A Life Well Simulated
While a newcomer to the west, Black Desert has been making the rounds in Asian territories for a while. With its original beta starting in 2013, Black Desert wouldn’t come to the west in any form until more than two years later for a western localization beta test in December of 2015. The original western beta test (which I previewed) had no voice acting and was lacking content, but otherwise was largely identical to the finished game.
It’s great to see that one of my major worries coming out of the beta — lack of sustainable content — has been addressed. There’s a ton of stuff to do, and all of it progresses you in some way. Whether it be farming, fishing, cooking, or killing monsters, you’re always gaining experience in the relevant field. I’ve taken to calling Black Desert a “life simulator,” and this isn’t that far from the truth. You can buy a house, own land, and even eke out a living as a tradesman ferrying goods between towns, farms, and guard posts. Even joining a guild is like getting a job in this fantasy world, and feels organic as opposed to mechanical, even though it is deeply so: You sign a contract for a certain amount of time and are paid wages based on the length of your contract, with longer contracts paying more to the member. Even mounts aren’t as simple as other MMOs. Instead of having a tab for mounts, or an item in your bag, you have to go out and tame one, which you then have go to a stable to retrieve. I could drone on about the systems-heavy complexity of Black Desert.
What immediately sets Black Desert apart from other games in the genre is the combat. Fluid, frenetic, and varied, killing imps and goblins feels and looks incredible. Flashes and screen shake adds a weight to attacks that most MMOs completely ignore. Perhaps the most innovative thing about it is its utilization of the hotbar, the quintessential MMO Swiss Army Knife. While most games like it, even action MMOs, relegate attacks to hotkeys, Black Desert allows you to string every ability in the game together in combos without ever pressing a number key. Alternatively, you still have the classic 1-9 for attacks and potions at your disposal, if remembering combos is too demanding. For most classes, mobility is key, and if you stand still and let enemies attack you for more than a few seconds, you’re going to go down fast. Dodging and darting around while opportunistically attacking is the key to success. I played a Valkyrie as my first character (though later switched to Tamer on a different server) and could get away with mostly playing it like other MMOs, although as a Tamer I was forced to use a more hit-and-run style of play.
Its longevity, though, comes in the form of a frankly absurd amount of completely independent systems, all of which possess the depth of an entire game. If you want to get good at fishing, you’re essentially forced to create an entire character devoted to fishing, because each character has a limited amount of energy that refills over time. Nearly every action you do costs energy. Want to learn a new topic from an NPC? Five energy. Cutting down a tree, fishing, or crafting? One energy each. You regain energy at a pretty fair clip — one every three minutes — and can increase your maximum energy from doing certain quests, among other things, so it doesn’t feel hugely limiting. From first glance, having this system at all seems like a ploy to draw more cash out of its players, especially since Black Desert has no subscription model (though it does cost $30), but that’s not the case. There is a cash shop, but it’s entirely devoted to cosmetic items, experience boosts, pets, and housing items. Nothing that would give players any sort of advantage over one another is present, which is doubly important in this situation, since each profession has its own leaderboard. In these ways, Black Desert is a true sandbox. Sure, areas are separated by level range, but that’s only if you want to get into combat. As I understand, you can go almost anywhere from the beginning, and your interaction with the world is only limited by your skill in a specific field.
My main complaint is with a largely mandatory part of the game, the Amity system. It’s how you grow your relationships with NPCs, and in turn your path to new information, quests, and shop items. To put it bluntly, the minigame you’re forced to play sucks. It’s incomprehensible, overly complicated, and based more on mathematical minutia than actually feeling like you’re developing a friendship with a character. Basically, to gain Amity with an NPC, you have to know about topics they’re interested in. You gain this knowledge by talking to NPCs, completing quests, killing monsters, or finding things in the world. When the minigame starts, you’re tasked with arranging NPC portraits in a grid to direct the general flow of the conversation. It’s not an actual conversation, though: Instead, a line progresses from portrait to portrait, displaying either a happy or bored face to let you know whether the character liked talking about a particular topic or not. At least, I think that’s how it works. After over a hundred “conversations,” I still don’t know the ins and outs of the methodology.
I’m not sure how much compelling end-game content there is, because I’ll be honest, I just don’t have the time to spend a hundred hours a week on one game anymore. That isn’t to say that I didn’t play a good deal of it — I put in roughly forty five hours — but it’s just the nature of MMOs that in order to reach the end-game you’re required to spend hundreds of hours, which is time I just don’t have. Initial rumblings seem to indicate that the vast majority of the maximum-level play is focused around PvP guild wars, sieges, and the like, although I can’t imagine that Pearl Abyss isn’t working on some sort of PvE content.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Black Desert immensely and can’t wait until I have some more free time to play a ton of it. Maybe I’ll take a few days off and spend an entire weekend in my underwear, but for now, it’s hard not to recommend it to anyone with an interest in action RPGs or MMOs. It’s well-optimized, which is impressive considering Pearl Abyss wrote their own engine for Black Desert, and it looks gorgeous. Also, that character creator is still incredible, and you can even download it for free.
Final Verdict: 4.5 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Daum Games (NA/EU) ; Developer: Pearl Abyss ; Release Date: March 3, 2016; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $29.99 (Traveler’s Package), $49.99 (Explorer’s Package)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Black Desert Online provided by the game’s publisher, Daum Games.