By the time you read this dear reader, I’ll already be dead… dead tired, that is, from running around the Game Developer’s Conference talking to developers from such companies as Snail Games about upcoming games like ARK Park. Ahead of my meeting about the game, I was granted a review copy so I could get some time in with the real thing before my interview and end of the media embargo. As my Oculus Rift set-up isn’t exactly travel-friendly, and I can be prone to motion sickness, I only had enough time to jump into the game for a few scant hours. It was an interesting experience, since the game wasn’t simultaneously available to the public, and that meant I was probably missing out on the critical social factor for my impressions. Nevertheless, I think they’re worth hashing out. Let’s dig in.
Something’s wrong in ARK Park
Hopefully by the time you read this on launch day, Snail will have patched the game, but my opening moments with ARK Park were underwhelming. While I may have invested in VR tech, I’m still very disappointed in what it has to offer. In fact, this was actually the first time I used my headset for playing games in about a year. The game that originally sold me on the platform was Time Machine, a single player game about traveling through time to find when a disease that wipes out humanity first started to develop. To do that, you need to track prehistoric creatures, their habits, and their biology. The combination of huge creatures, light education topics, and exploring interactive habitats from the safety of my home was something I hadn’t felt from traditional video games in a very long time.
This was what I was hoping to experience when I jumped into ARK Park.
But what I found was more Jurassic Park. The entry signs before the initial tram ride were cute, as is my narrator/dragonfly bot companion. However, something felt off. Being in what should be a themepark by myself was, well, lonely. There were no NPCs to make the game world feel alive. While there’s some scripted events during your ride, being unable to interact with the surroundings left me feeling hollow.
It could be my system, but the graphics didn’t help either. Something about the water didn’t look right. As I met the dinosaur holograms in the main hall, they all seemed overly vibrant. The hall acts as a kind of tutorial for basic controls and ideas. For example, you don’t actually walk around in game but teleport, chiefly to cut down on motion sickness. However, walking up to designated interaction points and watching dinosaurs not do as they should breaks immersion, even if it’s realistic.
It could be the controls too. My Rift Touch acted more like Wii remote controls, forcing me to hyper-focus on UI indicators and learning how to move in VR rather than making natural gestures. I’d go to feed a dinosaur, and my hands would move in odd ways, even after I tried changing the batteries. I’d fumble to grab some leaves and try to feed a dino, and if it decided to come down to me (and not seem like it was eating my head), it would chew air, a good foot away from the food. I’d move my hands to try to correct this, but the dino, trying to be realistic, would move too, avoiding the food to, again, chew air. “Pointing” to objects to interact with them felt like a lesson in patience.
When the “live” dinos I met later displayed unusual levels of bioluminescence, my virtual reality trip felt stripped of reality. Maybe the screen shake effects when riding dinosaurs is supposed to help with immersion, but it seemed more like a bug, as it’d come and go (along with some motion sickness). In fact, I’d see this issue come up randomly in the shooting portion of the game when standing still and shooting at dinos in the distance.
Again, maybe with friends and bug-free, my trip would have been more enjoyable, but if you were hoping this would make VR a must-buy, you may want to reconsider.
Revenge of the shutterfly
All that being said, I still found enjoyable parts of the game. The shooting aspect wasn’t among them, but maybe it’s fun with friends as it felt tuned for multiplayer. I spent most of my time in the potential multiplayer section (with an interesting lobby that hinted at more ARK VR goodness to come!), but because the game wasn’t available to the public yet, I was alone. If anything, the shooter felt reminiscent of the Jurassic Park arcade shooters I played as a kid, except with a bit more depth.
Character customization for online play is pretty limited, but at least it’s there. I do want to be a fat old guy, but you have teenager and adult avatar options for both genders, which wasn’t something I expected to see. It’s far from deep, so don’t get your hopes up.
The exploration is kind of fun, though. On and off vehicular rails, I got a strong Pokemon Snap vibe. Memorize the layout, prepare your device (usually the DNA scanner), and get ready to strike. Pick up or bring certain items with you and you can trigger a special event. Teleporting around to move gets a bit old, but it does help break up the riding scenes.
I also have to admit that the in-game photography option helped with this feel, as I’d go back and replay levels just for that. It may not sound like a big deal, but one thing I’m awful about is taking screenshots in games, even though it’s part of my job (and generally the only reason I often do it). In ARK Park, it was second nature.
For people more familiar with the actual ARK game, there’s are solid nods toward the main game. To make certain items or get supplies for raising dinos, you need to gather supplies. You can use a pickaxe on trees and rocks, but you need gloves if you want to “punch” trees for wood (though it’s more slapping than punching really). Dino painting is back, though I tried only one color and remembered my grandpa’s artistic talents didn’t make it into my DNA.
Again, ARK Park is far from perfect. If you don’t have a VR headset yet, I don’t think this is the one to buy it for. Time Machine does a better job of that for a single player experience. However, if you want VR Pokemon Snap with dinosaurs or have friends with VR that want to return to their childhood arcade shooter days, ARK Park scratches those itches pretty well.