Black Desert Online Preview: a Beautiful World that Doesn’t Hold Your Hand

on February 28, 2016 7:24 AM

Here at DualShockers we have been covering Black Desert Online for a long time. Personally, I’ve been excited about it pretty much since the first amazing screenshots and information of the Korean version appeared online.

At long last, the game is landing on the western shores, with a launch in both North America and Europe on March 3rd, and early access beginning today for those who purchased the most pricey pre-order package. Of course, you can expect a review, but reviewing a MMORPG doesn’t take just a few days (if you do it seriously, at least), so I’m going to share my first impression from the  multiple beta phases here.

Most of you probably don’t need my help in noticing this, but Black Desert Online is incredibly pretty. Normally MMORPGs dial graphics back quite a bit compared to single player or more limited multiplayer games, because the number of characters and models on screen tends to be higher and less predictable.  Black Desert Online is without a doubt the MMORPG that gets closest to an AAA single player game in terms of visuals, and interestingly, it does so without being too draconian in terms of hardware specs.

Character models are hands-down the most detailed and charming in the market. They would honestly not look badly in a single player game, especially due to the attention to small design minutiae of clothes and accessories.

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Even more than characters, the world is beautifully designed. Not only it’s fully open and enormous, with graphics that create stunning vistas, but it also makes sense, especially in the distribution of elevation and in the design of cities.

In many MMORPGs, settlements seem to be designed simply to provide quest hubs, while in Black Desert Online they actually look like real villages and cities in which actual people would live, work and shop. And “people” do indeed live, work and shop in Black Desert’s cities, as the developers at Pearl Abyss went out of their way to heavily populate them with a large amount of NPCs, most of which have no other reason to be there than for eye candy.

The weather system and dynamic day-night cycle combined bathe those beautiful visuals in an ever-changing light (and it can get really, really dark at night during a thunderstorm, and that’s awesome), contributing to create graphics that are  a notch or two over anything else the MMORPG market provides.

Directly bound to the visuals is the game’s absolutely fantastic character creation. It’s hands-down the deepest of any MMORPG I ever tried, and I played most of them. You can custimze your character all the say down to strands of hair and bone structure for each separate element of the body and face. It’s just astonishing.

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Unfortunately, it also comes with a relevant flaw: classes in the game are gender and race locked. This means, for instance, that all rangers in the game will be female elves. All warriors will be male humans and so forth.

And the limitations go further than that: some classes are pretty much locked by age as well. If you want to play a wizard, you’ll be a middle-aged or senior citizen. If you play a tamer, you’re what I call “lolilocked.” Basically, you’re stuck playing a lolita with youthful features and childish proportions.

So, that’s basically a hit and a miss at the same time. As long as you like your character to be between the set parameters, you’ll be greeted by an incredible customization depth. If you want something outside of the available class/race/gender/race combinations, you’ll need to find something else.

Combat is one of the most interesting aspects of Black Desert Online: forget targeting and clicking skills in a boring rotation. Here we have actual visceral action combat, controlled by combinations of keys that can prove a little challenging at the very beginning, but that are very satisfying and fun once mastered. It’s fast, and thanks to the ability to specialize your character in many different ways, it allows for a tremendous amount of variation in your play style.

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The game also does away with the traditional trinity. Classes could be identified as tanks and damage dealers, but there are no dedicated healing and support classes. Tanks also deal pretty good damage on their own.

One of the most interesting things of Black Desert Online is that it basically refuses to hold your hand. At the very beginning, you meet your “black spirit,” a character that I won’t spoil, but plays a very important role in both story and gameplay. At that point, you’ll easily think “ok, this is going to be my tutorial.” In fact, you’ll be prompted to do a few very basic quests, but that’s it. Considering the sarcastic nature of the black spirit, a line like “you expected a tutorial? What do you think this is, a game? Go forth and conquer, you dummy!”  wouldn’t have been out of place.

After that, you’re set free in the world, with very little actual guidance on what to do. There are quests, but most of them don’t provide leveling experience, that is mostly acquired by killing monsters. Of course, while doing quest you’ll slaughter a lot of critters, so you’ll progress anyway.

Black Desert Online definitely does not put you on a linear progression path from level one to the endgame. It almost dares you to just choose your path in this brave new world, without having your hand held and dragged along on a pre-defined path determined by the developers.

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Of course, this can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what you like. If, like me, you enjoy sandbox games, you’ll probably find Black Desert Online absolutely refreshing. On the other hand, if games that hold your hand every step of the way like World of Warcraft are what you enjoy the most, you’ll feel extremely lost, and this will probably hamper your enjoyment, at least at the beginning.

The sandbox aspect of the game doesn’t just include how you can improve your martial skills, but it lets you find your own progression among many different activities, some of which may even appear mundane. You can be a trader, moving goods from one city to the other, you can fish, you can build a crafting and gathering empire by hiring NPC workers, you can capture and breed horses… There are so many things to do that even hardcore sandbox fans may feel a little confused at the beginning, and I’ll consider that a good thing, at least on a personal level.

I talked about moving goods from one city to the other, and you’ll probably think that it’s easy. After all, you can just fast travel, right? Wrong. There’s no fast travel in Black Desert Online. You’ll need to cover distances in the old fashioned ways. You can walk, you can ride your beloved horses, or you can build a boat and use it to sail around seas and rivers.

This is, in my opinion, what makes Black Desert Online truly special.: its vast open world has meaning. The miles you travel are “real,” and you can’t just skip them with a click. Some might consider it tedious, but the world is so beautiful and so full of things to discover, that traveling is a pleasure.

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This ties up with the lack of hand-holding I talked about above. Since the game doesn’t lead you around by the nose, there are many places that you won’t come across unless you travel and explore, and each discovery is precious.

The lack of fast travel also makes horse breeding relevant. By capturing and breeding horses, you’ll gradually acquire faster ones, shortening your travel times. They’ll even learn skills, becoming true adventuring companions. If you’re a trader, you can even attach your precious mounts to a carriage, allowing you to transport your goods faster. Time is money, after all.

Add to that a very robust housing feature that also ties in with crafting and trading (you can purchase workshops and warehouses), a complex weather system that actually impacts gameplay, and a multitude of overlayed mechanics that seem to want to simulate “life” in a medieval world more than simply a slugfest against monsters, and you have a package that is hard to pass on, if anything for the way it tries to break the moldy mold (yes, I know that this is the lamest pun you’ll hear today) of the genre.

Black Desert Online also shines in the small and apparently insignificant details, like the fact that characters can wear eyewear and headgear at the same time, or how they will lean against a wall if you push back on it. The development team just poured into the game so much attention and care for small things that most others ignore, that discovering each of them is simply a pleasure.

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There even is a full-blown conversation system in which knowledge gained from NPC will allow you to speak with others, including a minigame that will lead to deepening your friendship with a multitude of secondary characters in the game, learning more about them and their life, and even earning special rewards.

Of course, Pearl Abyss’ massive creation will have to pass the test of time, under the scrutiny of the demanding western audience. We’ll have to see if the heavily guild-based endgame will prove satisfying, and if the PvP system will be balanced and not too frustrating both for those who enjoy it, and for those who don’t. There are many small tests ahead, and considering how many times I have been burned, I can’t honestly say if they will all be passed with flying colors.

One thing is for sure: the bold move of making Black Desert Online buy-to-play places an initial barrier to the acquisition of new users, but on the other hand might help the game’s longevity on the long run. Players won’t have to deal with a subscription, and the initial investment serves an an incentive to stick around, instead of just hopping from game to game to which they have no attachment.

We’ll have to see if this gamble will pay dividends, but I can easily say that, at least for those who love MMORPGs with heavy sandbox elements, Black Desert Online might very well be defined the most promising title of the past few years. Now that promise just needs to become an established reality.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.
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