Ark plays better on mobile than you'd think, but really needs crossplay

I punched a tree in my doctor's waiting room yesterday. I was hanging out for an appointment, and I had Ark: Survival Evolved's mobile edition running on my phone. My headphones were in, piping the sound of jungle and beach to my brain. Punching trees, picking up rocks, running from dinosaurs—the whole bit. Then I felt a nurse tap my shoulder, so I unplugged my headphones, stood up, and started to close the application.

That's when my character defecated. A wet fart played over my iPhone's speakers to the waiting room. I could have said a lot of funny things in response to the nurse's arched eyebrow—lots of things would have been clever and witty and made a great anecdote for this article. Instead, I turned bright red and said, "Ha! Heh. Um..." Thanks, Ark!

Is Ark mobile really Ark? 

When Ark came out last year, I found it a fascinating, confusing mess of a game. It was very full of stuff to do (Build a raft! Smelt steel! Do landscape photography!) and very broken in basic ways. It was wonderful, it was frustrating; it was a bloated grind, and I had hours of memorable experiences inside its weird, stupid world.

When Ark came out on mobile devices, I confess to having a morbid curiosity about it. Before this, I'd done very little mobile gaming, and I'd never ventured beyond phone-friendly puzzle games like Threes or Holedown. I didn't think there was a chance that a game like Ark—a game we called "the new Crysis" when it comes to making PC hardware burn up and die—would translate to a pocket processor and a touch screen. No way.

Like a caveman crafting himself a laser rifle with a wooden screwdriver, Ark's developers somehow managed to do it. Ark for mobile is.... Well, it's Ark. It's a bit grindy, it's a bit stupid, your character shits themself twice a day, and you can put a saddle on a Triceratops and ride it into battle. It's Ark!

How's it run? 

On my relatively new 2017 iPhone X, Ark mobile runs shockingly well. For all I can see on my tiny screen, the graphics are quite nice. Though the draw distance has been pulled way, way down, the sunny beaches and forbidding jungles of Ark's primary island look just like they do on PC.

That said, Ark's wizardry only extends to far. It looks good, but that power is paid for by lightning and fire: This game eats phone battery like a Stegosaurus cutting through berries. Even all that juice can't quite power my hardware to a seamless Ark show. Framerates crash for a few seconds if I suddenly turn a corner and see a magnificent vista. This ruins the view a little bit, but can also be deadly. A big dinosaur suddenly charging can also cause framerates to judder, making it hard to fight back.

Another thing that makes the framerate freak out is the third-person camera. Using the camera to pan around and check out my survivor's filthy rags works OK, but the game's performance really suffered when I tried moving around outside of the first-person perspective.

This may be specific to the iPhone X, but Ark also makes my phone run hot. Like, really hot. There's a hotspot almost exactly behind the little Apple logo that absolutely smolders after about an hour. There may be larger iPads or Android devices that can run Ark effortlessly, but here's what I can say for sure: the best iPhone on the market right now barely hangs on.

How are the controls? 

The touchscreen translation of a full keyboard's worth of inputs came out better than I expected, but still far from great. Ark replaced lots of the nuance of a mouse and keyboard with menus; instead of right-clicking to craft, for example, scroll to the Crafting menu page and tap the Craft button.

Moving around by swiping on the left side of the screen and looking up and down by swiping the right side of the screen is very smooth, but the controls lack precision. Sometimes it's hard to point at this rock instead of that tree, and Ark's jungles are very crowded. Worse, slight differences between inputs caused me a lot of pain. I touch-and-hold my tamed dinosaur to open his menu screen, but sometimes I accidentally just touch him, punching him right in his dumb scaly face. It's a good thing my Dilophosaur doesn't know how to open the kibble bin, or he would have murdered me a long time ago.

Combat can get pretty iffy, too. An auto-aim feature helps out with fast-moving targets that would be hard to hit in an emergency. It mostly works, staying locked on target while I stab-stab-stab at angry dinosaurs. Here again, though, the lack of precision once made me stop to pick up a rock instead of punching a predator, and that mistake almost killed me.

Touchscreen crafting controls fare better in the translation. Placing a wall in the right way in the right place is easy when the snap-to-fit building feature understands what I want to build. It's nearly impossible if it doesn't. Desktop Ark servers are famous for their megastructures and intricately built gothic mansions, but the prospect of trying to farm and perfectly place all those pieces sounds exhausting.

Ark mobile is also just… slower? Everything takes longer than I think it should. Between navigating menus and moving around with the touchscreen controls, every task seems to take forever. Ark has always been a horrific grind, but moving to mobile just made the controls less efficient.

Can I play with my PC friends? 

No. Ark mobile has "crossplay" in that Android and iOS players can join the same servers, but the desktop version and the mobile version are separate beasts. Alas, the dream of playing a desktop MMO at home, leaving, and continuing to grind resources from a phone is still just a dream.

What's the catch? 

Ark mobile is free for anyone, and that means that it wants to get money in other ways. Every 90 minutes, a small icon offers a Faustian bargain: watch a commercial in exchange for a gift, like a crafting recipe or a stamina potion. There's also a menu page offering a Primal Pass subscriptions service. Subscribing for $4 a month or $35 a year removes the ads (and removes the gifts, I guess) and doubles how fast characters levels up. Primal Pass also opens up access to "preferred servers" where subscribers gather, smoke cigars, and laugh at the poors.

Should I play it if I love Ark? 

You do what you want, I'm not your dad—but I won't be spending a lot of time there. The deciding factor is simple: damn it, I am not going to do all that farming again. Because the desktop and mobile versions are separate, playing both just means that I'll have two Ark realities: one where my home is built and my dinosaurs are trained, and one where I have to start from scratch and grind all over again—except this time, the grind will be even worse.

I suspect that the mobile version of Ark isn't really for people who already love Ark, or actively play it on PC. Ark mobile is a free-to-play way to introduce Ark to people who aren't usually into desktop survival games. And it's true that farming and gathering in Ark is a good fit for a mobile device that is always in a pocket, always ready for five minutes of tree-punching or berry-picking. Ark mobile can't replace the full version, but it is excellent at looking pretty and broadcasting inappropriate shitting noises to doctors' waiting rooms.

Ark: Survival Evolved is available for free on iTunes and Google Play.