Of all the MMOs coming out this year, right now Black Desert Online is the one I’m looking forward to the most. It isn’t that the others aren’t remarkable in their own way, but Black Desert Online occupies that perfect space of being just close enough that I don’t feel guilty for looking forward to it and interesting enough that it warrants my attention in the first place. At this point, I feel pretty outspoken on my feelings that the old way of doing MMORPGs—quest hubs, raiding, raid tiers—is hot garbage on a sunny day. I hate it.
Black Desert Online isn’t exactly a step away from all of those designs, but from what I saw during the last closed beta it was apparent that this wasn’t the same old MMORPG with a new coat of paint. Though the experience wasn’t perfect, I felt like I had just stepped into my first MMO again; the world was vast, complex, and I had no idea what the hell was going on half of the time. I like that feeling. That’s a good feeling.
So while a second closed beta is rumored to be off in the distance and the official release teases me from months away, here are a few of the reasons why I think Black Desert Online is worth being excited about.
That’s meant to be said aloud like a southern belle. Go ahead, I’ll give you a second.
I wanted to get this one out of the way early because it’s the most obvious reason to like Black Desert. If you look at the coverage the game has gathered from the more mainstream gaming press, it focuses almost exclusively on Black Desert Online’s gorgeous visuals and character creator, and after spending a few hours with it it’s easy to see why. The game is stunning.
Now, gorgeous MMOs are nothing new. After all, Final Fantasy XIV has been the hottie on the block for a good long while now, but Black Desert Online does deserve some nods for very specific elements that contribute to its overall visual appeal.
The first is undoubtedly the character models and creation tool. Borrowing a page from EVE Online, Black Desert features a character creator that allows you to shape and mould your character by intuitively clicking and dragging with the mouse. It’s kind of like that mini-game at the beginning of Super Mario 64, especially because, with a little creativity, you can make some truly abhorrent monsters.
But in a genre renowned for overly sexualizing its characters, there is little overtly sexual about the kinds of people you can shape in Black Desert. Instead, you’ll feel more like an artist shaping extremely handsome (both male and female) characters that possess a somewhat alarming lifelike quality to them. They’re the kind of characters that you’ll want to admire for hours..
Secondly, the world itself is appealing in a satisfyingly mundane sort of way. When it comes to art direction, MMORPGs tend to wield paintbrushes like hammers, punching everything up to the 11th degree. FLOATING TOWERS, they scream as crystal shards rain from the heavens and mountain peaks twist like ice cream cones. It’s a bit much.
But the world of Black Desert Online feels realistic and, more importantly, lived in. A stroll through towns can be a really satisfying thing as you watch NPCs wander about or talk together clumped into various formations. There’s a sense of presence in Black Desert that almost makes you feel like you could really imagine living in its settlements. I like that it isn’t the grossly designed over the top fantasy that tries to instill wonder and awe without any heart or meaning. Floating towers are cool, don’t get me wrong, but I’m far more interested in the reason it is floating. And Black Desert feels like there is a discernible logic to its world.
Remember all that hullabaloo I said back at the beginning about how I’m sick and tired of the tried and true formula for MMORPGs? This is another reason why I like Black Desert: it isn’t afraid to stick its nose up and do something different. While it might possess some of the familiar structural makeup of common MMOs, many of those designs are injected with new ideas that freshen them up in a big way.
The knowledge system is a perfect example of how Black Desert Online is going bravely where few MMOs have gone before. In the game, you can accumulate knowledge of everything from other characters in the world to locations, monsters, and even general concepts relevant to the lore of the game. The more information you collect, the more energy you obtain for activities like crafting. But knowledge is also incredibly useful for getting closer to the multitudes of NPCs that can be found in the world. By acquiring knowledge that interests them, you can engage in a conversation mini-game where you’ll have certain objectives you’ll want to complete by strategically using your knowledge (it’s a bit confusing at first). Succeeding in the minigame makes you closer with that character, eventually unlocking new quests, access to rare items, or even special merchandise for sale.
Reading it here might make it seem like a rather simple system, and in some ways it is, but when taken in with all the other systems built into the game, it becomes apparent that Black Desert Online is wholly unlike most other MMOs on the market. That’s really rare these days, and it’s one of the reasons I like it so much.
It Feels Immersive
One of the things I’ve always resented about MMORPGs is how they gradually shifted from being games that were all about the experience of existing in these vast digital worlds to being games obsessed with maximizing the efficiency of its individual systems. There was no more joy to be had in exploring, instead it became all about grinding gear, leveling up, and making your character compliant to some arbitrary benchmark in order to pass onto the next tier of content.
This change was also reflected in how we came to view MMOs, as the standard user interfaces were no longer able to display the information to match our statistic-driven ambitions. We needed addons that better displayed the health bars of our party, we needed addons to better show the hidden dice rolls of combat. Gradually, the games became less about the kinetic appeal of existing within a world and more about how much relevant statistical information we could squeeze onto the screen.
Black Desert Online isn’t exactly the antithesis to this trend, but it’s the first time in a long while where I didn’t feel painfully aware that I was just playing a game the whole time. I wasn’t constantly reminded of the boundaries between real life and the game because Black Desert isn’t afraid to exist without showering you with reminders of what you need to do or could be doing. There are rules to its world that it justly enforces, like not being able to teleport everywhere easily, that make it feel more tangible.
Case in point, I’m amazed at how long I spent fishing when I had discovered it. As someone who never appreciated fishing minigames in MMOs before, partly because I found them so dull, I was happy to sit there and plop my lure into the water for hours on end simply because I enjoyed just being in the world and watching it.
The Financial Model is Intriguing
There’s been a lot of discussion over the rise of free to play models in MMOs, and a lot of push-back against the ones that still dare to charge players a subscription fee. But while I can appreciate the strengths of both, and never judge a game by its financial model, the decision to make Black Desert buy to play has me really curious to see how it pans out.
In many ways, free to play can be a fantastic model, but there’s no denying how it exposes itself to all forms of manipulation. Sure, the developers might have a cash shop that isn’t pay to win, but who’s to say they haven’t artificially tampered with the grind in order to elongate it in hopes that players might be encouraged to reach for their wallets. Even if that isn’t the case, the mere opportunity is enough to make me rather pay a subscription fee and at least know that there’s a fair exchange happening. Yes, I’m the type of guy who buys free to play apps just to make the advertisements go away.
Buy to play doesn’t mean Black Desert is going to be free from any kind of monetary corruption, but it does mean this will be one of the few MMOs to follow this highly irregular financial model. It worked out extremely well for Guild Wars 2, but seeing if Black Desert can replicate that success will be interesting. If anything, it’s given me cause to be more hopeful about its integrity than I would have been as a free to play MMO.
But Most of All, It’s Complex
For me, this is the biggest reason why I want to play Black Desert Online. It’s a game that has obvious layers that won’t be peeled back and exposed within six hours. After the dozen or so hours I sunk into the closed beta, I was still at a total loss to explain how certain things worked in the game. And I had to do a really deep dive in order to make the contribution point system even begin to make sense.
A lot of today’s MMOs feel simplistic only because there is so little that is truly new about them. They might introduce a few tweaks here and there, but they always stay firmly planted in the realm of the familiar as a way of making transitioning from one to the other an easier process. But the problem is that, as a result, it’s hard not to see them all as the same game with different paint jobs.
I’m not expecting Black Desert Online to be the second coming of our lord and savior, but there’s enough going on under the hood that I’m hopeful this could be a meaningful departure from the sameness that has held the genre hostage for a long, long time. I realize that not everyone is like me, and the idea of spending the first dozen hours lost and confused could be unappealing, but for me that’s the biggest strengths of these games; complex systems built into vast worlds. From what I’ve seen, Black Desert might be able to deliver that.
Are you excited for Black Desert? Do you agree with my judgements or think they’re bogus? Let us know in the comments!Related: Black Desert Online, Column, Listed