moonlightmoth's Black Desert Online (PC) review

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Bondage, Discipline, Orangutan

I don’t pay much heed to conspiracy theories; talk of faked moon landings and inside jobs bore me to tears and their proponents instil a repulsive, fugitive instinct. With heavy heart however I fear I must now concede that I have stumbled upon my own clandestine cabal of colluding conspirators.

In the world of MMOs there appears to be a secret society of developers that have, in order to preserve their jobs and livelihoods I suspect, conspired to ensure that all their games are to have only one true quality aspect if at all. The intention being that they can all exist in the same space unthreatened by the as yet unreleased culmination of all the genre’s best ideas. So whilst some are pretty (Tera) or narratively interesting (The Secret World), not a single title seems willing to rise above, or rather challenge this cartel of mediocrity.

Alas, Black Desert Online is very much part of this group; it does flitter dangerously with being both pretty AND having fun combat but wastes its precious potential with staggering levels of progress halting grind and tedium. I’ll see a line of players, real people supposedly, lining up by a river to fish and think ‘this is why I don’t play Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing’. Who wants to fish in a game, or farm? BDO has ‘life skills’ like mining, gathering and all sorts of the kind of crushingly dull vocations that are the very reason I play games in the first place. So for those looking for an in depth analysis of all the minutiae on offer I must confess you will very likely be disappointed.

With its brisk pace and colourful theatrics, BDO's combat is great fun.
With its brisk pace and colourful theatrics, BDO's combat is great fun.

In all honesty I never even reached the level cap of 58, barely managing to get past 54, but from level 50 onward the levelling process slows down so dramatically that even with the various experience buffs and rewards you get there isn’t a great deal of incentive to push on. The story is like all Korean MMOs in that it is psychotically awful; badly written, badly voiced and generally slapped together like a disinterested Subway employee, and without some form of meaningful direction the best you can do is piss about doing random tasks of varying levels of banality.

It is all very pretty to look at though, and I know this as the UI is about as welcome as a rat poison suppository. All MMOs are somewhat hobbled by having to display a lot of information, but the only thing going for this interface is that it is at least functional. It’s ugly, and gives little regard to the environments it’s so often obscuring. It’s like viewing Caravaggio through the lens of a child’s finger-painting. But like I said the world of BDO is very lush and beautiful and along with the combat provides the game’s most compelling aspect.

Speaking of the combat, it is certainly the most satisfying combat I’ve played in an MMO. It’s all real-time and makes clever use of timing and context to get the most out the mouse buttons rather than fall back on the clunk and stodge of hot bar based hack and slash. Movement plays a more crucial role too with dodging and evasion paramount to survival. The latency that comes from online games will always be something of a sticking point but otherwise the feeling is one of speed and fluidity, where each attack can often chain elegantly into another. It’s fun, and in turn makes the core of the game quite compelling. Running around the forest pirouetting through enemies took many dozens of hours to lose its appeal, and even then it was largely with regret that I stopped as the potential it had to anchor something quite special lingered well beyond the final uninstall.

Alas, there’s only so much it can do when surrounded by so much uninspired dross. For starters, where’s the loot? The game places a lot emphasis on upgrading but this smells of not being arsed to come up with new weapon and armour designs. I am most certainly biased in this respect but the lack of new outfits to find is a disgrace, especially when some of the outfits are as fabulous as they are. There is a bit of lean towards disappointingly skimpy but there is certainly some great fashion on display, just don’t expect new items to be as exciting as they could be. Even the upgrading mechanics are something of a chore with a chance based system in which enhancements can fail and weapons lose durability. You can restore it with other items but it all leads to the same grinding and busy work of collecting things to ‘maybe’ increase your potency in battle.

The day/night cycle adds a lovely touch of atmosphere to the game's vast landscape.
The day/night cycle adds a lovely touch of atmosphere to the game's vast landscape.

There’s a degree of convolution here that’s almost heroic. For example you have a weight limit that takes account of everything you carry be it weapons, items or even currency. Therefore in order to grow your wealth you need stash it somewhere but the storage locations are specific to that place and if you want access to it you need to either go back or get it moved at a cost. These storage spaces are in themselves also limited but you can potentially take your silver (the game’s currency) and turn it into gold bars that are lighter to carry but take up a slot in storage which silver does not, you can also then invest that gold to gain more money but I could not work out if you can turn gold back into silver. Why the game has to be like this boggles the mind and its clear that the modest purchase price is something of a ruse to slide you into this spider web of unnecessary and unwanted systems.

There is no shortage of things to do in BDO, in fact there is far too many and most of it isn’t very enticing to those of us not in need of a digital insomnia aid. You can own property, decorate it, create a business empire, do the usual guild stuff etc. but unless you’re all in on it or have friends who are as demented as you, it all peters out when it ought to be reaching some sort of crescendo, some kind of reward or pay-off for all the investment. The story just stops, the levelling stops, the bonuses and buffs stop, and likewise my interest. The combat is best in class and it’s lovely to look at but the degree of feature creep is unbearable, as is the way in which the micro-transactions clearly leach the fun from the experience. There’s an in-game shop with the usual slew of cosmetic and time saving items, but it also has various items that grant what are essential subscription style advantages such as experience bonuses, extra storage space, weight capacity etc. which makes the standard experience feel restrictive, especially as you’ve already paid for it.

If they had jettisoned 80% of the nonsense and slapped a higher price tag on the whole thing then it would be much the better for it. This sort of half step with a purchase price, in game shop and pseudo subscription does little but give multiple barriers to entry and ultimately enjoyment. It’s an ongoing issue with the genre in that there is rarely a satisfying end point to things, so for BDO to have me hit the buffers long before any tangible end game makes for much head scratching. I dropped out then, at a mere 37 hours, not so much in frustration at the game I had been playing but rather with disappointment this new, less interesting game, that seemed to have taken its place.

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