguero was added in June 2019, bringing with it a new theropod, the Deinonychus. Crystal Isles is the latest map, added in June 2020. Unique among these free maps, it features a mysterious floating island, and aside from a new dinosaur (Tropeognathus), a brand new boss monster as well: the Crystal Wyvern Queen.
As you can see, there’s so much new content in Ark: Survival evolved to enjoy, such as the four DLC expansions, which you will surely enjoy. The issues have been mostly fixed as well, so there is no need to think about it anymore. Also, even if you didn’t end up getting it for free, it’s reasonably priced on Steam and even available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers. If you’re craving the excitement of trying to not just survive in a land full of giant man-eating lizards but to subjugate them as well, Ark is still the game to play.