Black Desert (PlayStation 4) Review

By Gareth F 18.11.2019

Review for Black Desert on PlayStation 4

Ah, the Korean Grinder. While it might sound like a highly localised version of a well known dating app, it's actually a sub-section of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game genre (MMORPG) that tends to feel more like a part time job than a fun gaming experience. The average 'grinder' deploys a myriad of psychological tricks to dig its loot-laden claws into unsuspecting participants, via a compulsion loop that's heavily focused on a central levelling up mechanism; the constant need to improve, and the steady stream of rewards for doing so. It's a tried and tested formula that works and hasn't really changed much since ... well, MMORPG's became a thing. Korean developer Pearl Abyss has brought its long established PC title Black Desert to the consoles, with the Xbox One enjoying a full six months head start over the recently released PS4 version. So, does it bring anything new to the RPG party or does it just toe the MMO line? Cubed3 stocks up on hot pockets, and jumps into the PS4 edition to find out.

It wouldn't be too remiss to note that absolutely nobody gets involved with an MMORPG for its narrative. Nevertheless, Pearl Abyss has conjured up a high fantasy backstory in a bid to coax would-be explorers to jump in and start mindlessly killing stuff for XP. Without going into too much detail, just know that it involves an overabundance of black stones scattered about the land, which have all started to emit a dark energy that appears to be driving all living matter in close proximity loopy. As stories go it's fairly unobtrusive, it serves its purpose, and it only rears its head every now and again via the medium of cut-scenes.

Running with 'Become your true self' as its strap line, Black Desert certainly has an incredibly comprehensive character creation suite that even includes the options to specify star sign, allergies, hopes, fears, aspirations... actually it's not quite that in-depth, but it's pretty close. There are ten different, gender-locked classes to choose from straight off the bat, and if the PC version is anything to go by, this figure will likely double with future updates.

Once the main protagonist has wandered out of the character creator and into the hostile world, it soon becomes apparent that he/she is carrying an uninvited dark passenger in the form of a black spirit. This nameless entity provides an inner monologue that doles out additional missions, enhances equipment, attempts to lead the hero astray and increasingly starts to look like the Babadook as it gets stronger. So is the route to becoming a better, more rounded individual just reliant on grinding? Well, not exactly. Every little user interaction, be it chatting with NPC's, exploring the realms or battling enemies, work towards increasing the main character's overall knowledge, and this plays a fairly pivotal role in their ongoing development.

Screenshot for Black Desert on PlayStation 4

For example, relationships with key NPCs can be improved upon if some ground work is done to gain their trust. The constant accumulation of knowledge will gradually provide enough base information to open up a dialog mini-game with particular individuals, where the topics of conversation are chosen in advance. Maintaining interest right through to the end of the conversation levels up that interpersonal dynamic, with continued work in this manner yielding favours such as reduced prices for items or previously unavailable missions. Similarly, repeated encounters with the same enemy types works towards an incrementally increasing level of familiarity that ensures they get defeated quicker and easier with each stage met.

There are a wealth of 'life quests' and activities that all feed into bolstering up the characteristics and abilities of the central avatar such as fishing, farming, sailing, crafting, hunting, forestry, alchemy and mining. Sounds impressive but it basically equates to repetitively performing slight variations of the same actions over and over again, occasionally with specialised items of equipment/raw material. Interestingly there is also an element of resource management included in Black Desert, however Pearl Abyss has done a terrible job of explaining how any of it works. Progress through the campaign awards 'Contribution Points' which can be used to invest in Nodes, miniature hubs that, when activated, can provide a constant stream of resources. For example, unlocking a farm node can provide access to a regular crop of carrots which is essential for keeping your trusty steed's stamina topped up. Any surplus left over can be sold on, so it becomes a smart way of generating some extra in-game currency. Assigning more manpower to a Node will increase the yield, but given that it's also subject to a taxation system, it can result in diminished returns if managed ineffectively.

In addition to all that, Nodes can only be unlocked if there is another active Node adjacent. This has the positive effect of building upon and strengthening a tight trade route or network, but conversely, will also prevent the activation of any isolated Nodes at the other side of the map. Admittedly after building a fairly sizable network of Nodes myself, any attempts to invest more energy into specific parts of the network met with failure despite possessing the requisite Contribution Points (usually ten) needed to upgrade it. Needless to say, each failed attempt to get this working saw the interest of this critic in this aspect of Black Desert diminish pretty quickly. Truth be told, it all just feels like an attempt to add a layer of depth to a genre that is essentially fairly shallow.

Screenshot for Black Desert on PlayStation 4

In the end this is still a Korean Grinder; one that doesn't stray far from the path well-trodden by its forebears, so it's time to talk about that grind. MMORPG veterans will know the drill. Chat to an NPC, get a quest, head out to the specified location, fulfil the quest's criteria (pick something up, or kill a bunch of ne'er-do-wells), go back to the quest giver to collect a shiny trinket as a reward, repeat the process ad infinitum. It's a cycle that taps into the participant's willingness to invest in their character's growth by encouraging the continuous improvement of its skill set, traits and gear in order to take the fight to stronger enemies. Levelling up is a relatively quick process, and there are additional opportunities to farm for XP via regularly scheduled community events. These can range from huge co-op boss battles to PVP competition (Node Wars, Rival Guild conflicts, Arena Duals) and given that the endgame (level 50+) is very much focused on player-on-player violence, it provides a good opportunity to test out the effectiveness of different character builds.

Pearl Abyss has billed this as an 'action' MMORPG due to the nature of the combat system, which plays more like a traditional hack 'n' slash title complete with manual aiming and chained combos. This might suggest that a level of skill is required when wading into an agitated mob of enemies, but in all actuality button-mashing will suffice. Explorers should relish the opportunity to wade into the vast sandbox Pearl Abyss has created here, as doing so automatically populates the previously uncharted map with nearby points of interest such as Nodes, towns, or community events. There is no fast travel system in Black Desert to speak of, and travelling from one end of the map to the other can be a slow, lengthy affair. Owning a horse can speed up traversal to an extent but its stamina depletes rapidly at lower levels.

While this can be replenished by checking it into a stable or force feeding it a few hundred carrots (rough estimate), it annoyingly won't recover of its own accord if left alone in a field for a few hours, or even between logging out and logging back in again the next day. Truth be told, the horse got dumped early on in the campaign in favour of sprinting everywhere like some kind of amped up loon. There's a rhyme behind the reason though as these lengthy bursts of physical activity had the added bonus of levelling stamina up much quicker. There is an 'auto run' option that can be activated after selecting a destination on the map and this acts a bit like a hands-free cruise control. It definitely comes in handy should the need to check emails, play Candy Crush, or boil a few eggs arise during a particularly lengthy commute.

Screenshot for Black Desert on PlayStation 4

Visually, Pearl Abyss has done a nice job with the character design, and has created an aesthetically pleasing world that adheres to a day/night cycle, along with frequent weather variations. PS4 Pro owners also get to enjoy the luxury of being able to toggle between 4K and 1080p resolutions. Unfortunately, there does appear to be a plethora of technical issues that impact heavily on performance, and it's hard to gauge whether this is down to overloaded servers, or just poor optimisation. Frame rates will frequently judder and slow down to a crawl, which can be particularly disconcerting when the grind is in full flow. Wandering through densely populated areas will often see NPC's disappear altogether for short spells, and similarly, those that stick around will suffer from dreadful texture pop in giving them the appearance of a featureless tailor's dummy. Utterly terrifying.

This is a title rich in content that will no doubt be subjected to many updates going forward, so there's a good chance a lot of these issues will eventually get fixed. However, releasing a product in this condition just shouldn't be encouraged, and it's worth bearing this in mind if undecided on making a purchase. Black Desert operates on a 'Buy to Play' basis, and sports a similar business model to Elder Scrolls Online in that there are no subscription charges to pay after the initial purchase has been made. There are actually three different versions of the title to choose from (Standard, Deluxe and Ultimate), which determine how much bonus digital content gets bundled in with the base package. Pearl Abyss very kindly supplied Cubed3 with a code for the Ultimate Edition, so a number of items that would ordinarily require a bit of a grind or in-game currency to obtain, were available right from the get go. Items such as a tier 5 horse (with armour), a pair of companion pets, a wagon, not to mention numerous cosmetic enhancements, and XP/currency boosts.

The presence of micro-transactions shouldn't be too much of a surprise at this stage as these tend to go part and parcel with the MMORPG genre. While there does seem to be a noticeable 'pay to win' element that can accelerate the grind to the end game quicker, it's not something that will impact too negatively on anybody choosing to ignore this option and take the scenic route to the level cap. With that said, there are a few questionable options available for purchase such as the option to rent (yes... rent) dye to add a splash of colour customisation to owned gear. Once the rental period expires then any items that have been dyed will revert back to its original colour which seems like the kind of inexcusable move that not even Activision would be brave enough to implement. The presence of an in-game public auction house, where unwanted, rarer items can be bought and sold, helps sustain an economy of sorts, and the fact that this functionality is also built into the mobile companion app is a nice touch.

Screenshot for Black Desert on PlayStation 4

Cubed3 Rating

5/10
Rated 5 out of 10

Average

Black Desert successfully ticks all the requisite boxes expected from an MMORPG, but it doesn't really push the envelope forward in any meaningful way. While there are a number of jarring performance issues that tarnish the overall experience, it can still deliver an enjoyable, if slightly hollow, time-filler when consumed in small doses. However Pearl Abyss has failed to sidestep the common concerns that tend to plague the genre as a whole. It just feels like a lot of needless, repetitive busy time, designed to prolong user engagement and drive micro-transactions which ultimately, leads to an unavoidable feeling of ennui.

Developer

Pearl Abyss

Publisher

Pearl Abyss

Genre

Real Time RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  5/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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