Korean MMORPG Black Desert Online has been out on PC since 2015 and on Xbox since last year. As the PS4 release hit, we decided it was time to take some time to look at this rather infamous game and see what all the fuss is about. As a side note to be fully transparent, playing a MMORPG to completion for review purposes is nigh-on impossible given how long they take to play and the fact that it’s the replay value of grinding for drops that keeps people coming back. Therefore we played the game through to level 20 (more on how long that took below) to try and play enough to get a sense of how the game plays and to play enough that we didn’t feel like there would be any major shifts that would change our opinion.
The game takes place in a high fantasy setting full of the sorts of races you might expect though some have varying names from what you might expect, and kicks off with the player waking up to find that they’ve lost they’re memory and have apparently agreed to some kind of deal with a strange black spirit. From then on it’s off to complete the standard MMORGP quests in the vein of ‘go kill 20 imps’, ‘some of the imps have magic rocks, go kill more imps till you have 10 of them’ or ‘go gather 20 herbs, they’re in that field, you know, where those imps have just re-spawned’.
The twist here is that rather than the tried and true World of Warcraft formula of clicking on an enemy and using skill keys till the enemy is dead, here you have full control of the character and combat plays out much closer to a Musou game with attacks being doled out in real time.
Unfortunately this brings to light the first of the big issues with the game – the combat is both far too easy and confusingly over-complex. Not knowing anything about the games classes or how they played (the game itself doesn’t give you much of a hint when choosing your starting class), I picked the sorceress only to discover that I was apparently a being of near-god level powers as it cut my way through swathes of enemies. I died once between starting and hitting level 20 (solely due to my own idiocy than to game difficulty I might add as I didn’t notice I was being chased by about 40 enemies till I stopped moving and they came at me from behind), and didn’t use a potion till about level 12 because nothing was actually damaging me at all. Given that I was playing solo this certainly brought the whole need for this to be an MMO into question as I had no need to team up with anyone else to beat any of the quests (I have not thus far encountered anything that would be equivalent to a WoW dungeon and the PVP events are locked till level 50).
Alongside this there was the issue that rather than the traditional skill system for an RPG of this type, i.e. basic attack and one new skill every few levels, I started the game with what seemed like 20 different attacks using a whole host of different button prompts to use. Rather than make combat better in any way it actually made things a lot more dull as you quickly get fed up with trying to puzzle your way through the various attacks and find the one or two that work (for a sorceress just spam circle, anything other than a boss will die long before you come close to running out of mana). This also makes the upgrade system less rewarding as you only really get to upgrade skills you started with for the most part and as you aren’t using most of them why do you care? On top of this you level up more quickly than you could imagine. I hit level 20 within about 4 hours. To make the obvious comparison (again), in WoW you'd probably have only gained a couple of levels in this time (this apparently evens out eventually with 50-60 being the area where you apparently stall out).
If you’ve heard of Black Desert Online before then it was almost certainly because of the visuals and they are certainly fantastic...eventually. Whether it’s as a result of the PS4 hardware (doubtful given how well other games perform) or issues with the game engine, the fact is that what’s on screen is constantly plagued by pop-in. The game world itself is always present and looks great but NPC’s often don’t load in by the time you reach them and when they do you’re generally confronted with a black mannequin onto which the various levels of texture can actually be seen to load in one by one. Frankly it just isn’t good enough and the game should not really have been allowed to launch in this condition as these are issues that stopped happening in most games over 10 years ago. Even some of the intentional visual choices prove baffling – why are places that you’re supposed to harvest for resources identical to places where you can’t? Does anyone really want to run around to every tree in a wood to see which one or two you can click on?
The issues with the game are sadly legion – having the game run your character automatically to the next bit of your current quest sounds like a good idea but then you aren’t exactly playing the game any more. Not to mention the fact that it often gets lost. Or stuck on a tree. Or forgets which quest you're on. Having everything accessible right from the start with no real guide means you don’t really know what half the things do or when to do them. Currency is so bizarrely skewed in quantity that even fairly basic-looking items in the auction house go for over 30,000,000 silver whilst items in the real-world cash shop seem pretty pointless (want to give your character some leopardskin underwear?). I mean it does avoid a pay-to-win scenario but the cash shops adverts are everywhere in the menus.
The only thing that really stands up is the thing you probably bought the game for in the first place – the character creator is absolutely insane in the level of detail that can be adjusted and is pretty easy to use too. Like a pre-set hair style but wish though couple of strands of hair were slightly to the left? Done. Want your female character to have a left boob that s bigger than the right own? Go for it. Want to make the splitting image of the Elephant Man? You can come pretty darn close! Admittedly the character creator and the in-engine tools that support it are likely in some part responsible for the graphical issues in the proper game but even so it’s a very impressive bit of kit to get to play with.
Ultimately the best thing you can say about Black Desert Online is that it’s cheap. £25 will get you the game and there’s no monthly subscription cost. At the end of the day though you would almost certainly be better off finding something else to play. Unless you’re looking to play with friends (or possibly to loose friends if you were the one who got them to pay for this) there’s really nothing here and you’d all be much better off picking up something like Elder Scrolls Online, Diablo 3 or just downloading Neverwinter which is free to play.