When examining the last decade of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, a certain structure comes to mind. For possibly hundreds of hours, quests drive a linear progression. Loot is joyously discovered and then casually discarded. And dungeons and eventual raids cap the experience. Even combat between games has become somewhat routine. That’s not to suggest tradition is bad or boring, far from it, but when something different comes along it stands out all the more against a sea of familiarity. Pearl Abyss’ Black Desert Online is one such newcomer, a buy-to-play sandbox MMO of impressive scale, and one that’s left me thoroughly engaged by its independence from the expected format.
As previously stated, Black Desert Online classifies itself as a sandbox MMO. There are several ways to qualify such a designation, but the most obvious lie with the size of its world. The playable game space is absolutely sprawling. And more noteworthy is the fact that, once free of the initial loading screen, there are few interruptions or gated channels to corral you through. You can travel to any point in its open playground, at any time, without needing to follow a series of quests to get there first.
The freedom to navigate the map is important for reasons beyond witnessing a wide horizon. Several gameplay mechanics are tied to the ability to leisurely comb its vast reaches. For example, fast travel – the ability to teleport to objectives or locations – does not exist. All exploration is done in real time, either by foot, mount, or boat (characters can be set on auto-pilot to a waypoint). There are other layers of realism, as well. Mounts are physical creatures that can’t instantly be summoned. If you leave your horse in Veila, that’s where it will remain until released from their stables. Abandon it on the side of the road and it can get attacked and killed by wandering enemies. Likewise, money and items, all of which have weight, are only available at that their deposited location. Those restrictions, as daunting as they may sound, give meaning to a world so expansive.
Another way of explaining the aforementioned limitations is that Black Desert Online is meant to be inhabited. In many mainstream MMOs, it often seems like the journeys I’ve taken through them are near identical the ones others have followed. We’re all railroaded along the same paths. But outside Black Desert’s prologue, players can disperse in any which way. Quests become optional. It’s entirely possible to fight, fish, farm, trade, or craft the entire way to the soft level cap, all without touching any further story content. In fact, reaching level 50 can be done in as little as a dozen hours. The ability to set my own pace and create my own adventure has been refreshing. I’ve found myself invested in what I’m doing and where I’m going rather than feel like I’m being led on a leash through all the game’s content.
Regardless of the chosen direction, battling hordes of enemies is largely unavoidable. Thankfully, in the right situations, the combat system shines. Akin more to an action game, fights involve a precision of movement, reading the enemy’s animations, and successfully chaining attacks together into fluid combos. This is all done not via bindings on multitudes of bars, but with actions mapped to the keys surrounding movement controls and the primary mouse buttons. For instance, pressing the W and F keys together prompts my Sorceress to unleash a knockback attack. It’s all very intuitive, in addition to visually satisfying thanks to wonderful animation and graphical work, making it one of my favorite implementations of combat in an MMO to date. However, there’s not much opportunity for synergy between the eight classes outside of PvP sieges. The Valkyrie can heal her teammates and my Sorceress can buff damage for a limited time, but fighting goblins with friends lacks a certain methodical dynamic due to the frenzied pace of battle and precious little in the way of dungeons or end-game PvE content.
As much as I’ve been praising the game, it’s definitely not for everyone. If you’re not interested in PvP or partaking in one of the many robust tradecrafts, the end-game experience can seem rudderless. The quests are basic, the story difficult to follow, and there are no evil domains to clear with allies for levels and gear. I’m eager for the upcoming content that allows me to pirate the seas on a mighty vessel or worry about dwindling supplies while exploring a hostile desert, but absent my budding professions as a fisherman and boat builder, Black Desert Online appears shallow.
Impressions of shallowness generally depend on what you want to get out of the game, save for elements of its loot system. There are a limited number of armor and weapon sets to collect. The intention is that you’ll keep what you find and upgrade them instead. The Agerian set I farmed early in the game can carry me through most of my journey. Its speed attributes are perfect for my Sorceress. It’s a philosophy and system I don’t find fault with. The real frustration came when I realized every single set looks near identical to the rest. That meant every character I crossed paths with looked the same, as well. It’s disappointing for Black Desert Online to battle homogeneity only to wear its skin elsewhere.
There is one solution to the simple, overly abundant tunics offered by the base game: the cash shop. Several premium outfits, accessories, and even horse armors available to buy with the promise of more at a later date. Unfortunately, their prices are absurd. One complete outfit will set you back 30 dollars. And that purchase is usable for only a single character on a single server. The costs are excessive, especially when compared to the similar but less restrictive selections from other buy-to-play MMO cash shops.
Black Desert Online is not a free-to-play game, but at times it can feel like one. The absurd cash shop is only one symptom. A second takes the form of an energy system. There’s no way to replenish it with real money, at least, but it’s possible to eat up your reserves quickly. Chatting in the General channel uses energy. Gathering and crafting uses energy. Building reputation with NPCs through a conversation mini-game in order to unlock new quests and shop items uses energy. There are a lot of enjoyable tasks to occupy my time, which is why it’s so frustrating that the game keeps putting roadblocks in my way.
Despite my reservations, I can’t wait to jump back into Black Desert Online. Its tight combat, numerous tradecrafts, and extensive setting have left me hooked. If you’re craving something new over the well-traveled roads of many other MMOs, you owe it to yourself to give Black Desert a deeper look. But if dungeons, raids, and the treadmill of increasingly impressive loot are what you’re looking for, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Black Desert Online was developed by Pearl Abyss and published by Daum Games. It’s out for the PC. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.