29 August 2015

Mid-Thoughts: Diablo 3 - Reaper of Souls

What's interesting is that this artwork is used for the loading screen of the game on the PS4 version (at least) but they cropped it so you can't see the wings.... so it looks like this dude has spirit armpit hair!

I loved the original Diablo. It was at a time when I didn't read game magazines and I'd never heard of it before my dad returned from Canada with a copy (huge box with plastic window and all!)... only to realise that our 486 with a floppy disk drive would not run it.

The game sat in its box for a few months while I poured over the manual, absorbing all the information that I could, until one day, at a PC fair, I made a faustian deal with my dad. We bought a pentium chip and accompanying motherboard (presumably also with compatible RAM but I forget all the details) with a CD-ROM drive and switched out the parts of the 486 using the same case without telling my mother.

I have no idea whether she ever knew about it or not but I was able to play Diablo without any hassles. I still have very fond memories of the game, its aesthetic and its replayability even though it took me a good while to understand how the game really worked since before that I'd mostly been playing Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and sidescrollers like Commander Keen and Duke Nukem.

Needless to say that I picked up Diablo 2 (and it's expansion) on day one of each release and played them for many hours with multiple characters. I just loved trying out new builds and Act 1 & 2 were my favourite out of them all.

I, like many people on the internet, did not take the reception of Diablo 3's change in tone and mechanics all that well. Sure, I didn't rant and rave about it like some extremists did but I did think that the design of WoW had crept into the franchise. At the time many people said this was being paranoid and just wanting dark game design.

I actually held off buying the game because there were plenty of other games to play (god knows how many!) and what with Blizzard's restrictive DRM, real names policy and other, in my opinion, SNAFUs I just didn't want to buy it on the PC.... So you can imagine I was happy when they announced the console versions. 

I didn't buy it when those were released because I thought that maybe my gaming tastes had changed in the intervening years and having read up on the way skills were implemented and how the story wasn't that great (according to other people) I figured I'd wait until the price came down.

Boring details finished!!

Now, I've put in around 6-8 or so hours and I'm starting to form an opinion: My initial gut feeling was right. Diablo 3 isn't much of a Diablo game... at least, when you're playing as a Sorcerer/Sorceress.

Right off the bat - all the re-jigging of the difficulty settings and rewards seems incredibly skewed. I'm picking up tens of rare (yellow) and above items and fewer of the normal blue items. Playing on normal was akin to being asleep. Now, I know (and remembered) that people had mentioned to notch the difficulty up a bit and so I did. It hasn't done much of a damn thing except make special mobs and their packs a huge difficulty spike in the same otherwise unchallenging gameplay.

The problem with those encounters is that (without a mouse) I can't flick over new enemies to see when one of those groups has appeared and is charging me down. The second problem is that, or at least it feels like, the game is zoomed in compared to Diablo 2 so I have much less warning of incoming enemies.

So the first issue really boils down to a lack of meaningful engagement with the enemies. Either they go down too quickly and easily or they are just pure damage sponges that will absorb everything you throw at them for no apparent reason other than 'just because'. Plus they give out way too many rewards. I know that the reward cycle is a delicate and difficult thing to balance but, seriously, when I'm junking your almost high-level gear in the beginning of the game (maybe I should be making it into crafting stuff?) then there's something wrong with how you've balanced this. Rare items should be rare - not common. You'd think that would be self-explanatory!

The second issue is that every single power lacks any sort of gravitas and impact. One of the great things about early game Diablo and Diablo 2 was that you could throw out lightning across the ground and watch as they threw enemies into the air as they were killed. The spells and weapons felt lethal and visceral. Playing as the sorceress in Diablo 3 feels good in the sense that the way the animations and visual effects of the spells look great.... but they all lack punch. Even the cold beam spell really feels like a slow or fast drain on health instead of hitting an enemy. I don't feel like I'm hitting them with a specific element, just a beam that makes their numbers go down. It's all a flaccid-feeling action even though in my mind it should work out really well...

Maybe it's just the lack of enemy feedback? In Diablo and Diablo 2 you'd get the "I'm hit!" enemy sounds. I don't remember hearing any of those in this game. It's very quiet  outside of the player character's actions and the enemy activation noise (which so far has been most notable for the treants [or whatever they're called]). That might make the whole feeble attack issue less of one. 

From my point of view, speaking specifically about the sorcerer class, the problem stems from Blizzard's attempt to 4e Diablo. Every attack looks great and should feel awesome (I remember them saying something akin to this during the first few public demos of the game) and yet it's also this general awesomeness that appears to have made each and every attack feel normal and not in the least bit special.

Having a basic attack that is an awesome firebolt or lightning chain but which does essentially no damage to enemies is not only counter-intuitive to the player because of real-world connotations of those elements and their real-world counterparts (e.g. Lightning strikes or the damage any sort of fire causes one!) but also devalues the stronger powers because those stronger powers have to be something different. You can't have a lightning bolt strike with chain lightning that's awesome now because you used up that particular effect and tool as the basic attack. It would be confusing to a player (perhaps?) and worse, the developers might get accused of re-using assets and skills and the class might be labelled 'boring'. So, looking at those stronger powers I'm at a real loss to see how they're better aside from just having higher damage - sometimes.... because in this game your powers can't hit every type of enemy. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I think that's an interesting design decision: having skills that are labelled as defensive or offensive, etc. (even though they're all offensive) and having those skills be applicable in certain situations (which was already present as a concept in the series) but also have certain skills be more useful against certain enemy types (not talking about elemental weaknesses here) which might encourage experimentation with their level-unlock skill tree... However, so far it's just turned out to be annoying. When you encounter the specific enemies you know to switch from your preferred method of doling out damage to one that is not your preferred method... and you have to reserve one of your very limited 'skill slots' all the time so that you can deal with these enemy types when they turn up.

You're probably wanting an example. Okay:

Say you encounter some scavenger-type enemies and you're primarily using Ray of Frost. Ignoring when they burrow or leap, the ray just passes over them. Your other skills mostly have long cool-downs so they are not much of an option except as a stalling tactic and your primary skills do very little damage so you don't really want to drag out this fight in that manner.
The answer? Use Arcane Torrent because it hits them on the ground and can target the little buggers too! It's actually very effective but it uses WAY more arcane energy than Ray of Frost, meaning that you can't take the whole group out in one go, you have to let your energy recharge first.

Now, I know you can switch out skills when you want to - unless they're in a cool-down period... but that's really not the point. Why can't ray of frost target these creatures? Is it just to force players to use a different skill? It's even worse when you get multiple enemy types rushing you at the same time because you're forced to use the less useful skill that takes up more energy (the cold blood rune is unlocked at level 7) and stops you from attacking with a useful skill because you run out of resources. Yes, you behave as you have to - as the game mechanics expect you to - but there's something deeply unsatisfying about having to use the skills the developers wanted you to use rather than the ones you've chosen.

In Diablo 1&2, you chose which skills to focus on and used them - for better or for worse. That's great and allows players to make mistakes or to learn how to play the build they want to play but having all the skills and all the unlocks for every character means that they will all manage encounters in a similar sort of way - especially when skills have limited uses in similar situations. 

This highlights the third and fourth issues I have with the game design: recharging resources and auto-unlock modifiers to skills.

Recharging resources are a good thing if implemented in a smart way. In Halo, the recharging shield mechanic worked because each firefight was a self-contained test for the player. I preferred the mix of systems in Halo 1 to 2 & 3 where your health could be and stay depleted but that's by-the-by here.

In theory, I don't have a problem with Diablo 3's recharging health and skill energy resource... it's fine because the player would be just gulping down health and mana potions anyway whenever they needed them. You just need to tailor the encounters to have that same potential for near death if the player is not paying attention or being careful enough.

In practice, it doesn't work so well and I think it contributes somewhat to the boringness of the gameplay. In Diablo 1&2 you could disengage from a fight but it wasn't all that easy. Most of the time you'd either be kiting enemies if you were physically weak or you'd be standing still (ignoring the barbarian's leap ability) and trying to not get surrounded so you could make a quick exit if things started going sour. They also added in the ability to run in Diablo 2 so you could escape quickly (or cover previously covered ground more rapidly) and in both games you could cast a town portal scroll with immediate effect in order to really get out of the situation. 

In Diablo 3 they took all of this away. Instead they gave the player a dodge roll and this really has messed up the combat for the sorcerer class (I'll have to see how the other classes work) because the dodge does not move you very far and, at least on consoles, it points the player character in the direction of the roll movement so that, if you're a sorcerer class that needs to face the enemy to cast the spell you either need to move back towards them - bringing them within melee range immediately - OR you need to engage the spell and ever so slowly turn around to hit the enemy with it - in which case they have almost covered the small gap you made by dodging.

It's also worth to note that you cannot dodge through enemies which means that if you get surrounded - which can happen more easily due to the small FOV - you have no way to really get out of the situation in a neat manner.... plus you can't really kite because your character is unable to outrun enemies which means that, even if you are letting your resource recharge you can't stop running away to attack occasionally because that resource will be depleted again either by the enemy or your action... and this is not even mentioning the weak damage output your skills actually do to the enemy.

Town portals also take a good 3-5 seconds to cast now which can be interrupted by an enemy attack... depriving the player of one more option during combat. Also, since there are now no resource potions (and you have an infinite health potion on a cool-down skill timer instead) you are unable to dump a tonne of gathered resources into a particularly difficult fight meaning that if your resources are not enough for a tough fight then you have no option other than to drag it out over a very long period of running around hoping you can stay one step ahead and not get cornered whilst gradually whittling the health of the enemy down. It's not very exciting and means that certain encounters end up being even worse wars of attrition than in Diablo and Diablo 2.

So now, combat boils down to - attack until your resources are depleted and wait for them to recharge. There's no real player agency in each encounter because every encounter has a pre-determined outcome based on your level and skill efficiency on the enemies in the encounter. You have no ability to spam that high level spell on a particularly hard enemy boss or special mob just this one time because you have no ability to affect your resources or your ability to avoid the enemy other than whatever unlocks your level has attained. It makes the combat uninteresting from a tactical perspective.

That neatly moves us onto the auto-unlock modifiers. Now, I'm not sure if the mechanics surrounding runes have changed because I thought they worked differently when the game was first publicly demoed. I thought that they were pick-ups. You either found or bought them and used them to modify the skills you had at your disposal. However, that is not the case in the actual game I'm playing. They're unlocked by player level as are the skills the player uses as well.

For me, this turns them from interesting concept to boring feature. Every single level 10 player will have exactly the same options. You'll never have a sorcerer that could use arcane torrent with static discharge enabled at level 10 - just because they happened to pick up that rune and chose to unlock that skill. I can't see why you'd want to replay through the game with the same class because there's zero replayability with this system. Sure, at high level you have the ability to switch, choose, change and experiment but why would a designer make a player wait to do that? Why make the player wait to get to the fun bit? It boggles my mind.

All in all, Diablo 3 is an okay game. I can't imagine how it was before Reaper of Souls fixed the auction house by removing it but I know that it's not as fun or addictive for me as Diablo 1 or 2 were.

Strangely, the game has more in common with Torchlight's design than the first two games in the series... and considering the developers of that franchise came from the Blizzard studio in charge of Diablo 2 it makes me wonder about how decisions were split if they were all going down a similar road to begin with.... or maybe they weren't!

One of the things that does disappoint me - though not specifically with Diablo 3 - is the loss of one of the things that made Diablo so replayable and so interesting for me. The ability to mix and match classes by chosing to go a magic route was a brilliant (to my mind) design decision. It's not as bad as the Bethesda "you can do everything equally well" design of Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim (even though I love those games for that conceit)... but it was interesting to be able to play a warrior who found a spell book for charged bolt and learned it. He may not have learnt anything else but having that extra ace up your sleeve and being able to use a resource that you normally couldn't was really interesting to me from a gameplay perspective (not to mention a roleplaying perspective as well!).

In Diablo 3 you've lost not only the ability to properly use other classes weapons (if you so wish) because you're limited to a set of skills instead of having a basic attack that is tied to the item in your hands but you've also lost the ability to be able to switch between two different weapon load-outs that the player has decided on themselves. Further limiting your tactical options in the game,

Unfortunately, all the action-RPGs I'm familiar with have gone the WoW/Diablo 2/3/Torchlight route with regards to super strict skill trees. I think it'd be nice if we got something a bit different from the mould now...

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