Black Desert Online is an MMO that seemed to come out of nowhere to suddenly capture the gaming world’s attention. Much of this excitement centred around those amazing promotional screenshots, showing stunningly photo-realistic characters, their glistening faces looking for all the world like real flesh and blood humans. I was eager to visit the Black Desert Online myself and find out if all the hype was warranted. And what I found after some hours of playing was that, when you get past what is admittedly a gorgeous-looking game, you’ll find it’s a solid MMORPG; it offers lots of fun and challenge that, despite its flaws, makes it definitely worth diving into – just be prepared for a long time investment and a steep learning curve.
Much has been said about Black Desert Online’s beautiful character visuals, and they do indeed stand out as particularly impressive. Character models are gorgeous, and you really see this in the game’s very deep character creation suite, which takes micromanagement of your character to a new level. I spent a long time just having fun playing around with my character’s look, altering every physical aspect as I pleased, and it was helped by the fact that the default models already looked really good. However, you might be disappointed to know that classes are gender-locked, so if you want to be a Warrior, you have to be male, and if you want to be a Ranger, you have to be a female. This is an irksome restriction, but not a deal breaker in practice, since some classes are similar – for example, a Witch is really just a male version of the Wizard. It just feels odd in our day and age of gaming, where gender choice is just a given.
Customization is also limited in the area of outfitting your character. He or she will always have the same clothing on, no matter how you personalize them physically. You can upgrade it, but its appearance doesn’t change, and you won’t find exotic-looking new clothing in loot drops. It’s a bit disappointing, especially when Black Desert Online was hyped so much for its customization abilities in the first place. I hope this aspect was not an attempt by Pearl Abyss to “encourage” you to buy clothing in their Pearl Shop; if it was, they better get a lot more selection in there and lower the prices, because right now I don’t see many players liking that.
“There is excellent detail in all of the NPCs, structures, and vegetation as well; I truly enjoyed the time I spent just exploring and taking in its beautiful vistas.”
The visual splendor of the game also holds true of the monsters and animals you encounter in the world. There is excellent detail in all of the NPCs, structures, and vegetation as well; I truly enjoyed the time I spent just exploring and taking in its beautiful vistas. Lighting is a strong suit, and seeing the sunset reflect in golden yellow on puddles as I travelled the game’s world was downright sublime at times. And that world is truly gigantic. You will really feel what the developers mean when they call this a “sandbox” MMO, as there is a real feeling in Black Desert Online that you are free to roam a vast landscape that promises surprise and novelty around every corner. I never thought I would say this, but Black Desert Online’s world might be even more full of life than that of The Witcher 3.
There is no fast travel between points, so you had better get used to running long distances to get to your next objective. Some will find this tedious; I grew to like it, since the open world is so alive with activity and opportunities for side-quests and adventures. If you are really that lazy, though, you can ride a horse, but in Black Desert Online you’ll have to tame it first (that rope is not easy to use), and if you leave him somewhere, he might not be there when you come back. Draw distance is seemingly endless, with majestic mountains on the horizon encouraging you to just wander. And although I didn’t try it, you can apparently climb those mountains.
There is a linear story-quest that you are quite free to follow, if you are like me you will be forever side-tracked by exploration of Black Desert Online’s environment. I suspect that most players will grind and side-quest to hit the soft level cap of 50 long before they “finish” the game, partly because you level up so fast. Combat is usually easy – too easy (more on that later), and grinding is what most will do a lot of till they cap out. Then they will try out the game’s PvP, which seems to mostly involve joining a Guild and fighting wars against other guilds, or periodic Siege events. You can also do 1v1 PvP after level 50 if you want, but this isn’t really a viable option since the game has severe punishments for killing other players, not the least of which is that guards everywhere will chase after you and kill you on sight. If you are really jonesing for a fight against a real-live person, you’ll definitely want to keep it in the game’s special PvP arenas – but even then, the rewards are paltry and not really worth the effort beyond whatever people in Black Desert Online call “street cred.”
Questing is probably not the game’s strong suit. You begin by doing the usual banal fetching and relaying messages from Point A to Point B. The main story is one of the most inexplicable I have yet seen in an MMO (and that’s saying something). I really tried to follow it this time, I swear, but I’ll be damned if I could make sense of it. Something about ancient black stones, with secret powers. You are tasked with learning their secrets (I think), and a little back cloud creature is your side-kick (and also provides a convenient guide in your early play time). Don’t get too concerned if you lose track – just follow the helpful arrows to your next destination and you’ll be fine. And even if you get lost, it’s still no biggie; I never felt a strong urge to “finish the game” in Black Desert Online as I have with other MMOs, and that was totally fine.
“This also brings us to another, more annoying failing of the game: things are just not explained very well.”
Controls in Black Desert Online take a bit of getting used to. You have the standard W, S, D, and A keys to move, but combat can be a quite complicated combination of keys, left and right clicks, and other simultaneous actions that feels daunting at first. However, the game does a good job of making you practice moves and actions, including combos, so that you do get the hang of it eventually. By the time you have put hours into the game, it all becomes very intuitive and I would say that I really liked the feel of the controls after a while. You also have number keys for special moves, which liven up the monotony of spamming the same S + Left Click go-to move. Maybe it was just me, but I found combat to be a bit too straightforward after not too long. Even groups of mobs failed to really test my fighting skills, and having the Healing Potions so readily at my command allowed me to survive any encounter. I once cursed The Witcher 3 for its miserly allowance of healing potions; but in Black Desert Online I actually felt that having 87 of them was a bit too many.
Now, Black Desert Online does some things differently from other MMOs, and they may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For one thing, it has an Energy system, so that in order to do some things, like learn from NPCs, or gather things, you expend energy. This also applies to World Chat – that’s right, you had better think twice before you type that comment, because in Black Desert Online, you are limited. Another twist is Contribution Points, which function as a sort of XP that you get from doing things. Contribution Points are crucial if you want to buy a house (which you do, since you need a place to store stuff), as well as for other important activities. Some might criticize these two aspects as feeling too much like a Pay-to-Win game, since you have already shelled out the price for the game, and now you are basically being told you are limited in what you can do, or you have to wait before you play it again (or play a certain part of it). Having played the game for a while now, I can agree with this sentiment somewhat.
One thing I thought was a nice innovation, though, was the knowledge system. You gain knowledge by talking to NPCs, and this knowledge in turn helps you I combat when you encounter monsters out in the world. This encouraged me to take a more active role as I played; I was motivated to speak to people so that I could gain knowledge, making conversation in Black Desert Online more than the usual time-wasting exercise that it is in many RPGs. I felt that the game could have explained to me better just how knowledge helped me, though – I found out about it through my online research.
This also brings us to another, more annoying failing of the game: things are just not explained very well. Maybe this is due to the localization of Black Desert Online from its Korean origins, but I found myself consulting the Internet quite a bit in my early play-time, trying to get up to speed on Contribution Points, Energy, Knowledge and all the other quite important aspects I needed to know in order to be successful. Black Desert Online offers tons of content with many, many layers – but you will be completely ignorant of most of it when you start. There is a wide range of activities you can engage in besides questing and killing in PvE combat. You can fish, you can tame horses, you can be a farmer; there is a really complex and fascinating economy, with trading that you can take part in. But learning about it can be incredibly overwhelming; I think to truly play Black Desert Online properly, you would have to spend more time reading than playing, and I am not sure if that is a good thing.
“Black Desert Online has the potential to be a truly legendary MMORPG. There are so many interesting elements to it, each of which could provide you with many hours of enjoyment.”
There is way more in Black Desert Online than I can possibly hope to summarize in one review. This is a game that truly puts the “massive” in MMORPG. And I don’t really mean the big open world (which is huge for sure); I mean the gigantic time-sink that this game could become if you really got into it. Learning to tame horses, farming, trading, hiring workers, fishing, buying life insurance (ok, just kidding on that one) – you notice I didn’t mention dungeon crawling? Black Desert Online is less the usual RPG and more of a kind of fantasy “life simulation.” It also doesn’t help that it keeps going while you are logged off (which explains why so many people set themselves to fishing when they want to go to bed).
Black Desert Online has the potential to be a truly legendary MMORPG. There are so many interesting elements to it, each of which could provide you with many hours of enjoyment. Ironically, its strengths are not PvE battling, dungeon crawling, and other things most MMORPGs are known for. But it makes up for those shortcomings with so much other deep content and a gorgeous, polished visual experience, that it is still a great game – provided you are willing to put in the time learning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do…
***A PC review code was provided by the publisher***
- Sublime visuals
- Massive open-world to explore
- A truly alive environment
- Tons of content
- Doesn’t explain many important aspects
- Almost too many things to do
- Combat gets boring after a while