If there’s ever a game besides Destiny 2 or, well, several other options that could elicit the response, “I hate X, X is my favorite game,” it would have to be Ark: Survival Evolved. The sandbox survival game first entered Steam Early Access in 2015 and fully launched in August 2017 for consoles and PC. It weathered several controversies since then, from selling paid DLC while still being an early access title to optimization and performance issues (which is ironic when you think about the current release).
Nevertheless, you may have spotted plenty of players who have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours in the game, proclaiming its various issues and overall dislike, who can’t stop playing. Ark: Survival Ascended is now available, starting as a free upgrade to the base game before morphing into a paid early access title. With Unreal Engine 5.2 now powering its gameplay and offering vastly improved visuals – depending on your hardware – is it a worthy remake of the original?
"At one point, I was endlessly respawning and fashioning a new spear to go one-on-one with the annoying Rex that wouldn’t let me return to my Thatch hut…"
The answer, as always, depends on you. Ark: Survival Ascended doesn’t take any liberties with the core gameplay loop that fans know and probably love. As you wash up on The Island (the only map currently available, with others coming later) with nothing but some scraps of clothing and a strange crystal in your wrist, you have only one goal: Survive. Gather Fiber, berries and rocks by interacting with them, and punch trees to gain Thatch and Wood. You then craft a Stone Pick and Stone Hatchet for mining rocks and chopping down trees more proficiently.
Eventually, you level up and assign an attribute point to stats like Health, Stamina, Melee Damage, Oxygen, Hunger, Water, Weight and, if you enable it in the Game Rules, Movement Speed. Engrams, essentially crafting blueprints, become available, and you can start setting up shelter. It’s not long before you try taking on a dinosaur with naught but a Wooden Spear. Of course, it does measly damage, and you die. Respawn in a random location with nothing on you, maybe find your stuff and hope that some of the more antagonistic dinosaurs like the Rex aren’t tempted to play air hockey with your body.
Survival can be painful in this regard. At one point, I was endlessly respawning and fashioning a new spear to go one-on-one with the annoying Rex that wouldn’t let me return to my Thatch hut, eventually bringing it down and basking in the numerous Hides it bestowed. You can go into the Game Rules and tweak things, reducing the amount of damage received or increasing damage dealt while making dinosaurs more harmless.
But that danger is one of the key appeals of the game, whether you’re desperately fighting off a horde of hungry raptor-like dinosaurs or getting poisoned by the Titanoboas slinking around. Combat, for the most part, is fine. It can get messy, especially if a giant dinosaur is attempting to attack while you’re trying to circle it or if a horde descends upon you. There’s also a certain lack of impact at times in melee combat, but it’s decent for the most part.
"Whether you’re exploring the world or chilling in your region of choice, the improved visuals are sumptuous."
Combat is certainly something to keep you reacting and constantly on your toes because even for a survival sandbox title, Ark takes a laissez-faire approach to telling you what to do. It features severe weather conditions, forcing you to build a decent enough hut to sleep, and hunger and thirst – a staple of many a survival game – to encourage the hunt for food and water. Of course, the giant red, green and blue Obelisks scattered through the map will demand your attention, but those are for much later. Initially, you’re trying to fulfill the basic needs, then expanding and improving on each little thing.
The Engrams and their unlocks help in this regard, as you’re finding new things to work towards. A bow may be nice, but what about a crossbow repeater? A club for bopping dinosaurs on the head seems a given, but what about a katana? Stone walls over wood and/or thatch? Before you know it, you’ve built a Refining Forge to smelt metal into ingots, which can be used at the Smithing Table for all kinds of goods.
When you’re well-equipped, the world is also packed with things to discover. Aside from all the dangerous creatures, there are forests, canyons, lakes, and much more to see, with new flora and fauna, some of which could be useful when brought back to base. Some creatures may be overweight, and upon decomposing, you’ll find different items that could be useful. There’s also the prospect of taming and using them as mounts, something I’ve yet to do, but being able to fly through the world on a Pteranodon or square up against other Rexes with my own is a fun prospect.
Whether you’re exploring the world or chilling in your region of choice, the improved visuals are sumptuous. The water looks gorgeous and flows wonderfully, and little details, like a thin tree wobbling as you cut it and then deforming the nearby grass when it falls, look great. The same could be said of the textures – whether it’s the rocks, sand or other creatures, they look crisp and highly detailed even on High settings.
"Even worse are the crashes. Since you must manually save progress, failing to do so at any point can set you back, never mind trying to settle in for longer sessions."
Unfortunately, this does come with some costs. Though performance is not even in the same realm of terrible as was reported when early access went live on PC, there is some slight choppiness in the frame rate here and there. Even worse are the crashes. Since you must manually save progress, failing to do so at any point can set you back, never mind trying to settle in for longer sessions.
There are also the usual bugs and glitches, like some odd pathfinding among creatures like Stegos, but nothing game-breaking. Studio Wildcard has worked on improving performance over the past several weeks, so hopefully, the crashes will be sorted out sooner rather than later. It is still early access, after all.
While Ark: Survival Ascended can hold your attention as you unlock new things to craft and forage for materials, monotony does set in from time to time. It’s a consequence of many survival crafting titles and something that multiplayer may help to mitigate. For the most part, I was interested in what the game had to offer with its new weapons, armor and challenges, even if foraging for materials can get repetitive.
"Ark: Survival Ascended is an enhanced version of Survival Evolved that offers better visuals and extensive quality-of-life features, even if its technical state requires more work."
At the very least, I can appreciate the many quality-of-life changes made with the remake, like the map, the improved snapping and the options to cycle through different structure types – including walls with door and window frames. The wider field of view with the new third-person perspective is also nice, as is being able to ping things (even if it’s not super-useful when playing solo). Their value will be subjective to the average Ark player, but I can’t imagine returning to the original game without them.
Ark: Survival Ascended is an enhanced version of Survival Evolved that offers better visuals and extensive quality-of-life features, even if its technical state requires more work. While removing official servers from the original game pretty much means you need to get it for playing online (unless you opt for unofficial servers), it offers numerous features that fundamentally improve the overall experience. If you’re playing it for the first time, it can seem overtly punishing, somewhat grindy and more than a little repetitive, but the exploration, sheer range of things to do, and a plethora of crafts will keep you busy.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Comprehensive survival experience in a unique world, with interesting things to do like fighting and taming dinosaurs and exploring mysterious regions. Tons of stuff to craft, with steady progression that feels rewarding. Gorgeous visuals and details, coupled with solid quality-of-life features.
Combat is still relatively average. Harvesting materials can get a bit grindy in the early going. Slightly choppy frame rate and annoying crashes. Fairly punishing when trying to get your bearings.