I've been a bit skeptical about stepping into the world of Aberration—the next expansion for dino-survival game Ark: Survival Evolved, due out this month. Aberration takes place in a different world, one where the only inhabitable spaces are underground due to the extremely hazardous conditions on the surface, where there's no atmosphere and even sunlight itself is deadly.
As a sci-fi concept it sounds cool, but the thing is: I'm just not much of a cave guy. I think caves in games can be nice places to visit, but the thought of spending all my time underground in a game isn't really appealing to me. It's not a claustrophobia thing, I just like being outside (virtually, I mean—in real life, not that much). One of the joys of Ark is soaring above mountains and forests on a winged dino, enjoying the blue skies and shimmering sunlight off the water. The base game has several of its own caves and caverns, and they're cool to visit from time to time. But the idea of playing Ark underground around the clock felt like it could be a bit stifling.
I got a chance to try a build of Aberration last week, and I'm definitely feeling much more optimistic about the expansion.
Aberration isn't just Ark crammed into a cave. It is a bit dark down there, obviously, but some caverns are so massive it essentially feels like standing outside under the night sky. I feel like learning the underground map will be trickier—on The Island map, landmarks like the volcano are helpful when orienting yourself—but during my time in Aberration I didn't really feel like I was underground except in a few areas. There's plenty of room down there.
More importantly, there are new movement systems in Aberration, and even just ninety minutes of fumbling around with them has me kind of excited. It's still Ark, but it already feels very different.
With new movement items like ziplines and winged glider suits, you'd think climbing picks wouldn't be the star attraction. I mean, they're just hooks. But the picks are easily my favorite addition to Ark's tools. With a pair of craftable climbing picks in your hands, the world, even contained underground, feels open. It's freeing to be able to scale rock surfaces and fort walls and giant tree limbs and pretty much anything you want to climb over, around, along, or on top of.
I rarely unequipped my climbing picks while running around in Aberration, and you can see why above: I missed a jump and still managed to hook myself on and claw my way to the top. Since the danger of falling to death is going to be such a big factor in these deep caves and chasms, you'll always want to have some extra picks in your inventory.
Ziplines, which you can fire across gaps with crossbows and then anchor with a second shot, provide another fun way of traversing the map. And you're not limited to just sliding down them. Craft a zipline motor and (provided it's got enough fuel) you can slide up ziplines as well as down.
There are no flying dinosaurs in Aberration, so you'll have to make do with gliding. Luckily, it's pretty satisfying. I'll definitely miss the convenience of hovering on a winged dino, but gliding adds a bit of immediacy and risk. You can get some lift while skimming through the air with your glider wings, but it's not at all like mounted flying and being able to carefully choose a spot to land. I got a bit better after some practice, but still had plenty of crash landings.
Combine these three new systems (after all the crafting you'll need to build these items) and you've got a fun way to get around the new underground biomes. If you're ziplining and you need to make a quick escape, you can drop off the line and glide away. Can't quite stick the landing? Get your climbing pick out and try to latch onto something while you plummet.
Naturally, climbing and gliding isn't restricted to just players. I got to ride a friendly Rock Drake during my time in Aberration, and I rode it straight up a sheer rock wall. The Drake can also perform a lengthy jump, great for transferring from the ground to walls, from walls to trees, from pretty much anything to pretty much anything else, provided you've got enough room. You can glide with the Drake, too, sailing through the air to wind up clinging to something else on the far side of the cavern. Just to sweeten the pot some more, the Drake is a chameleon, and can cloak itself (and passenger) in shimmery, semi-invisibility.
Most of my time in Ark has been spent on a quiet private server with friends, so I don't have any raiding experience, but it's easy to imagine a tribe silently slithering up fort walls, clinging invisibly to cavern cliffs, and gliding in on a fleet of Drakes to stomp another tribe.
While in Aberration, I also had the honor of having an alien burst out of my chest cavity. There's a giant queen creature in the game that can implant players with her brood—I got a quick glimpse of her during my tour, and she's pretty terrifying. The incubation period is sort of amusing: as the creature grows inside you and you get closer to giving 'birth', your torso actually begins bulging comically (or horribly, depending on how you look at it). I was going to post a gif of the creature exiting my body in a spray of blood and wriggling away, but I think I'll let you discover it for yourself when Aberration is released.
I'm still not entirely sure I'll enjoy being underground all the time in Aberration—I still feel like I'll miss the sunlight, snow-capped mountains, and sparkling seas of the island map. But rock-climbing, ziplining, and gliding sure are a lot of fun. Even if I don't love the caves, I love getting around in them.