[Diablo 3] The good, the bad, and the state of the game (minor spoilers)

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So, I’m coming up for air from some serious bouts of Diablo 3 this week, albeit not as serious as the guy who already soloed Diablo on Inferno mode, or the guys from Method who killed him in a 4 man group on the same setting. That does seem quite fast given how difficult Blizzard touted inferno mode as being but I am sure it will still be plenty hard for normal players, especially since they’ll have had to play the game through three times before they get to pick that setting.

Meanwhile your narrator is on Act 2 of Nightmare Mode (that’s the next one up from normal) and has been playing a bit of co-op in Normal Mode with Arb. I’ve been enjoying it; Diablo 3 is a fun game, I am a sucker for the gothic grimdark Heaven and Hell themes, and there is a lot to like about it. In fact, there are many utterly and genuinely great things you should know about D3.

The Good

* THE CLASS DESIGN AND TALENT SYSTEM. This isn’t just good, it’s amazing. No futzing around with talent trees trying to decide if you want 1% extra block here or +10 resist vs undead trees there (that kind of fiddling is purely in the gear), instead you get to pick 6 attacks which will be bound to keys 1-4 and the left/right mouse buttons. Each ability is distinctive and has immediately recognisable effects on the screen and in play, and you get to further customise the ability as you unlock runes by levelling up. Finally someone has twigged that players want their choices to matter immediately and in every fight. That is what this system accomplishes. While Blizzard start you off with a balanced power set which involves one key for defensive spells, one for your long (ie. 2 min) cooldowns, etc., you can leapfrog this and just bind whichever powers you prefer by picking the Elective Mode (Options-> Gameplay-> Interface).

I’ve never been a fan of talent trees but I adore this system. I’m also fond of being able to respec whenever you aren’t in combat. It encourages players to experiment with some of the synergies and try things out, or respec to more appropriate skills after a boss kicks your arse. And you can tell fairly swiftly if a given skill set is working out for you or not.

Each class is fun, distinctive, and has some solid signature abilities which are thematic to the class. Moving away from mana and the associated mana potions was a great move too. It all works. This is Blizzard design at its finest and deserves to be widely copied.

* COMBAT AND LOOTING. It’s fast and furious, there’s lots of clicking, it’s Diablo.  I especially enjoy the physicality of the whole thing. When characters use their movement powers (ie. charge or leap on the Barbarian) they bound around the screen scattering mobs in their wake in a way that’s both easy to follow and strangely satisfying. When mobs or chests or barrels are destroyed, they throw out a veritable fountain of loot that lands with another satisfying crash on the ground. I also like how you collect gold or health orbs just by being in the vicinity.

I think D3 must have a design goal that the player never has to wander around for more than 20s before encountering some monsters. But that suits me.

* LOYAL TO THE ROGUELIKE ROOTS. There is going to be a lot of discussion with this game about what exactly makes a Diablo game into a Diablo game. Some of this is doubtless Blizzard being lazy, there’s no special need for a Diablo game to go Tristam->Desert->Mountains or reuse plot elements and NPCs into the ground. But there are definitely gameplay features where the game remains close to its roots in a good way. The random packs of mobs with randomly assigned abilities/ suffixes means that the game on harder modes rewards cautious and defensive play above pure damage. It also means there is a heavy dose of luck in exactly how difficult any random fight will be for any class/group.

That’s very much the way you play roguelikes. Sometimes the game throws you into a situation that’s just plain unfair – deal with it, that’s how procedurally generated games work. It drives you into developing a play style and character that is able to cope with the unexpected.

* GOOD USE OF ACHIEVEMENTS. I’m not the greatest fan of achievements but they do work really well here, there’s a good set of achievement goals for everyone from the casual player who is happy rerunning normal mode over and over again to the ultra hardcore.

I think it’s a nice touch that you get to see when any of the people on your friends list get an achievement. I liked it in WoW and I like it here too.

* SLICK MULTIPLAYER. It’s a fun game on multiplayer, and very easy to drop into one of your friends’ games and then teleport to them.

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* DIVERSITY. After the general fuss over the demon hunter (I still hate the heels) I’m really happy to say that D3 actually does make some good steps with diversity. In particular, Tyrael appears as a dark skinned guy, there’s some use of older characters (such as Cain, Adria, and the male Barbarian and Monk) and younger ones (the emperor) and it isn’t always the women who betray your character/s.

I’ve also shown images of the female barbarian (NM Act2)  and wizard (Normal Act 1) above, and I think they both look great without being stripperific.

It’s open to debate as to whether any of the PCs or NPCs are or could be gay. I actually think all the main characters are written to be sexless, and the enchantress and templar are just naive.

* GOOD USE OF BOOK SNIPPETS. I enjoyed the use of lore text via snippets of books, diaries, and journals that you find around the world, which are read out to you. I like that you can keep killing stuff while you listen. The actual game journal itself could have used being better designed so that you could search it more easily afterwards. Bioware’s codexes are good examples of how this could work.

* GOOD WRITING FOR COMPANIONS/ CRAFTERS. For me the best written parts of the game were the companion storylines, which are fed to you via snippets and short conversations as you progress through the game, Bioware-style. All those companions and the two crafters had solid story arcs and I rather enjoyed them. Yes, they’re stereotypes but that’s not really an issue for this game.

There is also some fun NPC dialogue on the various villagers and associates at your camp which changes between quests as the story progresses.

I did feel very Conan when I ventured out on my Barbarian with the sleazy scoundrel companion. It could have happened in a Robert E Howard book.

* ATMOSPHERE. I think this worked best in Act 1, but there is a definite atmosphere. I felt immersed, I wanted to know what was going to happen. I don’t think this game is as effective as Diablo 2 in setting up either the mystery or the terror of these vast unknowable good/evil powers duking it out over the earth. Back then, I was genuinely scared when I first encountered Diablo himself – my partner ended up sitting next to me and using the healing potions because I was so nervous of actually fighting the dude on my own. Maybe I’m a more hardened gamer now, and used to tanking boss mobs, or maybe they just don’t set up the terror like they used to.

The Neutral

* SERVICEABLE STORYLINE. The story in D3 does the job, but it’s patchy. Act 1 is generally solid. Act 2 is all over the place but picks up after you get the dead mage guy on board (I love his voice actor), Act 3 is slow but picks up a lot towards the end and Act 4 is fast but has some good set pieces. Like TAGN I wasn’t thrilled to find myself heading out for the same desert in Act 2 that I played in Diablo 2. It’s reusing old plot elements just a little too much there.

There are plot holes, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” or “How did my character know that?” The biggest one to me is from Act 1 where someone talks about the rarity of Nephelem to Act 2 (I think) onwards where everyone starts referring to you as one. I don’t recall that particular revelation taking place. It would have been better if it’d been part of the PCs backstory, included in the initial introductory video clip.

There is also some plot driven stupidity, noticeable when you find yourself thinking, “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal,” or “OK, I figured out who character X was within about 2s of first meeting them, why has it taken the PC and everyone else the entire rest of the act to do so?”

* NPCs mostly exist to open doors for you. I just thought I’d note that in passing. I liked the ensemble feel of Acts 1-3, with NPCs occasionally dropping into your party for a quest or three. It did feel as though you were interacting with them.

* The Auction House really changes the difficulty of the game. If you are regularly buying appropriate yellow gear from the auction house, you will be playing this game on a vastly easier difficulty rating than if you go it single player style and only use your own drops and merchants. I think this will definitely affect how quickly people blast through it.

* You will need to play defensive in higher difficulties. Ignore the tempting 2H weapons and amazing offensive powers, if you want to survive in the harder modes, you’ll need to grab a shield and spec defensively. This means lots of vitality. So really, the game isn’t as flexible as its billed. It’s not that there is one true spec for each class, I think they have more diversity than that, but defensive trumps offensive.

The Bad

* LAG. It’s just not right to have lag in a single player game. It directly affects the play experience and it’s built in. I don’t much like the always-online requirement, but where gameplay is affected I find it unforgiveable.

* THIS IS THE NPCS STORY. Blizzard do this a lot, in SC and in WoW also, and that is focussing so much on telling the story through the NPCs that it becomes their story. You are the hired muscle. It worked for them in WC because you were actually playing the story NPCs in the scenarios. But as soon as you introduce your own character, there isn’t really much space for it in their storytelling.

The final cut scene really highlights this. There isn’t even a closing narration from your character about whatever it plans to do next.  There isn’t much closure for some of the NPCs either. I get that there’s bound to be an expansion but the ending here feels rushed, and they could have done better.

* DIFFICULTY. It is partly due to the auction house but this game falls on the easy side. Admittedly I’ve only touched on the first two difficulty levels and I can see how it will ramp up, but there’s difficulty and then there’s difficulty. I’m struggling to put this into words really, but I feel as though there’s something missing.

* RANDOM EVENTS DISAPPOINT. I loved the random events during the beta, but those ones near the beginning of Act 1 are by far the most interesting in the game. After that, it’s mostly ‘defend this objective against waves of mobs’ or ‘kill these demons which suddenly appear.’ Blizzard have the ability in D3 to slot in some far more interesting random events and we know from WoW that they have the skills to design them. They just didn’t.

* HOW MANY TIMES DO WE WANT TO REPLAY THIS? The idea of having to replay the game several times in order to set a harder difficulty was fairly core in D1 and 2, but feels very dated now. It’s like having a MMO where the maximum level is 60 but they only put in half the zones and after that you had to play them again on ‘hard mode.’

It’s not that I precisely mind replaying it, but having four difficulty levels highlights the issue.

* INCOMPLETE. This game was released without the ranked PvP or real money auction house. The latter is due to be online sometime soon (I think they said 23rd May) and I have no personal interest in PvP in Diablo but those were two sizeable factors that appealed to large sections of the community. And they aren’t there.

Sooru (you should follow his blog if you are playing D3) rounds up some more areas where he feels that game lacks polish.

In which I ponder the lure of the world’s firsts

Gravity notes today that Premonition got a world first kill on Heroic Ruby Sanctum (this is a link to the tankspot strategy guide). This is the new raid instance which was patched into the US WoW servers yesterday and is being patched into ours today. I think my casual raid guild actually got a server or faction first on one of the ICC bosses purely due to the date/time on which we usually raid also.

In this case, the Ruby Sanctum raid isn’t intended to be as difficult as Icecrown, it’s not a progression instance. (My guess is that it’s intended to be challenging for PUG raids.) So it should surprise no one that hardcore raid guilds roll over it without a hiccough. But still they went to the effort of announcing a world kill with a screenshot.

Is it bad if I want to pat them all on the head?

The Shape of Things to Come

One of the things that caught my eye about Ensidiagate (thanks Matt for coining that term) was how different people responded to the notion that some tradeskill might give an advantage in a raid encounter.

Most longterm WoW players reacted immediately, saying Blizzard would never do that intentionally – which is true. It is completely against their current philosophy. But there was a time when that type of obscure puzzle solving strategy was considered fair game by designers.

Remember Naxxramas? How about that boss which required the use of mind control on the adds, a spell given to only one class in the game. Going back to DaoC, I remember an encounter where the raid needed to stop some adds from walking into the centre of an area. The adds were immune to almost all crowd control. The eventual solution? It involved stealthers using a distract rotation; every time the mob was targeted, it paused for a moment and turned away from the stealther.

Even later on at Lady Vashj, I remember people using the tailored nets to help slow adds.

Back in those days, we would have loved an encounter that required a tradeskill trick to complete. Discovering that strategy would have been brilliant fun, and rewarded real out of the box thinking. And imagine discovering that your crappy tradeskill turns out to be really crucial for a boss fight?

This is not excusing Ensidia for ignoring an obvious exploit (yes, I think it is increasingly obvious that they knew something was up, they’re a very smart bunch), but MMOs these days are moving swiftly away from puzzle solving. There’s not much wriggle room for out of the box thinking in PvE these days in theme park games, and too much of it will lead to exploits. Instead you have to solve the problem in the way the designers intended.

I was thinking this on reading in the Escapist about the Bioware founders’ favourite games of the last decade. I see a lot of shooters in those lists. And only one true puzzle game, LittleBigPlanet.

We know that puzzle based encounters are problematic in MMOs, because of all the spoiler sites and tactic guides, but I wonder if raids were more fun when we felt that any strategy was fair game and that being creative might be rewarded. Has the internet really killed puzzle games? World of Goo and Professor Layton have been popular enough, players still like this sort of challenge and are happy to pay for it.

And I wonder how much of the Ensidia leadership is simply mired in the past, when tanks were warriors, paladins were alliance, and out of the box thinking got you world firsts.