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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

[D3] Diablo 3: A Game Reborn?

Did you ever have something you were really looking forward to but when you finally got it the thing was nowhere near what you expected; in fact, you got something substantially worse? A birthday where you looked forward to a shiny new gaming console but ended up with a block of wood? A promotion that turned out to be a move from the corner office to the basement? Whatever your experience that's a bit like how I felt about Diablo 3. Now, in all fairness it was not "trash" but at release it was not a very good game. Comparing it to its contemporaries it didn't do anything exciting and was somewhat unremarkable aside from the "Blizzard Entertainment" sticker. The franchise that had brought the ARPG genre into the sun had seemingly phoned-in its third installment.

"Back in the day" a skill may have had six runes but only one of them was very useful. Each class often boiled down to a flavor of the month build that basically was required to stand a chance in Inferno difficulty. Loot was not exciting because 99% of the time your Wizard seemed be living in a world where magic item creators thought it was a good idea to stick Strength and Dexterity on wands. Inferno mode often felt like you ran around zones chipping away at enemy health only to suddenly die in one hit to a random projectile. At release Diablo 3 was a mess.

The Game that was promised

Fast forward and Patch 2.0.1 comes out to herald the impending release of Reaper of Souls. I'll say this at the outset it is a major change and improvement. The question is whether it is enough of one. When Diablo 2 released in 2000 it was really the only ARPG game in town. It had minor competition certainly, but all of that was well behind Diablo 2 in terms of quality and polish. That isn't true anymore as Diablo 3 came out competing with games like Torchlight 2, Marvel Heroes, Path of Exile, and dozens of others. It's a popular genre and these days you can't just be a "good" game to sit in the hall of fame with Diablo 2; you need to revolutionize the genre.

Was it Rune-ined?

So what has been fixed? Well remember that list a paragraph ago? Most of that. Most runes seem viable now and many adjust the damage type of the attack to create various synergistic effects. When I played originally I tried to always use new skills as I acquired them but when one got into Nightmare and Hell difficulty that plan became less and less viable. I had to start sticking to more powerful builds and the fun of getting a new ability faded because I knew I would barely ever use it. Where various runes used to have boring affects like "increases radius/damage" they now often change the ability in fundamental ways. The Demon Hunter's cluster arrow starts as basically a rocket but can now become a lobbed bomb that drops grenades as it flies. At least with the characters I played --demon hunter, wizard, witch doctor--, I found I was using my entire kit rather than using one ability (I'm looking at you Disintegrate) over and over.
Same skill w/out and with a glyph. Blue line added to show trajectory
That said, this is early optimism and I have yet to venture into the darkness of Torment difficulty and its multiple scales; this viability of builds has yet only been tested in as high as Master difficulty. A meta and flavor-of-the-month system may yet develop. Though perhaps that is part of the fun of playing a patch/game this close to release; the meta isn't there yet. I digress however, as that is a topic for another day.

Make it rain...loot!

An initial fear about the new loot system would be that it would just devalue items and remove any sense of "I got something!" That is forgetting that the previous system had already killed that feeling. Loot 2.0 is a substantial improvement and within the first few minutes of play most of my characters found upgraded items. I find Legendaries every so often and the drop rate for them is well thought out. They drop rarely enough to feel very special, but are also likely to be my best item for a while, and actually drop now (I saw ONE during my previous D3 play...and it sucked because it rolled bad stats). It feels like a lot of testing went into the drop rates they have now and it shows.

Dropped within one level of each other
Games like Torchlight 2 should take a note from D3 here and reconsider their own systems going forward. I know that it's in vogue for ARPGs to have items with truly random stats, but personally I would eschew that thinking for a system that drops things I actually get to use. The old way involved leaving me with sub-par items that I replace with mediocrity in some slots, while leaving me stuck with formerly amazing but-not-yet-replaced items in others. There is a balance to be struck between having the player get new items and getting attached to old ones, and I think D3 strikes it well.

There is a downside, the system does cause your character to primarily see items for their class which can make it difficult to find gear for your companion. This simply goes to show that no system is without its issues. However, this is an issue I would rather have over the previous ones.

Tormented Souls

It became clear early in D3's life that its tiered Normal, Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno difficulties were not going to cut it. Early criticisms noted that the difficulties would often spike between modes, and even acts, within a specific mode. Players felt forced to return to previous areas to farm or to trek to the auction house to improve their gear. The new system of, effectively, ten different difficulties largely mends this issue. Combined with enemies now scaling with the player's level, the new difficulty system opens a broader range of challenge for players of varying skill and gear levels. This is another area in which other ARPGs should take note; many levels of difficulty are a good thing.

Even better, this new difficulty system is not tied to a specific area and does not lock lower skilled players out of content. Instead, it rewards players on higher difficulties with better loot drops and more xp which I find to be perfectly adequate rewards. Maybe it's the crotchety old gamer in me, but I am tired of games locking content out based on skill levels. Let me decide how difficult I want my game to be, and we'll compromise by making my rewards partially dependent on that difficulty.

Group Play

This appears to be where Diablo 3 is still struggling. At level 60 it is easy to play together, but on the ascent up to that the game still seems to have trouble creating groups of differing leveled players. In the future it would be nice if they could make it so that players scale down to the level of the host (just drop the stats similarly to how it is done in Guild Wars) so that friends can play. Remember we're all about to make Crusaders and that will revitalize people's interest in leveling from 1-60. Multiplayer scaling isn't something I necessarily expected, but it would be a nice inclusion in future support.

Experience, to scale

The new scaling system is also a welcome change. I know to some players this will be a downside because it can mean that you’ll never feel truly powerful because monsters will always be “at level” with you. Still I would prefer enemies that are consistently threatening to a game where I hit gear walls repeatedly. In the previous iteration I found myself feeling compelled to full explore every single zone to get every last drop of xp as though I were sucking the marrow from the game’s bones, all in a vain attempt to keep myself viable. Now I find myself running around with only a loose sense of direction, slaughtering everything in my wake. Personally I find the later more satisfying.

With that scaling also game a huge increase in the “time to death”. I have heard second hand that it increased from 1.5 seconds to 10 seconds and this is another welcome change. I for one found no enjoyment in being one-shot by a monster that charged in from off screen, or instant death when a Vortex + Arcane Enchanted enemy decides to pull me into ones of its orbs.

Judged and found...

I've spent the last few paragraphs praising some of the game's new strengths, and let me not confuse you; it is vastly improved and still quite fun to play. I would even call it a spiritual successor to Diablo 2. However, I am not going to call it a "10/10" because while it is much better than it was, it doesn't stand head and shoulders above its competition as its previous iterations did. Diablo 3, while doing everything else the genre does well enough, does not have that “Wow!” factor that its predecessors brought to the table.

1 comment:

  1. Until my computer exploded, I was *loving* the loot and difficulty changes. The game feels like it has way more replayability to me now than it did before. I agree with your closing paragraph, though. It's fun, it's much better, it's just another ARPG in a list of a few rather good ones.