Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Diablo 3: What Happened?

Dusting off this old thing because I have some Diablo 3 baggage to unpack and I can't think of a better place to do it. Much has been said of the first week woes that hamstrung the games launch. I am not in a place in my life, anymore, where I would attend a midnight launch or wait for servers to come up at 3a EST. So I missed much of the error 37 hub bub. When I did play though, it mostly just worked. Occasional lag, in what I was playing as a single player game, was bothersome, but the game at it's core was good.

Blizzard makes gaming comfort food (a recent Giant Bombcast conversation) They announced StarCraft 2 in 2007 and Diablo 3 in 2008. Which means five years or more of refining the same game mechanics they created in the mid to late 90's. Modernizing and polishing all the bells and whistles that go along with them, but at there core they're the same. This sounds like a knock against them. A battle cry of "making some new!", but the problem with that is, I like it. I like playing Starcraft 2 and being whisked back to years of playing Big Game Hunters. Loading Diablo 3 and feeling nostalgic when the soundtrack evokes memories of the layered acoustic guitar seared into my brain (see: Torchlight for the real deal).

At the launch I played a Monk. A class I played heavily in the beta and loved for the hard hitting attacks conveyed on screen. Punching and kicking my way to glory and Bamfing around dungeons at the speed of light. My first play through on Normal was solo. I wanted to absorb the story they had on offer and doing that in coop and on Skype is not conducive to my sponginess. The plot is not ground breaking stuff. In the back of my mind I kept hearing the thought that they wrote this to be played over and over again. The twist were predictable and the in game cut scenes were forgettable. It is bland, the gaming equivalent of saltine crackers. Just good enough until the rinse and repeat morphine drip of loot makes up the rest.

Normal was not challenging. A thread that is making it's way around the web. Acts 1 and 2 are super easy, while Act 3 and 4 eventually put up a bit of a fight, but not much. At around 10-20 hours to finish
Normal the barrier to entry on this game is extremely steep. Most modern games are done with in that same time frame. The first play through relies on the merits of it's story alone. Only offering up it's tactical and challenging fruits on the recurring play throughs that follow. It is a missed opportunity, that makes the prospect of alts as a way to extend the life of the game far less appealing.

Nightmare and Loot
Nightmare, the games second difficulty tier and your second play through is where the game should start. It is difficult enough that most players will be revisiting their build with some regularity to solve the challenges put forth. It makes the additional spells you could probably just ignore in Normal much more valuable. The limited spell set (6 total) really shines. Making decisions on what offensive and defensive spells you will choose or forgo was really fun. It was the perfect balance.

The gear you get in Normal seems to be good enough to carry you through the game, but crafting begins to show it's cracks. The gear you find usually outpaces the gear you can craft and crafting gets expensive quickly when you can not predict with any certainty the stats you get when laying out 1/4th of your total gold per item. It was at this point I stopped putting gold into my blacksmith upgrades and started to focusing on jewel crafting. Merchants are no better. Offering items well below what you already picked up and charging high dollar for ones you would consider an upgrade.

Hell and Crafting
There is not much to say about this tier, except that the challenge increased, but felt manageable. Bosses started to take multiple attempts and getting my build just right was a fun kind of difficult. Hell was the first time I ventured into the auction house. Occasionally choosing to augment my abilities with sparkly new items when I'd get stuck in an Act. The shine really came off crafting at this point though. Gambling 30k gold for the chance that an item might be good for my class was not worth it. I could spend that same amount at the auction house for the exact item I wanted. When I had this realization, I stopped spending money in game whole cloth. Why break down items I found for crafting materials when I could sell for gold in auction house investments.

The challenge from Inferno to Hell did not just ramp up, it broke. Act 1 monsters were killing me with one attack or overwhelming me at every turn. The gear that I had found and purchased was nearly worthless. Blizzards stated solution for this was to replay (farm) Act 4 of Hell for items that would better prepare you for Inferno. I did for a while, but then the siren song of the auction house called on me. I slowly increased my spending, gradual buying better and better items as I made more gold in game and out. Eventually I was spending 100-200k per item for what yielded very minor upgrades.

I got to the point where I could farm Act 1 Inferno comfortably. Act 2 was just as broken as the move from Hell to Inferno was initially. Again the stated solution was to farm the prior Act(s). So I did this time with much great determination. The items in the auction house where exhausting my gold supply, so farming became the only path. Grinding away at the same content to be rewarded with items that were 3 and 4 degrees worse than what I wore to acquire them. The path to success was stretching thinner and thinner each time I logged on to play. I was frustrated to the point of quitting.

Melee vs. Ranged + Alts
Much of my griping about the game is being mirrored by those that play melee classes. Playing melee means getting next to that which you wish to melee. It means getting hit in order to hit. The monsters in Inferno will hit harder than you. So you are left putting most of your eggs into gear and builds that favor defense. Making most fights a cycle of slowly chipping away at your foe. A task that becomes tedious very fast. Conversely ranged classes are having success (anecdotal) putting all of their eggs in the offense basket. Lacking the ability to take a single hit, but burning down their foes at a rapid pace. At the point that I was frustrated enough to consider quitting I started an alt Demon Hunter. The tedium of completing Normal and Nightmare all over again with almost no challenge has stunted my completion of this effort.

I ended up putting 60 plus hours into my Monk and 10-15 hours into alts. What I was left with was a difficulty wall on my melee character and the lack of motivation to try it again with ranged ones. Blizzard has admitted, post launch, that they did not complete (as players) Inferno before releasing the game. That they wanted the game to be very difficult and not something you could finish right away. That's an admirable goal from my where I sit, but they failed to balance it. There does not appear to be way for melee characters to complete Inferno free of the auction house or gifts.

Their stated intent has since been refined to Inferno being a constant challenge of health management. Where the current state is usually just getting one-shot or min-maxing yourself into tedium. They plan to fix it and have said as much. What happens when they fix it though? I get the privileged of completing the last three Acts of the game. Same story, nothing beyond that. Player vs. player is on the horizon and the real money auction house comes sometime before or after that. For what though? If that is the future of Diablo, it is a grim one. One that I don't want to participate in.

Blizzard got my $60 and I got roughly 70 hours of game. From a economic point of view it is an amicable parting. I don't play games for the hours to price ratio though. Not anymore at least. There must have been a time when I enjoyed the grind. I played Diablo 2 to death, Baal runs till my eyes blurred. I am not that gamer anymore though. I'm far more aware the gaming ecosphere. I own all three consoles, a smart phone and a tablet. I can pick and choose my gaming experiences from a smorgasbord of offerings. Dibalo 3 will not be an experience I remember fondly ultimately. Only truly hitting it's stride after being easy for too long, then quickly becoming too hard to be fun and ultimately being a big disappointment.

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