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Black Desert Online review: lots of potential, but heavy on the MMO cliches

Black Desert Online is combat heavy, refreshing and intriguing, but it perhaps leans on too many familiar grinds.

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"While many MMOs have been slowly pushing towards more action-based combat systems, Black Desert Online feels remarkably similar to a full action-based game."

The most interesting thing about Black Desert Online is that even though it's newly released for Western audiences, the game itself isn't all that new. It's been around in a beta form in territories like Korea since 2013, and even the final release there was in 2014 - a good time ago now.

I find this immensely interesting as it's helped Black Desert Online's Western launch to bypass some of the stresses of a typical MMO launch. Things like balance issues and exploits aren't being found and hastily patched because the game has already gone through that iterative development in other territories. Users have given their response to key systems and mechanics and they've been tweaked in kind, likewise - and while of course the developer and publisher team are listening to feedback around the Western release all the same, the end result of the game being so thoroughly tested in other territories is that Black Desert Online feels like one of the most stable and complete launch MMOs I've played.

One key difference between the original territories and the West is that it was originally free-to-play but littered with a near-constant stream of cash-based barriers between players and certain types of content. In the West it takes on a buy-to-play structure not dissimilar to The Elder Scrolls Online or Guild Wars - you buy the actual game (at one of a few different tiers) and from there while there are additional micro-transactions in the game for non-essential things, you essentially get access to the whole game, ostensibly forever, for that price.

It's a better structure than those other territories got, and while I understand from those more familiar with it the Korean BDO was perhaps hounded by its use of pay walls, that isn't an issue here.


Much has been said about Black Desert Online's character creator, so I'm not going to harp on about it here - but just know that it's damn impressive and produces some truly beautiful (or horrifying, if you wish) characters. I do have one minor complaint - while I understand the reasoning behind locking classes to one gender and race at the same time I'm not convinced it works - I don't see why someone can't be a giantess mage, for instance - it's a shame that while the creator provides so much choice, in this aspect that choice is limited.

What I found most immediately striking about BDO - especially considering it's technically already three years old - is just how fluid and enjoyable its combat system is. While many MMOs have been slowly pushing towards more action-based combat systems, this feels remarkably similar to a full action-based game.

All attacks are manually aimed with mouse look, for instance. In my first hour, I spent a while wondering when the hell the game was going to tell me how to lock on - but it never does. That never comes. BDO expects you to instead take to combat in a more fluid manner, dashing about and keeping your sights on the enemy like any other action game. Dodging, something often resigned to a skill in MMOs, is just dropped onto a double tap of a direction button... just like an action game.

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One of the first things the game teaches you in early tutorial missions is how to combo, to keep hitting enemies while they're in hitstun with moves that'll chain together without giving them a chance to recover. Most abilities are kept away from the typical 1-9 hotkeys, and instead are used with button combinations. Forward and right click together might perform one skill, S and left click might perform another - it's surprisingly action-driven.

While not true for all classes, with bigger brawlers remaining more planted, many are like the Sorceress I played with high manoeuvrability, expected to dance around the enemy and the battlefield. It's surprisingly energetic for a genre that tends to be able to be experienced in a more relaxed, hotkey-driven manner.

This movement plays into things outside combat, too. Playing Black Desert Online I can't help but recall a preview presentation for another MMO I covered here on VG247, Final Fantasy XIV. A big deal for them was jumping fences and the like - and in a later expansion, a bigger deal still was flying about. These are both admirable things in a huge online open world, but Black Desert Online impresses a little more still in this area - characters can clamber ledges or vault over things like fences and the like - again, it feels like an action game.

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That said, this might not necessarily be a positive point to all reading. Hardcore MMO fans might not be so into this - MMOs are games you play for a long time, and some might be huge fans of the more relaxed pace. Even an easier mob - and it feels like a lot of them are, with player vs enemy difficulty lacking - requires concentration to keep focus on them. For others who are more into action games as standard, the basic truths of being a server-bound game may hurt in another way, with latency and the like somewhat dimming that sense of it being a 'proper' action game. I still walked away from it impressed, however - it feels a brave marriage of 'true' action and traditional massively multiplayer offerings.

In this sense Black Desert Online feels bold, but in others it's certainly less so. The first couple of hours throw you into a suite of tediously-designed fetch-and-kill quests, for instance. There's memes about the MMO trope of 'kill 10 goblins' and such, and BDO jumps right into that trope straight away - and not even it's cool-feeling combat can save that from feeling a bit of a slog the sixth or seventh time you do it.

Also strange is how your character evolves thanks to several different currencies of experience that are so initially confusing we put up a guide page explaining them. There's experience, contribution points, energy, knowledge and skill EXP to keep track of - plus money and the like. Once you understand it this all actually turns out to be a pretty interesting and entertaining system, but early on it's enough to make you go cross-eyed. Actual quests don't reward much experience to level up but offer up other vital resources, with the game encouraging you to strike a balance between grinding combat against random enemy spawns in the field and questing that I sometimes liked and sometimes found to be a frustration.

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"An enormous and well-designed world and a core combat system that offers some of the most immediate fun and feedback I’ve experienced in the genre."

That's the core of Black Desert Online in a sense: interesting, fairly unique-for-the-genre combat juxtaposed with uninspiring quest design and a difficulty level that doesn't stand up to the sort of high level execution the game's combat systems actually allow. A little extra challenge wouldn't go amiss, nor would more quest design beyond slaying monsters and gathering items.

All this might leave BDO lacking, but it actually has a few other tricks up its sleeve. The first is its world - the game is visually a treat for an online game if you've the hardware to support it, and the world and its lore seems intriguing. Better still is its solidly enjoyable side activity design, including a rather fascinating trading metagame that in many senses is a game unto itself.

In this system, you buy 'nodes' in cities then connect these nodes and trade between them. You can do this by hand or hire on 'workers' to do it in your stead - but workers will require housing to live in and food to eat. What follows is a resource management juggle, all underscored by the ever-present need to buy low in one place and sell high in another to maximize profits.

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This is just trading, but the mechanics that drive the likes of gathering and crafting are just as in-depth and influenced by the same systems. It's a satisfying thing to partake in - no bad thing considering how intense BDO's combat can often be, even if it lacks in challenge. If you need to step back, it's easy to do so with some of these mechanics while still growing your character, since all of these optional but refreshingly enjoyable tasks offer up some form of experience or another.

I opened this piece by suggesting that Black Desert Online's far earlier launch in other territories has helped ensure a much smoother launch in the West. That's definitely true, with the game feeling more polished and balanced than many other contenders have in the MMO space, even those from bigger companies. But it's clear that the game still has a way to travel to fulfil its true potential. Let me be clear - I'm nowhere near the end-game content yet - but even from my early time with the game, it's clear there's still lessons to be learned and work to be done.

In the world of MMOs that alone is no kiss of death. This is a game as a service; difficulty levels can be tweaked, enemy AI can be improved, and quests can be redesigned and patched - and there's no subscription fee either. What is on offer here is an enormous and well-designed world and a core combat system that offers some of the most immediate fun and feedback I've experienced in the genre. There's a lot of potential here - so here's hoping the developers don't rest on their laurels and continue to iterate now the title has seen a full Western release.

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