I’ve never played ARK: Survival Evolved but it always seems to exist in my periphery. Whether it’s the occasional video on Twitch or the random happenstances that come out of my rabbit hole dives on YouTube, ARK struck me as one of those survival/crafting games I’d play for a few hours before moving onto something else. ARK Park, on the other hand, was a far more interesting a concept that captured my attention. I mean, look at the name. It’s obvious that the studio is finally going after that Jurassic Park money by giving you run of an island theme park where dinosaurs are the main attraction. And yet, the game is about as fun as being chased away from the poolside bar by an angry pterodactyl.
ARK Park casts you in the role of an inconsequential adventurer on the trip of a lifetime: a chance to explore an island that time forgot as dinosaurs small and large (and in between) roam and flourish. Unlike the original ARK, where you start with nothing more than a loincloth and must learn to survive the wilds, ARK Park has that John Hammond feel, complete with a monorail tram that takes you from Welcome Island to the main hub facility where friendly pre-recorded voices on PA systems announce your entrance to the park. Once inside the park, crafting is pretty superficial, you can’t die, and you’re allowed to visit zones that let you mow down dinosaurs with guns. Essentially, the experience is similar to those game hunting and safari excursions rich people take to experience the thrills that the more “common” people have (in this case, death at the hands or claws of malevolent creatures and players in ARK: Survival Evolved), only in a much more controlled and comfortable environment.
This theme park simulator further distances itself from the source material by limiting the player’s freedom to explore. The entirety of the island is tightly regulated and your presence on ARK is merely one of collecting dinosaurs for your own personal zoo and wandering off into different places to gather resources and scan creatures. Exploration serves as the backbone of the game because it’s the one thing you’ll be doing the most of. At first, you only have access to a small jungle area but by using a scanner to catalog different species of mammals, you’ll earn Genes that are needed to unlock new places to visit along with gear to craft. Armed with the most basic of tools, like a stone pickaxe, handgun, and work gloves, you’ll gather elements of the land to build different contraptions and secure food for the dinosaurs you keep. Some of these exploration zones let you walk around on foot while others put you in the passenger seat (or saddle) of a moving vehicle for a more on-rails experience. The on-foot areas are sometimes puzzle-like in their design as wandering and interacting with the environment via adventure game logic tends to bring creatures out of hiding spots and in range of your scanner. It’s all pretty entertaining if a bit shallow. Should you miss your chance to scan the local wildlife as they pass by, you can easily reset the area by calling up the travel map and selecting the destination as many times as needed. Once you’ve gathered all of the Genes, there’s no reason to return except to collect crafting materials, which isn’t as fun as it sounds.
The more you explore and interact with creatures, the chances of securing your own prehistoric pet increase. Tending after your pet dinosaur is a simple process of incubating eggs or feeding them until they develop an affinity towards you. Once the animals are full-grown, they are automatically equipped with saddles that let you ride them to predetermined destination locations just beyond your campground. This campground is where you’ll go anytime you want to craft something or gain access the full breadth of your storage. (You can also customize your avatar but seeing how you’ll never see yourself outside of the character creation screen, it’s pointless). Crafting is a two-step process that involves spending the Genes you’ve earned from the field to unlock new equipment, be it weapons or environmental tools. Once the item has been made available, you’ll take it to what is essentially a 3D printer that tells you what items are needed to create the item. A torch or a hand ax, for example, require earthy materials like wood and stone while weapons need ores and bones. It’s all pretty straightforward. You’ll never want for materials because they grow nearly every inch of the island so you’ll never have to worry about running low on anything or traveling a great distance to find them.
Should you get bored farming the same trees, bushes, and mineral deposits, you can explore your Westworld-like fantasies of unrestricted violence by entering combat zones that let you shoot swathes of rampaging dinosaurs. This sounds more fun than it is. Combat is framed around the scenario of protecting the repairs being made to specialized machines that act has behavior inhibitors for the wildlife. Your job is to defend these malfunctioning machines by shooting any and all dinosaurs that appear from a series of alleyways before they have a chance to destroy the equipment. It couldn’t be any more contrived–you stand in front of the machine as a warning light tells you which direction the dinosaurs are coming. At that point, you just unload your weapon into the beasts before they reach your position. Scattered around the combat zone are explosive barrels (because of course) that make it easy to take out a group of targets at once. Just before the combat section ends, you’ll go up against a larger, more powerful “boss” creature that takes a bit more effort to take down. There’s no real sense of danger or excitement here. Again, you can’t die and there are no consequences for losing other than a choice to either restart or leave. Successfully finishing the skirmish awards you with the materials needed to make new weapons so you can go through the whole thing again to get more materials to build new weapons. Ugh.
ARK Park isn’t a particularly fun theme park experience nor is it a great virtual reality showcase. I know that the visuals and resolution on the PSVR will never be as good or crisp as the Rift or Vive, but this is not an especially good-looking game. The colors and textures of the jungle are bland and muddy, signage is difficult to discern from a distance as the white lettering forms into an unintelligible blob unless you’re standing two feet in front of it, and on the whole, the image quality is overly fuzzy. The dinosaurs look pretty good in comparison but that’s not saying much. I’m not a fan of the limited movement because it relies on the “teleport” method of getting around. Combined with the small size of the game’s playable spaces, it doesn’t take long for feelings of claustrophobia to kick in. The Dualshock controller makes things a little more easier to get around while the Move wands did the opposite. What really frustrated me was having to interact with my backpack, which stores a maximum of five items (you can choose those items by visiting the campground) at any given time. It is placed for too low to be practical and because you’re supposed to use the headset as a pointer, it felt like I was always digging my chin into my chest to get the point to reach the item I wanted to use. On a related note, I found it almost impossible to read item descriptions while browsing my storage because the text lies out of your line of sight and if you move your head to read it (which moves the pointer away from the item), it disappears. Sigh.
ARK Park is one of those games that sounds great until you start playing it. Limited movement, bland graphics, and gameplay that’s boring hinders the possibility of a grand afternoon spent kicking it with some dinos. There are a lot of issues with the virtual reality design that make Ark Park uncomfortable and irritating to play. I kind of don’t understand how mistakes, like trying to view the flavor text for crafting materials, didn’t get noticed during development. It’s disappointing, really. At best, ARK Park is a mostly ill-conceived attempt to bring the gameplay of ARK: Survival Evolved into the VR space.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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