It’s been eight years, filled with 12 DLCs and thousands of mods, since Ark Survival Evolved hit early access in 2015. Now, in 2023, Ark Survival Ascended has entered early access, and it feels like I’ve entered Groundhog Day.
Ark Survival Ascended is basically the same game as Ark Survival Evolved, but it has better graphics… if your PC is powerful enough. There are some other new features like wild dino babies (which are so adorable) and the free inclusion and eventual rollout of all 12 Ark Survival Evolved DLC, but other than that, Ark Survival Ascended is Ark Survival Evolved. It’s also the same game in that the early access is a buggy mess — some of which are hilarious, like dinos stuck in mountainsides, and others that aren’t so humorous, like game crashes.
As someone who never played Ark Survival Evolved, I’m completely torn on Ark Survival Ascended. Though the game is, hopefully temporarily, a downgrade in terms of optimization just like Evolved was in its early access, there are two day-one gameplay features that somehow got carried over whose persistent, game-ruining existence completely baffles me. That said, I now understand why Ark Survival is known as one of the best survival games of all time; it’s only a matter of time before Ark Survival Ascended is good enough to stand as a shining monument to one of the greats.
The running theme in this review is, “If you’ve played Ark Survival Evolved, then you know what to expect in Ark Survival Ascended,” and that is definitely the case when it comes to gameplay. Ark Survival Ascended is a survival game where you need to watch your water, food, warm, and cold meters all while building shelters and avoiding aggressive dinos.
I’m constantly impressed with how immersive this world is. The Island, which is the name of the first Ark Survival Ascended map, has around 120 dinos, all of which you can tame and most of which you can ride. It’s common for me to find dinos fighting each other in the wild as I explore the lush environments that all lend themselves to excellent base locations. The constant sense of danger and the feeling of being a little organism in a living world is done so excellently in Ark Survival Ascended.
The downside is that even on lower difficulties, the aggressive dinos are bloodthirsty killers that are hard to avoid and defend against. If (when) you die, you’ll have one chance to get to your body and retrieve your items. I’m a fan of Soulsborne games and have always considered us masochists, but this is another level of hard, at least when you’re starting out or playing PvP.
Besides a welcomed UI facelift, the crafting and building mechanics show their age in Ark Survival Ascended. Since there have been many survival games since Ark Survival Evolved that have done crafting and building better and Studio Wildcard didn’t change the core mechanics from Evolved to Ascended, building feels clunky and crafting has a few extra tedious steps. That said, there are things I like about the crafting like how easy unlocking new recipes (Engrams) is and how easy it is to repair your broken tools.
I also need to mention that Ark Survival Ascended has console commands, so if you want to make the game very easy, you can since there’s a console command for almost everything. My favorite is the fly console command. With the ability to fly, you can turn a brutal survival experience into a leisurely visit to Jurassic Park.
The graphics and performance
One of the biggest changes from Ark Survival Evolved to Ark Survival Ascended is graphics. The game now runs on Unreal Engine 5, and it’s incredibly pretty. The already rich environments are now brimming with detail and definition. The only downside is that you probably will never get to see Ark Survival Ascended in all its graphical glory because the recommended PC settings are very high.
Even with my 16 GB RAM, AMD Ryzen 5 5600X processor, and NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3060 TI, the best I can do is medium graphical fidelity if I want to maintain around 50 frames per second. Even still, the game looks phenomenal and I bet it looks even better on higher-end PCs, which brings up the issue of optimization.
I have no idea how hard it is to make a video game, but I know games can be optimized so that they run extremely well on lower-spec systems. That’s why games like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 can run so well on PlayStation 5 but Ark Survival Ascended might struggle on your more powerful PC. It’s a problem if the majority of gamers can’t maintain 60 FPS even on the lowest settings, which is the state that Ark Survival Ascended is currently in. Ark Survival Ascended will undoubtedly get optimization patches in the future, but in the early stages of early access, low frame rates and crashes are common.
The accessibility features
My biggest complaints with Ark Survival Ascended are with two gameplay features that were integrated and remained unchanged since Ark Survival Evolved launched in 2015. These two gatekeeping gameplay features are the always-on real-time servers and the host tethering scam.
Regardless of your server, whether it’s PvP with 70 other players or a non-dedicated server with up to eight of your friends, the servers in Ark Survival Ascended never turn off. So, if you save and log off, the servers still run. This means that at 2:43 a.m. while you are sound asleep, an enemy squad can destroy your base and loot all your stuff — or an aggressive dino can eat you. Even though Ark Survival Ascended has a plethora of gameplay options that go all the way down to the ones and zeroes of the game, there isn’t an option to turn off the always-on real-time servers. Constantly stressing about whether you’ll lose hundreds of hours of progress while you’re offline is a worry that kills the game for me. It can’t be that hard to implement an off switch for people who want to enjoy Ark Survival Ascended more casually — and if it is that hard, then they’ve had eight years to figure it out.
Another gameplay feature that’s core to Ark Survival Ascended is host tethering. The major problem here is that host tethering, a feature that forces all other online players to stay close to the host of the server or face immediate teleportation, only exists in non-dedicated servers, the free servers that only go up to eight players. If you want to remove host tethering, because it’s not a performance requirement, you need to buy an unofficial, or dedicated, server or try your luck at getting into an official server, both of which can host more people. The unofficial servers are purchased for a ludicrous amount of money and it increases if you want to host more people on your server. Oh, and it’s generally a subscription. In short, host tethering is a money-grab rubberband mechanic that shows the greedy nature of Studio Wildcard, and it’s another full stop for me.
If Studio Wildcard included the option to turn off real-time always-on servers and the option to turn off host tethering, I would get all of my friends, cousins, and brothers into Ark Survival Ascended. We’d have an amazing time building bases, fighting and taming dinos, and taking on the three world bosses together, but unfortunately, Studio Wildcard has dammed the doorway with these two game-killing features.
If you love Ark Survival Evolved, you’ll likely love Ark Survival Ascended… once the bugs have been ironed out and the performance is better optimized. At least you can still enjoy Ark Survival Evolved while you wait.
If you’ve never played Ark Survival Evolved and are looking to Ark Survival Ascended as your ticket in, know that the real-time always-on servers (even if they’re private) and the host tethering (existent only in the free servers) are inescapable and can be complete casual killers. If you can get past those two glaring issues, Ark Survival Ascended will eventually become a great remaster of an already great survival game.