Developer: Studio Wildcard
Publisher: Studio Wildcard
Platform(s): PC, PS4, XB1
Review copy purchased
For those unfamiliar with ARK, I’ll provide a quick crash course on the game. Imagine DayZ, Minecraft and Jurassic Park contributed DNA to a baby, then that baby grew up to be Jack the Ripper. ARK leans more heavily on survival elements and mastering your surroundings than it does on creative endeavours, however.
Building a defensible positioning, taming the wildlife (a mix between dinosaurs, mythical and prehistoric creatures), researching technologies and exploration is what ARK does best. It’s all about surviving and mastering your ARK (think a tiny closed system planet) in the name of becoming the apex lifeform. Make no mistake, ARK is not a game for everyone: it’s a brutal game, and at times inconsistent, mercilessly punishing and out for your sanity. Which is where Aberration decides that approach is rad and ups the ante.
ARK: Aberration is the latest paid expansion for the base game. The qualifying features that separates Aberration as an expansion instead of an update –of which ARK gets a great deal– are the new map, creatures, resources and technologies (referred to as engrams). The crowning jewel of which is the Aberration map, which takes place on a ‘derelict, malfunctioning ARK’. The fact that this one in particular is malfunctioning leads to some unique consequences, mostly in the form of alien looking environments and even more deadly threats than usual (yes, more deadly than T-Rexes, far more deadly).
Roughly half of the total map is what would be deemed ‘safe’ (not by any sane metric). Safe in this context is relative to the ARK in question. A plethora of extremely deadly creatures still view you as this afternoon’s midday meal no matter where you reside on the map. In Aberration’s terms, then, ‘safe’ means you can simply exist without spontaneously combusting or dying of radiation sickness. This is due to the other half of the map being perpetually exposed to either a radiation leak –deadly without a hazmat suit– or rocking a surface temperature of 70 degrees celsius (158 Fahrenheit). You can not traverse these locations unprepared without being microwaved or turned into crispy human bacon. Aberration simply forgoes the notion of having ‘safe starting areas’. The ‘easy areas’ function much like the ‘hard areas’ in the classic map, with Aberration’s ‘hard areas’ being straight up pits of death, despair and lost items.
Aberration isn’t done upping the ante on death just yet, though: it places an embargo on flying creatures. None spawn naturally on the map and at the time of writing, can’t be transferred in from other servers. This makes the map feel substantially bigger, especially considering Aberration has a lot of vertical geography (cliffs, so many cliffs) that require navigating. Couple this with Aberration’s love affair with fast land creatures and it leads to the entire map being threatening to travel at all times, infinitely more so without a mount. There are some creative (and fun) movement options in the form of ziplines, gliding suits (which lets you roleplay Batman), climbing picks and some mounts but they typically require decent supply lines to obtain and make use of. Travel gets easier as you level up, tech up, tame mounts and build supply lines, but a lot of your travels will still require you be on the ground at times where death stalks.
(caption: Gliding suit in action)
When you combine limited space that forces players to congregate in close proximity and ground them, you essentially create a ‘Hunger Games’ type scenario, but with infinitely more vindictive participants. On PvP servers this typically means you will be very frequently contending with other survivors simply to survive. On PvE servers it means fierce competition to prosper. ‘Colonising’ all the strategic and resource rich locations to prevent others denying you access with their buildings becomes important as you can’t destroy them. Either way, the map (intentionally or not) forces more conflict via these factors than the typical ARK maps. This, in turn, amps the cavalcade of death up even further. Naturally, though, one can circumvent this mayhem via the single player mode, which, admittedly, is the less exciting but less frustrating option.
The Aberration map is one of the main selling points of the expansion, with the environment designs coming off as unique, varied, and challenging to navigate, ranging from dark irradiated caves, underground forests with blue trees, 70 degree deserts, underground crystal swamps, deep lush valleys surrounded by cliffs, and mushroom tree forests. Personally, I found the biome designs to be one of the best parts of Aberration. It exudes with that exotic alien vibe, while maintaining a fantastic array of variety and liveliness. Vital resources are also spread out in different biomes of the map, necessitating a (survivable) trip to the majority of them if you intend to tech up, tame some of the more powerful creatures see all the content Aberration has to offer. All in all, the traversing and experiencing map is without a doubt one of the best features of Aberration. If, like me, you enjoy exploring new environments, Aberration really scratches that itch by throwing something non-earth like to uncover the mysteries that lie beneath.
Just like the map, the new creatures tend to exhibit the same theme of ‘alien’, rather than prehistoric. Giant spider crabs, huge wolves with bat heads, invisible wall climbing dragons and light fearing gremlins to name a few. Aberration’s creatures explore the darker more aggressive side of ARK wildlife. Almost every creature is fast, strong, strange and, most importantly, hungry. A large portion of the new creatures possess unique quirks to help sell that illusion of not only being more dangerous, but unpredictable. The technological upgrades on the other hand, are a bit more reserved.
Most of the cool factor is focused on the mobility technologies to aid explorer in navigating the uneven and vertical terrain in absence of fliers. Besides one or two exceptions, none of the technological upgrades pop out as ‘alien’ like the creatures and map does. This makes sense for balance reasons, but besides the mobility options doesn’t really give you something extra cool to work towards technology wise.
Something to note is that these new items, resources, engrams and creatures can be transferred to other maps, including the original, so this expansion pack will have an impact on the older maps and servers via these additions, just as Scorched Earth did (Wyverns say hi). Therein lies a possible advantage for those with both the expansion and the capability to transfer them to other maps/servers. While the majority of the newer engrams and resources are restricted in usefulness to the Aberration map, the creatures are more universal in their utility. The best way to visualise this is to imagine if someone with the Brood War expansion pack could play against someone with the base Starcraft game. The Brood War player has a decided advantage via new unit types, though not an insurmountable one.
Take, for example, a new creature called the ‘Rock Drake’. It is very fast, mobile, and strong. Those traits alone don’t make it unique to ARK (many creatures fit that bill), but it has one trick up its sleeve no other creature has: Active camouflage. It possesses a ‘soft invisibility’, making it much more difficult to spot, giving it extreme value in certain roles. It’s very difficult to obtain one and even more work to raise one, but regardless this is a creature that only spawn on the Aberration map. Look at the picture below to see how hard they can be to spot in certain circumstances.
This somewhat incentivises buying the expansion pack for maximum flexibility and efficiency in PvP situations. However, all that being said, if you’re into ARK PvP at all, you’re probably aware that for any of these advantages to have a real payoff, you need to be in a tribe to begin with. So as long as some tribe members have access to Aberration, you can make use of whatever they transfer over to the map you reside on, including a Rock Drake. This mitigates the issue somewhat as Aberration doesn’t really include anything particularly powerful for solo PvPers (besides the gliding suit and climbing picks) and PvEers are largely unaffected by such balance issues. How you feel about this is up to you, but you may have to deal with an invisible dragon at some point, better it be your mount than its prey.
Aberration continues delivering bits and pieces of the story in the same way the other ARK maps do. Dossiers strewn about the locale (sometimes well hidden), populating your journal with information about the creatures, environments and events of the ARK. There are some interesting reveals with the final boss of Aberration as well with how it ties into dossiers from the older maps and the story of this map in particular. I found exploring for snippets of narratives to a fair bit of fun and congruent with a game that places such a heavy emphasis on exploring and mastering your surroundings, especially considering how varied Aberration’s map is. The dossiers fill out your journal, which can then be read at anytime, allowing you to ingest the expansions lore and story during the game’s downtimes, such as raising a baby or taming a mount. Additionally, it also adds a little something extra to do for those that enjoy a single player romp through the ARK.
Now with all this being said, there are some issues with Aberration that could do with some fixing. While the overall design and layout of the map is both beautiful and fulfills the intended purpose, some smaller details got overlooked in the process. Aberration is littered with what I call ‘geometry traps’. Basically, these are small gaps in the terrain that if you fall directly in, you can’t get out without the aid of mobility tools. Usually these take the form of two adjacent rocks that are unbreakable and don’t have a hitbox, which means you can’t punch them to commit suicide. To make matters even worse, some keep you stuck in a perpetual falling animation, which in turn doesn’t allow you to recover stamina and therefore drain your thirst and hunger faster (for suicide purposes).
Sometimes it takes over half an hour to simply die so you can respawn and any items are most likely lost in that trap as you can’t get close enough to access them without enduring the same cruel fate. These exist in the other maps, but due to the added verticality of Aberration, they seem to be much more common, or at least easier to be bamboozled by. Another annoying but less game breaking issue is the ability to respawn directly next to an aggressive creature, dying before your spawn animation even finishes. In these cases nothing is really lost, but it is annoying to witness. This was less of a problem in the original ARK due to safer spawn zones.
Finally, there are some performance issues. ARK have never been the most stable of games (not on any system I’ve run it on), sporting a memory leak for the longest time, which thankfully looks to be solved or, at least, mitigated. Instead, Aberration seems to suffer from a semi-occasional fatal error, causing the game to crash. Due to your character being logged out in the world when the game stops running, this can lead to your death and is quite frustrating at times, especially with how long the game can take to load.
It also sports a strange audio bug that causes the music to stutter when you spawn sometimes – not a big deal, but somewhat jarring. Most of the issues with Aberration are minor, but can leave a sour taste, especially when they lead to your death and a 30 minute journey to recollect your stuff (it is a game that values patience, that’s for sure). The geometry traps on the other hand are the work of Satan and need to be purged from the game with holy fire.
Aberration absolutely nails the environment, map and creature design, feeling distinctly otherworldly. There is plenty of content to explore, uncover and work towards. The increased difficulty acts as another selling to point to help differentiate it to the base ARK experience, giving something a little more for long time players. It requires different tactics and strategies to travel, explore, progress and, most importantly, survive. The main areas Aberration gets docked are the positively infuriating geometry traps, performance/technical issues and most of the newer technologies being somewhat unexciting. While it makes sense for balancing reasons, it is a bit disappointing most of the technologies aren’t overly useful (or interesting) on the other maps when the new creatures are.
Ultimately, ARK is not a game intended to have mass market appeal, it is a game that markets itself towards a specific audience and Aberration stays true to this. Aberration focuses on exploration, constant danger, base building, gathering and, of course, its competition differentiating twist of unique and fantastical creatures to fight and befriend. These are the compelling core elements of ARK and Aberration offers a slice of a similar but unique pie, a pie intentionally filled with Ghost Peppers because it loves to see you wince. It is by these metrics I believe Aberration should be judged.
Aberration knows what it wants to do and does it well: it certainly scratched my itch for a brutal survival adventure in an otherworldly environment. It currently retails for $19.99 USD on Steam or for $30.14 USD as a season pass, which will include the expansion after Aberration.