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Ark Park Review: Disappointasaurus

I remember covering Ark: Survival Evolved’s reveal all the way back in 2015 with some cynicism. The game itself looked great; a Jurassic Park adventure for the Minecraft-era, but developer Studio Wildcard’s mention of VR support on both PC and PS4 seemed a promise too far. Sure enough, three years on and PSVR support is nowhere to be seen, while the ramshackle Oculus Rift integration isn’t even mentioned on the game’s Steam page.

You could view Ark Park as something of an apology, then. Sadly, it’s not a very good one.

Ark Park is a game specifically built for VR and, in the spirit of the platform, distills many of the original game’s core elements into a more headset-friendly package. One half of the game is, indeed, very much like the first half of a Jurassic Park movie; you explore an amusement park that has brought dinosaurs back to life, learning about different creature features and even raising a few beasts of your own. And, yes, you guessed it, the other half is a bit more like that other staple of the Park flicks in which everyone is screaming and trying not to be eaten by a T-Rex. But Ark Park fails to fuse these two elements cohesively, resulting in an initially promising game that ends up feeling half-baked and ill-advised.

Exploration is easily the stronger half of the experience, and I suspect what Ark Park was originally wholly envisioned as (the game was originally billed to us as an educational experience). You begin with a sun-licked train ride into the park that’s a John Williams score away from copyright infringement before arriving at the main lobby. Here you’ll find holograms of dinosaurs that you can formally introduce yourself to without the fear of being eaten up (though I still managed to scream when I turned around to find an unexpecting Triceratops staring me down). There’s also a park map you can jump into and even adorable mini-beasts to pick up and play with. It makes for a promisingly upbeat introduction that suggests Ark Park is just as much an educational tool as it is a spectacular showcase of a bygone era.

That’s pretty much where the learning ends, though; there’s very little reason to return to the lobby once you’ve arrived at the Forest Path. This is where you’ll hatch dinosaur eggs you gather for completing missions, take tamed dinosaurs for a trek and craft weapons using resources you gather in the six explorable areas.

Jumping into each of those zones is initially a delight and offers some of Ark Park’s most marvelous moments. You can scan creatures — who are undeterred by your presence — to build out your self-explanatory Dino Dex and collect genes that are used to unlock new items. Mostly, though, you’ll want to just hang out with the wide variety of critters, beasts and behemoths you’ll encounter. Sitting on a river bank and watching two Giant Beavers go fishing, or quickly side-stepping an Armadillo as it rudely rolls straight past (or through) you offers a rare sense of privilege, like you’re experiencing something that no other human has had the fortune of stumbling upon. It certainly helps that the game is easily one of VR’s best-looking experiences, boasting the lush jungle environments that made Survival Evolved such an easy sell.

Ark Park could have been a truly memorable showcase of the power of VR if it had doubled down on this aspect. Over the 60 minutes or so it took me to explore each area my heart went on a rollercoaster ride, from marveling at the sight of Terodatcyls swooping over a cliff ledge to laughing at myself for screaming as giant bats scattered at the sight of me entering their cave. For lack of a better term, it can feel magical, but the game can’t keep up the illusion for long.

You’ll only get one chance to scan creatures in some areas and, if you miss it, you’ll have to reload the area and try to grab them again, robbing you of the wonder you felt on your first encounter. Some are a pain to capture, too. I quickly discovered the real reason the Dodo’s went extinct: for their insufferable refusal to stand still. Blood comes from a stone faster than those guys will let you scan them.

To make matters worse, Ark Park’s needless crafting system asks you to repeatedly return to these zones to grind out gathering resources by waggling your pickaxe-holding hand over rocks and trees. Much of the joy of simply visiting these areas is soon replaced by the meandering redundancy of your workmanlike task: load the level, warp over to the rock, mine the rock, reload the level. Breeding dinosaurs, meanwhile, invites the same initial pleasures before you realize that all you can really do with your newfound pets (other than questionably spraypaint on them) is ride them down a linear path on the exact same scripted three-minute sequence.

All of which far too quickly leads you to the game’s other half, a repellant wave shooter that’s at odds with the pre-established tone. Ark Park’s barebones action offering includes two maps spread across six levels of increasing difficulty that task you with defending a faulty brain-manipulating beacon that the park’s creatures are intent on destroying in their fleeting moments of mental freedom. With the sobering knowledge that the miraculous creatures you basked in the company of just moments ago were in fact slaves, you now have to mercilessly gun them down with dual-wielding weapons and mandatory slow-mo kills. It’s a repulsively more manufactured side of an otherwise refreshingly positive experience.

Moral contradictions aside, this section of the game is thrill-free, with its bare-bones content criminally padded out by the monotony of a crafting system that feels shoved in to tick boxes (weapons even degrade over time, forcing you back into the aforementioned grind). The game doesn’t even have the kind of longevity to sustain these survival-focused mechanics: you can race through all but the last of the levels as soon as you unlock two machine guns almost thought-free.

The only enemies that will give you trouble are the bullet sponge bosses that can be avoided by teleporting across the map (sorry diehards, no free locomotion here). Sometimes though I found the teleporting to inexplicably stop working, forcing me to sit and wait for 10 seconds as I revived and kept on shooting.

These are the same foundations of a wave shooter you’ve seen time and again but they have absolutely nothing of their own to add. Ark Park can’t decide what it wants to be, and that indecision leaves you with two uneven halves that don’t add up to a compelling package. Tellingly, when I opened my inventory at the start of the game, I found a dinosaur egg with a padlock icon on it front and center of my storage. The egg, I was told, unlocks with a certain content pack. If you were someone that was burned by Survival Evolved’s rapid, premium expansion over refinement of existing content, that should tell you all you need to know.

Ark Park is neither the thrilling prehistoric vacation of a lifetime nor the intense Jurassic shooter you might have hoped it to be. Whatever goodwill it builds in its opening moments is quickly spent on wearisomely padded out crafting mechanics and a half-baked, ill-advised wave shooting component that would have been better left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately it’s more equation than game (crafting + wave shooting = $$$?). Plan your next VR getaway for somewhere far from here.

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