Ark: Survival Evolved – VR Hype? Or the Real Dino Deal?
ROAAAARRR!!! Your eyes bolt open to blurred vision as an ear piercing barrage thunders the ground beneath you. Instinctively you stammer clumsily backwards on all fours through loose sand, desperate to find any means of shelter to protect yourself from whatever beast could have possibly bellowed such a frightful sound. Finally your back slams against a cold, hard, scaly rock; nearly knocking the very breath from your lungs. You use this time to vigorously rub your eyeballs, trying to sharpen the images being portrayed before you.
– Suddenly… It all becomes clear.
Extending out beyond your bare legs lie’s the most beautiful white sandy beach you have ever laid eyes upon. Across the sparkling blue water exists flush bright green foliage, enormous leafy trees towering nearly out of sight, a brontosaurus drinking quietly from a stream, a majestic be- wait… what? A brontosaurus! Just as you begin to rub your eyes once more in disbelief, the ginormous rock you have been so securely planted against suddenly moves away with a disagreeing grunt. Flailing your arms as you fall backwards, you find yourself flat on your back, nose to beak with an unfathomably large creature that can only be described as a triceratops. At that moment; frozen in fear, you pray your third grade science teacher was right…
Triceratops do NOT eat meat.
The previously described setting is essentially where double clicking the executable to ARK: Survival Evolved lands you. Preliminary work began in October of 2014 by Studio Wildcard in conjunction with Instinct Games; being released as an early access on Steam June 2, 2015. The creative director for the project is Jesse Rapczak, known for his work on the Microsoft Hololens. Jesse spent the last two and a half years perfecting the Hololens system, but longed to return to his game development roots. Mr. Rapczak has stated that Ark: Survival Evolved has been designed from the ground up with VR in mind, which is a profound statement given his experience with creating convincing virtual reality experiences.
Game Play Mechanics
Game Map: The ARK world consists of roughly 48 square km of free roaming space, 12 km of which is covered in water (navigable, but at your own risk). This does not include; however, the numerous caverns that can be found lurking beneath the expansive habitat. A map is available, but it will only divulge areas that have been previously explored, leaving the rest of the page void.
Crafting System: Nothing new to the survival genre, ARK invokes the all too familiar level up and gain new abilities/weapons/skills system. However, the developers at Studio Wildcard took this concept to an extreme that I have not yet seen. To begin the game each player is literally dumped on a beach, nude, cold, and starving to death while being surrounded by flesh devouring prehistoric monsters. As the player levels up, they gain the ability to build ever improving housing, farm food, and even tame and ride/command the 60+ species of dinosaurs roaming throughout the ARK universe. Gamers also have the opportunity to learn new blueprints, enabling them to construct items with innovation that grows at an exponential pace. Weapons; for instance, begin with simple stone tools and spears (which break constantly), but soon evolve into complex revolvers, even grenade launchers. While expansive, it takes a great deal of effort to gather supplies and construct objects, which can quickly become repetitive.
Player Vitals: Survival requires a juggling act between hydration, hunger, and weight carried. By keeping the protagonist well fed and hydrated, he or she is able to replenish health at the optimum rate. Obtaining water is fairly simple, as a mere 3 or 4 seconds within a lake or stream will completely hydrate your avatar. Food however becomes its own villain and perpetuates as a constant struggle throughout the game. Reason being? Spoilage. Meat obtained through the slaughter of dinosaurs spoils quickly, as in just a few minutes. To make matters worse, consuming raw meats will decrease your overall health. It is possible to cook meats; though this will save the precious ticks from the health bar, it is time consuming and only adds 20 minutes at best to the shelf life. Nuts and berries are not exempt from spoiling either only boasting roughly a 10 minute lifespan. Exacerbating the problem, your character is extremely limited on supplies carried. Overburdening him or her quickly results in a snail’s pace, leaving you a prime target for hungry carnivores. This game play mechanic causes players to be tied down to a central location, making any attempt to traverse long distances a very risky proposition.
Selecting the online option reminds you quickly that the game is still in alpha form. Survival suffers from occasional lag, odd graphical anomalies from textures not fully loading, and at one point Studio Wildcard shut down the server completely for updates (with a 15 minute warning and apologies of course). However, all of these issues are to be expected for an early release alpha.
The real frustration from online play is the inability to pause. ARK features a continuous day/night/weather cycle. This means if you exit the game, your avatar lays down on the ground and is labeled unconscious. During this period you are vulnerable to dinosaur attacks, as well as thievery from other fiendish players. In order to return to the real world and retain peace of mind, it is required to have:
1.) A fortified home, strong enough to withstand large carnivorous dinosaurs.
2.) All supplies in doors and tucked safely away in storage containers.
3.) A team of tamed dinosaurs to stand guard over you while you are “unconscious.”
At first this sounds intriguing; however, it takes A LOT of work to harvest, plan, craft, and tame the dinos needed to complete this ensemble. I simply lack the free time necessary to accomplish these tasks, and usually returned to a broken home and stolen supplies; assuming I was alive at all. For this reason, in its current iteration, Survival Evolved seems to cater more toward the hardcore gamer, making casual play frustrating.
Virtual Reality Impressions via Oculus Rift
I initially entered the ARK in standard mode, wanting to get a grasp of overall game play before upping the ante in VR. Overall I was very unimpressed with the game due to the aforementioned caveats. That is until I enabled virtual reality mode…
Words cannot describe the sensation of standing next to a 30 foot long dinosaur. The moment I donned the Rift upon my face, a gigantic triceratops strolled past so close I instinctively reached my hand out, leaving my senses awkwardly disappointed that I did not receive tactile feedback for my effort.
Playing Survival Evolved in VR satisfies every child’s dream of standing face to face with a prehistoric dinosaur, just like in the 1993 Steven Spielberg blockbuster; Jurassic Park. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover ARK incorporates decoupled head movement (view moves independently from character direction), a feature only seen by third party mods in other games, and the key ingredient needed for omnidirectional treadmills.
Overall the 3D is spot on, the world scale is perfect, and Studio Wildcard has definitely achieved presence. The only problem is ARK is completely unplayable in VR. Why? Resolution. On currently available headsets (Oculus DK1+DK2) the game suffers from the same shortcomings as minecraft in VR (a.k.a. minecrift). The ever important text whilst in the inventory and while crafting, is simply illegible. This should not be a problem; however, once the consumer version of Oculus and HTC’s Vive get released early 2016 (both boasting 2160×1200 resolution).
For the average consumer, it would be best to save the $29.99 USD and wait for the final version. ARK shows great promise, but if you are not willing to tolerate the shortcomings associated with an alpha release, then wait for the final edition. On the other hand, if you happen to possess an Oculus Rift development kit then the game is a must have, it is that impressive in VR! (Even with the illegible text.)
– Dinosaurs in VR are AWESOME!
– While the survival genre has been around for quite some time, ARK does manage to create some unique game play experiences through the unpredictability of online play. However, the level up system is not news shattering and becomes repetitive rather quickly.
– Online play is buggy at the moment, and the inability to pause makes it difficult to play casually.
– Near perfect VR implementation, though cannot be played properly on current gen HMDs.
– Did I mention dinosaurs in VR are awesome?
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