Black Desert Online PC Review: A Virtual Life as Complex as the Real One

Black Desert Online wants to give you a window into a world completely unlike your own, but it doesn't always give you the tools you need to thrive there.

You've probably heard of Black Desert Online because of its absurdly beautiful character creator. If you're willing to put in the time, you can create some amazing-looking characters in BDO. The character creator is also a bit easier to manipulate than what you'll find in games like Fallout 4. Pearl Abyss deserves some applause for developing a character creator more flexible and easy to use than some major studios.

This visual quality extends to the rest of the world. Black Desert Online features an impressive graphics engine, with great lighting, a full day/night cycle, and dynamic weather. These systems all work together to create wildly varied world conditions. Standing on a hill at dusk on a clear day looks completely different from standing on that same hill on a foggy morning. Snow falls, sand storms whip up, and heavy rains blanket the countryside. Even better, this is one of the few MMOs where night actually feels like night in the real world; you'll need to equip a torch, otherwise, you won't be able to see beyond your immediate area. Is there a decent amount of pop-in and framerate dips at times? Sure, but I think it's worth it for some of the vistas you'll find.

Black Desert Online's strong visual presence is probably helping bring new players into the game, but what they find under the all the shine is what will determine if they stay with it or not.

In the old Everquest days, MMOs were hard and obtuse. These games would throw you into a world with some explanation, but you ultimate direction to be puzzled out. Communities sprung up around providing these explanations for players who simply didn't have the time or inclination to puzzle things out. This had the added benefit of improving player communities through the sharing of relevant information. The problem is if you didn't know where to find that info or you ran into a troll, your experience wasn't a pleasant one.

It's been a long time since those days, since World of Warcraft tore down that idea and replaced it with the theme park MMO model. You pick a class, the game teaches you the basics, and then you get funnelled through the world to the maximum level cap and endgame, which usually consists of heavy repetitive grinding for gear, group content, and expert-level challenges.

Black Desert Online, from Korean developer Pearl Abyss, is not that kind of game. It's what we tend to call a sandbox MMO, like ArcheAge and EVE Online. There's combat and classes here, but that's not the point. There's no real endgame here in the traditional sense. Black Desert Online is a game that attempts to be more open and freeform. The game even offers a few new ideas, even if the developer's aims outstrip their execution.

You'll begin Black Desert Online like you would any other MMO. There's a rough story about the Black Spirit, a dark essence that guides you through the world for some unseen purpose. There are also other story characters, but storytelling is really BDO's weak point. Being a Korean title from an independent studio, the voice acting is frankly not up to par and the translation is rough at best. I can't say you'll particularly care about any of the story characters.

The early game gives you a rough tutorial on combat and questing. Combat in Black Desert Online is like Blade & Soul or Tera; it happens in real-time and players have to move and aim while attacking. There's no action bar in BDO, as every move is based on a button combination. There's a good sense of weight to the attacks; on my warrior a strong attack feels like it has some heft to it, while a thrust makes you feel light and nimble. While I played most of the game solo, BDO offers up an experience boost if you decide to go grinding in a group. There is open world PVP, but it's limited because of the heavy player-killer penalties. Most users play guild-vs-guild PVP or arenas.

In these early sections, Pearl Abyss may surprise veteran MMO players with some interesting ideas. Take movement for example: BDO allows you to click on a specific spot or quest marker on the world map and have your character auto-run there. It's not only a solid quality of life addition, it's a necessary one because of the world's scope and lack of fast travel. I would kill to have that in some other games, just to minimize the pain of backtracking.

Then there's the Amity and Conversation systems, the former of which sees certain NPCs unwilling to talk to you (see above) until you talk to others and find out new information. Conversations require you to select topics that are relevant to whoever you're talking to. If you're in a conversation with Guard A, you should probably choose to talk about the townsperson you've learned he's interested in. It's an unique little minigame that gives you a reason to actually talk to NPCs in a region.

Another odd idea is contribution points, which are awarded from quests. You can use these contribution points to pull new information from people, increase loot drop rates in certain areas, rent items, buy housing, or unlock farming and trading nodes. Contribution is invested in certain areas to unlock things, but you can withdraw it to use it elsewhere.

Once you're a few hours into the game, it opens up. This is where Black Desert Online will get either better or worse for you. Sure, you can continue questing, but you can also farm, craft, trade, fish, or simply explore. What you do is completely up to you, as the game isn't really funneling you in a particular direction.

Once you reach the third major settlement in the game, you'll start see players veering off in their own direction. Players just sitting on a dock fishing. Perhaps another chopping wood in the forest. You'll see others riding horses, donkeys, or commanding their hefty trade wagons towards a different destination. Maybe you want to breed horses? You can do that. Explore the oceans on your own boat? Rock out. If you want to garden, Black Desert Online is ready for you. Some items have a number of ways to process them for sale on the marketplace: cooking, heating, drying, or mixing.

There's a degree of effort and pay off to most of what you do in Black Desert Online. Having your workers gathering resources is a local effort and you can only carry a certain amount of weight person. That means if you have ore in one city and your want to sell or process it in another, you'll need to use a wagon and transport it yourself. Eventually, your work will pay off in sales or some other reward, and that's where Black Desert Online succeeds.

It honestly feels like a graphically updated, multiplayer version of another game I've been playing: Stardew Valley. It's the kind of game where you'll log on, do your crafting for the day, and log off. Tons of players spend hours away from their keyboards fishing or trading between two towns.

You have a great deal of freedom in what you want to do, but everything I mentioned earlier comes with either no explanation or the explanation is so brief that it's almost unhelpful. There's a ton of tedious trial-and-error in Black Desert Online, or you'll be forced to jump out to Wikis and forums for information. This is true of basic stuff like harvesting and crafting. I understand not handing everything to the player on a silver platter, but Black Desert Online does the bare minimum needed to even meet you halfway. You'll find other players online asking low-level questions: not how to succeed at high-level fishing, but how to start fishing in the first place.

There's also the spectre of the cash shop hiding on the fringes of Black Desert Online. The game is buy-to-play - you either pick up the basic package at $29.99 or the premium version for $49.99 - so Pearl Abyss has other ways to make money in the online space.

Armor sales make the most sense; most of the dropped armor is boring and drab, so if you want something more interesting, you need to pay for it. There's Energy, which you use when you gather items, interaction with NPCs, or contract workers. It runs out rather quickly, you'll run out of Energy right when you get into your flow at times. Energy regeneration is pretty slow, with a set rate depending on what you're doing. The fix is to either complete quests or pick up items on the cash shop to replenish energy quicker. A ton of small speed bumps like that litter your path in Black Desert Online.

It's a shame, because Black Desert Online is a good game. It could be a great one with some tweaks here and there. For some players who want the virtual fantasy life experience, this is the only game around. Those players will trudge on through the barriers and find something very fulfilling, like similar players in EVE Online. If you're looking for a game with more helpful explanations, a deep story, or perhaps you're a raider at heart; Black Desert Online isn't the game for you. The game is challenging and unique. It rewards those who want to dig deep and spend time figuring things out. It is a living world; you just have to decide if you want to be a part of it.

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