Beautiful but barebones dino-sim Saurian is the anti-Ark

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Ark: Survival Evolved, the current king of dinosaur hill, is not a simulation of any kind. Saurian meanwhile, new on Steam Early Access this week after a successful Kickstarting a while back, is a survival game that similarly appeals to our first childhood love, but wants to be more Walking With Dinosaurs than Jurassic World. Which is to say, a dinosaur life simulation based on contemporary science’s best guess as the thunder lizards’ lifestyle. The release version so far is fairly short on things to do, but has some meticulously-recreated dinos, the option to pick a doomed fight with a Triceratops, and the significant risk of getting eaten by your own mother.

My chief concern, after a few hours with Saurian, is less that it currently has only one playable species (a semi-feathered Dakotaraptor) and little to do beyond roaming around a large, unconstrained prehistoric environment looking for lizards to eat and water to drink, and more about whether it can find the fun no matter how many dinos wind up in it. Wild animal lifestyle, no matter how large and toothy, inherently involves grinding through the same activities.

There are, after all, very few games which have pulled off animal simulation truly successfully. We’ve got Shelter, which leaned heavily on cub-death tragedy in order to lend itself drama and characterisation. We’ve got the earlier stages of Spore, but there’s a good reason they only last a portion of the campaign – as any parent knows, watching something feed and grow is only entertaining for so long. Then there’s Maxis’ SimAnt, which I would cautiously posit is more legendary than it is truly loved.

Right now, Saurian depends on this sort of moment…

…happening frequently and differently enough to offset the repetition inherent in skulking about finding food and water in order stop your status metres dropping too low. Which, sadly, is not the case. For this initial release, I’m afraid we’re rather closer to…

…but not that bad, as though the central finding/feeding activities get old fast, the controls feel simultaneously treacly and mechanical rather than dino-fluid and there isn’t much AI to speak of, the clearly meticulously-researched beasts look pretty damn decent, and move well too. Saurian isn’t particularly well-optimised yet, and there’s some roughness to the environments, but it’s not a huge stretch of the imagination that it could wind up with better lighting and frame rates.

The first sighting of a triceratops through the trees is a treat, getting snatched into the water by an amphibious, croc-like creature is briefly horrifying, and, if you’re really lucky, you might catch sight of Ian Tyrannosaur stomping about the place. Later on in development, the plan is to make some of these species playable, though I suspect this is not a cheap endeavour and will depend on Early Access going well.

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There are brief flashes of what this game could become. A failed strike upon the armoured hide of a Triceratops enrages the creature, and it turns its mighty horns towards you and gives chase. You, as a raptor, are frail against this, although speed is on your side.

Then there is the brutality of the early raptor lifecycle. At your youngest, older raptors will simply ignore you, leaving you to fend for yourself, but once you reach adolescence you’re deemed a rival for food sources and will be attacked if you get too close to a grown-up. I say ‘attacked’, but right now the impression is that the other dinosaur simply walks over you, resulting in instant death. Gets the point across, I suppose, but we’re not exactly red in tooth and claw yet.

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But these, along with using a faintly irritating scent-tracking system to catch enough lizards to make yourself grow bigger, are events you’ll experience within a couple of hours, with little else to experience beyond that.

I’m curious to see where this could feasibly go, again beyond the obvious ‘more monsters!’. Makin’ babies? Surviving the seasons? A fully-fledged fight system? Moving to new habitats once the current one is stripped of food sources? Evolution?

I don’t know. I worry about Saurian. I worry that it’ll die on the vine if it doesn’t get a little bit silly, but that goes against the simulatory approach it wants to take – and that I’d like to see it run with until it does find the fun. Evolve or die, I suppose. Right now, it makes for a briefly and not unattractive diverting proof of concept, but that key question – what do we actually want from a dinosaur simulator? – remains unanswered.

Saurian is available now in early access, via Steam.

43 Comments

  1. drezworthy says:

    Looks promising!

    • rsf says:

      Yeah. Surprised it didn’t get covered more by game sites before now.

      It’s more doing the hardwork and letting people step into another world, than a flavouring in a game with different focus. It’s a recreation of Hell Creek formation, most studied flora & fauna. Seems recreated with consultation with paleontologists and based on papers, based on stuff on their youtube & blog section.

      Wonder what’ll be done for the night sky, 65+ million years of stellar drift might make it interesting to orient at night.

      • Cinek says:

        ESA’s Gaia mission should make it possible to recreate night sky from few millions years ago. Just a matter of computing it, data sets are there.

        As for why it wasn’t covered – there wasn’t much to cover, still isn’t. It looks like one of thousands of low-budget unity minigames. If it develops further – great. But there are reasons to be sceptical.

        • rsf says:

          Pretty cool. 65+ Mya is longish. Good % of our galactic orbit (250 Mya). That probably makes sim uncertain and hard.

          Meant more that Saurian was an interesting thing to write about compared to EA PuBG bits or whatnot. Seems they’re genuinely trying, without being cashgrabby. Being accurate as possible, working in spare-time until KS. Something like Saurian had to happen, kickstarter had merit & finished yr ago. Been around for a while. What crowdfunding should be for.

          Success has different measures, enjoyable min completion levels, risk & reward. For $15 KS-&20 EA: probably a broad non-gaming audience that’d even just like a clinically precise recreation, sans much interaction. Simmers would be happy with interacting (eco)-systems, disaster challenges, with time-accel to sandbox about. More gaming audience would at least want newbie teaching systems, and at least something like dynamic procedural selectable goals to direct, intro & teach. Different levels of risk. But if a game doesn’t get mentioned does it exist? Sometimes it’s better to write even if negative so niches can discover (e.g. Evochron series before Steam barely got written outside few RPS & we now know space does have an audience.). Lucky RPS is around stretched as they are, or things will be worse.

    • ballmung says:

      Not very special at all, just looks like an update to a couple of the mods a few of us were working on for Ark to play as the Dino. Nothing original, nothing special, lots of the people got bored and stoped using the mods so develepment was even scrapped on most of them. A couple continue as personal projects and even as playable though buggy with all the updates.

  2. Chaz says:

    but that key question – what do we actually want from a dinosaur simulator? – remains unanswered.

    Many games have already answered that; the answer being a large gun with which to shoot them all with.

    • bob22 says:

      Speak for yourself.

      • Chaz says:

        I wasn’t necessarily saying that’s what “I” want, just that this is the answer that most games have come up with.

        And that there, was me speaking for myself.

    • Someoldguy says:

      My mind instantly jumps to 2000AD’s Flesh, but I’m not actually sure I’d play that.

      If I could multiplay living as a dinosaur with my son I think it has great potential, but would to have activities in it that would amuse him. LEGO Jurassic Park has held his interest for months, mostly because he can play as a dinosaur and stomp things.

      • Krona says:

        Multiplayer was one of the achieved kickstarter goals for saurian, but it will maintain a VERY immersive experience as much as it can, there will be no tags or in game chat, no nothing to communicate with players besides outside formats like Discord, or using body language ingame. And player numbers will not get to insanely high levels.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Yeah, I’m with bob22. That’s not what I want at all.

    • fish99 says:

      Guns kinda ruin a game like ARK tbh.

  3. Pogs says:

    ‘what do we actually want from a dinosaur simulator?’

    Yeah but the developers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!

    (Thanks for chipping in Jeff)

  4. Soyweiser says:

    Anti-Ark? Noah way, never gonna happen.

  5. HighFlyer15 says:

    I honestly never understood the appeal of a dino simulator game. As the article mentions, many times, it gets boring really fast. It’s the “make your own adventure” type of game but without any adventures to be made. You walk around in a world which simulates what the area would’ve looked like with all the right plants, rivers, etc. but what fun is there to be had? Fight the same animals, eat the same food, drink more water, run away from big predators to avoid death, repeat.
    The Isle has the exact same issue. There’s literally nothing to do but wander about and create your own adventure. No wonder the developer decided to go in a sudden direction of cannibals, humans, guns, etc. to spice it up.

    • bob22 says:

      If the environment is rich enough then exploring it can be reward enough. Throw in a photography mechanic or something else to drive progress and voila. At least that’s what I’d like. Dipping and diving around giant lizards amongst ferns and almost alien foliage. Zelda-like climbing, maybe even a grapple hook! Sounds great!

    • collapsgay says:

      I suppose that’s what simulators are though, and people do like games like that. I’ve spent way too long on flight sims than i care to admit, even if it is the same stuff! It’s just relaxing and fun to me. It’s not entertainment for everyone.

      I think people just like the idea of something that isn’t guns and rooty tooty point and shooty, and it’s chill. Saurian’s kickstarter said it plans to be more of an educational simulator than anything, trying to get rid of the usual preconceptions about dinosaurs from the movies.

      • Cinek says:

        Issue is: flight sims teach you how to use real, complex hardware, dino sims are about filling 3-4 progress bars while not allowing any of them to drop down to zero.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Seems like they have the right idea with this. The main thing I’d say (which I can’t judge having not played it) is getting the movement feel right for all the different creatures, and definitely more playable options than just raptors. I also kind of would like a no-feathers option at least for the bigger dinosaurs, but that’s just me. It might be wrong, but I love Jurassic Park… what can I say. Last I read though recent finds suggest adult T-Rex may not have been covered in feathers after all. (link to theguardian.com)

    • collapsgay says:

      Saurian really pertains to be the most scientifically correct, so if more evidence points to scales only, then they’d change it, as they’ve said before. But so far, even after looking at that website, there’s still hundreds of more fossilized evidence that points to feathers, like the yutyrannus huali as well. I think one of the aims of Saurian was to teach people how dinosaurs really are to people who think they looked and acted exactly like in JP.. Man, a lot of stuff has changed in the world of paleontology in 20 years especially!

      • TheDyingScotsman says:

        Yet zero evidence fossilized or not of evolution…yet many still adhere to darwinism. Go figure. Logic is illogical

    • Krona says:

      The devs have stated themselves, making a “scaly option” is never gonna be available, the devs already have enough food on their plate as is, and that is not ever gonna be on it, and the reason is science never cared about opinions, and here is a video debunking that whole claim about the “new” scientific paper “debunking” feathered t.rex link to youtube.com

    • Cinek says:

      They don’t have a budget to spend on high quality animations that would make movement and combat feel right. But they do try…still even Ark gets it more natural and convincing.

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        Ninja Dodo says:

        In that case, I hope they are able to put more energy into that over the course of development, because when the core activity in a sim consists of walk around, eat stuff and don’t die, the moment to moment feel of interaction is where the meat is. If that’s not up to scratch it won’t have the staying power to make the larger simulation compelling.

      • bob22 says:

        But that’s like saying there’s no budget for good music in a rythm game. If true they might as well not bother.

  7. Ghostwise says:

    They could go for the safe bet approach, and add a survival battle royale mode with crafting, zombies, having to eat and drink every 10 minutes, and grappling hooks.

    *Visceral* grappling hooks.

  8. Ikko says:

    So how are they talking about a dinosaur game that has just come out being the anti-ark when a game that’s already a very accomplished dinosaur simulator has been out already?

    The Isle

    Realistic survival game that’s been dominating this niche is being overlooked? Again? Ark and Saurian have absolutely nothing to do with each other, other than the loose idea that they both feature dinosaurs in the gameplay, and that they both need the player to eat and drink.

    One is a Rust-knock off, focused on a crafting system based off of gathering resources. Let’s not forget, the point of having the dinosaurs is to make it easier to gather those resources, whether that be from making war and stealing them, or grinding it with your anky and quetz from a mountain. There are structures and guns.

    The other is a previously completely unique game where the player is set in a world that is purely dinosaur vs dinosaur, in an attempt to condition the player to think and act like the dinosaur they’re playing, varying from server to server where it can be a sort of free for all or a as realist as possible setting (this is one link I see between ARK and The Isle that I don’t see between ARK and Saurian. Saurian is single player and I’m assuming it will stay that way, if not forever, at least until they’re able to work out enough kinks to allow multiplayer to be smooth). I had not heard of or seen another game like The Isle until I heard about Saurian WELL over a year later, and at that point The Isle had already gotten much farther ahead in basic gameplay aspects.

    Saurian looks cool and the graphics are nice and everything, and since it’s so early into it I don’t want to be too harsh and say it’s not as promising as it seems, because it is VERY promising. It just sucks that it’s being spotlighted as if it’s the first game to do something like that. It’s at least the second, and it’s very very far behind the first.

    If the only thing linking ARK and Saurian are dinosaurs, I wouldn’t consider that to be an anti-ARK the same way I wouldn’t consider Overwatch to be the anti-Civ5. Few things linking them that aren’t strong enough to make an actual comparison between, other than cosmetics.

    • Fiatil says:

      Yeah, it’s a silly headline. Anti-ark is apparently any game that has dinosaurs that aim to be more realistic than Ark. This is an incredibly high barrier to clear, as we all know ancient humans used doedicurus to do their mining for them.

  9. Captain Narol says:

    According to their road map, they plan to add a spectator mode later.

    When it will be in the game, that could be the ultimate Screen Savor !

    Seriously, I am more interested in watching in a totally iddle way a Dinosaur ecosystem going live than in repeating the same fighting/feeding/drinking loops over and over…

  10. Malagate says:

    Reminds me of The Isle, where all the dinosaurs are player based (last I checked anyway, I think they were working on AI dinos).

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    SimAnt was certainly loved by some of us! It blended the simulation and strategy genres in a way that hasn’t been replicated since.

    Also, it had the option to play as a spider that shot frickin’ laser beams from it’s eyes. So there’s that.

    • oyog says:

      The Red Queen wears army boots!

      Also, holy shit, I just realized SimAnt was so long ago there wasn’t an internet for mini me to find out I could play as a spider with frickin’ lasers.

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    MajorLag says:

    If they got the fighting and hunting mechanics right, and the AI was half decent, they almost don’t need anything else. Activities emerge pretty naturally: Solo hunt, pack hunt, herd assault/defense, and duels come immediately to mind.

  13. The Bitcher III says:

    Just going to chime in with a whole hearted recommendation to anyone with a passing interest in plaeontology: Richard Fortey’s Fossil Wonderlands – an old dodder’s erudite but approachable exposition of evolutionary details to be found in a handful of extremely well preserved fossil sites. Some of the specimens are stunning, and he has a knack of vividly bringing to life the most signifacnt aspects of the stories of these locations and their inhabitants.

    Of course, now I’ve checked, it’s not on Iplayer any more.

    Bad luck :/

  14. mactier says:

    “Right now, it makes for a briefly and not unattractive diverting proof of concept, but that key question – what do we actually want from a dinosaur simulator? – remains unanswered.”

    The best simulator makes it fun to find out. So I posit. (That, and fetch-quests. [See what I did there? That’s so clever.])

  15. Ric says:

    Anti-Ark? XDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD
    This game is not even able to compare to The Isle, how can it be compared to Ark?

  16. TheDyingScotsman says:

    I hate ARK with a passion. Way too tedious and no good for lone-wolves like myself. However I have to say wtf was the reviewer smoking when he wrote this? This game’s graphics look like they are from 2000 or worse. They look awful!

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