[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.

Good, Evil, and other Genre Conventions

I always play good characters in games. I have never set out to be evil just for the sake of it.

When I murdered the child in Redcliffe (in Dragon Age) it was because I was saving the world from a worse evil. If that’s not heroic then I don’t know what is! If Mrs Spinks kills the odd few hundred people in Tarren Mill, it’s to protect her homeland. And it isn’t as if she hasn’t helped to kill a lot of dangerous dragons too, even though she totally could have forged a sick note and got out of it.

Or we could just say that I like dark fantasy which involves murky noir-esque moral setups. So when I have a choice, I lean towards the in-game faction or options which let me tell stories in that genre.

I wonder if all good vs evil choices in games really do boil down to letting the player pick their genre. Even a game like KOTOR, in which playing as evil involves scheming, betrayal, random nastiness, and power grabbing for personal gain is just a more hardcore version of the dark fantasy. With some Randian philosophy thrown in for kicks.

The problem with good or evil in games is that either people complain that the choice doesn’t matter, or else there’s one clearly superior option, so it isn’t much of a choice. i.e.:

1. It’s just colour. Or flavour. It might affect what race you play or which faction. It may affect the twists and turns of the story. But your choices are so restricted in other ways that you can never really go all out evil, or all out good.

2. One side will usually have the game mechanics behind them. For example, if a game strongly encourages cooperation then the side which can best cooperate will always win. If a game encourages selfish, backstabbing behaviour, then the side most prone to do this will always win.

It is a dilemma that can be solved. But the game would need to be focussed on playing out the conflict between the different philosophies. Give them different but balanced game mechanics and then see who wins. I’m jonesing to try playing Anti-Monopoly someday, because this is exactly the approach that the designers take. You can either play as a monopolist or as a free marketeer. The mechanics support both. And then fight it out on the board to see which philosophy wins.

But to do that, we need to get away from ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

Alignment and Alpha Protocol

Given these genre musings, I was intrigued at the approach with Alpha Protocol, the upcoming spy action game, takes. Instead of letting you loose to pick good or evil, players can instead pick between Bond, Bourne, or Bauer. Three different genres of black ops style storytelling. Each with its own definition of good or evil.

For example, you’ll never see James Bond court-martialled for fraternising with the enemy. But you’ll also never see him in a situation where he’s in an actual no-win situation where he’s forced to make dark moral choices either.  Other genres could take you deeper into different types of stories. And as a bonus, people who are fans of the genre will know who Bond, Bourne, and Bauer are, so it’s a meaningful choice for them.

I’m not a fan of action games so I won’t be trying this one. But I find the approach far more interesting than just being asked to pick good or evil.

The Alpha Centauri Angle

Alpha Centauri is one of my favourite games of all time. It’s like Civilisation set on a new space colony, with an underlying storyline and where each faction has a very distinct philosophy which is underlined by the game mechanics.

The game itself is sheer genius. You can pick your philosophy by picking the faction which shares it. And then you can use it to conquer the world. Military supremacy? Mad science? Economic win? Be one with nature? There’s some very very clever game design going on in there, and it works brilliantly.

And again, there’s no clearcut choice between good and evil to be made anywhere at all. Instead, you get to choose how you will define good and choose how you will define evil. And to my mind, it leads to a stronger gaming experience overall.

My hope for SWTOR is that Bioware will have learned from previous outings that good vs evil isn’t really interesting enough to stand alone. And instead, when you pick a class, you will really be picking a genre for your space opera. And any good vs evil choices you get to make while playing are more about letting you tailor that genre to your own preferences.

Do you like games where each faction has a distinct philosophy? (Warcraft kind of manages this for Horde, but not so well for Alliance in my view.)

Are bad factions more popular?

Every time a new game launches which has more than one faction, where one is identified as ‘the good guys’ and the other as ‘the other guys’ we end up wondering whether players in general prefer to play as good or evil.

In WoW, the Horde vastly outnumbered Alliance on PvP servers at the start, and still does. In WAR, Destruction vastly outnumbered Order on all servers at the beginning. A friend who plays Aion noted that Asmodian seemed more popular than Elyos on all the servers he checked recently.

The population balance isn’t always for the same reason. In WoW Horde really did have better PvP racials and classes (shaman) at the start. Destruction always looked much cooler than Order in WAR. When I took a look at the Aion beta, my first reaction was that Asmodeans looked cooler than Elyos too and I thought most people would prefer them.

So I see a few common points:

  1. Designers find it easier to make the evil factions look cool (where cool is some combination of look and styling that appeals to gamers). How a character looks is probably the single strongest reason for a gamer to pick it initially.
  2. Tied to #1, evil factions often have a backstory that primes them as being very tough and badass. Instead of heroes, they are portrayed as anti-heroes to make them more powerful as enemies. The bad guys also often have more interesting stories in general – is it just easier to write lore about evil or savage races?
  3. ‘Evil’ factions follow a morality that supports how gamers play (i.e. go out and commit mass slaughter and looting). They have more ‘fun’.  So many gamers find it easier to relate to them. This is one of the reasons a lot of PvP type players are drawn to the bad boys in game.
  4. Even though many games had a majority of the evil faction at the beginning, this often balances out later. There are lots of reasons for this. Some are natural balancing factors, others are devs rebalancing to lure people to the weaker faction. One of the big balancing factors in a PvP game is that the less played faction gets more fights. Either because there is a battleground mechanic that limits how many of each side can play, or in an open world game, they’re just more likely to encounter enemies when they go roaming.

Frank@Overly Positive reminded me about this with a post about faction balance in Star Wars. Fans on the SW:TOR forums are complaining that Bioware is making the Sith seem too cool. I think the fans have lost it – Star Wars has some of the most badass good guys in cinema. The Sith have to be very cool indeed to lure players who planned to be Han Solo over to their side. And if Bioware’s game is going to rely heavily on balanced PvP then there need to at least be some Sith in game.

Star Trek is going to have similar problems. All the films and TV series are about the Federation. So how to lure people into playing enough of the ‘bad guys’ that there’s going to be some people for the good guys to fight.

Some of this will be resolved by hardcore players deciding that only pansies want to be Han Solo et al and again picking the side that is likely to be less numerous because it’ll give more PvP and a badass demeanor. And even if PvP in these games winds up matching the numbers of the more popular good side against the hardcore badassness of the bad side, at least that’s atmospheric.

No, the problem comes a few months down the line when the hardcore guys are winning enough of the fights that lots of other people join them. At that point, the side that was less numerous at the start ends up being more more hardcore and more numerous. Some of the hardcore switch sides, and the cycle begins again.

Do you feel drawn towards playing the bad boy antiheroes? Like the goth Asmodean styling? Does it make a difference whether it’s a heavily PvP game or not?