As the content drought in WoW stretches towards a summer wasteland, I was interested to hear about a new MMO that’s just been released. Players in its Beta have been praising it online for ages. As I’ve virtually run out of things to do in WoW until Legion (which hopefully will be sooner rather than later) I thought I’d give this new Black Desert a go. It’s a ‘buy to play’ title, and because of the unctuous praise it’s received, I thought I might as well splash out and buy one of the launch bundles. I envisaged I’d be playing it throughout the summer. The game was advertised – and reviewed – as the ‘new generation’ of MMOs. But sadly, if that’s the case, it looks to me as if the genre is moving backward.

When I play a new MMORPG, I like to be able to pick up the basics fairly quickly. Most I’ve played share a syntax, in that components of their User Interfaces share common elements, so that you know pretty much from the start how to move your character, how to use combat skills, how to access your inventory and so on. Obviously, there are differences between games, but not generally to the extent where you can’t work things out and get into playing straight away. Usually there are good tutorials to help with that too. Whenever I’ve run into an MMO whose UI feels utterly alien to me, and/or the tutorial aspect is lacking, it’s put me off playing. I want the way I operate my characters and interact with the game to feel instinctive, not baffling. Black Desert is absolutely baffling – not just to me but to several other members of my WoW guild who are currently trying to play it.

OK, I accept my own prejudices concerning how I like to play are colouring my views of this game, and it is – I understand – typically Korean in the way it operates. Many players who are currently raving about it online are probably already familiar with that style. But to me Black Desert lacks that familiar syntax I look for in a game, which allows me to immerse myself quickly. The complication of learning completely new systems interferes with that immersion. I feel annoyed at having bought this game, purely on the recommendations of gushing reviews, most of which showed videos of characters in combat within the visually stunning world, and slavered over the character customisation. What wasn’t so obvious in these reviews was how you actually play. If I’d been in the Beta to try the game out for myself, I’d never have bought it. Usually, you can trust reviews that come out of a game’s Beta to at least warn people about the downsides. Perhaps I looked at the wrong reviews.

The default mode of character movement is to use the keyboard – I personally prefer using a mouse for that. The default mode of combat is using the keyboard too, but not through the number keys as in most other MMOs. You might have to use – for example – the F key in combination with the left or right mouse button, or with Shift as well. It often also involves memorising a longer series of ‘combo’ button pressing. I’m used to having quick and easy action bars to access combat skills, which are numbered 1 to 10 and can be activated either by a number key button or the mouse. In BD, you can, to a degree, change the UI so that you can move with the mouse, but it’s clunky. Also, you *can* have a basic action bar of 10 slots, but some skills can’t actually be put on it at all. I had to read several web pages to discover how to put *any* skills on this apparently grudgingly-provided bar, and then discovered that there is a ‘mana tax’ for using it rather than the main key combos. Another MMO I played, Aion, uses skill combos, but much more elegantly, and you learn how to get the best from them as you level and acquire new skills. The combos are baked into the key strokes and don’t require any memorising. In Black Desert you get loaded with new skills that require memorising different key sequences almost from the start. There are only two quests that teach you some basic moves, and there is a pop up video you can elect to have on screen that shows the key sequences. But having to peer repeatedly at this while fighting isn’t good. OK, you’ll learn the sequences eventually but really… why? Just seems needlessly complicated and adds nothing to the common combat mechanics found in other games. The combat system owes more to Street Fighter than to games like World of Warcraft. On top of all this, you have to use the Tab key to swap in and out of combat mode, which is often annoying when you find yourself in the wrong stance, chucking fireballs at a hapless NPC merchant. You have to hit the CTRL key to gain control of your mouse, which you need to do so you can click on elements of the UI. Normally, the mouse only swings the camera about. Again annoying when you have to keep doing it, because camera mode swings back into action constantly. You have to use R to interact with anything. I prefer to use the mouse to click on NPCs, loot, mobs, gathering nodes and so on. I don’t like that combat and interaction with the world are what amounts to different stances, and you can’t do them simultaneously. Constant swapping just becomes a tiresome chore and if you’re the kind of player who prefers always to use the keyboard to move, you’ll no doubt get sick of finding yourself flailing around wildly with your weapon instead of walking up the road.

I suppose that with determination I’d get over this unfamiliar way to play so it would become as instinctive as how I play WoW, Rift, Guild Wars, Aion, Wildstar and others. (Tera I couldn’t bear for the same reason I find BD difficult.) But for me, BD’s failings aren’t just down to combat, movement and interaction. The game simply isn’t newbie friendly. Economy and commerce are a huge part of the game, and very complex, (which will undoubtedly keep the game fresh for a long time for those who master these aspects), but it’s all gobbledegook to me. I’ve only just worked out how to get my horse in and out of a stable and to ride it. I got this mount as part of the bundle I bought, but have little idea how you get a horse otherwise, other than you have to be level 20 and then start taming them in the wild, or something. (That might be completely wrong, by the way.) The intricacies of getting more horses, then breeding them to sell, remains an impenetrable mystery, as does the whole ‘become a successful merchant’ feature. I’ve bought a house but it’s not doing anything. I seem to have bought a farm, or am at least renting it, but have no idea what to do with it now. Workers are mentioned, but I don’t know how to hire them. There are crafting professions but I’ve not found out how to learn them yet. You can apparently build boats, and have trading caravans… somehow. There are different currencies, and a core mini-game to do with earning good reputation with named NPCs, all of which again have to be studied online if you want to understand them properly. And even then, there’s a huge amount of information to take in. What tutorials do exist in game miss out important tips or else the translation to English isn’t quite right. I think lots of breadcrumb quests would have helped, that led players to learn about how to get a horse and cart and fill it with produce from their farms, and then sell it, along with a quest to find and hire workers, and so on. Nothing in this game flows naturally for me.

The developers seem to take for granted that players will be familiar with the style of play, which of course might well be the common MMO syntax in its country of origin. Other Korean games have been franchised in the West, and generally get a makeover to make them comprehensible to their intended market, but sadly I’m still in the dark about how to access most of BD’s features, and I’ve had it for about three weeks now. The difficulty of finding out what you’re supposed to do has put me off playing, so therefore I don’t play as much as I normally would with a new title, and consequently I’m not learning it. Vicious circle. Even searching online hasn’t been the greatest help. I’ve found bemused players trying to get information on forums, often to meet with that tiresome scoffing response from ‘expert’ players, who’ve been with it all the way through the Beta, and who scorn anyone who can’t get their head round the arcanery. I can’t see this MMO doing well in the West. People want to get into a game and get on with it as soon as possible, not have to try and find info online every five minutes about its most basic aspects.

Black Desert doesn’t have end game like the majority of other MMOs – there are no raids and dungeons with their enforced gear ladders. I don’t disapprove of this, and do appreciate it offers a new form of character progression – the idea apparently is that you level constantly in such things as trading, riding, farming and so on. As BD would always be my secondary game, (if I could be inspired to play it more), I don’t mind at all being free of the usual end game activities. Trading and becoming a better horse-woman sound pretty good to me for a game I’d play casually. But I can’t get round the way it works. Some people won’t mind, and will no doubt consider my criticisms trivial, if not misguided, but given the amount of other players we’ve noticed floundering around in the game, I wonder how many will feel like me and simply write off bitterly the cost of buying it.

As for the acclaimed character customisation, while you do get a lot of it in some respects, in others it’s limited. (Aion, I think, still holds the crown for having the best character creation in any MMO I’ve tried.) Classes are restricted to one gender, and one class is the obligatory Anime schoolgirl type, which, with a fair amount of tweaking on the character creation screen, you can just about change enough so she doesn’t look too disturbing. Who plays these deliberately provocative ‘little girl’ characters anyway? I always find them very creepy, if not downright perverted. One of the NPC races in the game is comprised of what look like tiny children, who may or may not really be adults – haven’t worked it out yet – but I found one with facial hair that was quite… odd. I know this sort of thing is common in Far Eastern RPGs, and it’s clearly a cultural thing, but I don’t think it translates well beyond their home countries, and I’m not the only female player who finds the idea of scantily-clad, pre-pubescent girl characters with their knickers showing somewhat repellent. But the downsides of the characters are a minor gripe in comparison to the rest of the game.

To be fair, BD does have a ton of features and activities within it, and the world itself is beautifully designed. I understand it’s huge too, although I’ve barely left the starter area. Because I spent money on it, I’ll persist with trying to learn it for a while longer. I don’t want that money to have been wasted. But I’m disappointed with the lack of guidance. Even its most newbie-hostile aspects could have been tolerable if the tutorials had been thorough and well-written. I’m not averse to trying games that do things differently, but only if I’m given clear instructions on how to play. Black Desert just doesn’t do that for me. At least it wasn’t marketed as a ‘WoW killer’ like other MMOs, because it certainly isn’t. It’s ‘buy to play’ at the moment, with a cash shop, and maybe if it goes ‘free to play’ it’d be worth giving a try. All I can say now is don’t waste your money, unless you’re prepared to spend a lot of time getting to grips with the Korean style of playing, or are already au fait with it.