Current State: Black Desert Online

Black Desert Online, or BDO, is a game that I love, and have played for years now, but can’t conscientiously recommend. I could list any number of reasons why it’s a good game. Consider the recent Kamasylvia 2 update, which added another massive area (the Kamasylvia forest) and improved the visibility of hidden stats in response to player feedback. But then, to be fair, I’d have to turn around, and present the reasons to avoid BDO. Unfortunately these are also numerous, such as the existence of a cash-shop item which grants a permanent bonus to max stats.

In this series, Current State, I will look at ongoing games that are maintained by their developers and evolve over time. My goal will essentially be to review the current state of the game.

Let’s start this review with a look at Black Desert’s positives. BDO is a Korean fantasy MMORPG, with Pearl Abyss as the developer of our Western localization. Whether its character models, skill effects, or the environment, Black Desert’s graphics are just hands-down gorgeous, and yet the game has been so well optimized that it will run on low-spec computers. Honestly, an MMORPG this massive has no businesses looking so good. Black Desert doesn’t just look good, either. I’ve played many fantasy MMORPGs (Guild Wars 2, TERA, Vindictus, Elder Scrolls Online) and in terms of combat, I’ve enjoyed BDO more than all the rest. Black Desert may be billed as an MMORPG, but it’s got the combat of an action title, and a good one at that.

Combat is responsive, sound and visual effects make landing a skill feel satisfying, most classes have skill-based combos, you can dodge or block actions and abilities, and there is a wide variety of enemies to keep things interesting. The PvP which makes up much of Black Desert’s endgame is a blast. There’s small-scale and large-scale PvP options. I’m a huge fan of node wars where multiple guilds fight each other for a particular territory. The victorious guild is given control of the disputed area for a period of time, gaining tax income and possibly additional benefits, depending on the territory. I’ve also fought players and guilds over silly things, like grinding spots, and these sorts of impromptu fights are pretty great. One minute you’re grinding XP, the next you’re in war, probably with friends on the way.

On the topic of production values, Black Desert’s sound is, aside from voice acting, very solid. You’ll still probably mute the music after a few hundred hours, but there’s enough quality tracks to add a sense of variety to the world’s various locales. Some of these instrumental scores are quite impressive, a small few I’d even listen to out of game. There’s enough voice customization options to make sure your character isn’t entirely annoying. Plot and the voice acting of NPCs are another matter entirely. It’s possible that Black Desert’s original plot was horribly written, or that the localization was poorly handled; I’d guess both. I’m not typically one to go after an MMO for plot, but Black Desert’s is remarkably bad. I try to avoid skipping text in my favorite MMOs, but BDO is an exception to this rule.

If combat isn’t your interest, there are a ton of other activities to perform in Black Desert. There are ten life skills: cooking, farming, gathering, processing, training, fishing, hunting, trading, sailing, and alchemy. These life skills offer a wide breadth of content. Consider the training skill for a moment. This involves finding and taming or buying horses, leveling them via riding, and then breeding them to produce better ones. You can sell horses to the game itself or to other players. There is a sizable skill pool that horses will randomly acquire skills from when leveling. These influence their overall value. There are multiple tiers of horses, and the newest tier, tier 9, or dream horses, includes the Pegasus, a difficult to acquire and incredibly rare mount.

Many of these life skills can be performed while you’re away from the keyboard, which gives the game a management aspect. If you’ve got a busy life, this allows you to keep progressing within the game regardless of commitments (unfortunately, these systems require you to leave your computer on). If you want to live life on the sea, you can build the massive Epheria ships. Through a combination of gathering, processing, alchemy, mission completion, and node exploitation, you would gather the materials to build these and outfit them with gear, like cannons or sails. Finally, after up to a month of construction, you can take your vessel out into the oceans, for exploring, trading, gathering, monster hunting, or PvP naval combat.

Black Desert has a restrictive marketplace and trading policy which, for most items, forces players to trade with the community at large, and charge amounts which fall inside a fixed window. This reduces the prevalence of “boosting” and gold sellers. Most frequently, if you have something in BDO, you earned it, as it’s impossible for someone to give you a handout unless they earned it using your account. While I’m largely content with this policy, many I’ve played with are not, and would like to be able to trade something other than basic consumables with their friends.

Although I’ve tried to focus on the positives prior to now, Black Desert has quite a few downsides that can keep away potential players. This is a grindy game: to get to the point where you’re competitive in PvP, which many view as the goal, takes at least several hundred hours. Even when you’ve put that much time in, there’ll be others who have put several thousand hours in, are more geared, and can pretty much wreck you regardless of what you do. In group PvP this isn’t horrible, as ideally you have a few such players on your side, but in one-on-one it can be incredibly frustrating. Players should keep in mind that they essentially have a weight class in BDO, determined by things like gear, level, and active buffs. If there’s too much of a difference between you and an opponent, there will be some fights you simply can’t win or, the reverse, can’t lose.

Black Desert also has network issues and some people’s ISPs work poorly for the game. This results in lag, a major problem for action combat, and disconnects, which can ruin idle life skill-ing. I myself have had few such issues, and I’ve found that after one occurs, Pearl Abyss tends to compensate the community quite generously.

Now we get to the business model, and this is a mixed bag, if ever I’ve seen one. First off, at $10, the cost of entry is incredibly low, and the game goes on sale frequently. The game’s developers have implemented a system where players get rewarded for bringing in new people, so it isn’t difficult to acquire a free copy of the game. Unfortunately, Black Desert has quite an intrusive cash shop. Items in BDO, like the $34 costumes, are expensive and some give noticeable benefits. Most of these items can be purchased with in-game silver, but doing so is an absolute pain, as demand is quite high. Some players sell rare in-game items on the conditions of being gifted cash-shop items, but this method seems unreliable, and many frown upon it. It’s important to mention that these micro transactions are entirely optional, and I have friends who have played BDO extensively without ever spending a dollar. Conversely, I’ve friends who have spent hundreds on the game, and they seem the larger group.

Then there’s housing, another feature with ups and downs. Housing is instanced, so you can have any house you want, without having to outbid or fight other players. There’s a wide variety of picturesque locations with houses: the mystical Grana city located in Kamasylvia forest, the medieval Heidel city, the Epheria port, various farms and villages, and so on. Unfortunately, most of the game’s best housing decorations are sold through the cash shop, and some of these have gameplay benefits. Some players don’t care much about decorating their houses, and it’s certainly not essential, but for others this feature quickly becomes a money pit.

There really is an incredible amount of diverse gameplay in Black Desert Online, and I’ve found it quite easy to lose myself in the game. If you’re looking for a game that you can fully enjoy without an intrusive microtransaction system, I’d have to recommend avoiding it. If, on the other hand, you’re open to spending a bit on the game beyond the price of entry, you may find a lot to enjoy here. If you choose to play it, I would recommend viewing BDO not as a one-time purchase, but more like a subscription title. Enjoy the game, spend on it slowly and opportunistically during sales and only if you can comfortably spare the money.

I’m treating this piece like a review, and as such I feel it necessary to give Black Desert a rating. Considering how stellar the game’s core content is, while also taking in invasive microtransactions and some light, arguably pay-to-win elements, I feel that 8/10 is a fair score. Black Desert Online has its flaws, most notably its business model, but if you can look past these, it’s a top-notch MMORPG, with immersive gameplay, solid production values, and a staggering amount of content.

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