I had the hardest time getting into Black Desert Online [official site]. Learning to enjoy it feels like systematically dismantling every instinct MMORPGs have taught me. Black Desert, a sandbox MMO that launched in Korea last year, is the Invasion of the Body Snatchers of online RPGs; underneath its familiar skin is a refreshingly subversive experience. But the result is a game that can be confusing, frustrating, and captivating—often at the same time. Even as I continue to sometimes struggle against it, Black Desert Online has me locked in its grip.
If there’s one reason why I’m enamored with Black Desert Online, it’s that after over 50 hours with it, I’m still constantly discovering little nuances I had no idea existed. As someone who has grown exceedingly tired of the cut-and-paste template of most MMORPGs, it’s refreshing to play one with so many original ideas. But just because so much of Black Desert Online is new doesn’t mean that it’s always executed well.
Unlike most MMOs, which are unequivocally focused on killing stuff and then—maybe if you feel like it—some light crafting, Black Desert is a sandbox with a multitude of ways to spend your time. Sure, you’ll probably still kill a lot of stuff, but I’m only halfway to the level cap because I’ve been absorbed by all the different branches of crafting, trading, and exploring.
Black Desert Online is also gorgeous. While the character models can be beautiful in their own way, I’m far more in love with how convincing and organic the world feels. There’s a real display of restraint in the artwork, making Black Desert look like it’s set in medieval Europe until you realize that the person you’re buying a fishing rod from is a talking otter. That low-fantasy realism is aided by some stunning environmental lighting, which creates awesome sunsets and sunrises, and I enjoy the subtlety of the architecture. So many fantasy MMORPGs try to wow you with fantastical cities that feel bombastic instead of impressive. But in Black Desert, there’s a simple elegance to many things, like a ruined castle perched on a cliff overlooking the sea that feels both wondrous and completely natural at the same time.
There’s a high price to pay for such an expansive world free from loading screens, unfortunately. Objects will pop into view constantly, and it can be really distracting as you move about in dense cities. Keeping a steady 60 FPS feels like a distant dream in busy areas too, even with many high end options turned off. Still, the wrinkles in Black Desert’s beauty are easy to ignore—or at least live with, especially when you’re wrapped up in its many distractions.
One of the most distinctive features is the contribution system, which is one of the many ways your character grows as you play. Instead of awarding experience for your main level, most quests offer experience that increases your contribution points. Using these refundable points, you can rent gear from NPCs, buy property for a variety of uses, or unlock nodes that you discover on the map, using them to create trade routes or production chains.
By hiring NPC workers, I can send them off to unlocked nodes to harvest resources, like potatoes from a farm, and then either craft them into something useful or sell them on the market. Of course, I could head out and do all that gathering myself, but that feels tedious and boring, so being able to outsource it to NPCs while I do something fun is a great alternative.
Black Desert Online has a good deal of automation, and while I’d normally balk at the idea of being able to set waypoints and let my character autorun to them, these features feel necessary. The world of Black Desert is massive, and there’s a distinct focus on making a more realistic experience rather than a convenient one. Objects in your inventory weigh you down—even money, there’s also no immediate fast travel, bank space is regional, and everything you do has some associated maintenance fee that’ll always keep you working. With all this effort paid to creating a more demanding game, being able to let my character steer herself back to a city after a quest feels like a natural concession.
Some people will hate the idea of an MMORPG that strips away all that convenience, but I adore Black Desert’s stricter rules as they force me to play with more intention. They contribute to a greater sense of investment in the world than I’ve felt in a long time from an MMO. While much of what’s possible in Black Desert Online can feel like simple busywork, like having to repair your wagon after a night of trade runs, it also feels more cohesive and, in some cases, more rewarding. With so many things to do, I found it easy to lose myself for hours at a time—even if it was doing something as mundane as brewing beer and transporting it to market.
I’m also hard pressed to find any reason to logout of Black Desert Online, and it’s common for me to leave the game running for days at a time. While there’s plenty to do that requires you to actively play, there’s also a few things that can be done autonomously. Before I go to bed, I park my character at a quiet fishing spot with an empty inventory, leaving them to fish while I sleep. Throughout the day, I’ll leave the game minimized and pop in now and again to tend to my farm or send my workers back out to nodes to gather some more. Normally these kind of AFK activities feel like they exist in spite of more engaging alternatives, but they make Black Desert feel very flexible. No matter what I feel like doing, there’s always something to suit my mood.
If building node networks or AFK fishing isn’t your thing, you can also experiment with horse taming and breeding, crafting, hunting, farming—the list goes on. What’s fascinating is that all of these pursuits feel just as fleshed out as the next. Fishers will eventually progress to owning boats and sailing for deeper waters, traders will upgrade from donkeys to carriages, and sprawling production networks can be a full-time hobby. There’s a lot to learn, and that feeling of finally understanding a complex mechanic, like how a region’s moisture level affects your crops, can be a great reward.
Unfortunately, Black Desert’s Korean roots can really tangle things up. The English localization is rough, and with such a complex game, not being able to understand certain functions is frustrating. Like EVE Online, Black Desert struggles with disseminating relevant information to new players. This is also compounded with the fact that Black Desert is caught in the awkward space of looking like a generic MMO but being drastically different, creating a gap between expectation and reality. My first dozen hours were difficult, as everything I had learned from playing other MMORPGs felt useless, and it made the game feel unintuitive until I learned to speak its language.
While there is a somewhat forgettable story that will push you forward, you’re not obligated to follow it beyond the intro cutscene. This nonlinear approach means it’s easy to stumble into concepts that you weren’t supposed to encounter until later, creating tension between Black Desert’s sandbox nature and its linear approach to teaching you how to play. In-game video tutorials help a little, but I still found the game to be too confusing too often.
Of course, what MMORPG wouldn’t be complete without killing something? The good news is that combat is fluid and fun. My ranger gracefully leaps around the battlefield, devastating groups of enemies with skills that trigger by using combinations of key presses in concert with mouse clicks. The control system is a nice departure from hotkeys (though you can still use them), and I quickly internalized all my different moves and the ways they could flow together. Although sometimes they flow together in unintended ways: because each class has so many moves mapped across only a few possible key combinations, I ran into situations where my character do one thing when I meant her to do another, which is annoying. The difference between ‘a + left click’ and ‘left click + a’ is just too narrow.
Enemies in Black Desert aren’t much of a challenge, but I also suspect this might be because most MMOs have conditioned me to tackle them one at a time. I found combat to be more satisfying when I’d run into an area, pull a dozen or so baddies, and then kite them around while unleashing hell. It evokes the same feeling of ceaseless slaughter from games like Diablo 3. Combat moves at such a rapid pace that even a quest to kill a hundred monsters can take just five minutes in a well populated area.
There’s no question that, still being a Korean MMO, Black Desert Online is a grind. While it feels better masked by the diversity of non-combat activities, you’re still going to spend many hours killing the same monsters and doing uninventive quests. Since only a few offer combat experience points as a reward, the only real way to increase your level is to head out and kill stuff.
Fortunately, Black Desert awards you with a mighty boost to experience when farming in groups, so teaming up can cut the grind significantly. Getting to max level is taking most players around 10 hours, making Black Desert one of the quickest MMORPGs to level in. And, to be honest, I like that it dispenses with the facade of using quests to level up. Too often it feels like unnecessary padding. To be able to head out to a field and kill some monsters with friends for an hour and gain a few levels actually feels more productive than shallow quests trying to feign some sense of adventure.
For fans of dungeons or raids, Black Desert Online offers next to nothing. There’s a few world bosses to kill, but that’s about it. Endgame activities are almost entirely focused on weekly events called sieges that allow guilds to claim ownership of territory on the map. Unfortunately, the system won’t be implemented for a few more weeks, so I can’t say how well it supplants the need for traditional PVE. It does sound awesome on paper, though.
Without getting a taste of the endgame sieges, I do have concerns that Black Desert could eventually lose its lustre. EVE Online’s constant political maneuverings keep things exciting while giving players agency. I’m not convinced that Black Desert will be able to supply that same experience, which can be important in such a self-directed game. Right now, I’m happy to log in and explore a little more each day, but I can foresee a time when there’s nothing left to learn and my character feels like they’ve hit a ceiling. The North American version is behind the Korean version by a few expansions. I’ve only read about them a little, but they seem to add even more things to discover, which is promising.
This problem of hitting a ceiling is potentially compounded by the dire lack of character customization features, which is a big disappointment considering how gorgeous and flexible the character creator is. You could spend hours sculpting the perfect avatar, but Black Desert’s lack of distinguishable armor means you’re always going to look like every other character in your class. There’s a few costumes available on the premium cash shop, but they are expensive—costing as much as Black Desert Online itself—and are so few in variety that it’s not worth it. You can either look like 75% of players or the 25% who sprung for premium costumes.
The dye system is the bigger frustration, as colouring your armor consumes the dye and the only way to obtain more is through buying mystery packs from the cash shop. Fortunately, the sins of the cash shop end there, and players don’t need to worry about any items giving others an unfair advantage (at least not yet).
Those complaints feel relatively small compared to Black Desert Online’s immense scope. And even if my worst fears come true and I eventually run out of steam, I can’t say I’ll regret the time that I’ve spent. There’s so much to see and explore, so many concepts to wrap my head around, that Black Desert Online is a truly memorable MMORPG—if not always a great one. It can be hard to embrace what it is instead of trying to force it to be what it isn’t, but Black Desert offered me a chance at escaping from the by-the-numbers slog that MMOs have become. It’s exciting to play an MMO that understands the importance of building a world worth living in, not just erecting a corridor of static set pieces to run through on your quest for power.
Black Desert Online is out now.