I like it when open world games shut up. I can enjoy maps pocked with points of interest and NPCs to do menial tasks for, but usually I just want to go do something impulsive and rash, to-do lists and quest logs be damned. So I started playing Black Desert Online hoping for some of that unscripted adventuring—people call it a ‘sandbox MMO’—but I didn't exactly find it. During my journey I do catch a glimpse of what the fantasy world and I could do together, but only after four hours of fruitlessly chasing my dream of horse ownership.
We got off to a pretty bad start. Little puts me off more than MMO interfaces that feel like a malware infected instance of Internet Explorer, and with Black Desert I’m immediately confronted with a tutorial video playing, a spirit guide nagging, gold spammers spamming, and notifications notifying their little hearts out. I wonder if the increase in screen space that’s come with higher resolutions has actually been good for game design—it doesn’t always feel like it.
And then there’s my to-do list: basic quests one must do at the start of an MMO. Blah blah, there are some [enemies] in the [area] that you need to murder a bunch of times. Or go talk to so-and-so because whatever is happening in wherever and we need to find the artifacts. Sometimes I wish MMO NPCs would never, ever talk. What they say is so rarely interesting, and half the time I don't even know why I'm being rewarded at the end of a quest. Good job for... talking to a couple people? No problem. I can talk to all the people if I must.
I do sort of like Black Desert’s companion, the Black Spirit, though. The little evil Navi can be irritating, but seems aware that casually killing defenseless animals as a tutorial is pretty messed up. I’m glad someone in the game notices how weird the designers are being, even if it acts giddy about it. (The cute little foxes even yelp when I slash their throats. Horrible.)
Body slamming wolves is another thing. Once I unlocked that skill, and discovered it worked on wolves, Black Desert earned a heap of goodwill from me. I only wish I didn’t have to kill the little whelps, who don't even attack me when I come close and are no match for me anyway. I just want to body slam them and walk away, leaving them dazed, thinking, “Did that human just body slam me?” I did.
The combat is fairly fun, though—or at least, it's flashy and loud. It’s not the stand and whack model I came up on in Everquest and MUDs before it, but active comboing with big fiery sword swipes from my warrior character. Still, in the beginning stages it mostly comes down to standing and clicking, using abilities just for fun, as nothing’s hard. Swipe, swipe, dead. Swipe, swipe, dead. It’s quickly boring, but I dutifully kill things for a couple hours anyway, and then reach a quest that requires me to earn a few more levels and find a group. Well that’s it for questing, then. If Black Desert is a ‘sandbox’ I’m going to treat it like one, I think to myself, so I uncheck all my in-progress quests—I'm not answering the Black Spirit's calls anymore. I heard you can tame and breed horses and that’s what I want to do.
I don’t tame or breed a horse
The first step toward becoming a famed horse breeder is to get back to a town, I figure. After hitting that questing wall, I decided to just wander for a bit, and ended up miles from my starting point. Worse, it’s now pitch black out. So I set my destination—a town I ran through five minutes ago—and turn on autorun, which should keep me on the roads. I run into a river.
Now I’m swimming through ink black water, and I can’t find a shore to climb onto. Why not just swim to town? My health starts depleting. Alright, I guess it wouldn’t be healthy to go for an extended swim in the middle of the night. Lucky me: all my questing earned me 70-something health potions. So now I’m swimming freestyle while guzzling red life juice. I pass the time by reading the same chat ad for BikiniPanda.com 20 times (“Fast Deliver. Cheapest Item. Most Trustable. Your Best Choice.”).
When I finally get to town I alt-tab and look up a horse breeding guide. Crap. I have a lot to do.
I start by buying some taming rope, which is fair. Gotta have rope to catch a horse. Then I need sugar lumps, which I have to craft with raw sugar and some kind of cooking water. The lady who owns the local inn is plenty happy to sell me the sugar, but I can’t find water anywhere. There’s mineral water, but I need regular water. Just water! How does no one have regular old water? (Update: Someone informed me that you can just use mineral water, despite the guide specifying cooking water. So that's one problem solved, though I wouldn't have my horse yet anyway.)
I run from Calpheon to Velia, then from Velia to Heidel, and all the way down to Glish. I couldn’t find water for sale at any town or city I passed through, but I did get to see some nice looking settings and my endurance increased. Hurrah! Plus, there’s something funny about auto-running to destinations: all the characters walk down the same line in the middle of the roads, so you bump into traders the whole way between towns. I imagine them all saying “I’m walkin’ here” 100 times a day.
I’m feeling pretty lost now so I refer back to the guide, and find that it is possible to tame without sugar cubes, just harder. But I also find out that I need my taming skill to be at level five, and after more running around, that the only way to level it up is to ride a donkey, and after even more running around, that you don’t get a donkey until your character level is 17. I’m level 12.
In short: Want to tame a horse? Ride a donkey. Want to ride a donkey? Fillet 200 useless Imps and we’ll see if you can handle it. My distaste for the entire concept of RPG leveling grows stronger every day.
Putting in some work to get where you want is part of the fun—otherwise it could just show me a picture of a horse with “you tamed the horse” written in Comic Sans—but getting there has to be fun, or tense, or something, right? At least in Eve Online I got to enjoy the majesty of space, and throughout all that boring mining got to anticipate the profits and the ship upgrades and the anxiety of running through unsafe space (admittedly it does have its own lengthy skill acquisition process, though happens in queue behind the scenes). In Black Desert I’m anticipating my lovely horse, sure, but I don’t feel like I’m actively working toward it by cutting up baby animals.
But here’s what I like about Black Desert: One, you can explore from the start. I’m bored of RPGs that take place in worlds where the average person couldn’t go 20 feet from home without being gutted by a giant sloth. Back when I played Everquest, I preferred to hang out in Freeport, but only humans and half-elves could start in that city. So every time I started a non-human character, I made this terrifying level one journey through dangerous areas to get there, carefully drafting behind high-level players who’d attract the aggro mobs to themselves. I died a lot on those journeys, but it was great fun for me, and it was a self-designed quest—just what I mean when I say ‘shut up and let me do what I want.’
Second, the character creator is great, as you may have heard. I made a pretty dull, grey-haired warrior, but you can get wild with it. The only really annoying limitation is that male and female characters are currently tied to specific classes, so you can’t be a female berserker or a male ranger, for instance.
And finally, I know there’s a ton of depth to Black Desert, because Steven Messner told me so when he wrote our beginner’s tips (his article was the reason I decided to play). If I want to work for it, I can tame horses, and I can breed them, and I can make that my job. I can set up trade routes and production chains. I can join Steven’s guild and do so much more.
I think I’d like doing all that, and I might do it, but I’m more and more impatient with the boring low-level combat and quests that feel like they come from some kind of MMO standardization booklet. I’m not sure I have the patience for Black Desert. It's not that it would even take me that long to get to level 17 so I can ride my donkey and find some sugar lumps, but it’s the principle of it, you know? I hate feeling like my time is being undervalued, or that anytime I try to chose my own direction I'll be asked if I've bodyslammed enough wolves yet.