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Black Desert Online's combat feels like a revolution for MMOs

Just deserts.

I've lost count of how many times I've shuffled hotbars of skills and spells in persistent online fantasy worlds. What I want is my abilities available on keys one-to-five, because those are the ones I can get to quickly from movement keys WASD. But there are never only five abilities, and different situations call for different abilities.

Do I need my healing spells now or my damage spells, and what kind of healing spells do I need - group or raid? Are we fighting other players? That's a different kettle of fish altogether. It's like learning a fiddly piece of music - you get there eventually, with the help of macros and user interface modifications and a lot of practice, but not without some big f***ing swearwords along the way.

But what can you do? That's the way it's always been. Ask someone who's played an MMO to write down their keystrokes and they'll methodically punch out an alphanumerical code like some kind of medium relaying a message from beyond. MMOs are defined by it, and contained by it. But why? Black Desert Online raises the question by giving an inspired solution. It's so effective, so liberating, I'm not sure I ever want to go back.

Sad, sad Berol. You can make beautiful characters in Black Desert Online's creator. You can also make this...

Black Desert Online automatically maps abilities to button combinations. Your basic attacks are bound to left and right mouse button clicks but can be modified with WASD directional commands, as can abilities mapped to keys E, Q and F. Shift and Space bar are used, too. In other words there are enough possible different combinations to keep all your abilities accessible by your rooted-in-place WASD hand, and it works wonderfully.

Let's use my Sorcerer as an example. Typically, I make sure to have my shield (Shift+Q) up before I knock a group back (W+F) on their bums, and then I teleport-dash into them (Shift+LMB) with an ability that raises my critical hit chance. Then I carve them up with my magic claw attack (S+LMB), swiping in circles around them if I get hemmed in (S/D+LMB). I mix that up with a roundhouse kicking combo that boots them all up into the air (mash F), or with chain-lightning (Shift+RMB), or with a sprinting uppercut opener (Shift, then W+F). I also do things like heal (Shift+Space) and use another dash (W+RMB), another stun (S+E), and I summon and detonate Shards (these are my only two hotbarred abilities!). And there's a whole bunch of stuff I haven't unlocked yet.

Some attacks can be held or mashed to produce combos, like that roundhouse kick, or combined in a sequence with other attacks. Indeed, an early tutorial forces you to string together combos and they boost your damage if you can pull them off. It sounds overwhelming and it does take practice to get used to, but when you get it, it almost entirely negates the need for a hotbar at all - all I have on mine are those two abilities mentioned above and my potions. Unprecedented!

Furthermore, abilities being auto-assigned - and broadly comparable across characters, in terms of certain button combinations commanding certain types of attack - frees your mind to focus on the ebb and flow of combat. You score more damage when you attack from behind the enemy, when they're knocked down or when you attack them while they're in the air, so you'll want abilities that trigger those things, as well as any that buff you in the process. And this is all brought to life with such heft and pace and immediacy - characters whizzing around attacking from a thousand different angles, performing extraordinary feats - that it feels more like playing Street Fighter than a stately MMO. Or, like playing Dynasty Warriors, where heroes are superhuman fighters capable of slaughtering hordes of enemies in a storm of ridiculous power.

This might not make much sense, but trust me it's all very, very impressive.

But where Black Desert Online paves a way forward in terms of combat controls it looks to the past in a key part of its design. It's the first MMO I've seen in a decade that welcomes grinding back to the table, treats it as a friend, and I like that. Finding an area where enemies spawn, then killing them over and over until you level up - Black Desert Online is OK with that, and it even feels built around that when you consider how characters gather and slay enemies in droves, how you only have to press R to loot bodies near you, and how enemies drop stackable tokens you turn in in bulk to vendors for rewards. And I've missed grinding, weird as that sounds. I've missed the soothing simplicity of testing my character's capabilities, delighting in the big crits, the chiselled efficiency and a productive day's work. No groups to please, no questions asked.

That's not to say Black Desert Online is backwards. Quests are all around if you want them, and there's a whole Knowledge system layered onto it based on how many people in an area you know and therefore how trusted you are. But I haven't spent much time with it, because there's so much to understand all at once - something that was off putting at first. There are entire fishing and horse breeding and trading sub games - pursuits that require linking nodes between towns and hiring workers, for example. There's a housing economy and then of course there's high level group and player-versus-player combat to explore, where entire guilds can be at war and lay siege to each other.

Black Desert Online blindsided me. It didn't make the best first impression with doll-like characters in mini-skirts - I like an ugly orc, me - but underneath was a game with real swagger, assuredness and confidence. And it's a lot of fun. Black Desert Online has so surprised me.