Ever since I first delved into the strange world of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) back in my youth, I’ve had a fascination with video games that bring a large segment of players together into one singular, shared world. As MUDs evolved into deeper, more graphical-focused MMORPG experiences like Neverwinter Nights and Ultima Online, I could only watch with jealousy in my heart. My preference for consoles, and my dedication to Apple’s Macintosh platform, meant I was missing out on a lot of the advancement in the genre happening over on the PC.
That all changed when Sega released Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast. Yes, I know—it’s not technically an MMORPG due to how the game is structured and how players break up into small teams once missions begin. Still, for me, it was the first true taste of what an online virtual world built around exploring RPG landscapes could be like, and I was utterly hooked.
Since then, I’ve tried out a few other titles here and there depending on what came to Mac OS or consoles, from my eight-or-so months of World of Warcraft addiction to multiple flirtations with Final Fantasy XIV. Still, most of the choices available remained miles away on the PC, with various titles over the years making me wish I had access to a proper gaming rig.
One of those games was Pearl Abyss’ Black Desert Online. With its gorgeous character models and more action-oriented gameplay, I desperately hoped that it might join the random other MMORPGs that were making the jump to consoles. In 2017, I finally got my wish, as the game—now simply called Black Desert—was revealed to be coming to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. With the latter’s arrival last Monday (the PS4 version still TBD), Pearl Abyss gave me the chance to both get some hands-on time with Black Desert pre-launch, and an account to continue playing once the floodgates fully opened.
I’m going to be honest here: I was expecting to play the game for a handful of hours, satisfy my long-standing curiosity about it, and then move on to other things. However, a funny thing has happened: I’ve come to like Black Desert far more than I was expecting. So, since I think other people out there might also potentially write the game off as “just another Asian MMORPG” like I might have, I wanted to talk about five elements to Black Desert that are going to have me coming back.
|#1||Gorgeous custom characters|
Really, there’s nothing that I can mention about Black Desert without first bringing up its much-touted character creator. Where plenty of other games from South Korean developers have caught my eye thanks to their beautiful, stylized character models, Black Desert felt like a whole other level to me from the moment I first saw it. Its cast of heroes just looked so good, and I desperately wanted to play the game for that reason alone.
Which, really, wasn’t surprising, giving my long-lasting love for custom characters. Whether it be my own stable of wrestlers or the poor soul I’m sending off to die in FromSoftware’s latest sadistic adventure, the first step in getting me addicted to your video game is offering up customization options that let me spend way too much time crafting the perfect avatar.
The visual quality of Black Desert‘s custom characters garnered the game a lot of attention years ago when it first hit, but what grabbed me playing it now on Xbox One is just how impressive they still are. In both technical quality and overall artistic design, there are brand-new games coming out that still don’t have playable characters that look nearly this good. While at times I did run into moments of “I wish there were a few more tattoo options” or “I wish I had greater control over body size,” there are other areas where I wasn’t expecting the level of flexibility that’s present, such as the fine-tuning players can do to the length or curliness of their avatar’s hair.
If you want me to commit to your MMORPG, you have to bring me into your world through a character that I can really become attached to. So far, Black Desert has done just that.
Oh, but I do have to ask: Given that players need to come up with a shared family name for all of their characters, why can I not then use the same first name someone else might have? Coming up with something other than obnoxious names like “VelvetKitten2177” is going to get very difficult very quickly.
|#2||More action-focused combat|
Ahh, MMORPG combat. Some love it, some hate it. While the idea of clicking on an enemy and watching my character do most of the work for me has never been my preferred style of combat, I also don’t hate the concept when done right. In fact, that type of battle system played a big part in creating one of my favorite chapters of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy XII. Still, I’ve always wished I could get back to something closer to Phantasy Star Online, where engaging with the various foes of a sprawling MMORPG world would come instead through direct button presses offering instant results.
Black Desert certainly isn’t the first MMORPG to feature more “actiony” action in its battles, but it’s my first time really getting to experience it not only done but done well. Black Desert’s combat isn’t completely divorced from classic genre traditions, as, for example, there is still some amount of auto-targeting when aiming at foes. And yet, you actually do have to aim, with attacks totally missing if an enemy strays too far away from where you’re targeting. Also, oh my lord, I can finally dodge projectiles and spells simply by moving far enough out of the way—do you know how long I’ve waited to be able to do that in a game like this?!
I’ve still got a long way to go in upgrading my character and really experiencing the full potential of Black Desert’s combat engine, but I’m already enjoying how different combat feels over the previous MMORPGs I’ve played. Especially as a console gamer, I feel much more at home using a controller to let loose a flurry of arrows, dodge out of the way of a counter-attack, and then run in to finish my target off with a few well-placed kicks. Black Desert drops an action-adventure hero into an MMORPG world, and it’s a heck of a combination.
|#3||It’s kinda sorta confusing|
So, I know what you’re thinking: how in the world is a game being confusing something to bring up as a positive? Well, just hear me out on this one.
In my post-World of Warcraft adventures trying various rival MMORPGs, I’ve continually run into games that were a total slog to learn in their early hours. For some reason, developers really seem to struggle with dropping players into a starting area small enough to not be overwhelming, while at the same time introducing new or more complicated gameplay ideas and actually explaining them properly.
At first, I was feeling the same from Black Desert. Right as the game kicked off, I found myself in a base camp that was far too populated and active to be a good starting point. I was locating each next point of interest thanks to the on-screen navigation system, not because I was clear on where to go. The pop-ups when accepting or finishing quests weren’t presented in the clearest manner, and I was being introduced to new gameplay elements that were either poorly explained or not even touched upon.
So why am I giving Black Desert a pass on something I criticize other MMORPGs for? Because I also started learning about the deeper, far more compelling elements to its overwhelming depth. It began with something simple: enemy health. As I was fighting a mob of creatures, I noticed that their HP bars didn’t seem to be working. I’d shoot them with my ranger’s bow, and their health wouldn’t drop even an inch, until suddenly they’d fall over dead without any warning. Not only was I getting confused, but also frustrated, because I swore I’d just been fighting other enemy types where I was able to track their HP just fine. And then, it finally hit me: I hadn’t learned enough about that second enemy mob yet. The more I fought them, the more my knowledge of them grew, until I could finally see their real-time health as well.
Knowledge would then be the key to the next big mystery that baffled me: talking to NPCs. As I’d come across various villagers and other side characters, I was able to have brief chats with them, but the deeper “Conversation” option kept telling me I didn’t have enough knowledge to discuss further topics. I had no clue what that meant at first, but simply by continuing to play the game, it started to become clearer. The more characters I met, enemies I defeated, or other tasks I cleared, the more topics I had to talk to a particular NPC about, and the more I could win them over by having interesting conversations. In most other games I can think of, talking to NPCs consists of brief, shallow interactions, but here, it’s actually a minigame that can then unlock deeper pieces of the game.
Even at this point, I still feel lost playing Black Desert as I continue trying to fully understand things like Nodes, hiring workers, production, guild wars, investments, and much more. However, it’s the good kind of lost, the kind that makes you want to press on and find your way in the virtual world around you.
|#4||It’s got a price I can’t refuse|
For this part of my list, I’ll get straight to the point: I like Black Desert because it’s a game that costs an initial set amount but then has no further subscription fee.
Now, I know that sounds like me just trying to be a cheapskate. In an era when a lot of games have gone free-to-play and smart device app stores have encouraged a race to the bottom for game prices, it’s easy to assume that some people just want something for nothing without proper compensation for the time and effort spent making said something.
In my case, however, I’m coming at this from a very different angle. It’s not that I simply don’t want to pay a subscription fee to play a game, but more that I can’t justify my doing so. Unlike my younger years, when I had free time to burn, I now find myself trying desperately to balance my life between playing the games I have to play for work, spending time with my wife and children, and attempting to be a responsible adult. While I’d love to go back to explore World of Warcraft post-Cataclysm, or finally dig into Final Fantasy XIV now that my one wish—the Viera being added as a race—is coming true, both games want $15 a month from me. One month, I might be able to sink in enough time to make that cost worth it; another, I’d be lucky to get a full 60 minutes of in-game adventuring across 30 days.
Subscriptions are an incredibly inflexible entry requirement to a genre that has grown to excel in flexibility. Maybe all I want to do is log on for 20 minutes or so and clear out a few quests. Or, maybe it’s a Saturday where I’ve got the time and desire to dig into hours of enemy slaughtering with other players. Or, heck, maybe I just want to log in and waste time exploring around or being social. No matter how I spend time with it, I can enjoy a game like Black Desert without stressing over how much value I’m getting for the money I’ve invested.
|#5||Simply put, it’s fun|
Finally, beyond everything else, there’s one main reason I’m going to be sticking with Black Desert: because I’m having fun playing it.
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to ignore any of the game’s faults. As I mentioned before, some of its gameplay depth can be utterly baffling. For everything the team at Pearl Abyss has done that’s interesting, they’ve found other ways to just fall back on overused MMORPG traditions where more innovation could have been possible (such as the amount of “kill X number of Y enemy” grinding I’ve already had to endure). Although I’m pretty impressed with the effort made in bringing Black Desert to consoles, things can still get a bit rough at times, even when running on an Xbox One X. And, who knows, the further I travel into the sands of the Black Desert, the more I may find myself growing weary of what it’s got to offer.
All I know is, for now, Black Desert is the first time I’ve felt excited about playing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in some years now. Even as recently as the middle of last year, I tried getting into one of its competitors (which I won’t name), and I’d already lost all interest by the 2-hour mark. With Black Desert, every session has left me wanting to play just a little bit longer, complete just one more quest, or see what’s over just one more hill.
So, good job, Pearl Abyss—you’ve won over at least one new player.