Saturday, February 19, 2022

Lost Ark: First Impressions

After all my whining and whinging, installing Lost Ark turned out to be no trouble at all. The 72GB download took less than an hour, which was about a third of the time it took me to write yesterday's blog, so as soon as I'd finished doing that I was all ready to go. Well, once I'd had my lunch, that is. I wasn't that excited to get started that I'd miss a meal.

Getting into the game wasn't quite as slick as the installation itself. As several people have mentioned, Lost Ark's loading times are diabolical. Now, to be fair, absolutely nothing loads quickly on my machine these days. It takes a while for any game to get going. Just changing maps in Guild Wars 2 can take a minute or more.

Lost Ark makes other games' load times look exemplary. Even though I was expecting some delays, the first time I logged in I seriously thought the game must have failed to start. There was no sign that anything was happening at all.

Eventually the login screen appeared, asking me to choose a server. It's curious how this works in different games. Sometimes the server is the first thing you have to decide on, other times it's the final  click before you step into the world. 

Hmm. Wrinkles or freckles? Freckles or wrinkles? Wrinkles and freckles? No, that's a Saturday morning cartoon.
In this case there are regions to choose from, which is presumably why you have to make your mind up before you start applying blusher and plucking your eyebrows. Your character's eyebrows, that is. Unsurprisingly, given my location, the default choice was one of the European data centers. 

I didn't notice whether it was one of the old ones or the new Europe West they've just added. It didn't matter to me either way; I didn't want to play on any of them. I wanted to play on NA East, always my preferred option when available.

The good news is there's no hard region locking so playing on NA servers from the UK is allowed. The bad news is swapping regions requires you to log all the way out of the game and start over. That took another five minutes or at least it felt like it.

By the time I got to character creation I was already mildly ticked off and my mood didn't improve when I loooked at the choices on offer. Once again, since I'd read quite a few first impressions and early levels reports, I knew roughly what to expect: a small number of not very original classes, some of them gender-locked. 

What I hadn't considered was the choice of race. I just deleted a paragraph from this post in which I went on for a while, as I do, complaining that there were no choices other than humans but that's not true. Luckily, before I claimed it was, I thought about it and realized I hadn't bothered to read any of the descriptions in game, let alone read up anything about the races beforehand, so I thought I'd better check.

What is that thing around her neck? And those ears look suspiciously pointy. Don't tell me I rolled an elf without knowing it...
Just as well I did. There are two races in Lost Ark. I can say with complete certainty that I did not know that until I looked it up, not even after making a character and playing for three hours. Everyone looks human but some of the them are really elves. Yes, there are elves because of course there are. There are always elves. They're like rats. 

Elves can be either Mages or Assassins, which in fact means there are only female elves since those classes are both gender locked in that direction. Every other class gets to be Human.

There's a brief description of the classes and a difficulty rating. As Wilhelm points out, if you rate difficulty on a five point scale and then only use the middle section, you really have a scale that goes from one to three, just with funny numbers. 

The only Easy #2 is the Warrior, who can only be male. I was torn for a moment. I wanted to play the easiest class but I didn't want to be a hulking great oaf, which the Warrior in the demonstration video appeared to be. I looked through all the options to see if I could find any that combined both a gender and a class I liked but since I didn't really like the look of any of them that didn't help all that much.

Okay, that's the look I was going for.
I remembered a few people mentioning that the base classes don't really count for much because you start at Level Ten anyway and by then you're already into the Advanced classes. Why anyone thought that was a good idea is beyond me, unless maybe there was a period a couple of years back, when the game first launched in Korea, when you really did have to play through the first ten levels. EverQuest 2 worked like that for a while, right at the start, before everyone agreed making people play through a bunch of levels as a bland generic archetype, before they got to the class they would have liked to roll in the first place, was a terrible idea.

After a while I had it narrowed down to a choice of two: Sorceress or Gunslnger. Both of them were rated Four, supposedly making them the most difficult for a beginner to play, but then it seemed as if almost all the classes except Warrior weren't suitable for a beginner.

In situations like these, when in doubt, always go for looks. The Gunslinger looked cooler than the Sorceress, who now I come to think of it did look suspiciously elflike and not in a good way. If only my Gunslinger looked half, no, a quarter as cool as the one in the opening cinematic, from which all these amazing screenshots featuring what looks like the young Jane Fonda as Cat Ballou were taken. Sadly, she doesn't.

Which is not to say she looks bad. After what must have been at least twenty minutes diddling with the Advanced options, I had someone I thought I could live with (That didn't come out right.) She started out as a goth Audrey Hepburn and ended up looking like the pouty lead singer of a pop-punk band but I've played worse.

Can we play this game instead?
From there it was on to the inevitable, incomprehensible opening movie. In its favor, it was gorgeous to look at. To its detriment, I only watched it a few hours ago and I remember literally nothing about it at all.

For the next hour things got worse. A lot worse. I've been thinking about this for a while and I've decided it's not an exaggeration. The introductory segment of Lost Ark, what I suppose you'd call the tutorial, is the most boring opening to a new game I've seen in the last twelve months.

In that time, I've been through the same kind of thing in New World, Swords of Legend Online, Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis, Chimeraland, Elyon and Bless Unleashed, just naming the ones I can immediately remember. I wouldn't say any of them were amazing but I don't remember any of them being so mind-numbingly tedious, either.

Before anyone jumps to the obvious conclusion, I am not talking about the story. I'm talking about the gameplay. 

It looks way more fun!
Contrary to a couple of reports I've read, the writing in Lost Ark is perfectly fine. There's a bog standard plot, the same one most mmorpgs use. It's been coherently translated for the most part, then voiced in reasonable English by professional actors who mostly understand the lines they've been given to read. As Aywren says, "While the story is nothing ground-breaking or tear-inspiring, it’s also not that bad." The story is not the problem. 

The tutorial is indeed so on rails I'm surprised there isn't a buffet car. It's just one guided task after another. After ten minutes you'll know how a sentient robot forced to work in an automotive plant would feel. 

Even then, my biggest problem with the gameplay wasn't the by-the-numbers "questing". It was the combat. Combat in Lost Ark, at least during the seemingly endless tutorial, manages to combine most of the things I enjoy the least in other games: super-complicated abilities with ridiculous levels of nit-picking detail no-one but a 1950s trainspotter could hope to remember, let alone care about. 

There are what feels like dozens of finger positions to learn, none of which feel comfortable because, as Wilhelm also observed, you're expected to use a bizarre and idiosyncratic choice of keybinds, most of which cannot be changed. Seriously, Smilegate? Who makes an mmorpg with fixed keybinds in this day and age? 

I guess not. This one it is, then...
Then there are the mobs that don't know when to die. They attack in gangs but after the initial assault's been beaten back there are always a few left standing, milliing around on five per cent of their hit points, forcing you to hunt them down one by one just so the bloody counter will tick over and let you finish the goddamn quest!  

The irony is, I love big fights in mmorpgs. I love massive AoEs and huge fireballs falling from the sky and whirling like a dervish with an axe in each hand, leaving dozens of baddies laid out all around me like the petals of a giant daisy.

This is not that. It's not anything like that. It's like fighting a series of really annoying gestalts, a dozen bodies with just one controlling intelligence. 

Did I say intelligence? If only! That might make things interesting. They just run in and wait to be slaughtered.  Kill one lot and then the next wave arrives and you have to do it all again. And then again. 

But that's how ARPGs work. People supposedly enjoy it. I don't. I never have. I don't imagine I ever will.

Wanna be in our band? We're looking for a drummer.
By the end it was getting so tedious that every time there was another fight, which fortunately wasn't that often, I wanted to log out and uninstall the game. I felt I was wasting not just my time but my life. If it hadn't been for the posts I'd read that said the beginning was bad but then it got better I'd have quit for the sake of my sanity.

Somewhat to my surprise, it did indeed get better, although it took long enough. Once I reached the first town the onslaught of instructions slowed to a trickle and I was mostly left to my own devices. Better yet, there's no combat in town. I was able to get my breath and look around for pretty much the first time.

Lost Ark is quite pretty. I wouldn't say it's anything special in the graphics department, at least not in the opening zones I've seen so far. It's a tad generic and even though the scale is hearteningly large, I always find the isometric viewpoint means my eye skates over most of the detail. 

It doesn't help that you can't move the camera. Usually you can swing the PoV around even in isometric games but if there's a way to do it in Lost Ark I couldn't find it. The combination of generally uninspiring views and an inability to frame a scene to my liking meant I took far fewer screenshots than I usually do, a sure sign the look of a game hasn't fully won me over. 

Finally! A town! Where's the bar? I need a drink.
Most of the pictures in the post, you'll notice, come from cut scenes. I thought those were of a good standard throughout, other than the way the characters mouths move in close-up. That's a horrorshow all its own.

As for the music, it was so intensely irritating I turned it down until I could barely hear it. That's very rare for me. I almost always leave in game music to play at the default volume. It has to be pretty bad for me to switch it off altogether and this didn't quite leap that fence but I certainly didn't want to have to listen to it. 

There was that bit when my character pulled out a flying vee guitar to belt out what sounded suspiciously like a Spinal Tap riff... It happened every time she used a teleport station. That certainly scores a few points for originality, if none for taste 

I'm aware that much of this makes it sound as though I hated Lost Ark. I didn't. I don't. It's... well, it's alright, I guess. I've noticed a number of people saying much the same. Wilhelm said "Lost Ark definitely has something going for it." Aywren said "I feel like it’s just something different to do on the side of my main game choices." Kluwes said "I don’t find myself with a burning desire to play but I keep launching it when I have some free time." Krikket (Who liked it more than many, I think.) said "I’m content to ride the monorail until the solo-friendly content runs out."

I'm not kidding, guys! Why didn't you make this game?
That seems to be about the size of it. No-one's paricularly crazy about Lost Ark, other than perhaps Naithin, the game's strongest supporter in this part of the blogosphere, but it'll pass some time until something better comes along.

People try it because other people they know are playing or they've heard it's the new hotness. They like it somewhat although they can't always put their finger on exactly why. They write a post like this one, full of faint praise and lukewarm complaints, say they'll probably go on playing for a while, then they go back to writing about other things. 

I played for over three hours in my first session. I did three levels, expored the city and the next two zones, upgraded some skills, picked up some better gear and generally enjoyed myself, once I'd put that terrible first hour behind me. I will definitely play some more. 

How much more I wouldn't like to say. The question isn't "Is Lost Ark worth playing?" It's "Is Lost Ark worth playing rather than all the other games I could be playing instead?"

I think that new game smell will be tempting enough to keep me logging in for another session or two. Whether that will last for long enough for me to get to the part Naithin thinks I'd like, well I'm not so sure about that. I guess, as always, we'll have to wait and see.

For now, it's in my Steam library and staying there. At least until I need those 72GB back for something new.


  1. I find I log in, play for about an hour, and have kind of had enough for the moment. Which isn't bad. I keep going back. And I have been trying out some of the other race/gender/class options. But I am not all-in on it, though there does seem to be a lot going on in the game. I understand you get a boat at level 35, for example.

    However, our most recent New World server features town battles that are fought by having the defender use known bugs to crash the server in order to win, actually playing New World is losing its viability, so it might be Lost Ark next.

    1. I really should log into New World again. My server, Zuvendis, has been the destination server in two sets of merges so I haven't had to move but I imagine the latest influx will have shaken up the status quo.

      Amazon really do need to get on top of the endless technical issues they've had, almost all of which seem to be self-imposed. I've played buggier games (Vanguar obviously comes to mind) but in all cases it was games that released too early and weren't finished. Those games all became progressively more and more stable as time went on, as the devs found and squashed all the bugs. The Amazon team seem to do the exact opposite - add more and more bugs every time they try to fix anything.

      I like New World a lot and I'd like to keep it in my mmorpg repertoire indefinitely but the way it's going it's hard to see that happening. It's curious that Lost Ark is also an Amazon Games title, even if they didn't create it. That gives AG the two biggest mmorpg hits of the last release cycle. I wonder which will have the staying power, if either of them do.

  2. A few things to note:

    Assassins aren't Sylvains (the Elf analogue), they're Delains (half-demons). So there's really three races, or two and a half, depending on how you look at it.

    Originally, the game did indeed start you at level one. This was true even as recently as the alpha tests of the Western release. Each class got its own unique 1-10 storyline, and then chose an advanced class. The events of that original tutorial are now summarized in the opening cutscene. The old tutorial system was vastly superior in every possible way, and I can't for the life of me understand why it was changed.

    Advanced classes do indeed change up the base classes a lot. For example, the martial artist's soulfist is a semi-ranged character focused on firing bolts of spiritual energy. My shadowhunter assassin started out as the archetypical stabby stabberson but now plays more like a death metal battlemage.

    For what it's worth, I found gunslinger very clunky, so you might have a better impression with a different class, but I'm getting the impression the game may just not be for you. You can skip the tutorial on alts at least.

    Playing songs for various effects is a recurring thing in the game, and each class gets its own instrument. Gunslingers get electric guitars because they're the magitech class. Assassins have flutes, martial artists lutes, and so forth.

    I think a general consensus of "good, not great" for Lost Ark is pretty fair. I have found that it gets progressively better the farther in you go, with some really cinematic-feeling quests and dungeons, but I wouldn't say I've yet reached a point where my socks have truly been knocked off.

    1. Thanks for the very useful information. If anything in the creation process told me my character was a half-demon I certainly never saw it and it didn't come up in the brief check I did for the post, either. Whether or not those "races" have any practical impact on gameplay, visually they're all but indistinguishable, so it doesn't really make much diference in the end what they're called.

      I figured there was originally a use for those first ten levels. So many games do that - telescope the starting levels as the game ages. I understand the motivation. All persistent online games under continual development struggle with getting new players up to the content the established players are doing. I think deleting starting areas and unique questlines is always a mistake, though. It removes options from the kinds of players who aren't obsessed with getting to max level on the first day. It's much better to add a new, unified starting area or just give people a skip option to start at a higher level, while leaving the old content in place for those who want it. I'd far rather have played through those first ten levels than had the very confusing cut scene. It certainly looked like a more interesting scenario than the one I got.

      I ought to try another class just to see if my problem is with the mechancis of the Gunslinger. I do find it clunky but then I really dislike ARPG combat in general so chances are it won;t make much difference. I'll probably do a post about it at some point. In general, I quite like parts of Lost Ark, when the combat and quests are mmorpg-like, not arpg-like. I like it best when there's no combat at all, though.

    2. What makes it even more bizarre is the new tutorial doesn't take noticeably less time than the old one. You get to your advanced class quicker, I suppose, but the time before joining the wider world and leveling above ten is roughly unchanged.

      I really, really don't get why they changed the tutorial.

  3. Thankfully someone warned me of this, but if you quit part-way through the boring tutorial, when you come back you have to begin again at the beginning!

    I tried Lost Ark, uninstalled it, then so many people were saying vaguely positive things about it I re-installed it, but I play for maybe 10-15 minutes before getting bored.

    I'm still not quite seeing what all the fuss is about but maybe I just haven't gotten far enough.

    1. "Vaguely positve" just about sums it up. It's bland and boring but it looks quite pretty and it fills a gap when you can't think of something better to do. Put that on the poster!

  4. Honestly, you lost me at "warriors can only be male." Srsly? It's current year and this is where this game decided to go? I shudder to think what class they might have picked out for just "the ladies"…

    1. Gender locking doesn't bother me as much as every race just being human or pointy-eared human. It's a common issue with imported titles, though. If I was designing an mmorpg in the third decade of the 21st century, I wouldn't have any gendered characters at all. I'd just have one bodyform, a lot of sliders and a universal fit for gear. I'd leave gender identity and pronoun choice to the players and let them sort themselves out.

  5. It's really interesting to me this sort of tepid, lukewarm response that seems so common in our corner of the internet. And actually I do understand it. The opening as you've now seen is a long shot from covering itself in glory.

    Yet, you check the player retention stats as a whole and it's fairly impressive.

    If we use New World as a point of comparison, despite having a box sale barrier to entry, it peaked at a similar-enough level of 913k concurrent players early on.

    But then bled those players day on day even in the first *week*. By the end of week one, peaks were somewhere in the 600-700k range. By the end of the first month, ~360k.

    We don't have a month's view of Lost Ark yet, but we do have over the first week -- and while there has been a drop, it is nothing as marked so far as what New World saw. The F2P launch saw a peak concurrency of 1.3m players, here ~8 days later, it is still comfortably seeing >1m peak concurrent daily.

    I've always known I'm a little bit of an outlier in this corner of the web in where my interests lie, so I wonder if its just that or whether there is something more to it!

    In terms of the other stuff I might've addressed, Tyler has you covered. :)

    1. I'll probably do a post about this at some point but I can sum it up in a sentence: I'm almost never bored by any mmorpg but I'm bored by Lost Ark. That's not a complaint so much as an existential observation. I've played countless other imported mmos with many of the same systems, mechanics and tropes, not to mention the same plot and characters. There's absolutely nothing about Lost Ark that doesn't feel deeply familiar apart from the ARPG combat. I have never been bored by any of those games. Generally I don't do boredom in gaming - I can always find ways to be interested, as you can tell from the way I go on at length about nothing at all. In Lost Ark I'm struggling to find anything to write about at all, not because I've said it before about other games but because I'm so uninvolved with the game I can't really remember anything about it when I stop. And since, as I said, the awkward, fixed camera makes taking screenshots exceptionally unappealing, I can't even look back at pictures I've taken to remind me.

      I'm extremely skeptical of the idea that "it gets better later". There's something about Lost Ark that just feels muted. It's like listening to the radio with the sound turned down so you know its on but you can't quite make out what's playing. I'm not sure how that's going to change and I'm really not sure I'm willing to put in the time to find out if it does.

      As a lot of people have said, though, it kind of fills a few minutes here and there in a not totally unpleasant way. I'll probably keep picking away at it for a while. Maybe it will eventually catch fire. We'll see.


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