I call this an “impression” piece because I didn’t spend enough time in the game for a “review”, the game is in closed beta and should therefore not be viewed as a complete product (despite the predilection for games to adopt the “beta” tag when they really mean “free preview”), and because I think we all harbor some feeling that you can’t really “review” an MMO without having put hours and hours into the game.
More importantly, I actually do want to talk about the impression that Black Desert Online gave me. This post will be light on specifics, but heavy on the gut feeling that I came away with. If you want to know about the mechanics (especially regarding the ones I’m sure I’ll screw up when explaining them in support of my personal rationale), there’s plenty of sources out there for you to read up on.
It Came From Across The Sea
I hate to beat a dead horse, but I feel that I must preface this post with a boilerplate. I’m not a fan of Eastern MMOs. They tend to emphasize mechanics that I am not keen on, tend to overload their UI with both meaningless info and minutiae at the same time, and the best thing I can say about them is that they always look gorgeous. If nothing else, Eastern developers love their visuals, but I’m too much of a Western gamer to find much to common ground in the cultural differences between Eastern and Western MMOs.
Digging into these alien systems first-hand can reveal a lot more than what you’d get by reading the back of the box, or what assumptions lead you to believe you know. So I opted to try BDO because there were a few things I had heard about the game that I thought might help disabuse me of my preconceived notions.
What Almost Derailed Me
I’d seen the BDO character creator in action many years ago, as a lot of us had, and was awestruck at the level of fidelity. Character creation is fun, but I don’t personally spend a lot of time examining other player’s creations up close to the point where “eyelash length” is something I’d notice. At the time I didn’t connect the idea that a game with such a robust creation process might have even more robust systems under the hood; I just said to myself “yeah, another pretty Eastern MMO that probably plays in a way I don’t care for.”
It wasn’t until late in the ramp-up phase for the Western release — after the character creator was published as a stand-alone product over here — that I started to look into what BDO was offering. I wasn’t really disappointed in my assumption that this was going to be another cookie-cutter Korean MMO: Sandbox open world PvP game with impossibly beautiful characters wearing skimpy outfits, grinding their way to the end game in a way that makes even the most cynical Western MMO gamer frown hard.
I couldn’t see myself getting interested in BDO because while I like PvP in somewhat controlled situations, oPvP is something I have no interest in, and by all accounts the PvE in BDO is severely lacking.
What Made Me Give It A Shot
I watched some videos, in particular a video that wanted to sell me on the top ten reasons I should play BDO. I figured that I probably wouldn’t see oPvP, gender locking, or “jiggle physics” in this montage, so someone, somewhere, felt that there was more to this game than just another pretty Eastern export. That’s the kind of salesmanship I wanted.
This was when I learned from that video about a few things that BDO might have going for it:
I thought a bit about ArcheAge when I was watching this video, because there were some elements which overlapped. I didn’t care for ArcheAge because I felt that it was a game of opportunity that rewarded those who had more time than others, or punished those who had less time than others — how you view it depends on where you fall on that spectrum. I didn’t know if BDO was following in ArcheAge’s footsteps, or if this was something different, but seeing as how I had access to the closed beta this past weekend I figured I should give it a shot and see how it measured up.
The First Impression
Character creation aside, the first impression I got from BDO was unfavorable. I was given the usual hoopla about learning or re-learning about my character through a painstaking number of incremental steps exclusive to combat. My guide was a dark wisp that appeared when I needed to be sent to the next phase of my training, but I never felt that it was actually telling me much of anything that I needed to know. The best way I can explain the experience is in the context of mobile games, and how they insist on guiding your finger to every single button while calling it a tutorial; you are told what to do, and don’t learn why you’d want to do it, or under which circumstances the mechanic would be useful. I consider this to be a symptom of the Eastern MMO, since this was not the first time I’d encountered such a hands-off approach to a player’s introduction. Add to that the fact that the proving grounds in BDO were insanely busy at the time, leading to a situation where players were standing immobile in order to camp a spawn spot so they’d be first on the necessary kill. That you didn’t get credit for any contributions was a check in the minus column for me.
I returned to the game later in the day and found the landscape significantly lacking in other players, either because it was still a work-day for many, or because most folks had moved on already. I was able to easily complete my tasks and get to the next phase of the game.
Learning About Mechanics
I am not the kind of person who wants to play any game by following a player-written guide. Part of my enjoyment is in the discovery, but I do want to start my journey armed with a certain level of knowledge in basic mechanics. Whether this is a Western ideal or simply a matter of cultural difference, I was frustrated to find that I had many game systems accessible early on for the different functions like harvesting and crafting, but absolutely no information on how to execute those tasks, or why I was prevented from doing what I thought might be a logical action to take when trying to use those systems.
As I continued to jump from guided quest to guided quest after completing the combat “tutorial”, I wasn’t seeing a lot of traction in the learning curve. There were no new bits of information being offered, and I was stuck in a rut of kill-quests. I had committed myself to the trial, though, and spent this time trying out combat techniques so I could set up a rotation of abilities. All the while, fighting simple creatures was gaining me woodland knowledge, which is something I only vaguely understood at that phase as “being important”.
Then at some point out of the blue, there was a break in the monotony as I was offered a series of guided steps on harvesting and crafting. In fact, once I reached an apparently critical town, almost every NPC I talked to wanted to teach me something. I had to go out and harvest and process pretty much everything the game had to offer: iron, logs, vegetables, herbs, meat and hide, you name it. All of these quests dropped at the exact same time and pretty much excluded all other tasks.
I learned about retainers and trade routes. I was given a pack mule as a quest reward, so I now had an animal I could ride and who could carry goods for me. I bought a house, and was just on the cusp of learning more about the affinity system, contribution points, node cultivation, and item rental systems when I had to close out and run some errands. At that point, I knew that there were systems for enhancing gear, and the fruits of the affinity system embodied in the advanced conversation options I could see but couldn’t take advantage of. I just hadn’t reached the point in the game where the game decided I should know about them.
That’s when it dawned on me: This was not a “flawed system”. It worked, and it worked spectacularly well.
The game is heavily focused on PvP in many ways, and you do need to be able to master combat because as an MMO, regardless of it’s nation of origin, combat is still the bread and butter of the process. BDO starts you out with a vague idea on how to attack, and then stops all forward momentum while you go out and practice what you’ve learned about the most important part of the game. During this phase, you have ample opportunity to experiment with the intricacies of the combo-combat system at your own speed. You can spend as much or as little time as you like out in the field, but it’s not wasted time. While this is the very definition of grinding, and while it is necessary because of the Knowledge system, the actual amount of time you spend in this pattern is entirely up to you. This would be true for almost any game because you can always take content on at your own speed, but BDO purposefully withholds additional information for quite some time, giving you breathing room to deal with the mechanic that you’ll be using most often — combat — before immersing you in “more” that the game has to offer. I know know that the problem I had before my epiphany stemmed from the fact that Western games tend to “front load” you with knowledge tutorials, usually before you leave the first village. BDO doesn’t; it strings you along and spaces out your learning curve over the course of hours. At first it feels like it’s forgetting that you need to learn about this stuff, but when you realize that the game is merely pacing you so you can absorb the lessons, it feels like an viable alternative option. Not necessarily better, but certainly not noticeably worse than Western methods.
The Lasting Impression
BDO is still an Eastern MMO to it’s core, and there’s no getting around that. It’s character sheet is a mass of small-print numbers. It’s translation (or maybe just the native dialog) is often times hokey as hell. The UI is a mass of meters and numbers and icons that will require a lot of memorization and understanding.
The question is, is there enough pull in the game to make learning all of that worthwhile? Possibly, yes. I’ll submit that as a solo game, this is not going to be a very exciting product. I’ve been hanging around with the Bind Point crew in their Discord channel for BDO, and will probably be joining them in live. While this is an overly casual group, having other folks in games like BDO seems to amplify the accomplishments above the usual “have a pool of people to do group content with” that Western MMOs rely on. Barring that, I might roll on another server and see if I can join an established guild like Gaiscioch, which I know will have a presence somewhere in the game and always gets high marks for being an excellent group to play with.
I am so far happy with BDO. There’s a lot to learn and I’m only about 2/3 through the official tutorial stack. Considering I’m most happy with a game when I am in the learning phase, this bodes well for the game for possibly longer than I’d consider for a Western game.
What would keep me here long-term:
Overall, Black Desert Online has left me with a very favorable impression. Considering my general aversion to Eastern MMOs, I’ll put this in the “win” column, although it’s a probationary win whose continuing position will depend on its ability to maintain my interest going forward, and not trample on my good will through some unforeseen or sudden change of events.