MMOs have always been a strange genre for me, but I’ve dabbled in a few over my video game playing career. I remember playing RuneScape back in the day when I was 10 years old after a hard day at primary school, I dipped my toe into the proverbial pond of World of Warcraft about the time Warlords of Draenor came out, I played a bit of Guild Wars 2 when the base game became free after the release of the Heart of Thorns DLC and, as a big fan of The Elder Scrolls series, I put in my time playing Elder Scrolls Online after the game stopped being a subscription service.
But something never really clicked with me when playing them. I’m a single-player gamer at heart. I love a good story, good characters, compelling themes and narratives. MMOs just never delivered that experience for me. I was always much more focused on raising a bunch of arbitrary numbers than focusing on the story lines being presented to me. However, I thoroughly enjoyed mucking around with friends on RuneScape way back when; setting fires in a line to level up fire making and chopping trees to sell on the Grand Exchange for that sweet, sweet GP.
Black Desert is the latest in the string of MMOs I have tried to get into. Developed by Korean developer Pearl Abyss in mid-2015, Black Desert saw a North American and European release in March of 2016. The PS4 port was released worldwide in August of last year.
When I approached Black Desert for the PS4 I had one big question on my mind: “Why a console port?” I’ll explain this line of thought: MMOs have always been a PC-dominated genre and, as such, the target demographic for MMOs would much prefer to play them on a PC. Players love having a multitude of keys to set up macros and mod the HUD to suit their needs to make min/maxing their character a much more intuitive experience. So why did Pearl Abyss make a console port? My theory is that they are trying to appeal to players that aren’t their primary demographic. While some may say that my original stance on MMOs may taint my review, I’d argue the opposite—I am exactly the type of person they are trying to sway by releasing this port.
From outward appearances, the game looks rather good and gives a decent first impression. The graphics are certainly impressive for a game in its genre. The character models look clean, though they all have this persistent sheen which makes them look like they’re always only ever 3 minutes out of the shower. The landscapes look presentable, and the textures all also impressive—again, only when compared to other MMOs.
On a performance level, the game starts to show its faults. The framerate of the game dips below 20 FPS quite regularly. I am playing on a PS4 Pro, so if you are playing on a PS4/Slim or an Xbox One/S, you may have performance issues like me, if not worse. The framerate is often at its worst in areas filled with other players or when there is an adverse weather effect like rain, likely due to the abundance of small particles.
The game also has an obtuse HUD and doesn’t always make navigating the menus easy. Now, I know that many MMO players like having all that information on the screen, and that’s fine. But like I said, the port seems to be aiming at people like me, who don’t usually play MMOs, and the HUD is really off-putting. Considering how far you are from the screen compared to playing on a PC at a desk, the HUD takes up too much space. The chat window is huge, and I am yet to find a way to turn it off. I don’t care what “xXDarkScythe99Xx” is doing or who they are talking to in global chat. I looked up ways of turning off the chat, but the widely spread solution that you find on Google doesn’t seem to work.
There’s also far too much info being thrown at you and, during the beginning sections, the game is popping up so many tutorials telling you simple information, like how you need to press R2 to hit things (stunning concept, I know). Combine this with the screen dominating HUD, the fact that I’m further away playing on a TV from my sofa, and the FPS shattering rain effects, and I can barely make out what the hell is going on. All the while, you have this reverse-Navi chirping in your ear telling you what to do and where to go with this annoying squeaky “voice.” After a while, I had to stop playing as it all began to give me a headache and my attention-deficient ape brain wanted to play something else.
So, how is the gameplay? It’s actually a lot better than most of the MMOs I’ve played. Many MMOs have a similar gameplay style, where you move your character freely and lock onto an enemy while using your class’ abilities on your hotbar. World of Warcraft is one of these MMOs, and arguably pioneered this gameplay style. Black Desert takes an alternative route and features much more real-time combat, more akin to a single player RPG like Final Fantasy 15/7 Remake or other divergent MMOs such as Final Fantasy 14 or Elder Scrolls Online.
The gameplay is what brought me back after the presentation of the game dissuaded me from playing. The class I elected to play was the “Striker,” Black Desert’s renaming of the more traditional Monk class. The Striker works like this: you hit things with your fists until they stop moving. And you know what? It was pretty fun. Once I began to tune out the HUD and managed to tunnel vision the actual game, I began to enjoy the more free-flowing combat system.
That being said, the action-oriented gameplay is relatively simple and isn’t going to blow your socks off. You move the camera with the right stick and aim your attacks using the on-screen crosshair. Combo attacks are pulled off using different input combinations with the bumper/trigger buttons. You also have a dodge roll capability with invincibility frames for tougher enemies/bosses. At times, the combat can feel incredibly easy, as you are able to cancel most basic attacks into a dodge roll with the i-frames. So even if you botch the timing, you can still dodge before you get splattered over the nearest cave wall.
I created two characters for the purpose of this review. On the character creation screen, I noticed something odd: your character’s gender is determined by the class you pick. Meaning, if your desired class is presented as a male or female from the select screen, that’s what you’re getting, no option to choose. The Striker is a male class with attacks that are focused on punching the enemy and equipping yourself with a gauntlet/vambrace rather than a sword. The Striker was probably the more interesting class of the two I played, and the attack animations were very fluidly designed and satisfying to pull off in combat. Strikers are also very mobile and can pull off hard hitting combos before repositioning.
Another annoying feature in the character select screen is the naming procedure. Before making a class, you must make a “family name,” which is basically just an overarching username for all your characters. Naturally, this must be unique to you. But then, you must also name your individual characters, which also has to be unique. I found this kind of defeated the purpose of the family name, as I assumed that the family name was to distinguish you from other players, and you can then name your characters whatever you wish.
The second character I created was the Guardian (who I named Clunky, for that’s what this game is), the newest class in the game at the time of this review. The Guardian is a female barbarian-like class with a Viking aesthetic and a large axe as their primary weapon. Naturally, the Guardian hits hard per swing but has a low attack speed, lower movement speed in combat, and high health pool.
However, no matter what class you pick, you always play the same story, start in the same area, meet the same NPCs, and do the same quests. I can imagine that doing all of this multiple times when levelling up different classes would really get tiresome. Even World of Warcraft had different starting areas and questlines depending on the race/faction you aligned with to alleviate this tedium.
Ultimately, the story isn’t worth paying attention to. One may say that’s par for the course with an MMO but, again, this did nothing for me. The story is told via microscopic text in relation to the rest of the HUD and the content isn’t at all interesting anyhow. Basically, you are some sort of chosen warrior with amnesia being constantly hounded by an enemy with red eyes and there’s a war going on. I just didn’t care about any of it. There was no impetus to keep cleaving grey wolves in twain when I knew that the only story I’d be rewarded with continuing would bore the pants off me.
Although the combat system is initially fresh, it’s forced into the same gameplay loop of most other contemporary MMOs, thus bringing nothing meaningfully innovative to the table. You go to an area, do some quests, grind out your level by repeatedly killing the same enemies, then move on to do more quests, repeating this cycle in various flavours of meadow. “Ooh, I was just in a lush green meadow but this one is an autumn-ish one and now I’m in a generic high-fantasy city! How innovative!”
Black Desert Online’s apparent goal to allure its non-core demographic by releasing a console port is, I find to be, a mixed bag. Personally, I wouldn’t want to continue playing Black Desert on the PS4 as I found it to be a clunky, technologically hindered, and uninteresting choice for when I want to sit on my sofa and lose myself in a fictional world for a few hours.
It is certainly a very most accessible MMO for those who don’t play MMOs, with its differing combat system and appealing graphics, but you may wish to convert to the PC to get the full experience. Perhaps that’s what Pearl Abyss intended: get you to buy it twice once you’re hooked. If that’s the case, hats off. But still, it’s not necessarily worth playing on PS4; it’s just not suited to sofa play.