Lost Ark first impressions: The MMO I've been waiting for?

Lost Ark is a game I've been waiting a long time for. I first saw streamers playing Lost Ark on Twitch several years ago, when the game was still exclusive to Korea, and I was amazed when I learned it was an MMO. When I heard that developer Smilegate had finally found a publisher for here in the West – Amazon Games – I was super excited to dive in. Today, Lost Ark enters early access for those who have purchased one of its Founders Packs, and it launches for everyone on February 11th. Ahead of release, I was able to spend some time playing Lost Ark, and these are my very early impressions of the game.

To kick things off, Lost Ark is one of the flashiest MMOs I've ever played, and I love it. Usually, when I think of MMOs, I think of World of Warcraft, which has a combat system that fits a lot of descriptions, but "flashy" and "fast-paced" aren't really anywhere near the top of the list. A lot of MMOs have tried to recapture WoW's charm and style throughout the years, while Lost Ark is taking a page out of the Diablo playbook with its isometric camera and action RPG combat.

It's a successful formula, and it doesn't always feel like you're playing an MMO when you first pick up Lost Ark. I'm sure part of that is down to the fact that the public test realm I was playing on was understandably thin on players in the weeks before release, but also I think that Lost Ark manages to stand out successfully from the crowd because of its flashy action RPG combat.

For me, at least, the combat feels great, and the game as a whole looks fantastic. Though I haven't had the time to try out every character class just yet, I am pleased that the game gives everyone cool-looking skills and abilities. It isn't just the mages who get to look cool on the battlefield – everyone gets to, regardless of class. I really like it when games like this make you feel like a badass no matter what you're playing, and I think group content will be an awesome, chaotic mess of skills and abilities. I can't wait to dive in with some friends and do some dungeon crawling.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides to testing an MMO before release is that there aren't always players around to group up with, and indeed, all of my time in Lost Ark so far has been solo. Lost Ark seems to go out of its way to accommodate solo players more than the typical MMO. The early dungeons I encountered in the game can be completed either solo or in a group. I asked Amazon Games if this is true of all the dungeons in the game and was told that "all story content is solo-able." In addition, Amazon told me that while some endgame content can "technically" be played and completed solo, it's "not as enjoyable" as doing it with a group.

Still, the option for solo runs through dungeons is nice, because it means not only can you complete the quests and missions associated with it on your own time, but it also means that you don't necessarily need to wait for a group before you can grind dungeons for gear. World of Warcraft and Everquest created a legion of MMO fans who are now no longer bored teenagers with nothing but time but rather adults with jobs and responsibilities. Giving players the option of running through the story content solo gives those of us who can't play all the time some flexibility in those moments we do get to sit down and play.

There seems to be a lot to love about Lost Ark: it has beautiful graphics and artwork, a fantastic soundtrack (at least what I've heard of it so far is excellent), and the combat seems really great. One of my favorite things about it is the fact that you get a mount early on in the game, and after so many MMOs have made me wait or grind to get my mount, I can't tell you how nice it is to be given one from basically the word go. I'm looking forward to getting deeper into this game because, admittedly, I've only had a taste of what Lost Ark has to offer by playing solo on a test server.

However, while Lost Ark seems promising, there's the free-to-play elephant in the room that we need to talk about. Lost Ark is a free-to-play MMO and because of that, it comes with many of the common free-to-play trappings: an in-game store, multiple currencies that are going to be confusing to new players, a premium subscription that gets you various perks, paid character level boosts, and so forth and so on. Ahead of early access, Lost Ark's shop wasn't live, but when it does launch I fully expect it to be filled with all sorts of items, be they skins, mounts, pets, or anything else that you'd expect to pop up in an in-game MMO store.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. Free-to-play monetization only becomes a bad thing when the game is designed around getting you to spend money. Is that the case in Lost Ark? I don't know, because I'm assuming that if there is an eventual wall that tries to coerce players into paying up, it doesn't show up until the endgame. I haven't been following Lost Ark close enough to be able to say that its monetization is bad or predatory, but we all know that free-to-play monetization schemes tend to walk a fine line between fair and unfair.

I suspect many people will settle for buying Lost Ark's premium subscription, the Crystalline Aura, and attempt to draw the line there as far as microtransactions are concerned. The Crystalline Aura comes with a number of perks – many of which a new player like myself doesn't understand yet – with Amazon and Smilegate telling me that it was made "to provide fair and fully optional benefits and avoid potential pay to win mechanical advantages."

The Crystalline Aura does things like reducing the cost of fast traveling, granting increased life energy recovery for certain skills, and reducing research and crafting time at your stronghold (all players get an island stronghold to call their own as they progress through the game).

Of course, I'm always open to the possibility of a particularly cool mount getting me to bust out the wallet, but my plan is to mostly stick with the Crystalline Aura subscription and resist temptation elsewhere. Amazon says it'll cost $9.99 per month, though a 30-day subscription is included in each of the four Founders Packs. Players also have the option of buying 180 day Crystalline Aura subscriptions for $49.99, but those are probably best left to the players who know this will be their main game for the foreseeable future.

So, at the end of it all, I'm impressed by what I've seen of Lost Ark. I haven't played nearly enough to give a deeper critique than that, but I'm excited to round up some friends and play through to the endgame content. At the same time, I'm a little apprehensive about this game's free-to-play monetization, but that isn't really a knock against Lost Ark specifically because I'm always suspicious of free-to-play schemes at the outset.

I think the gameplay in Lost Ark is on point, so the big question is whether or not Smilegate and Amazon can stick the landing with fair pricing and solid support. We'll be exploring that and more in future Lost Ark coverage that extends through launch and beyond, so check back here with SlashGear for more on Lost Ark in the coming weeks.