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9:33am on Friday, 20th January, 2023:

Lost Ark


Back in early December, I'd been playing a Civilisation-style game called Old World for a few weeks and finally got bored with it. The play-throughs were all very similar (and not only in the sense that I kept losing). I usually play an MMORPG around this time of year, so figured that my next game should perhaps be New World.

I therefore downloaded and installed Lost Ark.

200 hours of play later, I'm done. I've reached a gear item level of 1370, which players of Lost Ark will recognise as a gateway point. Basically, you can play solo all the way up to that level, but then you have to run group content to progress further. I am heartily sick of having to learn arbitrary boss fights, so had studiously avoided all group content for as long as I could. Having looked up on Youtube the particular fights I'd repeatedly have to do, and discovered that one false move by anyone can lead to a wipe, I'm further persuaded that my decision to disengage is a good one.

Lost Ark is a bit different to the usual MMORPGs we have in the West. Basically, hordes of mobs spawn and run at you, and you mow them down with AOE. It's like a bullet hell, with mobs for bullets, but you don't have to avoid them, you just have to hit a bunch together or kite them until your hit-a-bunch-together abilities come off cooldown. I quite liked it; it was a bit of a change. Because you need to see all these incoming mobs at once, though, there's a largely fixed camera angle that makes the game look almost isometric. This isn't great for immersion.

I played a mage/sorceress up to 1370 (combat level 53) and used a freebie pass to get me a 1300 assassin/shadowhunter for nothing. The mage was more fun to play, because the AOE abilities were more numerous and more effective. Action RPGs are all about the combat, so this was a good sign, but it never really developed. You may have had more things to kill at once and avoid at once, and there may have been incremental gear improvements and configurations, but when it came down to it most combat involved doing pretty much the same thing.

Some of the boss fights were rather tiresome. Having to avoid sprawling telegraphs that stun lock you for ten or more seconds if you miss one is not my idea of a great experience — especially when it looks as if you're clear of the danger zone and feel a VAR check would support you, but the game says no. The mouse-driven movement made it hard enough as it was without fuzzy telegraph boundaries making it worse (not that I'm a fan of WASD either, but it makes avoiding barely-visible patterns on the ground easier, for sure). There were specific items that could help in some fights, but basically it came down to the usual dance-learning routine. If I wanted that kind of fun, I'd play Elden Ring.

The game's story was standard fare: collect the six McGuffins (the lost arks) or the world ends blah blah blah. The characters didn't have a lot of depth to them, the voice acting was straight out of American stage school, the different parts of the game world were on the whole stereotypical, and in the end I lost interest in reading whatever flavour text explained to me exactly why the fate of the universe depended on my carrying a box of whatever for ten metres from A to B. Some of the text had typographical errors, too.

The game's tutorial quests were a mixed bag. Some were helpful, but others would only have been helpful if I'd been in a position to use the information they conveyed at the time (in some cases, I was quite some way short of having the stats to attempt them). Also, the significance of certain items wasn't explained. Gold (as opposed to silver) is hard to come by, but I didn't even notice that building random furniture for my mansion to satisfy a quest was even using it; discovering that I'd spent whatever amount I'd been given as a grubstake set me back a bit when it came to needing it for something useful. It was also rather frustrating that the easiest way to acquire gold (sell stuff in the auction house) required a deposit in gold that I no longer could afford.

One novelty I did quite like about the game was its ships system. It has numerous zones, split into continents. You can generally teleport around the same continent, so long as you've been to the teleport spot before (as usual). For movement between continents, you get your own ships. Ships have different characteristics, although I primarily used my most-upgraded one except when I needed an ice-breaker. Your chosen vessel is your icon for sea/ocean travel, so there's a slight immersiveness discontinuity there, but it's not too bad. In addition to continents, there are also islands and other small zones at sea, some of which appear only for timed events. This gave the ships more uses, and on the whole I think the game was improved by their inclusion (or at least by what they allowed). You can also move between continents by using a small number of personally-set teleport points (the "Bifrost" system, named after Nordic mythology's burning rainbow) or by playing a piece of music. I expect you can pay real money for more slots of the former.

I didn't join a guild. I knew I wasn't going to be playing for more than a couple of months, so didn't want to make friends I would shortly lose. I did speak to several other player characters while I was playing, but none of them replied. One player character did speak to me first, though: he said "This will be hard with 2". I replied, "I know". It was indeed hard and we didn't complete the task (killing a timed boss). We might have managed it if there'd been seven or eight of us.

There are many achievements in the game (I was given one for killing 120,000 mobs, for example). Some of these, and some story events, give characters titles they can use. There are quite a lot of them, and they come as either a prefix or a suffix. You can combine a prefix with a suffix to get the full title. They don't always go together. I gave my assassin the title "Darkness's Darkness".

Characters are customisable in terms of their titles and initial look, but unless you're willing to spend money in the cash store you're going to be wearing the same-looking clothes as everyone else of your class at your level. Given how skimpy some of the mage outfits are, it's as well there's strength in numbers. The idea, of course, is to encourage people to splash out on the clothes in order to feel individual. I didn't splash out on the clothes.

I didn't splash out on anything, come to that. Neither did I pay for the game itself — it was free on Steam. I played 200 hours and didn't hand over any real money for anything. This isn't a boast; I'd happily pay a reasonable subscription (I do for FFXIV), but I wasn't going to buy something from the cash shop merely out of guilt for playing for free. MUD2 aside, Lost Ark is the first free-to-play MMO I've played for ages that genuinely is free to play; maybe at higher levels it's less so — especially as there seems to be a culture of paying people to carry you through group content — but for 200 hours it was great value for no money.

Here's a screenshot of my sorceress with Geralt of Rivia. Yes, they did have a Witcher crossover event....

You're going to have to find that last lost ark without me.

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