That familiar medieval fantasy bent, with just a hint of Tuscan influence
Before actually logging into Pearl Abyss’ Black Desert Online (BDO), my only real knowledge of the title was from talking heads on the internet chattering on about the character creation systems. I hadn’t done much research about it at all, really; for a good while, I have been ensconced comfortably in the niche of indie sim and strategy titles. I was quite comfortable there, in my nook, but I had a hazy memory of a time long passed when I had been in a different nook, a more MMO-shaped one. “What the heck,” I thought, “let’s give it another go.” And in I ventured, into this title of which I’d heard so much of the luster and so little the substance.
Immediately, I felt the appeal of the much-discussed character creator. The depth and possibility are as difficult to overstate as they are plain to view, allowing you a level of granularity in sculpting the body and facial structure of your character that is, simply, absent from most MMOs. You can even design your own hairstyle, if you have the patience. Still, while the shaping of the face allowed a welcome — if unfamiliar — depth, there were a few surprising omissions: skin blemishes, scars, and imperfections are in noticeably short supply, and freckles are non-existent outside of a gaudy tattoo. Further, while the facial sculptor allows a great deal of precision and detail, it does have limits; chiefly, it favors more neutral expressions, and if you (like me) are seeking to make a more bizarre default expression, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed in the constraints. For all but the most finicky, however, Pearl Abyss’ character editor will more than suffice.
Having neither shame nor class — nor respect for fast-food trademarks — I crudely modeled my character after a certain redheaded burger icon and proceeded into the game proper. I noticed a few things right away: comparatively little was black (more of a ‘leaves-and-grass’ green, really), even less could be considered desert, and all of it was gorgeous. If the character editor is the hors d’oeuvre, the powerhouse graphics of the actual game-world are the entree. The world’s palette is vivid and lively, and the stylings and aesthetics of the starting zones have that familiar medieval fantasy bent, with just a hint of Tuscan influence. Character animations are smooth and well-wrought — if occasionally over-dramatic for certain NPC idle loops. Perhaps Black Desert Online’s only real graphical drawback is the hefty rig it demands to get the full experience (On highest settings, I averaged between twenty-four and thirty frames-per-second, on a machine that was high-end two years ago). If you’re accustomed to MMOs letting graphical oomph take a back seat to network and performance concerns, you’ll be in for a pleasant change of pace.
I was enamored, in any case, but strong presentation means little if the principal dish isn’t of substance. Imagine my pleasure, then, to find another surprise: Black Desert has some meat to it. I’ve come to expect most MMOs to follow World of Warcraft’s example, and offer combat which is focused on managing ability cool-downs, target prioritization, and basic positioning, as opposed to raw dexterity: not so with BDO. Combat here works like what you might find in a third-person adventure or fighting title, with various attacks and abilities activated by entering the correct sequence of commands with the correct timing to pull out combos and perform progressively more powerful, flashy moves. With a ranged class, you even have some semblance of aiming to do, as the target lock does actually take your mouse movements into account, causing you to accidentally hit an unintended target if you aren’t careful.
Beneath all the wolf pelts and goblin hordes there exists a strikingly complex economic management sim funded by your journeys
Perhaps the highest praise I can give the combat is that, every so often, I actually had to force myself to stop grinding mobs and go experience other aspects of the title. But, questing is, as far as I’ve progressed, nothing about which to write home. The story is generic, and most quests are simple hunt-and-fetch affairs, with some exploration and narrative thrown in as you wade through the usual batch of forest animals, goblinoids, and other genre staples. Questing is, at its core, a way to get players more experience, items, and keep them moving through the world, but without unique monsters, storytelling, or quest mechanics, BDO’s quest feel a little shallow.
This lack of narrative depth might be excused, however; as in progressing through the early levels you will eventually come to realize that there is another level to the experience sitting right beneath the surface of the more traditional MMO trappings. Beneath all the wolf pelts and goblin hordes there exists a strikingly complex economic management sim funded by your journeys. As you quest through the world and perform certain actions, you earn a second kind of experience, called Contribution Experience. Contribution Experience can be spent on a number of things, but among the more notable are buying property, setting up trade routes, or investing into a node (a predefined area of the world, usually a city, town, or other notable location). All of these can be beneficial, providing storage, resources and income, and improved drop rates, respectively. I actually managed to buy a house in a fairly short amount of time, once I understood how the system worked.
"Once I understood how it worked,” is actually something of a recurring phrase, when I reflect on BDO. There is a lengthy tutorial on the basics, but beyond a certain point explanations become sparse or non-existent and, were it not for some external research, I would have completely missed a large chunk of the title’s depth. Further, the confusion brought on by the lack of tutorials opens the door to another sticking point: localization seems to have been somewhat rough. The voice acting work was actually quite respectable, but many of the translations in the text are just ever-so-slightly wrong. It gives the title a stilted charm, at best, and is outright confusing at the worst, but it’s very consistently noticeable, either way.
There are a few rough patches. There are forgettable stories, there’s utilitarian questing, unoriginal monster design archetypes, and the ever present off-kilter translation mixed with sparse in-game guidance. But, despite all that, Black Desert Online still puts its best foot forward with a rich character customization palette and follows up with a visually striking experience that blends unique world mechanics with exciting combat to overcome its shortfalls in spades. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s definitely worth a try.