ARK Park (PC/HTC Vive) Review

ARK Park

Developer/Publisher: Snail Games || Overall: 2/10

You’d think a Jurassic Park sort of experience would be a shoe-in for a decent VR experience, right? Go to a park, see huge dinosaurs, maybe run away from some. What’s that, you say? “But what about crafting and collecting bullshit“? Sure, why not? “What about terrible voice acting and jerky animations“? I dunno, man. This is starting to sound like a crappy game. “What about spelling errors, wrong dinosaur scale and aimless gameplay“?

ARK Park is a VR game using assets from another game with a similar name, ARK: Survival Evolved, which is a sandbox game where players wake up on an island, harvest resources, build bases and tame and fight dinosaurs. The parent game is a decent title with some kind of annoying DLC practices and constant feature creep; there is very little in common in the ARK Park flavor of digital entertainment, besides dinosaurs and the models used to represent them. Not a problem in itself, but to avoid confusion I think it’s important to point out that this is not ARK: Survival Evolved in VR. Also, be aware: though somewhat standard (though unimpressive) for VR, the game only makes use of teleportation for player movement. There are no free movement options, nor is there comfort options for teleporting, outside of moving around in room-scale.

The tutorial has you battling the ambient loud sounds to hear some robotic dragonfly (with some terribly robotic voice-acting) bark some commands to you. As you step out of some shuttle, you’re asked to get into a tram while dolphin noises, that must have been recorded from a TV, play over the tram’s loudspeakers. Some unnecessary dialog is thrown at you as you watch a mosasaurus jump out of the water. Finally, you get to the park where you’re greeted with a loading screen as you go up the stairs. In the next area, a lobby of sorts, there is holographic stuff you can bore yourself to tears with as the robot forces you to pick up and throw small holographic dinosaurs at a display, or just around a map, before being guided to command and feed some more of them. As an educational experience, there’s minimal here aside from a display that’ll narrate a small selection of descriptions on some choice dinosaurs. Not a lot going on besides that.

Eventually, you make your way to a camp where you grow a dinosaur and feed it, and are given a crash course on the inventory and storage. Before long I was “riding” on top of my triceratops through some section of forest (an “on rails” section) while some bullshit happens to the mind controlling devices that make the dinos slothful and passive. Someone commandeers my annoying robo-dragonfly cohort and tells me I’m an idiot and I should risk my life to save the park by repairing the brain washing devices. Why one exploded isn’t really delved into, nor the fact that dinosaurs are routinely aggressive to each other. I mean, how effective are they if you can see two huge gorillas fighting over a cliffside, or a T-Rex chasing some fat pig thing around? Anyway, I’m instructed to go to another area and use some sort of DNA sequencing gun (Isn’t this a park? Didn’t they make these things? Why don’t they have the DNA on file?) to collect genes in order to make a pistol. For materials, I’m entrusted to use gloves that make my hands monstrous to collect berries and grass, and a pickaxe to collect wood and other materials.

I craft a gun, presumably from the berries, and go to the practice range, where I proceed to bullseye all the targets while the robot follows me around telling me that she hopes I shoot better when my life is on the line (seriously, the tutorial is just crammed so fucking full of bad writing that most of it isn’t even memorable). I warp to some contraption that the robot needs to fix while I shoot dinosaurs. Despite the strange reload mechanics, which is shake to reload or suffer a painfully slow auto reload, I manage to kill everything without an issue. We win, and she pulls out some fuckin’ Leeroy Jenkins line from the mid 2000’s in an attempt to undermine my accomplishment. Someone at Gearbox probably finds this shit funny and engaging, but I’m already looking forward to taking off my Vive.

The main game has much less in terms of guidance or goals. Considering I don’t really give much of a shit about dinosaurs, since I can proudly say that puberty only left “space pirate” behind in my list of interests during the transition to adulthood, those goals are still a mystery to me. I don’t get why I’d want a Triceratops, or why I’d want to spray paint graffiti (no seriously, it’s part of the tutorial) or what I’d want a machete for.

After you’ve created a player with an eclectic assortment of clothing ranging from “generic cowboy” to a ghillie suit, you’re dumped in to the same area of the park where the game began: the tram. These sequences are exactly the same on the second pass in, by the way. I use what I learned from the tutorial to skip all the monotonous parts of the park and go back to the “exploration” areas of the game. These areas are places where you collect resources, scan dinosaurs and sometimes throw a rock at something. The scanning mechanic is really stupid — the gun needs to be aimed at the head of whatever is running past you or whizzing by your face as it flies through trees or over obstacles. Scanning these animals will give you “genes” which are used to unlock things like a machete, a bow, a torch, or other tools. Your guess is as good as mine why they landed on this mechanic.

Now, I know this game’s plot is paper-thin, but for all this talk about making dinosaurs docile using mind control stuff, I think it’s important to note that the dinosaurs sure fucking fight a lot in the wild. It just seems weird to have the tutorial hinge so much on that aspect and have there be no discernible link between that idea and the dinosaur’s behavior when you’re out exploring areas. Maybe it’s because you’re not fixing them, but it’s still odd.

I’m not sure if the hot-air balloon was rideable, but there was a section where I could ride in a jeep with the most canned fuckin’ one-liners hurled at me every few seconds. Dinosaurs of varying sizes and temperaments would block the road while the driver complained each time, as if I had unknowingly signed up for a VR ride-sharing program. A carnotaurus would slap the jeep and he’d whine about how annoying they are, when he should be complaining about how small they were. He’d zip between a bronto’s legs, slicing off mounds of cheese before unloading a jar of cheez-wiz when the gigantosaurus flopped for ten seconds, presumably to give me a spook. Honestly, this shit belongs in Disneyland with all the other crappy, over-acted attractions with no interaction.

I spent some time digging around my inventory and crafting station, and found that because I didn’t have a better copy of the game, there was an item that I couldn’t remove, bitching at me to buy the deluxe version of the game to use it. Thanks. Good to know that ARK is becoming more saturated with this kind of annoying bullshit. Meanwhile, it had no problem promptly accepting the other egg I was given into the trash, rather than my inventory slot that was near it. My fault, sure, but I didn’t pick where the inventory spots spawned over, nor did I think it would just go right through into the trash. You never know, I may have wanted to grow that thing.

I gave a “battle” level a shot, which was much like the tutorial: I guarded a machine while dinosaurs rushed at it. It seems just getting close to the machine is enough to damage it, so I intended to blow everything that moved away the moment I saw it. It was pretty easy until a Megapithecus came, stomped me, and three-shot the tower. This was the “easy” level, by the way. I’m not even entirely sure what I should have done differently, as he jumped down, towering above me, slapped me into submission, and took out the tower while I was out of play. This game has multiplayer, but it wasn’t clear if I’d come back from that or not by myself. VR wave shooters are really, really common. It takes a particular level of polish or ingenuity to get a pass for this, and ARK Park just doesn’t deliver.

The game is rife with spelling and grammar errors at every turn, from frogs that are a “Titanboa’s favorite desert” to an error in some machine that claimed “Species data that can not be loaded.” Even their Tek Package ad calls the Mech T-Rex “Iron steal.” This game’s not very deep, it’s not hard to come across all of these. With added things, like the comically large “gloves” used for harvesting bushes, jerky animations on some dinosaurs and “pulling” vines, strange dinosaur scale and crappy gameplay, I’m convinced this went through a limited QA run and was shoved out to appease the folks that were waiting for this, all four of them at Gearbox that were really waiting for that “.333 repeating chance” of success joke to land. This is what passes for writing these days. Speaking of which: hire me and fire your writers. I could use the dough, and the mess you’ve got here is bordering on needing FEMA relief (side note: unlike FEMA I’ll actually deliver).

Why this is an ARK game eludes me. If anything, they should have dropped all the crafting and pointless stuff and focused on being even remotely educational with some mini games around that. At least then it’d have some merit of its own. This doesn’t really play like an ARK game, it doesn’t have the same goals as one, and it’s much less fun than the game that it is based on, but has shoehorned in crafting and gathering ’cause “that’s what the real one does”. It’s painfully and obviously forced. In fact, if they just added VR support to ARK: Survival Evolved, even as limited as HMD support with mouse/keyboard or controller, there would be something considerably more enjoyable to toy around in.

If you’re looking for a dinosaur game, play ARK: Survival Evolved instead if you can stomach the semi-rough experience. Otherwise, save the $40 you’d waste here and go buy scratchers or something.


Blasters of the Universe (PC/HTC Vive) Review

 Developer/Publisher: Secret Location || Overall: 8.75 / 10

So we’ve got another VR game up to the plate. This one, Blasters of the Universe, by Secret Location, is something of a mashup.

A vast majority of VR games belong to a genre collectively called “wave shooters,” which pit the VR player against wave after wave of enemies. Sometimes there are mechanics for moving around, but most of the time it’s standing or room-scale. Often the player is taking cover behind something, like a shield, and dodging what they can. Sometimes the enemies are zombies, sometimes they are robots, sometimes they are gangsters.

Blasters of the Universe doesn’t break all the molds of the wave shooter, but like some kind of VR Coldstone Creamery it rolls in a heaping cup of “bullet hell” while spectators watch behind the glass counter thinking, “Are these guys insane?! Who wants Ikaruga in their wave shooter?! Gross!”

Turns out: I do! And I don’t think my tastes are that refined, at least when it comes to VR.

The premise is that some unemployed nerd named Allen was really good at arcade games in the 90’s, or maybe late 80’s. He was only good at games, somehow he was able to get into “VR” and has been living there ever since. Despite how very close the antagonist is to me in the game, the story’s not important. The Grand Master Virtual Space Lord Alwyn will be around to mock you, or even awkwardly praise you, but the meat of the game is blastin’ and dodgin’ with a lil’ bit of blockin’, and isn’t at all story driven. The same basic premise for the wave shooter: enemies will appear periodically while you shoot at them. However, their attacks come at you very slowly, often in patterns or huge fields of bullets. In many games, the player’s hitbox is some amalgam of their head, the area beneath, and possibly their hands. Blasters of the Universe does the unthinkable in most by making only the player’s head the hitbox. That allows for some pretty miraculous dodges, but it also allows the bullet hell mechanic to work without being absolutely frustrating. Your are limited by your own movements, which isn’t novel in VR, but it is for a bullet hell.

There are a variety of enemies with their own patterns of attack that, when they are all firing at the player simultaneously, leads to some interesting gameplay. While the player tries to 3D limbo through all the space in between the bullets while trying to counter attack with their own gun. Less enemies means less things shooting, which means the player won’t have to somersault through death-fields. Occasionally there will be a boss that needs spanking, and they will have their own attacks, telegraphs and “puzzles” (if you can call the process of “how do I kill this?” a puzzle). There are four campaign levels with casual and “hell” modes, and each of those has an infinite mode if that’s your thing.

What’s the shooting like, you ask? Well, that’s up to you. There are a bunch of weapon parts to fabricate your own gun out of. Semi-auto or full auto, magazines or recharging ammo pools, precision or spreadfire, you name it. Players pick a weapon frame, barrel, bullet type, magazine and a gadget to make their own weapon of choice. Along with this, they can pick different kinds of shields that, while unable to block everything that comes at the player, they can provide some relief in a pinch. They vary in size, strength and mechanics, with some changing the player’s defensive tactics entirely. The last thing of note is that each weapon frame has a special ability that charges as you shoot n’ dodge your way through waves. Specials like a super-powered laser that sustains for a few seconds, or having two guns for a short time.

Blasters of the Universe performs pretty well on a 3770K processor and a GTX 980ti, and it took quite a lot going on to get any frame drops, which is somewhat admirable considering some of the garbage I’ve played, which is saying quite a bit. The art style might not be everyone’s scene, but it fits the narrative, and it gets the job done just fine.

I like this game quite a bit. I don’t really dislike wave shooters, but there are a ton of them and most of them have their own “twist” that either doesn’t add anything novel, or complicates something that would otherwise be fun. Blasters of the Universe‘s take is one of the better, more unique spins, and in some ways improves on what “classic” (bare with me, the platform’s a baby) VR titles, like Space Pirate Trainer, laid out in the genre. It’s not what I’d call a relaxing game, but if you’re in the mood to move around and shoot at things, this is one of the better choices I’ve come across.