Pearl Abyss' Black Desert Online is an incredibly detailed, visually gorgeous MMORPG that succeeds at nearly everything but having a beating heart and soul.
Black Desert Online represents the latest effort from game developers attempting to rekindle the industry's dying passion for the MMORPG genre. The game, which was in development for over three years, has already been available in Korea since 2014 and for Japanese and Russian gamers since 2015, but March 3, 2016 marked the first time European and North American players will finally have their chance with the long-awaited Black Desert Online. Those involved in the MMO community were well aware of the hype surrounding the title, and for those unfamiliar, Black Desert Online has been marketed as the kind of revolutionary upgrade to the genre that World of Warcraft helped rejuvenate in 2004. Just how well can any game deliver on those kinds of expectations?
The answer, at least for Black Desert Online, is surprisingly well. For all intents and purposes, Black Desert Online is one of the most in-depth and intuitive entries into the genre in a long time. The game is visually appealing, has incredibly complex crafting and social systems, and has some of the best content ever seen in a MMO. Unfortunately, however, there is a glaring issue at the center of the title that is impossible to ignore, the kind that takes a great game and makes it merely very good instead.
First, it's important to address what likely stood out to everyone who has so much as glanced at a screenshot of Black Desert Online - the in-game world is beautiful, and high-performance PCs can render the game in the kind of vivid detail that hasn't really existed within MMOs before. Black Desert Online is immediately and noticeably the best-looking MMO in history, and its cinematics, though not as dynamic or emotionally appealing as other entries within the genre, only help establish the fact that, were gaming a beauty pageant, the rest of the MMO world would be better served not even showing up.
There is no better example of just how appealing the aesthetics are in Black Desert Online than the character creation system that welcomes players after creating an account. The amount of detail put into each part of character creation is staggering - in fact, Black Desert Online's character creator is rivaled only by games like Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Fallout 4 in terms of how unique each character can be made to look.
When it comes to choosing race and class in Black Desert Online, however, there is far less choice than expected. Classes are automatically assigned gender and race with no room for variation, so if a player wants to roll a Ranger, they're going to have to convince themselves they wanted to be a female Elf as well. It's odd that a game so dedicated to letting players do whatever they want would draw the line at something as simple as the freedom of gender and race selection, which have been staples of MMOs that few have argued against having, and it's a little disappointing too.
Once gamers have created their characters, however, the game begins to feel as though it might start to fall apart a little. Players are immediately thrust into the world of Black Desert Online with little direction outside of a few starting quests, and the game's incredibly rewarding and deep crafting, commerce, and travel systems are barely touched upon. That problem is compounded by the fact that the game's localization can be comical at best and frustratingly confusing at its worst. NPCs will often say one thing audibly but say something different, and entirely unrelated, in a dialogue box, which makes it feel as though two people are talking to the player at once.
In fact, the only real way for players to get a sense of the scale and depth of Black Desert Online seems to be simply to play it. Exploring the world is rewarding, and crafting and commerce are intuitive once a player understands the basics through trial and error. Once a player understands that Black Desert Online is as much a fantasy world simulator as it is a traditional MMORPG, it becomes much easier to grasp exactly what the game is trying to accomplish.
However, Black Desert Online is a MMORPG, and MMORPGs must have combat. The combat system is one of the best on offer for the genre, mixing fluid attack animations and gameplay with the ability to dodge enemy attacks and chain together combos using skills or magic. While PvE battles are extraordinarily easy in the early parts of the game, at later levels players will be expected to be on top of their dodging and character placement even when fighting against simple mobs on the world map. Experience points are only gained during combat and other character actions in Black Desert Online as well, so the questing grind is instead an entirely optional element that provides item rewards and other in-game uses outside of leveling a character.
For as great as the PvE elements of Black Desert Online are, however, the PvP design leaves a lot to be desired. The only bright spot for Black Desert Online's PvP is the large-scale warfare between guilds, which can feature battles with a hundred characters on each side. These battles are an absolute blast, and those who love huge PvP elements in their MMOs should give Black Desert Online a try just to experience them. However, the other PvP, like 1-on-1 and 3-on-3 arenas more traditionally featured in World of Warcraft, are bland and unexciting, despite the promise of the game's great combat system.
Both PvE and PvP suffer from Black Desert Online not really having an "end-game", either. There are no giant dungeons that tell a story while players loot increasingly epic bosses for great gear. There is no real reason to pursue being a great PvPer other than enjoying it. Black Desert Online prides itself on not really caring what its players do, instead giving them as many options as possible before letting them roam free to create their own adventure.
This approach would work better, too, if it weren't for the fact that Black Desert Online is a game without a heart and soul. While the game features bustling town communities where NPCs behave like those in The Witcher 3, bumping into player-characters at times and visibly reacting, none of them seem to really exist for a purpose. The narrative that drives MMOs is so vitally important that it's shocking to discover Black Desert Online, for all its depth and innovation, has somehow forgotten to include one. There's the ghost of a story, sure, in the way an evil spirit follows the player character around and arbitrarily points them in the right direction, but it never coalesces into anything meaningful. For all its beauty and fluidity, Black Desert Online is a hollow experience.
Ultimately, gamers who have been looking for a new MMORPG to scratch that specific itch will find Black Desert Online appealing. Its innovative design, awe-inspiring graphics, and enjoyable combat make it a title worth playing just to see how certain elements of the genre can continue to be built upon and improve. Yet those looking for a game that will offer them a reason to stay, or a game that will make them feel like they're part of a living, breathing narrative where their character truly matters, will be left disappointed and wondering what Black Desert Online could've been had it managed to have a pulse.
Black Desert Online is available now worldwide on PC. Game Rant was provided a PC code for this review.