My Take on Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls

Those who know me may remember how strongly I said that while “always online” was a Diablo 3 “feature”, I’d not buy it.

Well, I cave in and finally bought the game and its expansion, in a process that took roughly 2 days[1] due “security”.

The Good Parts

Since I’ll mirror a lot of criticism D3 pulled in the last years, I’ll start by the good points:

It’s pretty.

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Well, that’s it. It is on the most beautiful looking hack’n’slash games I ever played. Enemies appear to be part of the environment, while still looking like something not-environment. Hard to understand? Think this: There is one enemy that looks like a tree and, while it doesn’t move, it looks exactly like the other trees; but when it starts moving, it looks like a real enemy.

It’s gorgeous and well designed graphically. I can’t find a single problem with that.

The Bad Parts

The whole problem with D3 is everything else.

It’s a Matter of Scenary

While the game is beautiful, it severely lacks ambience. Grim Dawn (which I gave my took on it before), while looking good but not as beautiful, made me grip my mouse with so much force my thumb is still hurting. D3 music is lackluster and the sounds are not really “fuck, I’m not going there”. The whole atmosphere of D3 lacks a sense of urgency and “oh my god, the world is ending.”

Let me keep comparing D3 with Grim Dawn: In Grim Dawn, humans are in the brink of extinction, being crushed in the middle of two powerful races that see humans simply as tools. When you beat the first boss of the game, the whole village of survivors can’t believe you did
something like that — the idea of beating one of the powerful beings into submission is simply impossible and you did the impossible. In Diablo 3, killing bosses is mentioned as a matter-of-fact, like buying groceries or writing a blog post[2]. Heck, the very first fight you see one of the NPCs mention that he never saw someone fight like that. At the very beginning you are put in the shoes of the most powerful beings in the whole planet — which is exactly what Tyrael says in the end of the expansion.

Challenge Denied

The other problem with D3 is the “baby’s first hack’n’slash” mentality in skills and attributes. “Congratulations son, you got a level. Daddy will now give you a skill, ok? But daddy will give you a skill, not a skill point, ’cause you may break it.” and “Oh no son, those knobs are too hard to you, let daddy select which attributes you need next” are the most annoying facets of this mentally. While in Diablo 2 you could turn a class completely around, like a necromancer based on poison that requires a lot of strength, you absolutely can’t do anything like that in D3. Each class has a design and you can’t in any way, shape or form push them outside their design. Sure, sure, it makes easier to balance a game like this, but this causes another problem: lack of incentive to go forward.

For example, the poisonmancer (that’s how players called the necromancer-with-strength build) example above: you’re required to spent points in strength — an attribute that makes absolutely no sense for a class like the necromancer — because you’ll going melee with monsters and your poison dagger and you need the highest defensive gear possible, which can only be used if you have enough strength. So you keep that armour in your bags because it gives 100 more defence and you need only 3 more points in strength to use and you go around and around trying to kill everything just to gain XP to get those 3 damn points and… you get the picture. It’s the process of that last damn step in getting better to get even better that pushed you forward. And it usually involved in the need to push for just another level to get the 3 more points in intellect so that skill wouldn’t suck all your mana and then you get yet another piece of gear and so on…

(And I reckon this is basically the “carrot on a stick” mentality that Blizzard bought to World of Warcraft, and you can see that it works.)

Without the worry of picking skills or even designing your character the way you want, where the challenge was left? Well, Blizzard seems to have learned a thing or two with their costumers and decided that the best way of dealing with stuff is zerging: instead of going face to face against 1-6 enemies, you usually face 20 or 30 in a single combat. So… yeah, here is the thing to make you feel proud: you defeated 25 monsters without dying — in a game designed to throw 20 to 30 monsters in your face.

This problem is further shown in the start of the 5th act — part of the expansion — when you have to face single enemies at each corner: it is terribly dull and boring but hey, you were trained since the very start of the game that you’d face waves of mobs, in an almost-non-stop combat and you would think that maybe switching to single target skills would be better, but then again, you’ll just be waiting for waves of mobs soon and you never change your skills.

The zerging is also created another problem: while the skills are designed to fill small roles — single target damage, AoE damage, support, resource generation — you end up with always taking at least on one AoE to deal with those 20 to 30 monsters, one support skill for mitigating the damage from those 20 to 30 monsters, one resource generation to keep dealing with those 20 to 30 monsters and some assorted bunch of AoE when you have a lot of resources and your main AoE skill is in cooldown. This absolutely kills any chance of building anything else. Yes, build diversity would come from your decision to make a strong single-target character, or a support character, or even an AoE build, but due the design of encounters — which are also a shadow of the daddy-picks-your-skills design — you end up with very little variation of builds.

So, to sum up: You have no choice on skills or how to distribute your points, which gives you no challenge to look ahead (“get the damn 3 points in strength to use this armor”, “get enough skill points to open that mitigation skill”), so the game throws zerging to provide some challenge to you, which stifles build variation. Can you see that the whole problem with the game is the decision of hand holding design?

Anti Yamato Gun Design

There is a little anecdote about Space Battleship Yamato: If they have such powerful canons, why don’t they start firing them right out of the bat? Well, the reason is simply because they take too long to recharge and consume too much resources to fire. So starting with them out of the bat would mean that if there was a bigger challenge up ahead, they would not be ready for it.

Most games add a “yamato gun” skill: something with a long cooldown that requires a lot of resources which you’d use as a last resource because there may be something up ahead that may require more firepower.

D3 takes this completely away. The big resource, big damage skill daddy gave you earlier? Do not worry, it will get out of cooldown in less than 30 seconds and will take only 3 hits of your resource generation skill. So you never save it. With a monk, I keep using the most impressive skill (Seven Sided Strike), which does a lot of damage in a single target, just to kill annoying enemies that I could simply run to and kill with a single hit, but hey, super skill will get out of cooldown in less than 15 seconds and I just need to punch someone in the face again to gain enough resources for it, so fuck it, I’ll use it. In no moment whatsoever I had to run away from a boss to regain enough resources or wait for a cooldown.

Play Online With Yourself

Oh yeah, I’ll have to speak about the “always online” requirement. Oh yeah, I’ll repeat what everyone else said, so you’re free to skip this part of you’re already tired of this.

Still here? Good.

I can’t remember a game that plays with network as bad as D3. Even Guild Wars 2, which is a MMO, can handle lag spikes better than D3. More than once I was put there, damaging air, walking around with no mobs attacking me and then, suddenly, a huge pile of numbers flying off with random results — sometimes I killed the whole bunch of enemies, sometimes I was just dead. Even GW2 will try to figure out what’s going on for a while, using previous information, reducing the impact of the lag spike.

Not only that, but for a couple of weekends, Blizzard login servers have been been hammered by something and were really slow (this was a notice they put in the launcher). So the problem is not simply how my ISP, my modem, my wireless router and their connections work: The problem can be on Blizzard site and who the hell are you to tell them that they need to upgrade their connection?

But not to fret, I bet Mr Jay Wilson will pay from his own pocket to replace my house wiring — or even Blizzard wiring, or their ISP wiring. Actually, Jay Wilson, being such a nice guy, will replace the wiring everywhere to prove that internet problems don’t fly anymore.

Conclusion

Although I have given D3 just a single positive problem, I can’t say that the game is bad. It is not. The absolute summary of D3 is: It is pretty damn nice generic ARPG.

The problem with D3 is “what it could be”. Watching D3 in its state is like knowing this kid that can draw amazing paintings and, finding him years later, he dropped the paints and became a lawyer because his parents say so. You saw the potential years ago and now it seemed that it went all to waste.

The new ARPGs that appeared when D2 left without a successor prove that: Grim Dawn, Path of the Exile, even Torchlight proved that you can make a “smart man ARPG”. The sad fact is that Blizzard saw this ressurgence and decided to go the other way around: Instead of making you think, they took everything away and made a “ARPG for dummies”, with so much hand-holding that even their ideas of customization when down the drain.

Oh, and the fact that D3 is, today, one of the most expensive ARPGs around doesn’t help even a little bit.

[1] The whole process was convoluted as hell: First, I had to buy Diablo 3 for BRL 79.90 (there was this “amazing” promotion to buy both D3 and RoS for “only” 169.80 instead of 179.80, in which I believe was made by the guy responsible for the class balance). So first I bought D3 via “DineroMail”, a process that took 5 hours to be approved. Then, burned by the long delay, I tried to fill my Blizzard account with enough money to buy directly, thinking that since Blizzard talks directly to my card operator, I’d have to wait less. The whole process took 15 hours, then.

[2] … which brings another point: Why were the D3 designers so obsessed with Leoric? I mean, fuck it, I had to deal with him in Diablo 1, had to hear his stories — and kill him again — in Diablo 2 and now at least 50% of the first act goes around him again? I mean, seriously? I got it already that he got crazy when corrupted by Diablo, you don’t need to repeat it already for the damn third time! If I was curious on what happened to Leoric — or even who the hell was Leoric, for that matter — I could, I don’t know, search the internet, since the damn “always online” forces me to have one, right?

My Take on Banished

There are several games that take you on the role of some immortal mayor/governor/president/emperor in the quest to create the greatest city ever (Civilization, SimCity and Anno being the greater exponents of this line). Even iOS games like Townsmen put you in that role.

In all those games, you have to focus on resources: You need to “capture” that iron mine in order to build iron weapons; you need workers to get the iron from the mine and bring it to your town to build said weapons; you need some farm to keep your workers alive so they can mine your iron and so on.

But none of those really focus on workers. Workers are nothing more than some easy-to-get resource, in which you usually build a house and wait till workers popup. And they keep going till someone kills them.

That’s not what Banished do. Banished focus solely in the workers and their lifetimes.

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The interface is as spartan as you could get — pretty much what your new followers have now. On easy, you fortunately start with a barn to store goods, a stockpile of goods and houses for all your families; on medium, no houses and just a cart with food. And I still didn’t had the guts to try it on hard.

In this situation, you need to start providing some facilities for your people: Houses if you’re on hard, then some food generating facility, then some route of clothing or tools creation, then some roads to connect all those, then maybe some trading facility…

So far, it looks pretty much like any other town-creation game, right?

Well, here’s the twist: Building more houses does not mean more workers. When you put a house, you actually create a place for a family: a man and a woman (and hey, that’s the game saying what’s a family, not me — although I’ve seen families with just a man and his son). And, after a while, a family will have a child.

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Children are little resource suckers that take food and produce absolutely nothing. But you need them ’cause, at some point, the mother and the father will get too old and just die.

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And that’s the cycle you have to manage: Create houses, manage families, wait till they have kids, wait till the kids are old enough to work, wait till they create new families, wait till the old people die, try to move young adults to do the jobs of the dead…

Oh, not only that, but when you create some resource-creation facility, it just don’t simply sparkle to life and start producing resources: You need to allocate your adults to produce said resources.

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“Laborer” is pretty much a person that doesn’t have a job, so they keep moving around, transferring resources from barns and stockpiles to houses (yes, houses have their little stockpile of food and wood and clothing, so people don’t need to keep walking back and forth — unless they are at work and feel hungry, in which they will do all the way from work to their houses to get fed), transferring resources from resource-creation facilities to barns and stockpiles and so on. Once a specialized worked dies (either of old age, crushed by a rock, mauled by a warthog, giving birth or some natural disaster) a laborer will take their place.

So there is this constant “I need more children so later I’ll have more workers, but I need workers now to keep the children fed and train them and OH GOD, WHY DON’T YOU GROW FASTER, YOU LITTLE RESOURCE-SUCKING-FUCKERS?!?” and “Gawd dammit, another worked died”. The balance between keeping laborers for when someone dies, trying to keep your workers alive, fed and warm, so they can produce resources to make more workers is very very very thin and keeps the constant “Ok, just a few more minutes so I get enough workers for this and then I’m going to bed” that goes for hours and hours.

Although the game sucks you into it — in a good way — there are some things that really aren’t helpful.

For example: Remember when I said that you have to wait for families to have children, wait till children grow up and then wait till they create their own families? Well, that’s the first problem: The constant waiting makes the game feel so sloooow it becomes kinda boring if you play in normal speed. I am, on easy, playing constantly at 10x the normal speed (fortunately, the game have a speed control). This is partly what sucks you in, and partly what will annoy the fuck of you (but, then again, if they removed the cycle, the whole game would lose its appeal).

The other problem is the spartanness of the interface. Sure it allows seeing a lot around so you know where would be a good place to build a farm or an orchard or were simply send your laborers to collect stone, but it makes harder to see how many resources you already have, for that quick “Damn, my firewood resources is slowly going down, maybe I need more woodcutters”, if you have too many laborers and can move them to more specialized work and even when people die, which mean you’ll have, maybe, to move some specialized worker back to laboring, in case someone else dies. That’s why most of the screenshots here have those 3 windows open all the time: without them, it’s pretty hard to keep track of all of this. Sure, you have the option to open those windows, but the fact that you have to open them irks me a bit.

On the other hand, you can’t call the game ugly (maybe not “pretty”, but seriously not ugly).

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With all that, do I recommend Banished? If you like games about building stuff that give a different focus than other games and keep you on the edge of your chair (well, at least, till everything runs smoothly, you have a shitload of food, a shitload of tools, a shitload of warm clothes and a shitload of laborers), it certainly it is a good game.

My Take on Grim Dawn

Before the end of the (previous) year, Crate Entertainment decided to give early access to all backers of Grim Dawn. Well, it just happened that I was a backer — although not an “early access backer” — on their Kickstarter, so I had the chance to play it.

Just beware that everything I say here is based on their alpha, which have access only to the first Act and not the whole game. So I bunch of things couldn’t be accessed yet[1] and some things may change till the final release.

What’s Grim Dawn, anyway?

Grim Dawn is yet another ARPG, much like Diablo and Path of the Exile. The engine is a full 3D engine, which allows you to rotate the screen in any angle — although keeping the classic isometric view.

The story is somewhat intriguing, although not at all too different from other ARPGs: A race called “Aetherials” enters “our” realm and start turning humans into zombies, which puts the human race in the brink of extinction (I just read the Wikipedia page and it seems that the extinction was not brought by the Aetherials alone, but actually from a fight of the Aetherials and the Chthonians, the first trying to turn humans into an army and the later trying to kill all humans before that but I don’t remember reading anything about Chthonians in the whole first act, although I skipped most of the reading till the very end.)

Your character was saved in the last minute from a hanging due being possessed by one Aetherials. The whole story seems that it will float around the fact that you are now “infected” with aetherial material, which grants you some special abilities — opening rifts, for example, which can be related to “town portals” in other games, except require no special skill or item, require no mana and, be used as many times as you want and allow you to pick any other portal around (so not just to town, but to any other point you already know).

The whole environment is quite interesting too: instead of going full fantasy, Grim Dawn seems to be centered in a not distant past, as you can use fire weapons — pistols, rifles and shotguns — along weapons you’d find in any other ARPG — crossbows, swords, daggers, clubs, maces — not to mention the gear, with some heavy armor floating around leather jackets and such.

Getting your feet wet

When you start Grim Dawn, you’ll see your last played character, an option to jump to the next one or, if you have none, you’ll get straight to the character creation screen, which is as spartan as it can get.

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It was my first surprise: No class/profession selection? No customization at all? Just “name” and “male or female” options?

Actually, yes, that’s it. It seems Crate took everything that was not really necessary for an ARPG and went down to the very bare bones of an ARPG. It’s so down to the bones that there are only three attributes to use: Physique, for health and armor usage; Cunning for attack speed; and Spirit, for your mana bar and mana regen.

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Speaking of mana regen, some time after attacking or being attacked, you’ll receive a fast health regen. I’m kinda divided about it: First, it gives you some chance to recover health without resorting to massive health potion chugging — although the potion itself have a cooldown and, fortunately, gives health at once instead of simply giving you “regeneration” — or some other gimmick like health orbs dropping from time to time, but, at the same time, the simple fact that you can simply start running around your enemy, without giving it the chance of attack you and without attacking, will give you a massive regeneration feels so… gimmicky.

Becoming one

Even if you start with a clean slate, at level 2 you can pick a class, which will dictate your skills and abilities. There are 4 classes you can take then, which can be easily related to the “usual” ARPG classes:

The Soldier is, basically, the classic warrior:

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The Demolitionist, although with a name like that, is basically the ranger/archer stereotype, without the pet and with a preference for fire weapons:

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Occultists take the position the mage stereotype position in classic ARPGS:

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And, finally, the Nightblade takes the assassin/rogue place:

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I just need to stop here and point that there is nothing telling or even stopping you from using weird class/weapon combinations: You want to make a pistol solder? No problem, the game will not stop you from doing it so. The only barrier is that some skills — which I’ll show next — will require some specific weapons (for example, the soldier have a skill that requires a shield, the nightblade have skills that require dual wielding melee weapons and so on).

Going up

Once you pick your class, you’re presented your skill tree. And seriously, Grim Dawn rivals Path of the Exile in the “this will require some thinking” tree.

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You have actually two intertwined trees: The basic one, at the bottom, indicates your class proficiency — the higher, the more skills are available to you, increasing your basic stats at the same time[2]. At every level, you gain only 3 points, which you must allocate in those two trees — which is the part that makes it something you may need to think ahead: You can make a very meek character with very strong skills or an incredible build character with weak skills.

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Balancing the trees is, obviously, the way to go, but how do you balance it is the part you’ll have to look for a while before just clicking away.

Oh, and if you think that’s easy enough, at level 10 you get the chance of getting a secondary profession:

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And the second tree is not at all tied to the first class: Adding points to the second tree will earn as many attributes as the early levels — so you’re gaining attributes for a level 2 character instead of a level 10 character, but you need to put those points to open skills!

Going above the baseline

There are upgrades, like any other ARPG. The difference here is that there are no slots in any piece of gear: Everything has the ability to carry an upgrade beyond those in the gear itself.

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Once an item receives an upgrade, it can only be upgraded with the same piece — you can’t mix two different upgrading elements in the same piece of gear. On the other hand, “upgrading” an upgrade component will complete its set, which can grant better results — pretty much what would happen if you complete a set of gear in other ARPGs, but with upgrades.

Gear sets are also available, although in my play time I only found two pieces of one set.

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Going around

As I mentioned before, because you have been infected by the aetherials, you can summon personal rifts at any time, although only one rift can be open at the same time. Beside those, you can also find stable rifts all around, filling the “waypoint”… erm… “stereotype”?

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And, as I said, one you open a personal rift, you can go anywhere:

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Oh, and, in case you didn’t notice, the world is massive. I’d say that one map (from waypoint to waypoint) is actually larger than Path of the Exile maps.

The final tidbits

Obviously, there are other things in Grim Dawn that every ARPG have. Weapon swaps, health and mana potions and Vendors, for example:

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In the case of the vendors, you’ll notice that items can have 3 different colors: Yellow means it’s a magical item (there are three other “quality” colors: red for set items, blue for named items and green for magical with better stats); Red means you don’t have the necessary attributes to wield that item; and Gray points that you don’t have enough money to buy the item.

The idea is good, but sometimes it falls to its knees: If you don’t have the coin and the attributes to buy something, the colors mix in and you can’t say if you can’t buy it simply because you need a few more attribute points or you need attribute points and coin. Yes yes, in the end, it means that you can’t use the damn thing, but it still annoys me, somehow.

Grim Dawm have a full economy with “iron coins” being used on sell and purchase, which I personally think it’s uninspired when compared to the barter system in Path of the Exile. On the other hand, it makes things easier, I guess. Also, as a side note, the whole time I played the game, the vendors never had something better than what I already had. Either that or I’m really bad at stats.

There are also factions, although I didn’t notice any difference in game play with it.

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There are also destructible objects, which can contain loot:

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One of the downsides I found is that the minimap encompasses the whole visible zone, without any visible zoom indicator, which completely removes the “fog of unknownness”. The only way to see where you still have to explore is through the full map.

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And finally, when you’re low on health, the whole screen will get darker and the borders will point out that you’re in a really bad shape.

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Conclusion

At this point you’re probably asking yourself “So what?”. And I admit, there are very few interesting things in this piece of my opinion besides the skill tree. That’s because the most interesting thing in the game can’t be shown by images alone.

It’s its atmosphere.

Seriously, the visuals are darker with an amazing track which in very few times reminded me of the old Diablo games[3] which will keep you on tense the whole time: My right thumb is hurting by putting too much pressure on my mouse.

And the environment is really dark sometimes, which will reduce your vision to barely anything and will force you to navigate using only the minimap. And the maps are smartly designed to have some wet spots which will break your concentration by changing the noises and visuals.

And, to be honest, the story picks up really fast, to the point that after a while I decided to finally stop and read what was going on ’cause things were doing turns all the time.

Although I sunk more than 10 hours in the first act alone (8 with a single character, which was the only one I could finish the first act), I still think there are some points the game could improve:

First, voice acting. I admit that maybe this is asking too much, but I didn’t feel too interested the whole thing because there were too many walls of text. The story picks up and you start reading, but maybe I’d feel more into the story if I had someone to hear.

Second, the mini maps really needs some zoom and the “fog of unknown” zone needs to be smaller. If I need to explore around, I’d at least like to know if I’m not running around in circles.

Third, the maps could use some random generationness. I mean, 4 different characters and the maps were all the same. That makes me wonder if there is any replayability once you complete the whole campaign (well, besides multiplayer, that is).

All those are minor, in my opinion. The game is interesting enough, the skill tree is enough to keep (or, at least, to keep me) playing for a long time just to level up and open all those skills, the story seems incredible well written, even if you may skip most of it due the lack of voice.

At this point, with the latest build (released on the last day of 2013, nonetheless) I’m really not regretting backing Crate on this endevour, even if the final release seems to be a bit late — but honestly, with the quality shown so far, I guess no backer can be pissed if they still want to do some clean ups.

[1] Fun fact: After you complete the first act, the NPC which will probably grant you access to the second act zone only says something around the lines of “This is the end of the alpha version. In the future, you’ll be able to access the whole game”, which your character replies with “I can’t wait!”

[2] I didn’t notice any change in the attribute gain by class (like one could expect that the soldier would gain more physique per level than an occultist), but I could be wrong here.

[3] Compared to, say, Torchlight 1 and 2, which are pretty much the same musical tone, but that’s because Diablo 1 and 2 and both Torchlight games had the same composer.