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Black Desert Online is more than just a pretty face

Notes from the recent beta.

There's no arguing, Black Desert Online has one of the finest character creation screens of any genre. It's powerful enough to have been made its own download, a world away from just putting Head One onto Body One, or Boobs Two in the case of half the characters in most MMOs. Tweak face vertices. Make the perfect eyes. Apply make-up. Dye the tips of your hair. Make the character of your dreams, as long as they can more or less fit into an anime style Korean RPG.

Very satisfying. Well done, Pearl Abyss. Well done.

Wait, what's that? There's a game here too? Oh! Right. Yes. About that.

At this point, it's not too hard to predict, roughly, what new MMOs are going to play like. Black Desert Online felt like it was going to be of the Tera school, with lots of very pretty action-combat that isn't half as good as you can get in a single-player game, but definitely beats just clicking on an enemy and pressing shortcut buttons until it falls over.

Combat is solid for an action MMO, though as ever, not close to the same level as single-player hack and slash games can reach.

So it's proved to be, at least as far as the combat is concerned. Whatever class you've picked, there's a lot of stuff to be beaten around the face until it falls over and drops some form of reward and a quick dopamine squirt. Over the course of the very short beta test, there wasn't really the time to get to a point where enemies felt like more than that, though the dodging and combo systems do seem solid.

What surprised me was how much more Black Desert Online wraps around this system, and in particular how much it patterns itself after more single-player RPG customs. It doesn't care, for instance, if you go climbing and pulling yourself over the scenery just because you want to get to the top of a really big thing in the distance, and it rewards you with some stunning scenery - albeit with an unfortunate 'vibrance' filter on by default. It's like playing The Witcher 3 or similar with one of those ill-advised ENB mods.

The Witcher in general kept coming to mind, though more in terms of how Black Desert Online tries to simulate being a person with purpose rather than simply a wandering psychopath. Just doing the standard early level monster bashing is enough to show off a few interesting features, at least compared to the average western MMO. You need to kill multiple enemies to build up your knowledge of them, including their HP. Shortly after joining the server for the first time I also saw a message that warned that in a few minutes the world's monsters were going to become 'furious', doing more attacks but being worth more XP.

Similar complexities kick in when in town. People don't just hang around with a question mark over their heads and hope you'll solve their problems. Some do, though minus the question mark specifically, but most have no interest in spilling their guts to strangers. To make them open up you often first have to make a name for yourself in their town by talking to other folks, who in turn are willing to do more for you if you take the time to befriend them by being social or playing a mini-game that simulates a conversation by bringing up other people around town.

The map isn't just for figuring out where you are, but for slowly building up a personal empire between towns and resource nodes.

It's not the most complicated system ever, but like most of Black Desert Online's tweaks, it distinctly changes the vibe of things, from hoovering up quests and buggering off to being a known face in town. Tied to this is the ability to invest in the various settlements by connecting trade routes between the different areas, shipping items either personally or automatically, rather than all trade just being for endless Swords of Gallymok or whatever takes your fancy on the Auction House, and nodes to gather resources for crafting, should you believe it fitting for heroes to craft.

Most of this is staggeringly badly explained in the game itself, especially trying to claim a node only to be told that you need the preceding one. But, there's a definite sense of life to the world that most MMOs lack, including seeing carts rumbling around the place and plenty of players gathering in key parts of the map, like the beach where you have to summon a super-powerful imp and then probably that someone around you is willing to lend their sword for a bit. Obviously, a beta is always going to have more players around than normal, but just in terms of NPC activity the towns felt pretty active and alive. It's easy to do things like acquire a house, and find little touches like being able to rent equipment that you haven't yet earned outright.

The actual single-player questing that I did was pretty boring, with few memorable characters outside of a black spirit that haunts you and regularly shows up with new assignments that absolutely, totally, aren't leading you down the path of evil. The Black Spirit is adorable and fun, especially its delight at finally getting teeth, but as for the others - well, suffice it to say that Black Desert Online makes a teeny bit of a tactical error by having the first dialogue in the game be, I quote, "Humans always ask others to do bothersome chores."

They're quite bothersome to talk to, too. Every line of dialogue, not always from the same voice actor, comes with a generic bark that has nothing to do with what they're saying, and what they're saying isn't exactly the stuff of epic legend. At least, not so far.

The Vibrance filter is the default, but it often feels too strong. Like many user-made game filters, it's great for specific scenes, but not for all of them.

Black Desert Online's longevity is going to need to come from other directions, including its open world PvP, castle sieges and territory control systems, because World of Warcraft level writing and questing this is not. It's also a nuisance that if you just want to power through, you have to spend time talking and befriending not particularly interesting NPCs and playing glorified games of Tag just to build up the social capital to be allowed to go rescue their cat. Its sandbox elements, though still rooted in the theme park tradition more than the likes of Worm Online, may also be deeper than it comes across as in just this quick glimpse. That's Black Desert Online's sandbox, I mean, not the hypothetical lost kitty. It probably has its own.

Still, it's a game that's at least trying a little more than the average new MMO, combining some fun ideas with decent combat and absolutely top-tier graphics that make exploring its world a pleasure, and that world actually feels like a place instead of just another monster arena. At the very least, it's pushing that sense more than most, with an excellent engine and look.

As for the cash model, it's set to be a buy-to-play game when it comes out in the West, with a cash-shop bolted on the top. This is of course always a potential problem for games, especially ones from regions that don't share the western dislike of pay-to-win mechanics, though Black Desert Online thankfully doesn't look to have gone down that path so far.

TenTonHammer has however crunched the numbers and revealed that if you want new costumes and pets and things, you'd better hope that snot becomes an accepted currency because you will pay through the nose. $32 for a fancy costume, and Europe once again getting the shaft in terms of exchange rates. Ouch. Not entirely surprising, but still: ouch. You could buy a whole MMO for that. Specifically, this one. At least, when it lands over here next week.

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