Nintendo Switch has played host to some truly remarkable ports during its second year. From the remarkably smooth performance of Paladins and Fortnite down to the sheer technical alchemy that went into Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Warframe, it's clear that when the right game is in the right hands, wondrous things can happen on the semi-handheld console that could. But sometimes a game is just too big in both scale and technical demands to really work on a console that has some real hardware limitations.
Snail Games has done its best to get something as vast in scope as Ark: Survival Evolved running on Switch, and run it does run – well, it’s more of a limping walk – resulting in an experience that’s marred by consistent technical flaws. The frame rate attempts to hit 30fps but it rarely maintains that pace for long. And with foliage to load, roaming dinosaurs, other survivors and more, you can hardly blame it. There some PCs out there to that struggle to keep up with the level of detail on display and even other console versions have been known to chug when things are particularly busy on-screen.
Despite this, Ark has never been a pretty game, either – even on a high-end PC it’s always been a bit of an eyesore – but for some, that’s become part of its charm. However, when you’re consistently locked in a perpetual state of texture loading and pop-in, the same can't be said for this version on Switch. It’s an issue which is worst when playing in handheld mode, with dinosaur skins taking an age to fully render, while trees and foliage sometimes never load at all. Some assets simply stay as blobs of unloaded content as the game struggles to prioritise the objects closest to you. It effectively makes Ark close to unplayable in handheld mode, at least in its current state.
Things are a little more stable when playing docked. The lighting model is more dynamic overall and even the water looks noticeably less plastic and artificial. The frame rate never maintains a solid 30fps in docked mode either, but it runs a lot closer to that marker than in its portable configuration. There’s still pop-in, but dinosaurs and other survivors are rendered much faster. It’s much closer to the Ark experience that was originally intended, but if you’re resigned to only playing in docked mode, there's very little reason to invest in this version over ones available on other platforms.
Beyond its technical problems, you’re still getting the ‘full’ Ark experience on Nintendo hardware. It’s a survival game, first and foremost, where you start out with nothing but a loincloth to your name and the desire to survive for more than five minutes. But you will die – a lot. Especially during your first few hours as you get to grips with the deep crafting mechanics and the way your body reacts to the changing environment around you. If the local wildlife doesn’t kill you and eat you – and believe us, it will – you’ll die of exposure to the cold, keel over from exhaustion or expire from the heat.
Ark is a game that wants you to survive, but it expects you to earn that survival. There’s a ‘Survival Guide’ of sorts in the main menu, but apart from that there’s no in-game tutorial or assistance. But push through, and you can see why Ark has built such a dedicated following. XP is doled out pretty generously, with even exploring the tropical island on which you wake levelling you up. Doing so unlocks new skill traits and engrams (blueprints for building new tools, weapons and structures). Even when your character perishes, these upgrades remain – you’ll just need to regather resources and recraft items.
There’s a powerful sense of accomplishment to be found when you’ve collected your first stones from the beach, punched your first tree into oblivion and built your first stone pickaxe. Then, after harvesting plants to get fibre, you can craft a cloth shirt and trousers. You’ll attack less predatory animals such as dodos for meat, before building a base away from the beach that you gradually upgrade and refine. Servers on Switch can host up to 64 players, and when you do link up with other players and form a tribe, the game takes on a far less tense and more enjoyable tempo.
Ark could be described as a mix between Minecraft: Nintendo Switch Edition and Dark Souls: Remastered. You can play on both PvP and PvE servers, so the resource gathering, base-building and looting aspects help Ark suit the current trend for Battle Royale games. The fact you can respawn and eventually track down your old base (or encounter those belonging to long-dead fellow players or tribes who are currently away on a hunt) creates some brilliant systemic moments where a T-Rex comes crashing into a group of aggressive players and causes all manner of chaos.
Ark: Survival Evolved, in its current state, is not the best port to grace Nintendo Switch. It is, however, a proper MMORPG survival game with a deep and rewarding crafting system and the potential for some brilliant online cooperation with your fellow survivors. There’s a palpable thrill to moving from simple stone tools to more advanced weaponry as you begin to master the crafting cycle, an experience no other game on Switch can offer right now. But its myriad technical problems – ranging from texture pop-in to substantial performance slowdown – mean you really are better off playing Ark on a different platform for the time being. Patches could solve some of these problems over time, but we can't help but feel this ambitious title will never run at an acceptable level on Nintendo's hybrid platform.