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Black Desert's Beauty Could be More Than Skin Deep

Not your typical MMORPG

We've been peering at Korean MMORPG Black Desert Online [official site] with some interest since plans for a western release were announced in 2014. We've cooed at trailers, pondered the combat system and applauded the character creation tools. To learn more, we sent Agent Messner into the fray and he returned with exciting news. Could this be the MMO for those of us who are weary of the genre's formulaic structure?

I am bored to death of MMORPGs. Not their potential mind you, but the execution. The seemingly endless chains of quests, the sole focus on murdering everything that doesn't give you a quest (and some things that do), and, perhaps most of all, the way developers think that shoving more quests into the meat grinder is the solution to prolonging a game's lifespan.

This is exactly what I was expecting to see when I sat down and hesitantly logged into Black Desert Online for the first time. Here we go again, I thought. But within my first hour of playing, Black Desert Online revealed that it was more than just a pretty face (and some not-so pretty faces). It made me feel something that I haven't felt while playing an MMORPG in a very long time: I felt lost. The good kind of lost.

If you were to take most of the bigger MMORPG releases of recent years and cut them open what you'd find is that, despite how their skins might differ, they all possess the same bones. Structurally, the genre hasn't changed much since World of Warcraft. And as the language of MMOs—terms like 'dungeons' and 'raids'—becomes less of an magical concept and more of a retreaded staple, all the joy of discovery is slowly drying up.

Black Desert Online — which should be arriving some time in March — doesn't invent a whole new language for the genre, but it does add a new lexicon of ideas that have, for me at least, made the conversation around MMORPGs interesting again. Playing this game feels like exploring an unfamiliar room with the lights out. I'm not immediately aware of where the walls are, and bumping around in the dark when I'm used to knowing all the fixtures of a room feels so damn refreshing.

Despite that sense of being in a dark room, you'll still be wrapped up in the most basic RPG concepts like leveling up, managing gear, killing monsters and completing quests. You might not know where the furniture is but you'll know what kind of furniture it is when you stumble across it. Black Desert uses all of those familiar features as a foundation to explore more interesting ideas that its more statistic and progression driven peers rarely visit. And where Black Desert steers close to tradition, there always seems to be an effort made to introduce some wrinkle to the formula that you might not have expected.

A great example of this is the knowledge system, which acts as a repository for all the lore, characters, places, and interesting little tidbits you discover on your adventures. Knowledge isn't just for those of you who like to read every little detail, either. Its snakes its way into all sorts of cracks in the game, influencing certain systems in a manner that feels satisfying and cohesive.

Just about every non-player character in the game has some opinion of you that you can influence by engaging them in conversation using the tidbits of knowledge you've picked up on your journeys. But not every character will care about what you have to say, so finding the right topics of interest is a hunt in itself.

That particular mini-game can be confusing — a problem made worse by Black Desert Online's unwillingness to explain how everything works — but once you understand its quirks it can be a fun distraction, running around town trying to win everyone's affections. It's not nearly as silly as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion's conversation system, where you'd take turns insulting and complimenting a character in rapid succession until they're likely so confused they submit and spill all their sweet secrets just to get the whole awkward affair over with.

Instead, each round of the game has a different objective that you must achieve by deploying your topics of knowledge in a specific order. There's an element of random chance that can make the whole affair feel more like a card game, what with each topic having its own stats that impact your overall chance of success. If you succeed, you can double down and make the character like you even more, but if you fail to grab their interest with your conversational arts they'll lose any affinity they had gathered for you during that conversation.

What I really enjoy is that the point of all of this is that characters in Black Desert aren't always willing to spill all their secrets to you just because you're the hero, and they feel far more fleshed out than the window dressing NPCs you'll see in other games. Many of the quests in the game can only be unlocked once you've earned the respect of the quest giver. Beyond that, characters might also have their own knowledge to share, a unique special item they'd be willing to loan you, or might even allow you to purchase rare goods once they like you enough.

Knowledge also seeps into how much energy you have, which is a slowly replenishing resource you expend on certain tasks like crafting, stealing from NPCs (yes, you can do that), and a whole host of other things. Don't worry, this isn't like Archeage's 'labor points', which were a way to limit how much a free-to-play player could accomplish in a given amount of time. As it stands, energy isn't tied to any financial model and it expands rapidly as you acquire more knowledge.

It's an interesting relationship that gives extra energy for completionists who manage to hunt down all the possible knowledge on a given topic. The game will even provide some clues as to where you should look, as certain things can be a little easy to miss, like letters left on tables or characters who are tucked away and out of sight.

When I arrive in a new town, my first mission is always to walk around and talk to every character (thus unlocking their specific topic of knowledge). It ends up being aa fun and productive way to learn who's who while also picking up any immediately available quests and learning the locations of any persons of interest who I might need to come back to later.

By far the biggest reason why Black Desert Online has managed to keep attention has to do with how obsessed the game seems with creating a convincing world to exist in. While I understand the benefit of mainstay MMORPG features such as fast travel and matchmade dungeon groups, all of that casual-ization for the sake of convenience has butchered the sense of wonder and atmosphere that older MMORPGs have in spades.

Too much convenience can shatter any sense of investment in your virtual life. There's no real sense of being in a place when you can pop open a window and warp to a dungeon you've completed dozens of times with a group of random players you're rarely encouraged to interact with. In a way, MMORPGs are terrible at defying the internal logic of their own worlds. You rarely feel like a virtual citizen, just a dungeon-running sweatshop worker doomed to always chase that next piece of better equipment.

While I'm still too early into Black Desert Online to judge it conclusively, I have a feeling that it is going to be one of the more convincing online worlds of recent memory. There's so much attention paid to making everything feel logical and cohesive, even in small details like the fact that the horse you ride doesn't magically vanish when you dismount. If you're going to take a horse out of your stable, you'll need to bring it back when you're done with it. If you hop off and abandon it in the woods and never return to reclaim it, it risks becoming injured and you'll be forced to pay those costly medical bills.

I love playing an MMO that isn't always trying to push me to forward but rather allows me to breathe, soak in the ambiance, and go at my own pace without feeling like I'm missing out. It's the first time in a long while that I haven't been paranoid about how slowly I'm levelling. I'm more than happy to just play the game and enjoy it. In that way, Black Desert Online feels more like a single-player RPG than an MMORPG. And yes, that's a compliment.

Of course, eventually everything new and exciting about Black Desert will inevitably become routine. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of its ideas gobbled up by future MMORPGs to become their own tropes either. But what I can say is that Black Desert might be the MMORPG for people like me who are dead tired of the same old song and dance. I don't think it will be the next big evolution that it bills itself as, but I do think that it's poised to finally bring some much needed water to a genre dying of thirst.

Black Desert Online launches in March. You can apply to be part of the latest beta right now.

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Steven Messner