Black Desert Online - Introduction
As a player, I definitely know where I stand on this one. As a designer though, my feelings are mixed. I've decided to move point by point along the most noteworthy features and gameplay elements I was able to experience during my limited time in the game.
Black Desert Online had a grip on me immediately with it's very expansive and nuanced character creation engine. I was literally able to sit there and play with that feature alone for over an hour, and that was just me creating three different characters. I can easily see other players spending hours on a single character, trying to use the stylized photo-realism to recreate themselves in-game.
Of the time I've spent playing so far, this was one of the best features of the game - as a standalone system/element. It was also nice to see the variation in character between myself and other players roaming the world. With such an expansive system, I was quite surprised to see the gender/class limitations.
Vying closely with the Character Creation engine, Black Desert Online's combat system is probably one of the best MMORPG combat systems I have ever experienced. I've seen several people reference Tera or Vindictus, but doing so is a real injustice to how this system actually looks and feels. The pacing is very similar to DC Universe's combat, but the complete removal of lock-targeting and crisper, better interchangeable animations make chaining and comboing attacks very engaging.
Another beautiful element of BDO combat are the psuedo-cooldowns, which operate more as successive attack penalties if you attempt to reuse an ability on cooldown before it is ready again. This element alone makes combat exponentially more fluid. It doesn't only look good, but it really feels good too.
Finally, the element of skill truly does play a role here, as players can't simply spam ability buttons in any sequential order (as they do in just about any other typical MMORPG, even Tera - to some extent). The skill edge in this combat system feels very rewarding and factors quite heavily into overall success. I was able to take on mobs significantly more powerful than myself, and win, through the skillful use of abilities, dodging, and precision strikes.
[Below I've included the best/briefest combat overview video I could find on YouTube. No. We aren't exaggerating; it really does look and feel that good.]
Sadly, beyond character create and combat, the majority of the other game elements and features I was able to test were pretty underwhelming. I do understand that this is a beta test, and therefore the content should be lacking (in quantity). But I wasn't expecting it to be lacking so much in quality.
Player vs. Environment Content
Non-combat quests are almost an annoyance, and I'm not sure if this is due to how dull and routine they are (and frequent), or if it's because the combat is so good that I subconsciously loathe when an NPC requires me to do anything else.
It's an unfortunate dilemma that has me questioning whether further development will ever improve the feel of the PvE experience. I can understand when porting and translation will get in the way, and that's not what I'm talking about here. What stands out to me is that the majority of the PvE combat feels very... unwelcome in the game (if I can use that word). It just doesn't feel engaging in any way (unless you're using the combat system to complete objectives), and that worries me.
Player vs. Player Content
On such a limited timeframe, I can't really comment too much about PvP combat, as I didn't really get to experience any. I will state, however, that I do believe PvP combat has a bright future in this game.
Really anything combat related should.
With the amount of skill involved, and the fast-paced tactical elements involved there, PvP should be pretty exciting - and I'm curious to hear feedback from players who did get to participate in this element of gameplay.
From the way combat looks and feels (in general), I imagine PvP combat to be just as engaging as the PvE combat encounters - if not much more so. The lack of Faction vs. Faction warfare is also quite refreshing (not that BDO is the first game to do this). The concept of player-organized entities determining lines of battle is very appealing to me; and the formal nature of it is supported by the harsh open-world penalties for random conflicts.
I could see myself sticking around in BDO to play more, just for the PvP combat experience - which makes me wonder if the game would be better off as a title strictly geared towards PvP (and leaving some of the seemingly half-assed PvE elements behind).
Sandbox Open-World Elements
This is what has me incredibly torn on Black Desert Online as someone with a background in design and mechanics.
What immediately struck me about BDO from my very first play-session is how high the expectations are for players to utilize their own initiative.
This game doesn't hold your hand, and the various game features really lessen the emphasis and storming up the vertical progression elements. Instead, Black Desert allows players to wander quite a bit (perhaps even a bit too much, given the target audience). The experience has a sandbox feel to it, which I appreciate - as someone who can easily tap into my own motivation.
That being said, there isn't a whole lot of depth to any of the paths you can wander down - from a gameplay perspective. Sure you can get into animal-taming, boatcraft, fishing, etc. All those things are fine, but outside of the grind to achieve each sandbox element's end-goal there really isn't a whole lot to do once you've "completed" a personal goal.
As interesting as some of these side-systems are, the fact that they don't really interact meaningfully with core game experience leaves plenty to be desired.
Straying off the beaten path to pursue an individual goal doesn't feel very rewarding, and many of the sandbox elements don't feel very rewarding either. They're simply side-tasks that don't feel dramatically different that NPC-given quests. If the doors were a bit more open and some of these systems interacted more meaningfully together, I could see these pursuits being more worth-while.
Tying it All Together
Probably the most troubling impression I have of Black Desert Online is how few of the game's features and systems tie into the ones that really make it great.
If you've got such a beautiful and variable character creation engine, make it matter.
Combat is absolutely phenomenal. Unfortunately it feels very disconnected from all the tasks and objectives I found myself spending the majority of my time doing.
The best features about Black Desert Online feel almost compartmentalized and detached from the majority of the game - at least in my first initial experience. I sincerely hope that I just happened to pick a bad trajectory and that I've somehow missed out on a more complete experience (again, I say that understanding this is a beta test and more as a statement of systems design than fully-enabled/translated features).
I hate to be so critical of the game, but I feel as though I have to be. The combat, character creation, and over-all sandbox feel of this game has way too much potential. Black Desert Online, in its current state just feels awkward. The gameplay itself (outside of combat) doesn't feel very intuitive.
Just to close this initial review out, I'd like to note that I do really appreciate the initial design considerations.
Black Desert Online appears to be built on the concepts of social gameplay - which is a good thing for a game calling itself an "MMO"RPG. It seems very difficult to have an enjoyable experience without engaging other players. To me, that is a positive thing, and hopefully will push attracted players into social interaction (instead of away from it, like most other "MMO"RPGs incentivize).
Unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of systems that take advantage of group-based or social gameplay (outside of PvP combat). I'd like to think that communities of players can grow and develop within an individual server, but PvP-centric games (and keep in mind that PvP utilizes the best features of BDO) generally don't provide a setting that players can socialize and support one another in many positive ways.
It's difficult to imagine a player-driven sandbox game surviving long without incentivizing player-organized communities (outside of PvP). The lack of engaging, quality (again, not quantity) content and no linked progression also makes me question whether a new player can find a place for thesmelves in this elaborate world outside of combat.
The contrast of such good character creation and amazing combat really shines a painful spotlight on many of the other systems that don't come anywhere close to that level of "feel-good". Hopefully the combat will keep this game alive - and more importantly, I really hope the developers look for ways to tie the combat system more fully into the game (outside of PvP).
Black Desert Online - Positive Marks
Character Creation is amazing. The Combat system is probably one of the best I've ever tinkered with. The whole sandbox feel of the world leaves me feeling that there is tons of exploration and discovery potential in the game.
Black Desert Online - Average or Neutral Marks
The majority of the game rests in this category. Outside of combat and and the initial character creation - most game elements feel unremarkable and average.
Black Desert Online - Below Average or Negative Marks
What turned me off the most was the lack of quality content. In its Beta form, I was expecting the quantity of PvE content to be low. However, it was the lack of quality engaging PvE content that really worries me about this one. That and the fact that most game systems don't tie very meaningfully with the game's best system: Combat.
Conclusion and Final Score
I managed to play nearly 30 hours during the first CBT1, which I would say is a positive sign moving forward. Unfotunately I'm not too sure if that long first impression was one that will have me optimistically logging in as often during CBT2 and onward. I didn't really get to explore PvP, so I would definitely be coming around again to check that out - which I feel will showcase the best this game has to offer.