It’s not something I brag about very often – especially since the memory of once investing almost 2,000 hours of your life in one game often induces a certain amount of introspection – but Ark: Survival Evolved is by far the most played game in my Steam library. I finally cut myself loose shortly after the release of version 1.0 in 2017, but even today I look back on the early access years with a mixture of fondness and vague PTSD.
There’s a lot to love about Ark; it’s a hugely immersive survival adventure with the premise: live alongside the dinosaurs! – that would have made my child giddy with excitement, and it’s packed with intoxicating ways to turn his vicious corner of unreality into a strange little house. But it’s also a game that I remember as being deeply disrespectful of its players’ time, constantly dancing on the edge of dysfunction, and requiring a tremendous amount of maintenance and dedication to keep hours of progress from immediately disappearing into a puff of thin 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 see a new controversy unfold when developer Studio Wildcard suddenly announced Ark: Survival Ascended, an Unreal Engine 5. generation remake” of the original game earlier this year.
Increased while technically an optional upgrade would be mandatory for anyone who wants to continue using Wildcard’s official servers – and if that’s not bad enough, players would have to buy the much-delayed and still largely vague Ark 2 at full price to get it. After an understandable outcry, Wildcard half-heartedly relented: it would now unlink 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 the official servers for the original Ark were still going away – meaning long-time players, especially those on PvE servers , would lose There may be years of progress ahead.
It’s not the kind of start that fills you with confidence for a project – especially when it’s followed by a delay in the release date, a delay until 2024 for most of the promised DLC, a last-minute delay for the console versions, and then a succession of further delays for Xbox as there’s no PlayStation version in sight. But honestly, I was intrigued; I have some wonderfully happy memories of my two years with the original game, much of which was spent working out a positive outcome decadent farm somewhere in a quiet PvE corner. And despite early rumblings of serious performance issues, the staggering list of improvements and enhancements that accompanied Ark: Survival Ascended’s surprise PC launch last month had me cautiously optimistic that this could finally be the fresh start that Ark has long needed – a chance to take the rickety original into the kind of ultra-polished AAA territory that Wildcard is clearly aiming for, given the slick, story-heavy trailer starring Vin Diesel for Ark 2. And so, for the first time in almost six years – with a certain degree of trepidation I am willing to admit that I decided to go back.
For this first experiment, I opted to take it easy and set up a private game to reacquaint myself with Ark’s mechanical quirks, mainly because I wasn’t quite ready for the full power of – how will I say this politely – dedication I remember being typical of other players on official servers during my original time with the game. And the first impressions were, if not overwhelmingly positive, a pleasant surprise. From the title screen to the character creation, the opening moments were considerably slicker than the Ark I remembered from six years ago.
This is most evident in Ascended’s character creator, which has received a truly absurd overhaul. Now, in stark contrast to the resolutely crappy offering in the original game – one that launched a million memes of bafflingly deformed player characters (and never improved upon, despite many promises) – Ascended’s options are almost overwhelming. It feels like every muscle on your character can be customized in countless ways – which makes it all the more hilarious that this dizzying new level of customization choice is immediately unleashed by Wildcard’s insistence that every player has exactly the same face. This, as it turned out, is just the first inexplicable moment of self-sabotage to permeate the new game.
With the character creation complete (and with the only available face making me look like someone stuck Quentin Tarantino’s head on Stretch Armstrong), I’m in the actual game I went to, spawning, for old times sake, at my old haunt on the map of The Island in the south. eastern shores. And thank goodness the Wildcard remake looks beautiful. A bit flowery, yes, but everything from the intricately shaped rocks to the lush foliage has been given a richly detailed overhaul – the water, which folds and flows down as you splash around, is a particular eye-catcher. The problem, of course, is that as soon as you try to go somewhere, the whole illusion collapses; as you’ve probably heard, performance ranges from wildly inconsistent to downright terrible, despite numerous patches – hardly convincing evidence that this remake is a worthy upgrade.
Wildcard promised performance improvements, of course, but it also took the studio years of post-launch support to bring meaningful upgrades to the equally shaky original. And this is the immediate concern; Despite being touted as a ‘ground-up’ remake, there are just too many examples of old problems rearing their ugly heads in Ascended, even during my relatively brief return – how my heart fluttered with nostalgic reverie when closing it game caused my screen to explode in a series of error messages that I haven’t seen since 2017, and there are still countless messages about dinosaurs and players happily sinking through the floor. Wildcard doesn’t exactly make it easy to believe that this sort of thing will be addressed in a timely or satisfactory manner.
To Ascended’s credit, in addition to the visual overhaul, it really does include a substantial number of quality of life improvements that really make for a more enjoyable experience. It’s mostly in the little details, like the vastly improved build tools or the fact that the night is no longer so dark that entire servers are forced to enter a gamma console cheat to see where they’re going. But for every obvious improvement in Ascended, there’s a glaring flaw in the original that remains unaddressed – the terribly inconsistent user interface, for example, or the strangely weightless player animations – and the bewilderingly scattered approach to the entire enterprise becomes apparent.
As harsh as it may be to say, Ark has long felt like a game created by sheer chance rather than any notable design talent on Wildcard’s part, and it’s a feeling that’s only exacerbated in Ascended. There just doesn’t seem to be any consistency in vision here; you get new dinosaurs and new building pieces, a photo mode, cross-platform support – but tutorials don’t exist; I’m still fiddling with a clunky, unintuitive inventory system; the balance is everywhere, and so it goes on. Ark: Survival Ascended is just an incredibly weird beast, a remake absolutely in thrall to the shiny stuff, but with minimal attention to the fundamental annoyances that have long plagued the game.
Six years later, Wildcard’s prospects don’t seem to have changed much – it was both amusing and all too predictable when Ascended’s surprise launch was immediately postponed by almost a full day, given the developer’s continued inability to target its own audience Meeting deadlines have long been a running joke between players – and that’s what worries me. Based on the studio’s history, why would anyone believe that things will be different this time, and buy into the promises that meaningful improvements are surely on the way?
I realize I’m being very skeptical here, and honestly I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t really 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 adventures on the fly. I still remember the daring rescues in the frozen north of old, the nights sharing the tasks with my tribe to tame some of Ark’s fiercest beasts, even small moments like silently stumbling across a beautiful view in the dying light of the day after spending hours exploring tangles of mountaintop terrain. And when I came back through Ascended, I felt the old joy returning, running away from velociraptors, building a new home for myself on a sunlit shore, slipping back into the groove of Ark’s robust survival core.
But the question still lingered: is Ascended worth completely turning an entire community upside down, cynically forcing them off official servers, mandating a new purchase at a not insignificant cost for many, and then technically flawed, wildly inconsistent, semi-realized vision of a remake to yield? Steam figures suggest a lot of players are eating Ascended up – and I know my Ark well enough to realize that most of the fun will take place on heavily modded private servers, specifically (and tellingly) tailored to sidestep the more glaring design issues of Ark – but for me, I think it’s going to take some real commitment from Wildcard before I’m tempted to go back in any meaningful way.