By Jordan Hall (ApocaRUFF), OnRPG Journalist
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been playing the Black Desert Online Russian beta. Now with the first North American Alpha test finished up, I feel like I’ve got enough of an understanding of the game to relate to you what it’s all about. Of course, there will be differences between the various versions of the game, and what we saw in Alpha isn’t exactly what we’ll see in beta or even release of the NA version of the game. So keep in mind that things will change. However, a lot of the things I mention in this Early Look will translate very well over into the final versions of the North American version.
That all being said, Black Desert Online has proven to be one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had, no matter the version I’ve played. It’s got a lot of interesting and innovative features, such as seamlessly-instanced housing within NPC cities and a sort of “RTS” or “Empire Building” game-within-a-game. The combat is action-based and has proven to be intense and fun; even while ‘mindlessly grinding’ I found myself enjoying the look and feel of the combat.
Customization is the best I’ve ever experienced in an MMO. There’s sliders for everything. Literally everything. Even TWO of them for the length of your selected hair style. Some customization options, however, are behind a paywall (At least in the Russian version). You must pay to be able to use them. To tell you the truth, if the NA version of the game has this feature I won’t be too upset, especially if it means that “pay-to-win” options in the cash shop won’t exist because of it.
The face-sculpting offers mind-boggling customization. You can fine-tune your character’s face in amazing detail. One or two other MMOs have offered something similar in the past, but nothing near this level. Pearl Abyss then takes it a step further and offers unparalleled body sculpting as well. You can customize everything – down to each individual part of your fingers. This system allows you to create characters that are truly unique, from subtle variations such as nose length or lip position to drastic differences such as length or weight of individual body sections.
You choose a constellation at character creation, similar to an Elder Scrolls game. However, so far as I can tell, these constellations will only affect very minor things in the game such as giving minor improvements to interactions with certain NPCs. I’m not sure if the system has more meaning that I’ve yet to discover or if there are plans to add more to it later on. As it goes, though, this is the least impressive portion of the character creation.
Right now, classes are race and gender locked, but I’ve read that the developers have plans to add variations. I can’t find a solid source for this, though. But, from my understanding, classes like Wizard and Witch are basically mirrors of one another but with different genders and minor skill differences. Neither of these classes was available in the Russian Open Beta test, but the Wizard was offered in the North America Alpha test. From what I’ve read, NA will only have a select number of classes that are available in the Korean version of the game because some of the classes in that version have an “Eastern flare” that the developers feel would not fit so well in ‘our’ version of the game. We will be getting more classes in the future, though.
Town design is fantastic. What I mean by this is, in a lot of MMOs you’ll get villages or towns with enough housing for a lot of people, yet only see five or ten NPCs out and about. In Black Desert, when you come across a town you’ll see a population that reflects the housing, and you’ll get to watch that population go about their business, fulfilling tasks that are required to keep their town going. I’m not saying that you’ll be able to sit around next to the blacksmith and get to watch him craft swords or talk to other NPCs (you can’t), but you will see him ‘working’ in a location that feels right in the grand scheme of the town. If he isn’t available in the night hours, and you’re in the right place at the right time, you can even see him close up shop and head in for the evening. It’s mostly just aesthetic things, but it makes the game world so much richer in detail.
It’s not just the town design that looks amazing, either. Literally the whole world feels like a finely crafted piece of artwork. Sometimes I’ll turn a corner and feel like I’ve stepped into a serene Bob Ross painting. Especially if I turn on the game’s “screenshot mode” which has a number of tools, such as focus. It’s one of those games where you could spend days simply looking around and exploring every nook and cranny, discovering beauty everywhere you go. There’s something mind-blowing about being able to ‘walk’ through a game like Black Desert and realizing “people made this.”
The graphics in general are incredible. Everything looks beautiful, even if you need to play at medium settings (like me). It’s possible for my five-year-old machine (which wasn’t top of the line when I got it) to run the game quite smoothly on Medium, with a near constant 60FPS except for rare exceptions. As for High or Ultra settings… my machine can handle it, but when it comes to some of the more hectic fights. If you’re using an older machine, you may want to upgrade your GPU (and perhaps your RAM to at least 8GB) if you want a smooth experience.
Black Desert starts out with a very traditional set up. You’re a budding adventure and you’ve got to start small. Learn the basics of fighting, explore a bit of the world, help out some villagers. That sort of stuff. You will be introduced to the game by following a series of story quests that have some traditional objectives – kill three foxes, gather some stuff, go around and talk to people. These are normally quite boring experiences, but due to the voice acting and beautiful world, these are a lot more bearable than they would be in other MMOs. It’s a bit of a shame, though, all of these concepts could have been delivered in a more story-driven and interactive way, but the developers instead went with the traditional themepark questing to get the basics across.
Combat is action-based. You can hit multiple enemies at once if you attack covers a large enough area. If you’re a fan of fast, intense combat, you’ll like BDO’s combat. If you play as melee, the game (at least early on) will feel like a very good hack-and-slash game. Your strikes have a weight behind them, when you swing a giant sword or axe, your character is committed and the enemies won’t act like they’re being hit with feathers. It’s an impressive visual and audio experience too, drawing you into an ever more believable world. The game isn’t saturated with ability effects, but there’s enough to keep your eyes interested. For example, Giants have an ability that will grab an enemy and slam them into the ground. This looks amazing and makes you feel like a true badass.
One thing that you may find confusing early on is that you won’t be able to tell how much damage you’re doing to an enemy. Eventually, once you’ve fought an enemy often enough, you’ll start to be able to see how much damage you’re doing. But early on, you’ll find yourself going into a fight almost blind in comparison to the overflow of information that most MMOs will give you in regards to combat. This is a refreshing change, because it encourages players to work together and share knowledge. It also make the world a much more intriguing and wonderful place. You’ll have to actually work towards discovering and learning things about the game, which is a complete 180 compared to the hand-holding that we’ve come to be used to with modern MMOs.
Another thing to mention is that abilities can either be executed through the traditional key presses or key combos. For example, you can press 3 to use a headbutt ability as a Giant, or I can hold shift and right-click to do it. The game gives you options and makes it very easy for you to break into various combos, which play an important role in the combat. I wanted to try out playing with the controller, as I’ve heard that it’s quite fun, but I got too used to the keyboard controls for it to be comfortable.
Black Desert doesn’t really have traditional roles. Essentially, everyone is a damage dealer, but they can lean certain directions. For example, the Giant is an awesome tank due to his naturally high HP and defense. But he’s also great at dealing damage, though perhaps not as good as a Sorcerer. So far as I can tell, there are no healing roles and not much in the way of healing abilities. Be prepared to chug potions.
As you meet NPCs and gain ‘intimacy’ with them, they will relate to your stories that you will keep with you. Then, as you meet other NPCs, you can use the stories you’ve gathered to arose their interest and potentially gain access to more ‘stories’ which can provide you with very useful information. It is through this system that you can have ‘conversations’ with NPCs. You can get an idea of how the system works with the screenshot below. After entering the stories you think might be interesting to the NPCs, you ‘exchange stories’ and you see which arose his interest and which fail to. The end result will gain you intimacy (or other ‘stats’ related to the relationships you can have with NPCs). The better an NPC likes you, the more inclined they are to care about you and want to help you.
At level 20 you can begin taming your own horses, which then opens up the world of mount breeding. Horses are important for getting around the world. Early on – about level 10 or so – you get a donkey, but it’s slow and not very helpful if you’re just looking to get from quest to quest. The horse, though, makes getting around so much easier. Which is important because there is currently no way that I know of to instantly transport to a location EXCEPT for when you die and transport to a nearby town. As fun as horse taming can be, though, I’ve found that it’s a hundred times easier to simply buy a decent horse off the market. Of course, that easiness is what makes it enticing to get into the horse taming/breeding market to make a decent amount of money off the laziness of others.
Housing is pretty important to the game. Not only do houses look as incredible as the rest of the game, they also offer a lot of functionality. Owning property and upgrading it is also critical if you want to expand your merchant empire. You’ll need to get housing for your workers to stay in, for example. Or to increase your warehouse space so you can store more items. You’ll also need somewhere to put your crafting stations.
To expand on housing, it’s done a bit different than other games, such as ArchAge. First, all housing (so far as I’ve been able to tell) is pre-made and already exist in the world. Second, all houses are located within NPC towns. And third, housing is instanced (though seamlessly) and (again, so far as I can tell) there is no limit to how many people can own the same property. Each person gets their own ‘instance’ of the property that they will enter and be able to make their own. The way this is done is interesting; in most games you would have a loading screen or something similar when entering an instanced home. In Black Desert, you just choose from a list and then walk into the door and that’s it. No loading screens nor hiccups, just seamlessly walking into your home (or the home of a stranger/friend/guild mate, etc…)
And that brings me to the economy and trading systems. This is a very daunting thing to bring up. Black Desert trading is somewhat like ArchAge – you can tack materials around and sell them for profits. However, it’s more on the scale of something like EVE Online (though not nearly so big). And on top of that, when you get to a certain point it plays like some sort of top-down merchant simulator. A game within a game, almost.
First, you will need to invest in nodes. These are guard gates, farms, villages, and cities. In cities and towns, you will need to purchase something within the town using Contribution Points, such as a warehouse. For gates and farms, and all other small nodes, you will need to speak to the node manager at that location. You’ll want to connect nodes to help create ‘trade routes’ for yourself and your workers. If nodes aren’t connected, you won’t make much money through trading between them. If you haven’t invested in a farm node, you can’t send a worker to farm on it.
What this means is, as you adventure through the game and gain contribution points through questing, you can slowly expand your trading empire. You can afford to buy more housing in cities for your workforce so that you can hire more workers; you can expand your trade routes so you can make bigger profits, and you can perhaps begin looking into manufacturing and possibly make yourself a cart to increase your ability to trade. Honestly, this system reminds me of a much more fleshed out system similar to what you could do in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I know it’s odd to compare a single-player game with an MMO, but in Black Flag you could capture ships and add them to your fleet and then send them off to complete trade runs. Black Desert’s system is similar, but much larger in scope and more involved.
Towns and cities allow you to invest your Contribution Points to buy buildings and upgrade those buildings to do things like increase warehouse space, housing for workers, or allow you to set it up as a residential building for you to decorate and place crafting stations in. There are other things – for example, if you want to make tools you’ll probably want to find a building that offers a tool workshop. But to get to that workshop, you may need to invest in a few other buildings, similar to how you need to unlock nodes in a path to unlock other nodes.
The art team for Black Desert has paid incredible attention to detail. When you come up to a fence and you want to jump over it, you don’t just jump ten feet in the air like in a majority of MMOs. Your character grabs on and pulls themselves up. If you’re playing as a Giant and you walk through a low door, your character will bend so that they don’t bump their head.
There’s also various types of experience. A lot of quests will give you just Contribution experience. Once your contribution experience bar fills up, you are given another point of contribution that can be spent to invest in various things. Then there is skill point experience, which will give you points to grab new skills. There’s also combat experience, which you will usually only gain from fighting monsters. This will level you up, increase your stats and what not.
Then there are your stats, such as Stamina, which will go up by simply traveling around. The more you run around, the more Stamina experience you get and eventually you’ll get a level which increases your overall Stamina. Strength you can gain by carrying over your maximum carry-weight and running traveling around. A good way to do this is trade packs. Health can be increased by eating good food. Increasing your Strength and Health will give you bonuses to your carry weight and HP. Then there’s experience and levels for the various gathering and crafting skills.
You could invest in a city by setting up a lot of Housing for workers. Then invest in a nearby farm to gather one type of crop. Invest in a couple of buildings capable of food processing and set them up to create food crates from the crops received from the farms. Then you could have some other workers constantly transporting the food crates to a city that you know will pay well for the crops. Then every once in a while, head over to that village yourself and sell the crops to the Trade Manager. If you find yourself killing things in a particular node more often than others, you might want to invest in it and then further invest Energy in it to increase the rate at which you receive drops. Which brings up the grind.
The grind is real. After putting fourteen solid days into the game, my character just only reached level 30. On NA, this was cut down to just five days. From what I understand, the grind in Russia is quite a bit longer than what can be experienced in Korea or Japan.
The auction house is a bit weird. The minimum and maximum you can charge for an item is set by the system. So you can’t massively undercut someone, but you can post the bare-minimum price if you want. Which will get your item sold quicker, as buyers are only allowed to buy the cheapest first. This can sometimes cause a bit of annoyance, as someone might be selling one or two of a bulk items at the absolute minimum, but you need to buy a hundred of them. So you’ll have to start with buying the cheap items first, which will only get you one or two of the hundred you need, and then work your way down the list.
So far as I can tell, this doesn’t mean the item prices are going to be constantly the same. It seems like it’s possible to drive the prices lower or higher, but it’s a much slower process than what can happen in a regular free-form auction house. This will help push off inflation, I suppose. But, again, it’s kind of annoying that the developers set up artificial restrictions rather than set up a proper economy.
There are two types of resource gathering. Manual – where you go out and get it yourself, and having your workers gather resources from a node you’ve invested in. Manual will go a lot faster and allow you to gain some items that your workers can’t – like Crude Stone which can be refined into Black Stone Powder, a very important resource. However, it requires you to use Energy, which may be scarce in your earlier levels of play. Energy is the equivalent to ArcheAge’s Labor Point system. Most actions related to crafting, gathering, or processing will require the use of an Energy point. You can recover one point every three minutes.
I have two annoyances related to gathering. First, the quality of the beginning tools – all you have available to you in the beginning – is extremely low. They’re cheap, so it’s not a big deal, but it’s annoying having to change your tool every ten gatherings. The other thing is related to both mining and wood cutting. You have to get right on top (or touching) a tree or rock to see if you can mine it. If someone has just mined a rock, and you walk up to it, the only way you can see if it’s depleted is by standing on top of it and seeing if you can mine it. It’s really annoying having to waste so much time checking a resource node. I hope that in future versions of the game there is a system in-place that temporarily phases out depleted nodes.
In general, the whole game is slow going which can be rewarding and annoying at times. Granted my Russian grind was a bit exaggerated compared to what we can expect. But everything, from your level to your crafting levels to your stats, will take you weeks to get to decent levels. Even if you’re essentially dedicating your life to the game. But like I said, this can be rewarding. Very rewarding. At the start, I wished the grind was gone but after spending a couple of weeks delving into the grind – becoming the grind! – I hope NA will adopt a similar stance.
Slowly building up your empire, starting off with a single worker given to you, is incredibly fun. Experimenting with the various ways to make money – crop farming, transporting, mining, item creation, vehicle building, etc… For example, I started off in a Northern coast town, but then made the move to a walled city near a river. There I built up a decent wheat and pumpkin farming operation and invested in a building that could create crop packs. After a bit, I realized my donkey wouldn’t be enough so I expanded a bit to build myself a farm wagon. I then took down that operation and worked on my farming and crop transport. I examined the market a bit and realized that I wasn’t going to make too much money with the crop packs – they take a long time to make, even with a skilled worker who has skills in agriculture packing.
So, I took down that whole operation – keeping the wheat farms so I could make beer for my workers – and re-geared towards making tools. These sell for tens of thousands of silver and have so far made me quite a bit of money in a short time. It’s hard to describe, but that process was one of the best experiences I’ve had in an MMO. Experimenting, learning, filling a market niche… It’s something that I’ll remember doing for years to come. As far as I’m concerned, if an MMO (or any game, for that matter) is capable of providing those types of personal stories, it’s great.
Black Desert Online has the makings to be one of the best and most memorable MMO’s I’ve ever played. There are some rough spots, sure. There’s not much in the way of group content and the developers seem to have some kind of unnatural hatred for player-to-player trading. But the trading in the game is fun, the housing is both functional and interesting, I love the worker system… There’s a lot going for the game. And, with the NA release, we can hope that things will be changed to better suit our region. I’ve already heard that the developers are looking at adding more group content, for example. In short, Black Desert Online is an amazing game.