As I round up on yet another week with Black Desert Online I’m no closer to my goal of hitting at least level 45 before assigning a score… and it’s not for lack of trying. Black Desert’s a game that’s custom built to mess with anyone who has the slightest propensity for attention deficit disorder and well… what was I talking about again?
Most games these days award you with experience for just about anything you do, thereby increasing your player’s level and ushering you to the endgame. And that’s something Black Desert has taken criticism for: it’s “lack of endgame”. Frankly, I think the whole mentality of an MMO needing some sort of endgame is faulty from the word go. These games are inherently designed to never end. Your life, your characters’ lives, are supposed to go on and you’re supposed to keep finding new things to do as the developers churn out more content.
Endgame as a design problem that needs solving probably arose out of the sheer amount of new players World of Warcraft brought into the MMO genre. Suddenly, due to the ease of leveling up when compared to games like EverQuest next, and due to the theme-park-take-a-ride design of Azeroth’s content, eventually players became bored sitting at the level cap and grinding the same dungeons or raising a new character. The Theme Park MMO needs an endgame, something to keep players’ interest, because there is an end.
Look back at Guild Wars 2’s earliest days. They contemplated ditching a level cap altogether, because they wanted a game where your character’s journey never ended. It was a problem they couldn’t really solve, and only now is ArenaNet finding a sweet spot with Masteries. There were MMORPGs before the theme park rise of 2004, and games like Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call didn’t rely on an endgame, or even a specific level cap or restrictive class structures because those games understood that the idea of a never ending game means you had better not put in an arbitrary number that just says “you’ve gone as far as you can go”.
Black Desert has a level cap, but it’s not a hard level cap. It’s a soft cap to keep PVP and ease of PVE in check. You can totally go beyond the soft cap of level 50, and even that is just your player’s “combat” level. There are an obscene amount of other skills, from crafting to gathering to trading and fishing, that all have their own levels and benefits. Players rushed to 45 or 50 in the early days of Black Desert Online, some to begin the PVP aspect of the game, some for the ability to say they did, and others just because that’s what they wanted to do. But in so doing, as a player you’re essentially skipping the core of this game: and that is that Black Desert Online isn’t your typical MMORPG.
There’s a forum thread on our site praising BDO as a flawed game but ultimately a masterpiece, and as someone who’s been playing and critiquing MMORPGs for over a decade now I think that’s fair praise. One of the reasons BDO seems to be doing so well is because there are very few games quite like what Pearl Abyss has wrought. It won’t click for everyone, but if you peel back the layers of life in this world you’re bound to find something exquisite lurking below the pretty and confusing surface.
No, I don’t think I’ll manage to hit level 45 before I finally put a review score on Black Desert Online. But unlike so many MMOs I review these days, I feel confident in saying that I’ll be playing Black Desert long after I assign a numerical indicator of its worth. Black Desert isn’t about killing or questing your way to some mythical endgame. It’s about carving a path in a huge and varied world, making a name for yourself as a baker, a fisherman, a blacksmith, a warrior, a pirate, or a scoundrel. In short, it’s exactly the kind of MMORPG we’ve been wanting for years. Warts and all, I think every MMORPG fan needs to at least try Black Desert Online. And even if you don’t like this particular flavor of game, I’d wager this is the sort of MMO we should be hoping comes out of the next round of games on the horizon. Lord knows we’ve all had enough trips to “Almost Azeroth” to last a lifetime.