Title: Ark Park Released on: March 22, 2018 Genre: Virtual Reality, Collecting Reviewed on: PlayStation VR (PS4 Pro) Also Available on: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift Developer: Snail Games Publisher: Snail Games, Studio 505 MSRP: $39.99 USD / $49.99 CAD
Ark Park is a great idea built upon some fairly shaky foundations, much like the first attempt at a dinosaur-themed amusement park.
The allure of a dinosaur park that combines the breeding and collection aspects of Jurassic Park alongside the crafting and resource gathering of Ark: Survival Evolved immediately sounded like a match made in heaven for a virtual reality game. A game that allows you to witness the majesty of dinosaurs, alongside crafting and survival mechanics that have yet to really take hold in virtual reality. Unfortunately, Ark Park trips over itself at managing to present an engaging campaign or mechanically sound combat, instead joining the majority of virtual reality titles which offer a fragmented version of a whole connected by some tenuous threads.
Ark Park is the virtual reality spin-off of Ark: Survival Evolved, published by Snail Games in consultation with Wildcard Studios and Studio 505 who worked on the namesake, Ark: Survival Evolved. The team has managed to captured a portion of what made adventures in Ark so entertaining — the ability to explore and interact with majestic creatures from the deepest annals of history — but an exceptionally short story and finicky gameplay hold back the game from reaching its true potential.
While there are undoubtedly some awe-inspiring moments to be had during your travels through Ark Park, the gameplay is mired in a combination of virtual reality issues all too familiar to the VR format.
Ark Park is broken into two separate gameplay modes, Explore and Battle, each of which offers a completely different virtual experience. There is also a Hub World, the Forest Trail, which serves as your base of operations, allowing you to craft items and weapons from the materials that you’ve scavenged in Explore, as well as incubate any dinosaurs eggs that you’ve come across. Unfortunately incubating dinosaurs only allow them to roam around your Forest Trail, but it’s still exciting when you come across a new egg.
In addition to these core areas, you can also travel to the Visitor’s Lobby and the Welcome Island, which do not contain an exceptional amount to do, but serve as nice segues between Explore and Battle and serve to create a more realistic virtual dinosaur park, adding additional verisimilitude and life to the world of Ark Park.
Explore — which is the game’s pseudo campaign mode — sends you to five different locales to interact with the dinosaurs that have taken up residence in the region. Your goal in these areas is to use your handy Scanner to scan the DNA of any and all creatures that cross your path, and the challenge in the gameplay comes from capturing the dino-DNA during the window of opportunity that is presented to you. In addition to this, each area features resources which you can gather using tools to craft additional weapons, armor, and items.
In some cases, a dinosaur may swoop into your field of view for only several seconds, requiring you to have your trigger finger ready to capture their DNA lest you miss your opportunity; by the time you have captured the DNA the creature may already be out of frame. Other dinosaurs require some enticing or motivation to present themselves for DNA capture, such as disturbing their resting place with one of your tools or picking up a nearby item to activate a context-sensitive action.
In many ways this area of the game largely invoked memories of Pokemon Snap with a virtual dinosaur veneer, which just served to add a layer of nostalgic glee to the fun of travelling around and trying to complete my codex of discovered creatures.
This is where the meat of the gameplay is, and I was transported back to an almost childlike glee of being able to reach out and be inches away from dinosaurs which were expertly designed by Snail Games. While some aspects of the environment were less refined and served as reminders of the PSVR’s graphical limits (even when played on the PS4 Pro), coming face-to-face with a Sarco, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, or a docile Brontosaurus were some of the most exhilarating — and terrifying — moments I’ve experienced in virtual reality. I’d be lying if I pretended my palms didn’t get sweaty when the Titanoboa slithered out of the water to come to a rest just inches from where I stood on the dock. Absolutely and wholly terrifying, in the best way ever.
These areas are their own closed-off ecosystems, with each of them existing outside of one another; connected by a menu that you can access at any time. It’s very convenient to be able to open this menu whenever I pleased and promptly make my way from area to area to gather necessary materials or DNA, but it also served to reinforce the fact that Ark Park is presented in a very piecemeal manner.
The Battle portion of the game is very reminiscent of most ‘Horde-Mode’ style games, with waves of dinosaurs mindlessly charging towards a Reactor which you have to defend using the weapons that you have crafted through your expeditions in Explore. This section of Ark Park offers a completely different experience, but one that did not feel near as refined as my exploration of the park’s regions. It felt tacked-on and almost unnecessary, even though in essence it offers the most replayability in the entire game; the Explore mode has relatively minimal reason to replay once you’ve gathered the necessary DNA and materials.
The core focus of this mode is to shoot incoming waves of dinosaurs using the weapons that you have crafted through obtaining materials in the Exploration sections of the game, which in turn will net you additional DNA which is necessary to unlock some of the more complex weapon recipes. The addition of a combat mode to Ark Park is a great way to diversify the virtual reality experience, but the shooting mechanics and the environments presented in the mode left a lot to be desired. The gunplay felt like something out of the first virtual reality games, and I typically ended up just shooting wildly and tracking my bullet path instead of actually aiming if I wanted to hit anything.
When I first played Ark Park I was instantly dismayed to find out that the movement was restricted to ‘teleportation.’ Anyone who has dabbled into VR games — especially the earlier titles — will be all too familiar with the teleportation style of movement, where you aim your cursor where you want to go, hit a button, and voila! You have arrived.
A recent major update for Ark Park added free movement into the title, which has exceptionally increased the overall ease-of-access and comfort of traversing the game. While some may prefer using teleport-movement because of its relative simplicity, the immersion afforded to the player through free movement creates an experience more akin to “virtual reality.” That being said, the majority of levels in Ark Park remain fairly linear, but the updated ease of movement serves to lift some of the restrictive barriers that felt imposed upon you as the player. The update additionally improved the visual fidelity on the PSVR by a reported 16%.
The single most important aspect of virtual reality games are their ability to almost fully transport you to the world that you are playing in, offering a more immersive and realistic experience offered than just staring at a screen holding a controller. Once you start to lift those illusions though — such as by only allowing the player to move with an awkward and unrealistic system — it becomes very easy to become completely removed by the immersion as a result of compounding frustrations. Couple this feeling of freedom with some of the beautiful sites in Ark Park and you truly start to feel like you’re immersed in something real.
The user interface for Ark Park is for the most part exceptionally intuitive, allowing you to access all areas of the park at the touch of a button. I was immediately appreciative of this feature, because not only did it save me from having to backtrack to a hub world to be able to relaunch to new areas when I was searching for specific materials or DNA, but it created this feeling of immediate accessibility, which is not something many VR games can claim. For a game that is undoubtedly geared more towards younger audiences — even though any imaginative adult could assuredly be in awe at some of the sights and features — this is a big factor.
While the majority of the UI is easily accessible and unobtrusive, there are several menus that are insanely hard to navigate just because of their placement on the screen. Because of this, when I was accessing the locations menu I often had to lean my head at an awkward angle to be able to access the option I wanted to select in the menu. Since almost all of Ark Park‘s movement and selection is based off where you are looking, I walked away more than once feeling like I had strained my neck a bit.
The Multiplayer in Ark Park leaves a lot to be desired, mostly from the fact that I spent the vast majority of my time standing in the lobby waiting to connect to others. It’s hard to say if this is a server-related issue or caused by a lack of players, but only a month after launch it’s concerning that it took an exceptional amount of time (once up to an hour) to join a lobby, if it even connected at all.
When I was able to play Multiplayer things functioned as seamlessly as they did in the Singleplayer, allowing me to hop into a Region with another player and explore alongside them. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to try the Dino-Horde mode in Multiplayer, but I have a feeling this would have alleviated some of my frustrations at not being able to balance the off-kilter aiming alongside the pack of carnivores storming towards me.
From the appearance of the lobby, the team at Snail Games definitely have some aspirations for game’s path forward and future development. There is an Earth that has an asteroid that has crashed into it, which has a pop up that reads “Coming Soon” when you hover over it. In addition to this, there is also something called “Ark Survival of the Fittest” which sounds almost like some sort of Battle Royale/Return to Ark: Survival Evolved-style game mode, which would be amazing.
Ark Park operates in that same atmosphere that I find far too many virtual reality games have trouble breaking out of. It’s an entertaining game, but it relies far too much on gimmicks and clunky controls which truly expose the limitations of the gameplay. Instead of being presented with a virtual experience that truly evokes Ark: Survival Evolved, we are given a piecemeal offering containing snippets of what could have been a more engaging game if it was assembled or conceptualized differently.
There is no doubt that Ark Park will delight some — especially younger audiences with the deep fascination in uncovering the world dinosaurs that so many of us shared in our youth — but even for those who find themselves lost in the Jurassic world, there is not enough content to sustain that enjoyment past a few short dives.
Final score: 6.5/10
For younger audiences Ark Park will assuredly delight and entertain, but for most gamers the piecemeal offering serves up a fragmented reminder of the dangers of building a dinosaur theme park.
The review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.