Recently I was able to snag a free trial key for Black Desert Online from our good friends over at Massively Overpowered.
I had a different reason for wanting to try the game than most. I wanted to get my hands on that famed character creator in the hopes of recreating my novel characters, as I used to in Aion. I was mostly successful with that (expect a full post with pictures soon), but since I had the game, I figured I might as well try actually playing it, too.
On the character creator:
First, I should address the character creator, since it was what drew me to the game. I had heard much praise sung about Black Desert’s character creation, but I’d also had Bhagpuss over at Inventory Full tell me it was very overrated.
Both perspectives are true, in a sense.
Black Desert’s character creator can be incredibly powerful, but it’s oddly limited in some ways. All classes are race and gender-locked, which seems very backward in this day and age. Some classes have a nearly identical equivalent of the opposite gender, but not all of them.
It’s not possible to entirely escape the preset image of a given class, which can cause problems. For instance, you can’t have a wizard who isn’t a skinny old guy. Options are especially limited for male characters and non-Asian ethnicities. I suppose an argument could be made for turnabout being fair play with the deck being stacked against white dudes, but I’m not sure two wrongs make a right.
The creator also seems weighted toward more exotic looks. If you want a character with fluorescent pink hair and lime green eyes with orange hearts for pupils, well, that’s easy. But if you want just ordinary dark brown hair and brown eyes, expect to spend twenty minutes fiddling with different sliders until you come up with something that kind of vaguely looks right.
In general Black Desert seems to have a profound talent for making the simplest things massively over-complicated. This is the only game I’ve ever played where you need to look up a guide to figure out how to take a decent screenshot, and even after that it took a fair bit of practice and tinkering to figure it all out. Some of the extra bells and whistles they’ve added — like the adjustable camera angles — are handy, but those ugly photo filters they try to cram down your throat are awful, and the fact that they’re enabled by default even more so.
I was also frustrated by a bug that had all my characters stuck with their class’s default appearance upon zoning into the game. This is apparently a bug that has been known of for weeks and has still not been fixed (or had not been at the time I was playing, anyway). There are some workarounds, but they’re not always reliable. I eventually managed to solve the issue by switching instances several times.
Oh, and I had more trouble picking character names in Black Desert than in any other game I’ve played. I have obscure tastes, and the names I use are almost always free, even in older games, but in Black Desert all of my usual choices were taken, and it took me an incredibly long time to find something I liked that was free. Even very obscure and strange names like Vorazun and Sylith were already claimed.
The really funny thing is that I actually ran into the person who had beaten me to “Maigraith.”
It was awkward.
As to the game itself…
Through the desert on a toon with no name:
Wait, why am I referencing a Neil Young song? I don’t like his music.
Black Desert was my first significant experience with the sandbox genre. I made a very concerted effort to keep an open mind, and to not play the game as I would a themepark. Rather than just following the story, I resolved to spend the meat of my time exploring, gathering, tinkering, and generally checking out anything that happened to catch my interest.
Ultimately, this didn’t get me very far.
It turns out most of Black Desert’s world is actually pretty empty. In my wanderings, I found lots of pretty sights, but little of actual interest. I encountered a fair few crafting nodes, but my plans to gather extensively were quickly scuppered by how limited energy points are. You run out of them almost immediately, at least early on.
I delved into the game’s simple yet confusing conversation mini-game a fair bit, but it seems you need to spend a great deal of time at it to get anything from it. Or I was talking to the wrong people. Regardless, I gained absolutely nothing from all my conversations, and once again, my limited pool of energy held me back significantly.
The other sandboxy things I attempted were similarly held back by my lack of contribution points. Near as I could tell, the only reliable way to gain them is by following the main story quest.
I suspect I’m missing something. Black Desert isn’t really a game that’s keen on the whole “explaining things” idea, and even if it was, the poor translations would probably make any instructions only a further source of confusion.
Once I finally did buy a house, I couldn’t furnish it because I didn’t have enough money. Also the local furniture vendor only sold benches and tables.
I never even had the opportunity to try crafting.
So I’m confused. My understanding to date has been that the chief appeal of sandbox games is the level of freedom they offer the player. With no structured content guiding you along, you can do whatever catches your fancy.
But I felt no freer playing Black Desert than I have in the average themepark MMO. Indeed, I’m still putting Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online as my most freeing MMO experiences to date. Now those are games that truly let you wander and tinker to your heart’s content.
From what I can see, Black Desert makes you grind to get to the good stuff just as much as the average themepark. It’s just that instead of grinding for the right to fight a big dragon, you’re grinding for the right to decorate a house and pick grapes.
Maybe sandboxes just feel freeing to people who prefer non-combat activities, since themeparks don’t often give a lot of options for that.
I’ve also heard it said sandboxes are more immersive, but I definitely don’t agree with that. I could write up some spiel about how focusing on systems upfront rather than letting me learn the game as I follow the story brings me out of the experience, but instead I’ll just say that this is a game where you get sick if you eat grapes without cooking them first. How’s that work?
But don’t take all this to mean I didn’t enjoy my time with Black Desert. I’m confused, but not especially annoyed or frustrated. I did still enjoy my wanderings on the whole.
It is a very pretty game, albeit not as pretty as the screenshots I’d seen had led me to believe. The view distance in particular is surprisingly short, rendering many vistas just gray blobs. I may be missing something (the motto of Black Desert Online), but as far as I can tell, all my settings were maxed.
But it’s still a gorgeous game in a lot of ways. The lighting and weather effects are lovely, the foliage is thick and realistic, and the towns are charmingly detailed.
The music is also quite soothing, and the game’s light parkour system that lets you climb walls and cliffs adds an extra dimension to exploring — quite literally.
The lore actually seemed fairly interesting, though the poor translations rather sucked the fun out of that.
The combat’s also pretty fun. It is of the “things die if you glance in their general direction” school of thought, which I’m not fond of, but the ability animations are spectacular and viscerally satisfying, and I did enjoy the agile, swordmaster playstyle of the maewha class. Can we please get more classes that use two-handed weapons with speed and agility, rather than being slow, clumsy brutes?
That said, it did seem a bit like WildStar’s combat in that what works well solo turns into an incomprehensible rainbow spew in a group context.
I had fun playing Black Desert. But it’s not the sort of thing that can hold my attention long-term. I pretty much stopped logging in other than to make more characters before my trial had even run out.
By the way, do I want to know why the cash shop sells legendary quality underwear?