I can generally get a good feel for what any given game is all about just by reading the short blurb provided in the Steam store. There are exceptions, of course. Take ARK Park VR, for example. Let’s also presume that you knew nothing of a previous iteration called ARK: Survival Evolved, and thus had no preconceived expectations in place. That would be the case for people such as me, who generally peruse every single update to the list of available VR games at least once a week, while paying attention to only select niches in the overall store.
Here’s what Steam had to say:
In ARK Park, engage in close encounters with primal species through a series of theme park attractions. Enter by yourself or with a group of adventurous friends, and witness dinosaurs roaming in the wild with your own eyes!
Okay then. It’s Jurassic Park without the inept management.
As it turns out, I was very close to the mark; I had only to leave the inept management in place and I would have nailed it.
Before you stop reading, please remember that the first part of Jurassic Park was awe-inspiring and fun. This carries over into ARK as well. My starting location was a train station where a very modern bullet train was waiting to take me across the bay to the island park. I took a few minutes wandering around the station doing some sightseeing - there was no hurry to catch the train as it was unlikely to leave without me, the one and only passenger.
Naturally I had hoped for a helicopter ride, but the train ride was probably better in retrospect. Most of the ride was over the water, so in addition to a far better sense of speed, I was also able to get a good look at the dolphin-ish critters swimming alongside us as we sped along. Ah, so beautiful and relaxing. Relaxing, that is, right up until a gigantic Whatdaheckasaurus emerged from the hidden side of a small island. It swam in parallel with us, but far enough away to not be as threatening as its looks implied. It was a lot like an alligator combined with a whale - big and scary! It finally disappeared for awhile, only to rejoin us in splendid style just a little later. Jurassic ARK was delivering on the promise of “close encounters with primal species” already! And I had “entered by myself,” so that’s another promise kept, although that’s not really laudable since I only opted for single player after finding that there was no one else on the multiplayer server.
Once at the island, I got off the train and headed for the stairs in the hop-and-skip way of teleportations. As I started the climb, I ran right into a load screen. In VR, that’s just like running full speed into a wall you didn’t expect to see - it completely ruins the wonderful sense of actually being there that was gained on the train ride. This turned out not to be a one-time event, too. Every change of location brought forth the same stark reminder that you really aren’t there. It’s not a huge deal, of course, but it is a bigger sin in VR than it is anywhere else simply because immersion, and the incumbent ability to suspend disbelief, is the entire point of VR!
At the top of the stairs all was forgiven, at least until the next load screen. I stopped and spent a full minute looking around the vast open area in the middle of the large room. The majority of the space in the center was taken up by what appeared to be a scale model of the park with small holographic dinosaurs spread around it. I was able to walk (well…. teleport) up onto the model island and pick up each of the holograms. Simply by throwing it, a full-size holograph of whatever animal I had thrown would appear. This was an example of making good use of VR - not the act of throwing the scale model, but the visceral reaction caused by the sudden appearance of a life-size brontosaurus. That is one BIG animal!! It’s one thing to know that fact academically, but something very, very different to actually see it standing right there next to you. Or on top of you, if you didn't throw the little one far enough away.
Many models of the same dinos occupied the periphery of the room. Those were already full size; the purpose of those exhibits was to show some of each dinos mannerisms in certain aspects. As an example, I could press a button to see the Tyrannosaurus growl at me. There were also virtual foodstuffs that could be fed to them. These food items were split between meat and vegetation/fruit. I offered a fine looking streak to what must have been a non-carnivore because it just stood there shaking its head as if to say “Nope, not my cup of tea.”
Most of the floor was taken up with interesting and educational things like that and I spent a good 15 or 20 minutes just looking around. As I got further into the game, I learned that I could find dino eggs and put them into an incubator to hatch them. The resulting baby dino would then grow from puppy to fully grown adult in just a minute or so. Once grown, I was able to ride it. That was kind of fun, although there weren’t all that many places to ride to. Also, and I have yet to figure out why in the world I would want to do this, I was offered an airbrush and a palette of colors with which to paint the dinosaur. Yes, I said paint the dinosaur. Uhhhh, why?
Wait, it gets a lot more confusing.
I also had an inventory system. It came pre-populated with a stone pick, a starter dinosaur egg, and a gene scanner. The gene scanner seemed to have the most potential - I figured it would be used to build a database of genetic data to be used for breeding hybrid dinosaurs or something interesting like that. Sadly, that was not the case. The gene scanner, which turned out to be infuriatingly hard to use in certain cases, was used for crafting. As an aside, there is also an Explore mode which is focused on finding pieces/parts, also for crafting. You could be forgiven for thinking that the crafting would be centered around building things in support of dinosaur breeding and the like; I sure thought so. Nope. It was about crafting weapons. In fact, the crafting example in the tutorial has you gathering wood and fiber as raw materials for the 3D printer to print… a gun. You need the gun, you see, because the dinosaurs are by their very nature violently dangerous. Those natural tendencies are held at bay via some type of brain-altering waves transmitted by very shoddy antennas that seem to break quite often. When they do, it’s time to slaughter some dinos. This seemed odd to me - I thought we loved dinosaurs, yet there I was killing them! If the very idea of it wasn’t bad enough, the actual game mechanics of the attacks was horrible. The bar for this kind of thing has been raised very high by such notable shooters as Gun Club VR, et al. ARK gets nowhere near that level of usability and fun.
It was at that point that I started thinking that the design team for this game had lost its direction and was just checking off a list of game features they thought were necessary to sell product. In my opinion, this was the game’s Jurassic Park moment: poor decision-making bringing the whole thing down. All of the possible excellent uses of crafting, gene scanning, and dinosaur breeding were tossed away in favor of a cheap gimmick. Without a compelling reason to go through all of the effort of gathering materials, why do it? I felt absolutely zero motivation to make weapons, but without the weapon crafting, there was no game left to play.
ARK Park VR is an example of lost opportunity in an opportunity-rich market. A year ago, the experience of riding the train and being able to interact with the dinosaurs might have been enough. The market is maturing rapidly, though, and it takes a lot more than pretty worlds and shallow gameplay to survive. ARK had the chance to create something brand new and make compelling use of VR. Imagine a laboratory environment with all kinds of complex equipment to interact with while designing new breeds of dino - where else are you going to find that? Instead you get a 20 minute VR experience that you will only ever see again when you let friends try it out, and a sub-par wave shooter that you won’t even want to mention to them, especially if you have a Rift; Dead & Buried and Robo Recall are the go-to games for freaking out people that haven’t used VR before.
What a shame.
The pieces were all in place for ARK Park to be something brand new and highly compelling in the VR market, but fails to maximize on the opportunity. While it can be spectacular to look at, the gaming elements just feel tacked on as if there was a checklist of features to build in, whether they made sense or not.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.