Developed by Pearl Abyss. Published by Daum Games. Released on March 3, 2016 (North America). Available on PC. Review code provided by publisher.
The golden age of MMORPGs is over. World of Warcraft is on the decline and no other title has ever been able to pull in its numbers–or even get remotely close to doing so. EverQuest Next is cancelled, and WildStar developers Carbine Studio announced another round of lay-offs. In spite of the genre’s diminishing popularity, a few studios are still attempting to reinvigorate it with new entries.
Black Desert Online is one such game. Its developer Pearl Abyss is trying to find success through innovation. Billing itself as a “next generation MMORPG,” Black Desert Online attempts to defy convention and push boundaries through a variety of its core systems, which greatly differ from how other games in the genre do it.
Like many other Korean games, it took a while for Black Desert Online to find a publisher in the West. First released to Korean audiences in 2014, the game has seen multiple content additions and patches, much of which have yet to make their way over to the new international version. It’s as polished as any game with two years of constant iteration and updates can be expected to be, but a lot of the content Korean gamers have had for a while is only going to make its way in some months from now.
Unlike its original release, which was designed as a free-to-play title, the Western version of Black Desert Online was retooled towards a Guild Wars-like subscription-free model. You pay once for the game and have access to play it forever.
Unfortunately, some of its free-to-play systems still exist, albeit in a scaled back form. This is no more evident than in the energy system. You have an energy meter that depletes each time you speak or interact with an NPC. Gathering and crafting also uses energy, and so does chatting in the General chat. Once it’s drained, you have to wait for energy to recharge over time or complete quests, which sometimes reward energy. It’s identical to how free-to-play mobile games like Farmville handle the resource and it feels very out of place in a game like Black Desert Online. All it does is hinder progress and force you to spend time waiting for energy to recharge.
This isn’t helped by the game’s dialog system, which plays out like an RNG-based minigame. In order to unlock certain quests, you have to interact with NPCs a certain amount of times and earn affinity points with them so that they “like” you enough to share a quest with you. It’s very easy to fail the minigame, so you usually end up spending a lot of energy just to pick up new quests.
There are similar issues with the game’s itemization system, which feels bare compared to other MMORPGs. Finding a new piece of loot is always something to look forward to in these types of games. It serves as a visual representation of time you’ve invested into the game and a reflection of your overall skill level. That isn’t the case in Black Desert Online. The appearance of gear you can equip is generic and rarely changes despite any stat differences. Meanwhile, the only cool outfits you can wear are those you have to pay for with cash. The vanity outfits overwrite whatever generic piece of armor you have on. At the game’s launch, there are roughly four purchasable costumes per character class, so there isn’t even much variation in how characters appear apart from using dyes. Which also cost money. Outfitting is nowhere as fun as it should be.
Black Desert Online may not have substantial outfitting, but the customizability offered by its character creator is second to none. You can design your character to look like literally anyone, provided you have the time and inclination to do so. I made a warrior who looks a little like Ron Swanson. Others have reproduced famous actors, characters from Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and even Michael Jackson.
Another way Black Desert Online tries to differ from other games is through its combat system, which controls like a hack-and-slasher. Attacks are manually executed, taking movement, sprint and mouse buttons into context to perform different attacks–all of which are unlocked as you level up and earn skill points. Some of the moves can be executed by hitting the number keys, just like in a regular MMORPG, but it was easy for me to get the hang of the context-sensitive moves as I played.
In addition to the action-based combat, another improvement the game has over its rivals is traversal, which allows you to mantle over fences, scale walls, and climb onto the roofs of buildings. Moving around isn’t restrictive or constrained and feels like a huge leap above what you might find elsewhere.
Despite its differences to existing games, Black Desert Online still has the familiar grind of killing monsters and completing quests that’s as repetitive as it was in any other MMORPG. The experience is less demanding than tactical-oriented action games like Destiny and The Division, but it requires too much attention to provide the kind of meditative experience you might experience in a typical MMORPG with skill rotations. Monsters are next to mindless and simply stand around waiting for players to engage them or enter their radius. It’s a step above the combat typically seen elsewhere, but it doesn’t have the same fluid pace of the action games it draws inspiration from due to the lack of challenge. I steamrolled my way through most encounters.
Black Desert Online‘s quests are as boring as they come. Right from the start, you have to kill low-level monsters and perform fetch quests. None of these missions make me feel like I was playing anything more than a typical MMORPG. The game’s more innovative features did little to raise my level of engagement with the story.
Still, combat and quests aren’t the only activities the game has to offer. There’s a complex trading and crafting system that makes up a big part of the endgame – provided you care enough about the game’s economy to participate in it. You have to buy houses and workshops, staff them with workers, and manage resources, which you can use to craft materials used in the forging of powerful weapons and armor. If any of these elements sounds confusing, that’s because they are. The game suffers from having too many complex systems, too poorly documented to offer an easy “in” for anyone unable to spend too much time just trying to figure out the basics. The UI alone is unintuitive.
A lot of these elements are superfluous to anyone who just wants to have an adventure. I expect most gamers, like myself, will simply end up skipping these features unless they’re absolutely intent on maximizing their time with the game. With so many other great games out on the market, it can be hard to justify spending the time required to make any headway into the game’s trading and crafting systems without sacrificing playtime elsewhere.
Black Desert Online has a long way to go in terms of content if it wants to compete with the big dogs. It may well find a small niche of its own provided that the developers fix what’s already there and truly put its strengths to good use. More challenging encounters, better quests, and gear that actually changes in appearance would go a long way towards making BDO the “next gen MMORPG” it wants to be.
Bottom Line: Black Desert Online wants to be distinct from other MMORPGs, but it isn’t different enough in the ways which really matter. The game’s few innovations aren’t enough to make up for its myriad shortcomings, making it come across as just another MMORPG.
Recommendation: If you aren’t already sick to death of the genre and have hundreds of hours to burn on its deeper systems, it’s worth trying out. Otherwise, play a game that actually respects your time.[rating=2.5]