Thursday, July 5, 2012

Very Late Diablo 3 Review

Diablo III is a fantastic experience, but with a few design blemishes that are significant enough to give any purchaser pause. This review is admittedly late, but hopefully it will help those who are on the fence about the game. There’s been a lot of vitriol and baseless praise around Diablo 3 and it is probably confusing to anyone who may want to buy the game.

For better or worse, Diablo III is best described as a tactile World of Warcraft. The goal is to level your character, get loot, and to use that loot to defeat stronger and stronger monsters. That’s the game, every Diablo game actually, in a nutshell. You can do this alone, but as with any game that is ostensibly an MMO, doing it with friends is more fun and more challenging. In Diablo 3 you’ll go through the same story beats over and over, and kill the same bosses over and over.  Pressing the space bar to skip dialogue will become habit because you’re in it for the loot and the satisfaction of killing demons, not the story.

The story is, in all actuality, the thinnest part of the entire experience. It’s short. It’s vapid. It’s meaningless other than to provide a thin pretext for killing demons. The story is told well. The voice acting is superb because they have some high caliber talent. Let’s just say, I named my Female Wizard Azula for a very good reason. The only thing that sucks about the voice acting is that you hear some lines so often that you’ll want to shoot the person who said them. I swear to god, if I hear the Templar say “look at that enemy over there!” or “a worthy foe!” I’m going to stab my ear drums. And I like the actor. (Same guy that played Malcolm Reed on Enterprise.)

The narrative itself actually exemplifies something about Diablo 3 that bugs me about the experience on the whole. There is no sense of dread within the entire narrative. It’s well told, there are great actors, but I don’t give a damn. In previous Diablo games, there was a palpable sense of dread when going to explore to get loot, and that dread was created by the narrative as well as the visual style.

As an artist I can 100% attest to the visual direction of Diablo III on a technical level. The painterly aesthetic is gorgeous, and the palette selection for nearly every frame of the game is a thing of beauty. The lighting is better. The animation is better. Everything is objectively better. Unfortunately, this improved visual direction comes at a cost. The pre-rendered sprite graphics of Diablo I and II are muddy and all of their shadows are black. (Any painter worth their salt will tell you that putting black in your shadows is a no-no.) There was no consideration of palette or color theory in those games. The result is that the older Diablo games have a more medieval aesthetic.  That aesthetic conjures anxiety moreso than Diablo III’s current art direction. So it’s a trade off, while Diablo III is more technically sound, it is by no means “better” than the older games. Ultimately, it doesn’t “feel” like a Diablo game based on the art alone.

What the game “feels” like is World of Warcraft. This isn’t due to the art direction, rather it is due to the always online DRM. This DRM affects the experience by tying you to your ping. That’s right, lag affects the game, even if you’re in single player mode. If your ping is 600 or higher, the game is nigh unplayable, especially at higher difficulties where reaction time is a factor. It’s hard to dodge a projectile if the server says you didn’t move.  You’ll run in to rubber banding, where you’ll be running down a hallway and then you’ll be back at the beginning of the hallway. Unfortunately, this will get you killed as the game’s design is not based around delay.  If you lose your connection, the game will exit completely. This is the biggest flaw of the entire experience. If you don’t have a good connection, or no access to a connection you can’t play the game.

In all honesty, I can’t believe that gamers aren’t more enraged about this. I think error 37 at launch got in the way. This DRM not only affects gameplay, but it sends the wrong message to developers. The game has sold so well, that developers are going to think that always online DRM is perfectly OK when it patently isn’t. How a poorly executed ending can engender enough hatred to qualify a publisher as “the worst company in the world” and yet no one seems to care about the DRM in Diablo III is absolutely beyond me. You know what happens if I’m playing Mass Effect and I lose connection? Not a goddamn thing. I keep playing the game. If there is any reason not to buy Diablo III, it’s the DRM. It will ruin the experience for you more often than it will be convenient.  I was visiting my parents, who have a 1.5MB connection, and any time my father decided to send an email, I couldn’t play the game. That’s terrible game design.

Another game breaking concept is the Auction house. It isn’t near as annoying as the DRM because you can avoid the auction house, but the auction house ruins the game if you use it, and you will be very tempted to use it.  In Diablo 3, the game is “go out, kill bad guys, get loot, kill tougher bad guys” the auction house negates the entire premise of the game by removing the “going out and getting the loot” aspect of the experience. What you find in the auction house will almost always be better than what you will find on your own until you progress to a point where that item is trivial in comparison to the worst items. At this point you can just go to the auction house to find even better gear. So it becomes this trade off, the certainty of getting past a difficult part in exchange for the satisfaction of doing it yourself. That’s because much of the game’s difficulty centers around gear. When I first got the game, a friend of mine, who had been playing like crazy, gave me some crazy awesome gear he bought for me on the auction house. Well, I leveled my Witch Doctor all the way to 60 using the auction house and his gear, and it was boring because of the unearned advantage those items gave me. I was ready to give up and write an all over negative review. Then I started a new character and refused to use the auction house and the game opened up. It became fun.

Playing with friends became more fun and is encouraged because the loot aspect becomes collaborative. They’ll get items that they can’t use, and you’ll get items that you can’t use and you’ll trade back and forth. So when a friend said “hey, can you use this?” the items they offer are useful. They aren’t auction house amazing, but they will be upgrades. Speaking of upgrades, the vendors will actually have items which count as upgrades for you. Crafting doesn’t become useless. The rewards of your adventure are palpable, and beating a boss that was previously destroying you is all the more satisfying when you get the gear yourself.

It’s obnoxious that you have to ignore a feature in order to have fun, but that’s the way it is with Diablo 3.

Your progression in the game will be centered mostly around difficulty rather than narrative. You aren’t progressing to what will happen next, by level 30 you’ll know what will happen next. You’re progressing to see what you’ll get next. You’ll go from Normal to nightmare, from nightmare to hell, from hell to inferno. You’ll play through the game on a single character no less than 4 times. The game’s difficulty and interest derives from the bosses, the elite monsters and the dungeons that hold them. Bosses act as gate keepers for subsequent acts. Elite monsters drop the gear you’ll need to get past the Bosses. Bosses are essentially a gear check system. But those elite monsters are where the difficulty really lies, not the bosses.

Each elite monster has an affix. An affix is a special ability. These special abilities can be defense or attack oriented. The number of affixes an elite enemy can have is dependent on difficulty. When you play through normal, elites won’t seem all that difficult because you’ll only have one affix to deal with. In higher difficulties you’ll be dealing with multiple affixes that often work in tandem to give you a beating. For example, you’ll run in to an enemy with vortex and it’ll use vortex to pull you toward it. No big deal in normal. Then you’ll run in to an enemy that walls. It will summon walls that get in your way, protecting the enemy and trapping you. No big deal in normal. Then you’ll run in to an enemy that can desecrate. They will just make an area that you can stand on without taking a ton of damage. No big deal in normal. All of this is fine on normal, when you only have to deal with one at a time, but on inferno, when you have to deal with an elite that uses vortex to pull you in, waller to trap you, desecration to kill you, and pounds the final nail in the coffin with few Arcane mines, the game becomes exponentially more difficult. There are even combinations which are so devastating, it’s better to log out and back in to reset the game. Stuff like, plagued invulnerable minions waller vampiric. There are some combinations that are just so stupid that the game feels broken when you encounter them. Ranged players complain about Fast, and Melee players complain about firechains. There are just some things that you’re going to see and your first reaction will be “fuck this.”

So, with all of this why play the game? It is because at this point where the game feels like Diablo. I mentioned earlier that dread was a component not found in the narrative. It is, however, found in the gameplay.  While I would prefer there be some sense of narrative anxiety, the fact that the game itself makes me anxious about exploring is an excellent development. A horrific story with boring gameplay is less preferable because if you just want a horrific narrative you should watch a movie.  

Ultimately, the minute to minute design of the game is actually very fun. For all of its faults, the core of Diablo is still there. If you like the Diablo experience, and can forgive the DRM, you’re almost guaranteed to enjoy the game on some level. If you’ve never played a Diablo game, and aren’t sure that it would be worth your hard earned cash, then I suggest picking up Torchlight, Titan’s Quest, or even Diablo II. Give at least one of those games a try and if you like that game, the chances are you’ll like Diablo 3. The only problem with it is the DRM. I can’t emphasize that enough. There is just that one glaring flaw.

They’ve even made improvements to the formula. The interface is vastly improved. Item management isn’t as much of a chore. Potions stack (a feature in other games, sure, but I still have flashbacks to the sea of red and blue from Diablo II), and a piece of armor won’t occupy 9 squares of space in your inventory. is, dare I say, an easier way to get friends to play together than LAN. There was much hullabaloo about there being no LAN option in D3. Maybe this would’ve mattered to me when I was younger and all of my friends were condensed and living within a mile of two of each other, but the fact of the matter is, we’re spread out. LAN is impractical for us, and the ease with which Blizzard allows players to drop in and out of games is arguably easier than setting up a network what with firewalls, making sure everyone can see everyone else, and that everything works.

 To be clear, this isn’t praise of the always online DRM. If you’re playing single player, a connection should not be necessary to play.

 There aren’t many options in regards to leveling your character’s stats (other than gear) or abilities (you’ll acquire all of them) rather there are thousands of options on how to play your character.(Some builds are more effective than others, obviously.) Each ability can be assigned to any slot: 1,2,3,4 left mouse button and right mouse button. Every ability can be adjusted based on what kind of rune (if you even assign a rune) and there are several runes per ability. By the end, you have so many options that you won’t know what to do with all of it. In point of fact, half the fun is finding a build that will destroy your enemies. (As a witch doctor player, I have a boner for Zombie Bears and it took me a while to perfect a build for them.)

On top of the numerous options available to your character, the dungeons are almost totally randomized aside from story related parts. What this means is that each experience is different enough on your way to 60 to feel fresh. Sure, after the 100th hour, it will all become kind of samey, but it takes a while for Diablo 3 to reach that point.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) Blizzard is changing the state of the game constantly. The developer has expressed interest in making the end game more sustainable. What this means, no one knows, but it may come to a point where the game will always feel fresh, and the blasé that sets in after hearing the templar say “do you see that enemy over there!” for the thousandth time won’t set in. Blizzard arguably made some mis-steps with their patches. They nerfed attack speed much to the chagrin of many players. Many monk builds were centered around attack speed, and nerfing attack speed crippled some players as to make the game unplayable. (Though, I think these people just had trouble adapting and I still think Monks are good.)

What I’m trying to say is, your mileage with this game may vary depending on what Blizzard decides to do next. I mentioned that I have a boner for Zombie Bears. Well, using Zombie Bears was much more difficult when they couldn’t go up and down ramps, and got stuck in textures and terrain.  Point is, the game is changing, and what will be good one second could be ruined the next and what sucks one moment will be amazing the next. That’s what put me off writing this review for so long.  The experience kept changing enough that I didn’t feel I had a good enough handle on whether or not it’s objectively good when it was first released.

Ultimately, as of July 4 2012, I would say that the game is worth the price of admission. It isn’t perfect. If WoW or other Diablo like games don’t appeal to you, then you’ll probably dislike Diablo 3. I don’t like to give grades or scores. It’s an obnoxious practice. I’ll just say that even with the DRM BS, I was able to get my money’s worth out of it. If you have a 1.5mbps connection, you might want to consider upgrading your connection before you buy it.

Short personal story that may give context for my opinion about D3: I like Star Craft as a single player experience more than a multiplayer experience. I simply don’t have the wherewithal to play it against another person competitively. So, what I gravitated to was the single player experience. That experience was so good and so rich that I actually bought the game for :icongoblinsaint: a videogame curmudgeon. Dude hates fucking EEEVERYTHING. Seriously, he’s the one I gave him my old PS3 and an HD monitor to. Every time I go over to his house it just sits in the corner gathering dust. Meanwhile he’ll see me playing a game, say that it looks great and then tell me that he’s just waiting for it to come to PC. Games like Uncharted. *facepalm* Anyway, anytime I tell him about a game or something he scoffs at it. (It’s kind of obnoxious) But the single player experience of SCII was so good that I bought it for him because I knew that even he would like it. And he did. I did not have that same reaction to D3. I knew that in all likely hood, he would hate D3, so I didn’t even entertain the thought of purchasing it for him. That’s the difference in quality.
Right now I would say that of Blizzard’s modern library SCII is blizzard’s best game, followed by D3, followed by WoW.

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