Much has been said about the beauty and quality of the game's graphics but it's the strength of the world-making that cannot be overstated. Rarely, probably never, have I traveled the roads and footpaths of an imaginary world that so meticulously, painstakingly replicates an authentic managed environment.
I've mentioned before how every village, town and city uses street plans that are logical, workable and convincing. No compromise whatsoever appears to have been made for player convenience. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the designers used the layout of real-world towns as templates.
The road networks are similarly naturalistic all the way down to the dirt tracks leading to isolated farmsteads and mountain hermitages. The countryside looks and feels wild at the borders and tenanted where civilization encroaches.
There's much more than good geography to why Black Desert feels so immersive to explore, though. The level of detail throughout the built environment is exemplary. The set design and placement of props would do a BBC historical drama proud.
What takes the whole thing to another level is the extensive use of tableaux vivants. Everywhere you go small dramas play out around you. Not a roadside camp or farmstead goes without its own staged set piece and once you enter a city the feeling of being surrounded by stories is overwhelming.
It's a fascinating approach to world-making. I'm not convinced it has the edge over GW2's enormously complex, nested scripted NPC narratives, where entire storylines with thousands of lines of dialog, all voiced, unfurl across whole maps, but it has a deep charm all the same.
In Metrica Province, to take my favorite Tyrian example, it is entirely possible to spend a whole afternoon trailing NPCs and eavesdropping on their quotidian lives. Just by watching and listening that way you feel it might be possible to come to a rich, nuanced understanding of life among the Asura.
Wandering through the bustling streets of Altinova or Heidel the impression is more one of walking through a gallery. Screenshots taken at random look, almost literally, like paintings in the style of the great Renaissance masters. Where GW2 is a watercolor dreamscape, Black Desert is naturalism done in oils.
It's those tableaux that hold the eye, though. The eye and the mind and the imagination. Black Desert's designers have dared to be lavish, not just in the size of the cast or the scale of the production but in the detailing.
When dressing sets with NPCs, almost all MMOs re-use animations primarily intended for other purposes; emotes, combat, idling. I can't be certain but it seems to me that the Pearl Abyss team has gone to the trouble of creating specific animations for certain tableaux just to make them more convincing.
Take, for example, the soldier pictured above fixing something - a mirror? a shield? a sign? - to a wall in Altinova. That animation seems bespoke. Or his colleague, painting a symbol on a wall a few doors away. That action has to be handcrafted just for that scene, doesn't it?
area, it has a significance I don't understand. Wherever it appears it looms, darkly. The sight of that soldier, marking the clay while a hulking guard and a lackey look on, is chilling.
Whatever it means it can't be anything good. The tableau of cowering refugees - or are they citizens? - surrounded and menaced by more armed and armored soldiers just a few doors up the hill make it plain this is a city in turmoil.
And yet, meanwhile, business must go on. Black Desert's is a world of trade and commerce as well as violence and magic. As you watch the heated bargaining between a gesticulating Shai and cold-eyed goblin dealer in art and artifacts you have to wonder about the provenance of the goods. Were those gilded frames looted by the militia or are they the family heirlooms of some wealthy Altinovan, liquidating his assets before he flees to Heidel or Calpheon?
It's entirely possible to stand for hours looking at this world and wondering. For all I've supposedly "played" Black Desert for a month now, what I've mostly done is watch. In some ways the "game" part just gets in the way.
The players certainly do, with their hundreds of wagons parked on top of each other, their lines of horses lined up like so many black cabs on the rank, their garish dyes and Las Vegas showgirl glitz. So, too, the odd clusters of milling wildlife placed down conveniently at the edge of town, just waiting to be killed. Without the need to provide a game there'd be none of that.
Black Desert makes a good case for the old-school vision of the Virtual World but, once again, a huge question mark hangs over the compatibility of virtual world-building with the making and playing of video games. Perhaps VR will finally drive a wedge between the two. If I could "walk" through Altinova in three dimensions and 360 degrees I'm not sure I'd need anything more by way of "gameplay".
Come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure I do, even now.