After World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, CABAL Online, TERA, The Elder Scrolls Online and Star Wars The Old Republic, I was recently looking for a new MMO. Since I’m now only on the console and the selection here is very rare, I immediately pricked up my ears when Pearl Abyss released Black Desert Online, the sandbox MMO that has been available for PC since 2015, for the PlayStation 4. The Xbox One version has been available since March 2019. You can read in our test what the title has to offer and whether it will keep me in front of the console for longer.
What is Black Desert Online?
Black Desert Online is available in Korea as a free-to-play title and is funded through the lavish cash shop. In Germany, you can currently only get access to the game digitally in the respective store from around 30 euros (standard version). For this you currently receive the game, a snow wolfhound as a companion, a value pack for 30 days and a pearl box with 1,000 pearls, which act as in-game currency. The game does not require monthly fees, but also offers a sprawling real-money shop in this country, which is advertised at any time in the game.
Sandbox vs Theme Park
But let’s get back to the actual game. Black Desert Online is a rather atypical MMO for my gaming interest, which is grouped in the sandbox MMO genre, whereas I mostly feel more comfortable in theme park MMORPGs. In Black Desert Online and many other sandbox MMOs, the focus is on the freedom of play and the design options within the game world. Your influence on your own character, your environment and the gameplay is significantly greater than in a theme park MMORPG. Of course, there is not pure black and white here either, but many games offer a mixture of both variants, which have an individual weighting depending on the orientation. However, Black Desert Online is one of the clear sandbox MMOs that want to give the player maximum freedom and implement this from the start.
We are released into the game world with no tutorial or explanation, having previously gotten past the very extensive character editor. Since I like good and pretty equipment a thousand times more than a sleek haircut, I don’t really care about the editor. As soon as the character looks reasonably respectable, click on “create”. But the character editor in Black Desert Online offers much more. In addition to the numerous hairstyles, we can then even define the length of individual strands. Interested players can certainly pass several hours before actually starting to play.
Unlike the PC version, we only have eight different classes to choose from shortly after the release of the PlayStation 4 variant, if you count the magician and the magician as two classes (in the current PC version, according to this calculation, there are currently 18 classes). The first major update introduced two new classes (Musa & Dark Knight), expanding the PS4 portfolio, which was previously limited to six classes, to eight. Before that, one or the other class was added to the Xbox version. The different handling of the individual versions does not make the game content on the respective platform any more transparent. It was sometimes not possible for me to read up on certain functions of the PS4 version, since there was simply no information about them or it was superimposed by messages about the PC and Xbox versions. So it was time to jump in at the deep end and just get started. The explanation of the individual classes is initially limited to the choice of weapons and the type of attacks. For example, Musa fights with a sword and bow and is very fast and mobile in his movement, whereas the new Dark Knight class uses a war knife in close combat and supplements the ranged attacks with magical attacks. My first choice falls on the giant, who lashes out with an ax and can drive hordes of enemies in front of him with pure muscle power.
Testing is above studying
After an intro, which unfortunately has no sound, we find ourselves in the game world again – we are accompanied by a small black spirit, who seems quite nice at first and gives us the first quests. Apparently only we can perceive the presence of the little black spirit and our dialogues remain hidden from the other NPCs. As explained at the beginning, the story does not play a major role in sandbox MMOs, so I don’t want to go into it in depth here. Especially since I honestly haven’t grasped the overall context yet, but this fact didn’t prevent me from continuing to play. On the contrary, it was very pleasant not to “have to” stringently follow a story line, but to start banging on it straight away. Accept the quest, start running, intuitively smack opponents, run back, hand in the quest. An MMO can be that simple. I didn’t get an explanation of what all the symbols and values in my UI are for, but this will (partially) explain itself over time. For players who want everything explained, defined and introduced, Black Desert Online is the wrong place to be. You are absolutely thrown in at the deep end and don’t really know what to do at first. Start running and just do it, but it worked quite well for me at the beginning.
The fact that you find new game elements piece by piece and understand their purpose always delights you and makes playing the game itself a little adventure. Especially since the difficulty of the fights, especially at the beginning of the game, is very low and you never really die quickly. Depending on the class, our character has different attacks that we trigger with the shoulder button. If we then press left or right with the analog stick, then there are corresponding special attacks or modifications of our attacks. The quite fun and varied combat system is also not explained anywhere in the game, rather I found out the various options by chance and trying them out and then later looked around in the control and skill menu, where the individual combos are written down. I was already used to this active type of combat control from TERA, where you had to actively block, which added an interesting mechanic to tanking in particular. Unfortunately, this type of gaming requires low-latency feedback from the server, which unfortunately is currently not available. Strikes and attacks are sometimes only recorded with a large delay, so that opponents take no damage at all and then suddenly fall over. The attacks of other players on our mobs are not always understandable and are probably due to the bad latency. Some of my teammates also had the delays, so this doesn’t seem to be a local issue for me. It remains to be seen how the performance levels off in the coming weeks.
Sandbox at its finest
As the character level increases (it goes very quickly up to level 50), we are repeatedly given the opportunity to improve individual skills with skill points or to learn new skills. These can then be chosen according to your personal style of play. As usual in a sandbox MMO, the focus is on grinding and not completing varied and challenging quests. In addition, we can hire workers in the first larger city, who transport goods for us on trade routes or cultivate crops in fields. I haven’t made use of this option yet, but if you believe various guides, this type of “crafting” is essential for later game success. Grinding becomes interesting because by killing the different enemy categories you gain so-called knowledge that gives us new information about the enemy class. Also, we gain knowledge by communicating with different NPCs, which are marked with a question mark on the map. Fortunately, the collected knowledge is character-spanning and thus invites you to twink. As soon as you’re in a group, in my opinion, the degrees count for the quests, but not for the knowledge. For this you have to have killed the respective opponent independently. Due to the less existing structure in Black Desert Online, it is basically possible to go monster hunting with friends at any time. You are not tied to specific level regions. Dungeons or raids are currently still in vain, which makes the endgame pretty uninteresting for me at the moment.
Graphically okay, technically ugh
Graphically, I wouldn’t consider Black Desert Online on the PlayStation 4 to be an MMO from 2015, but it’s also not a graphic splendor as the official screen shots suggest. Technically, the players unfortunately have to accept some losses. In addition to numerous stutters and frame drops, the game often has to struggle with pop-ups and the characters to whom we give our quests only slowly build up around their gray render shell. That disturbs the joy of playing immensely and will probably also prevent me from investing further hours in this game. The oversized and, in my opinion, also confusing cash shop does the rest. You somehow never feel like you own a full-fledged game.
Black Desert Online certainly has its appeal, and for fans of sandbox MMOs, the game offers a strong foundation to let off steam. For me, however, it has become clear again that I feel more comfortable in the theme park MMORPG genre and value a good story, an explainable bear and the group game that I need. The monotonous missions don’t bother the interesting and varied combat system at all and offer enough motivation to keep grinding even after a long session. The missing tutorials are still very funny at the beginning and invite you to try them out, but later they leave you helpless and you find new functions and possibilities more by chance. The dungeons and group tasks that are essential for me and that are missing in this sandbox MMO make it much easier to say goodbye to Black Desert Online than to previous MMOs, but fans of sandbox MMOs should be able to enjoy the many possibilities in have Black Desert Online. If you want to experience the whole load of Black Desert Online and probably also play a technically cleaner version, you will have to fall back on the PC version for better or worse. This is where new content will be the first to be released in the near and likely distant future.
Very extensive character editor
Typical sandbox elements
MMO which you can also play alone
Cheap price for base game
Active combat system invites you to grind
Technically still in beta status
Different versions for Xbox and PC