Ark: Survival Ascended is a striking upgrade but old problems set alarm bells ringing

Ark: Survival Ascended is a striking upgrade but old problems set alarm bells ringing

It’s not something I brag about very often – mainly because remembering you once invested nearly 2,000 hours of your life into a single game does tend to trigger a degree of introspection – but Ark: Survival Evolved is easily the most played game in my Steam library. I eventually wrenched myself away shortly after its 1.0 release in 2017, but even today I look back on its early access years with a mixture of fondness and vague PTSD.

There’s a lot to love about Ark; it’s a wildly immersive survival adventure with the kind of premise – live alongside the dinosaurs! – that would have made child-me dizzy with excitement, and it’s stuffed with an intoxicating number of ways to turn its vicious corner of unreality into an odd little home. But it’s also a game I remember being deeply disrespectful of players’ time, perpetually dancing on the edge of dysfunction and requiring intense amounts of upkeep and dedication to prevent hours upon hours of progress from instantly vanishing in a puff of air.

Broken promises and an apparent disregard for the community were ultimately the things that drove me away from Ark, so it wasn’t entirely surprising to watch a new controversy unfold when developer Studio Wildcard suddenly announced Ark: Survival Ascended, an Unreal Engine 5 “next-generation remake” of the original game, earlier this year.

Ark: Survival Evolved is certainly a looker but don’t expect it to run this smoothly unless you buy all your computer components from the future.

Ascended, while technically an optional upgrade, would be mandatory for anyone wishing to continue using Wildcard’s official servers – and if that wasn’t bad enough, players would need to make a full-price purchase of the much-delayed and still largely nebulous Ark 2 to get it. After an understandable outcry, Wildcard half-heartedly relented: it would now uncouple Ascended and Ark 2, but it was hardly a resounding victory for players; the newly separated version of Ascended would cost more than the initially proposed bundle, albeit with some DLC now thrown in, and official servers for the original Ark were still going away – meaning long-time players, particularly those on PvE servers, stood to lose potentially years of progress come wipe day.

It’s not the kind of beginning that fills you with confidence for a project – especially when followed by a release date delay, a delay to 2024 for the bulk of its promised DLC, a last-minute delay for the console versions, and then a succession of further delays for Xbox with no PlayStation version in sight. But honestly, I was intrigued; I’ve some wonderfully happy memories of my two years with the original game, much of it spent carving out a positively decadent homestead in a quiet PvE corner somewhere. And, despite early rumblings of serious performance issues, the dizzying list of enhancements and improvements that accompanied Ark: Survival Ascended’s surprise PC launch last month had me cautiously optimistic this might finally be the fresh start Ark has long-needed – a chance to drag the rickety original into the kind of uber-polished AAA territory Wildcard clearly aspires to, given its slick, narrative-heavy, Vin Diesel-starring trailer for Ark 2. And so, for the first time in nearly six years – with a degree of trepidation, I’m willing to admit – back I decided to go.

For all Ark’s flaws, co-existing with dinosaurs is still a winning premise. | Image credit: Eurogamer/Studio Wildcard

For this initial experiment I opted to ease myself in gently, setting up a private game to reacquaint myself with Ark’s mechanical idiosyncrasies, mainly because I wasn’t quite ready for the full force of – how can I put this politely – dedication I remember being typical of other players on official servers during my original time with the game. And first impressions were, if not overwhelmingly positive, a pleasant surprise. From the title screen to character creation, the opening moments were considerably slicker than the Ark I remembered from six years ago.

That’s most immediately evident in Ascended’s character creator, which has received a truly absurd overhaul. Now, in sharp contrast to the resolutely crap offering found in the original game – one that launched a million memes of bafflingly misshapen player characters (and never improved, despite many promises) – Ascended’s options are almost overwhelming. It feels like every muscle on your character can be tweaked in a multitude of ways – which makes it all the more hilarious that this dizzying new level of customisation choice comes immediately unglued by Wildcard’s insistence that every player has exactly the same face. This, as it ultimately transpired, is only the first inexplicable moment of self-sabotage that permeates the new game.

A screenshot from Ark: Survival Ascended showing the player character stood on a rock in the middle of a river, facing the camera with an axe in his hand.

Honestly, I’m not joking about the Quentin Tarantino thing. | Image credit: Eurogamer/Studio Wildcard

With character creation complete (and with the one available face making me look like someone popped Quentin Tarantino’s head on Stretch Armstrong), it’s into the game proper I went, spawning, for old time’s sake, at my old haunt on The Island map’s south-eastern shores. And goodness me does Wildcard’s remake look lovely. A bit bloomy, yes, but everything from the intricately shaped rocks to the lush foliage has been given a richly detailed overhaul – the water, folding and cascading as you splash about, being a particularly eye-catcher. The problem, of course, is that the second you try to move anywhere, the whole illusion comes crashing down; as you’ve probably heard, performance ranges from wildly inconsistent to flat-out terrible despite numerous patches – hardly compelling evidence this remake is a worthy upgrade.

Wildcard has promised performance improvements, of course, but it also took the studio years of post-launch support to bring meaningful upgrades to its equally wonky original. And this is the immediate concern; despite being touted as a “ground-up” remake, there are just too many instances of old issues rearing their heads in Ascended, even during my relatively brief return – how my heart fluttered with nostalgic revery as shutting down the game caused my screen to explode in a series of error messages I’d not seen since 2017, and reports still abound of dinosaurs and players merrily sinking their way through the floor. Wildcard doesn’t exactly make it easy to believe any of this stuff will be remedied in a timely or satisfactory fashion.

A screenshot from Ark: Survival Ascended showing the player on the beach, facing off against a massive prehistoric turtle.

A screenshot from Ark: Survival Ascended showing a fish swimming around underwater.

A screenshot from Ark: Survival Ascended showing the player running through a misty jungle, surrounded by dense foliage.

Just a few snaps from my couple-of-hours adventuring in Ark: Survival Ascended. | Image credit: Eurogamer/Studio Wildcard

To Ascended’s credit, alongside the visual overhaul, it really does feature a substantial number of quality of life improvements that genuinely make for a more pleasant experience. It’s mostly in the small details, like the much-improved building tools or the fact night-time is no longer so dark that entire servers are forced to input a gamma console cheat just to see where they’re going. But for every marked improvement in Ascended, there’s a glaring flaw from the original that remains untouched – the horribly inconsistent UI, for instance, or the weirdly weightless player animations – and the bafflingly scattershot approach to the whole enterprise becomes clear.

As harsh as it might be to say, Ark has long felt like a game that came into being through sheer fluke rather than any notable design acumen on the part of Wildcard, and it’s a sense only exacerbated in Ascended. There just doesn’t seem to be any consistency of vision here; you get new dinosaurs and new building pieces, a photo mode, cross-platform support – but tutorials are non-existent; I’m still stuck laboriously faffing around with an awkward, unintuitive inventory system; balance is all over the place, and on it goes. Ark: Survival Ascended is just an incredibly weird beast, a remake absolutely in thrall of the shiny stuff but with minimal regard for the fundamental annoyances that have long plagued the game.

A screenshot from Ark: Survival Ascended showing the player character stood outside a simple thatch hut built on the bank of a river.

It might not look like much (it’s not), but it’s home. | Image credit: Eurogamer/Studio Wildcard

Six years on, Wildcard’s outlook doesn’t seem to have altered much – it was both amusing and all-too-predictable when Ascended’s surprise-launch was immediately delayed by almost a full day, given that the developer’s perpetual inability to meet its own public deadlines has long been a running joke between players – and that’s the thing the worries me. Why, based on the studio’s history, should anyone believe that things will be different this time, and buy into its promises that meaningful improvements are definitely on the way?

I realise I’m being deeply sceptical here, and, honestly, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t genuinely nice to be back in Ark for the first time in years. For all its weird, wonky systems and chaotically implemented ideas, it’s still a game that remains incredibly good at generating thrilling emergent adventures on the fly. I still remember daring rescues in the frozen north back in the day, nights spent splitting duties with my tribe to tame some of Ark’s most ferocious beasts, even small moments like quietly stumbling on a handsome vista in the dying light of the day after hours spent exploring tangles of mountaintop terrain. And, coming back via Ascended, I felt the old joy return, running away from velociraptors, building a fledgling home for myself on a sun-kissed shore, slipping back into the groove of Ark’s robust survival core.

But the question lingered: is Ascended worth completely upending an entire community, cynically forcing them off official servers, mandating a new purchase at not-insignificant expense for many, then presenting this technically flawed, wildly inconsistent, semi-realised vision of a remake in return? Steam figures would suggest plenty of players are eating Ascended up – and I know my Ark well enough to appreciate that most of the fun will be going on in heavily modded private servers, specifically (and tellingly) tailored to sidestep Ark’s more egregious design issues – but as for me, I think I’ll need to see some real commitment from Wildcard before I’d be tempted to go back in any meaningful way.

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