At first glimpse, the quests in Black Desert Online seem routine, like the many that have preceded it in other massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). But while a farmworker’s request to supply the local goblins with better tools is, at heart, a fetch quest, it’s anything but casual. The bronze hoe she’s looking for, it turns out, can’t simply be purchased from the marketplace or looted from a horde of enemies. Instead, it has to be manufactured, which requires, among many other ingredients, bronze ingots. These, in turn, are made of melted copper and tin, which must be acquired by laboriously mining the right type of rocks and heating the ore. As if that weren’t enough, players can’t handle complex processing on their own, so they’ll have to rent out workshops and hire laborers to man them.
The game is probably the most intricate MMORPG on the market, and because it was first developed in Korea over the course of five years, the majority of bugs have already been addressed. But figuring out how to put everything together can be like trying to assemble IKEA furniture, only the tools and instructions have been packaged separately. Additional directives are sometimes hidden within subwindows, the translations can be misleading (one character asks for a sandfish, but he wants a starfish), and it’s not unusual for quest markers to direct you to the wrong area. Fail to learn the fundamentals of farming early on, a task that requires carefully analyzing soil humidity and constantly checking on crops, and you’ll forever be dependent on the in-game marketplace, where players can barter goods with one another. Neglect a chain of missions that leads to capturing and taming a wild horse and you’ll either have to shell out hundreds of thousands of silvers or get used to sluggishly hoofing it.
While these intricate, layered systems seem designed to put off all but the most patient or masochistic of players, Black Desert Online’s combat has broad appeal, taking a pure and action-oriented approach. There are no healing classes, no real defensive “tank” characters. Instead, each of the eight main characters, from the male berserker to the female Valkyrie, relies on outmaneuvering foes and fluidly chaining abilities together. That’s not to say that combat isn’t as complex as any other mechanic in the game. It’s just that it’s so gratifying to be able to immediately jump into combat that it’s not until the difficulty increases that players realize that they’re being encouraged not to mash buttons or hotkeys, but rather to block and dodge, flanking enemies and knocking them into a more vulnerable “down” state.
Black Desert Online doesn’t expect players to master every facet of its immersive world. A would-be jack of all trades won’t just be a master of none; he or she will have frittered away hundreds of hours without even leaving the first region. It’s also mathematically implausible for any player to grow truly proficient in everything, given that every action requires a literal investment of time and patience, commodities quantified as “contribution” and “energy” points. Even the most omnivorous explorers who speedily rank up their maximum energy by crafting, killing, and collecting everything in sight will still frequently find themselves idling out, waiting for their characters to regenerate enough actions for another round of skinning wildlife. (This isn’t the arcade scavenging of Far Cry: Primal.)
Some concessions to gamification have been made. Raw materials can be gathered in less than 20 seconds, depending on the quality of the tool being used, and a fish will always bite within three minutes of a line being cast. Additional inventory slots and weight limits can unfortunately (and unfairly) be purchased from a cash shop. But things scale poorly from there. A full day-night cycle in the game takes six real-world hours, which means that farming becomes an actual full-time job. There’s no fast travel or universal storage: Woe to the traveler who neglects to deposit enough silver in a city warehouse, unable to pay the cost of having their now far-off goods shipped to them.
Even the most engaged multitaskers will have to concede that it’s not unusual to spend a great deal of time in a session not playing, waiting around for construction to complete, or tabbing out while a character auto-runs from one location to another. This is the uncanny valley of MMOs—a sandbox fantasy game that, at times, feels almost too real, in which the dynamic weather of a furious storm or the blackness of a moonless night might literally impede one’s ability to actually play the game.
Hardcore gamers are the target audience, so it’s hard to fault the developers for focusing so completely on unforgiving minutiae. Instead of competing with the lore of more established universes like those of Final Fantasy or Star Wars, there’s only the slightest hint of a story guiding players through each region, embodied by a black spirit that prods players to awaken various relics. Instead of checkpointing the game with cooperative, self-contained dungeons, as in World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online, players summon bosses directly into the open world, almost as an optional afterthought. As the title suggests, Black Desert Online is more about quantity than specificity or quality, and those desperate for a way to stay busy will find a seemingly inexhaustible number of grains of gameplay here.