Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Diablo III First Impressions

            I can sum up all my activity this weekend in a very short and easy way, the Diablo III Beta. This opened up to everyone Friday evening (UK time) and closed at 6pm on Monday. Most of that time I was either asleep, eating, at work (briefly) or playing this game. I’ve been looking forward to this for a good few years now, slowly burning away in the background of everything else, being delayed over and over again but maintaining my interest. Now it’s nearly here and I have finally had a chance to play the newest addition to the series that demolished hours of my younger self’s life. Throughout my playtime I completed the available Beta quests with each of the 5 classes so as to get a feel of each one and a thorough going over of the game itself.
            For those who don’t have any experience of the series the Diablo games are isometric dungeon crawlers. You pick your class at the beginning and as you explore deeper and deeper into the dungeons you find better equipment and gain experience from fighting monsters to level up and get new skills. There has been a big gap between Diablo II and III (around 12 years) so it’s about time we were treated to a new adventure. The graphical overhaul from the previous iterations is clearly apparent but given the gap that’s hardly saying anything. Suffice to say the game looks great, not mind blowing but really solid. One thing to be wary of is screen glare, the game itself is very dark and can quickly become quite hard to see in a brightly lit room. Gameplay remains very much the same at its core. You click to move around, click to pick things up, click on enemies to make them die and so forth. It’s incredibly simple to pick up and, with a new levelling system, easy to understand for old hands and beginners alike.

The core of each character is of course their unique skills and abilities. This time around instead of picking skills from various skill trees each of the 5 classes gains skills automatically as they level up. In the early game (at least from 1-10) it is the case that every level either grants a new skill or an upgrade for an existing one. There are 6 active skill categories: primary attack (bound to left click), Secondary attack (bound to right click) and then 4 other skills categorized accordingly per class (bound to 1-4 on the keyboard). You may only have one skill from each category active at any one time and each category has 4 skills available once unlocked. Experimenting with the various skills to find the perfect combination for you is all done simply through a menu you can access at any time. There are also several passive skills that you simply choose to turn on which buff you in some way, such as damage reduction. The steady pace you unlock the new skills is well designed but might be perhaps over simplified for the more RPG orientated players out there. I was sceptical at first but there is enough variety in what is available, even at lower levels, to placate my slight disappointment in this area.

Given the limited amount of the game available in the Beta there’s not too much to mention in the way of a story, what I have come away with is plenty to say about the classes you can play. We have Barbarian, Wizard, Witch Doctor, Monk and Demon Hunter to choose from and I couldn’t resist giving them all a try. Initially I planned to play them all to 13 (the level cap in Beta) but ran out of content at 10 on each of them, you can go back and play it all again and every time you leave and come back everything respawns but once through each was what I wanted so that a) I have more surprises come launch and b) that was enough to get an good impression to write this piece. The order I chose to play the characters in was for the most part starting with what I was least interested in and saving the best until last. However this wasn’t quite how it worked out since I had no idea at all about the Monk, so started with that.

The game lacks character customisation beyond male or female so looking at the character models I decided the guys beard was stupid so rolled a girl. Word to the wise, the picture you get is not what you actually end up with, all the clothes their wearing, yeah you don’t get that. So I spawn in the world of Diablo III clad in underwear and a brass knuckle, smashing. It’s a fairly standard affair of follow the path, speak to the guy with the great big yellow exclamation mark above his head, do what he asks, rinse repeat and so forth so I’m just going to talk about how each class plays and my feelings on them from here on out. The Monk is a close combat focused character; your primary attack is a quick firing punch that builds up Spirit. Spirit is then spent on using other skills, the first of which is a kick that sends enemies flying in an arc in front of you. This gets upgraded later on to be a flaming kick that hits everything near you which is as powerful as it is awesome. This combined with the second primary attack that becomes available which puts a decent amount of range and multi-hit potential to your standard fighting and the healing skill you get seemed slightly overpowered for an early game skill set. That said the Monk was a pleasant surprise and I thoroughly enjoyed playing her.

Next up was the Barbarian, always low down on my list of characters I want to play. Both the male and female look ridiculous so I went with the male since he seemed more Barbarian-y. I was very quickly surprised by this class. Yes his attacks are a little slow but bloody hell is it entertaining to watch things fly way when you hit them, or better yet simply explode. Another close combat class as you probably guessed the Barbarian charges Fury with his primary attacks, either a strong single target or my preferred slightly weaker swipe that hits more dudes. Fury is spent on stronger attacks but drains slowly when you’re not bashing things. I stuck with the initial secondary skill, a magic hammer, and a ground pound that stuns everyone around you for the whole thing, they were working well and whilst I experimented with the combat leap it seemed temperamental as to whether it would work properly. Not too much beyond hit them over the head but I did have a smile on my face while doing it so Barbarian gets a thumbs up despite my initial writing it off.

Moving on to my Witch Doctor, I named him Voodoo because I’m imaginative like that. Similar to the Monk I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this but I did know that I didn’t like the aesthetics of the class so decided to get it done early. This one plays very differently than what I’d had so far (and possibly the most of all 5). You have a mana pool which replenishes automatically and reasonably quickly but all your attacks, including the primary skills use it, albeit in such small amounts it doesn’t appear to notice. These primary skills include a poison dart and throwing a jar of spiders which attack for a brief time until they automatically expire. The spiders are rubbish so Poison darts it was and once I’d gotten an upgrade to fire 3 at once it wasn’t too bad. The secondary skills available were an AoE which slowed enemies down and unleashing a stream flaming bats as a flame thrower. The AoE won out as more useful overall. The unique stuff came when I was able to summon a pack of three zombie dogs as pets to fight alongside me. These ranged from either being ok to being utterly useless, against the final boss of the Beta they died pretty damn quick and against a group of hulking great Elite monstrosities they died immediately and resulted in my only death of the entire weekend. I’m not 100% sure how I feel about the Witch Doctor. It seems to me to be a bit of a ‘quirky’ character choice and I don’t think I like it. I reserve the right to change my view on this later as at higher levels it might be more fun.

Now we get into the 2 classes I was really looking forward to, starting with my Wizard. Similar to the Witch Doctor the Wizard has an Arcane Power reserve which depletes with the use of secondary and other skills but recharges quite quickly on its own. Staying at range and blasting away with magical projectile attacks is the game here but should you get overwhelmed there is a spell that freezes everything around you for a few seconds so you can put some distance between yourself and the targets. Remember earlier when I said the Monk felt a bit overpowered? That was nothing compared to the Wizard. The first Primary skill is great and the first secondary, affectionately known by me as ‘the ice ray of death’ is downright amazing. It slows targets down, evaporates their health bars and drains arcane power slowly enough that even large groups can be destroyed without difficulty. Once these two were upgraded to do more damage and increase the slow effect respectively there was no stopping me. The Wizard was exactly what I had hoped for, fun spell slinging although certainly ridiculously powerful in the early game.

Finally I came to the Demon Hunter. The class I’ve been looking to playing more than any other. Cassie (named for the monster hunting titular character of the superb Hack/Slash comics) was the most fun of all and exceeded any expectations I had for the class, it was time to start up a few hours of dual wielded hand crossbow badassery. The first thing I noticed was that the orb on the right of the character information, my pool of whatever energy the class uses, was split in 2. One side is Hatred which is generated over time and by Primary skills and used by other offensive skills, the other side is Discipline which you use for tactical skills like placing traps or acrobatic rolls to get out of trouble. Unlike Hatred your Discipline restores only over time and much slower. Using a combination of these tactical skills and offensive attacks the Demon Hunter is an incredibly strong class. Laying down caltrops which slow enemies down, retreating slightly then letting rip with piercing arrows that seek additional targets or a rapid fire skill which constantly drains Hatred but allows you to stand and unload what is the medieval equivalent of a minigun. Should they get too close you have the option to throw down more caltrops and retreat or later on employ a dash style move to instantly put some range back into the equation. Again a rather overpowered class, especially if played well, but so much fun and just plain cool. I fully expected this to be my favourite class but by how much I couldn’t have begun to realise.

So with that my Beta experience was over. I went into it like a kid in a candy shop, wanting to do everything and grinning like an imbecile. It didn’t disappoint and May 15th can’t get here fast enough. I will certainly be playing through multiple times in the future since at least 3 of the characters are too much fun to ignore and being able to put the difficulty up (not an option this weekend) might help mitigate their powers. I now need to find games to occupy myself for 3 weeks, and moan that Dragon’s Dogma comes out less than 2 weeks after this since I now will likely not be able to tear myself away to play it.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Has Hell Frozen Over?

Been a while since I wrote anything now, but hell I’ve been too busy playing games to write about them and I don’t get paid for this so fuck it. ‘What have I been playing?’ you might ask, well inquisitive types out there let me provide you with an answer. Mass Effect 3 and before that SW:TOR but mainly Mass Effect 3. I decided not to review this particular title for the simple reason that anything I wrote would be fanboyish gibbering with the occasional minor niggle to be objective or whatever. In any case I don’t see much dethroning it from game of the year for me. I was shocked and stunned by one particular aspect of Mass Effect 3, one thing I would never in a million years have dreamed up, one small aspect of a huge game that has changed my views on Bioware as a company. Bioware, those crazy sons of bitches, have made me like multi-player (thought I was going with the ending there didn’t you, well we’ll have none of that nay-saying here thank you very much).

As a general rule I am a solitary gamer. Partly this comes from the sorts of games I enjoy the most being single player experiences and the other reasons are to do with my disdain for the large part of the population of this planet. Sure I play with friends occasionally and that is how Mass Effect 3 lured me in. I started off just having a few rounds with people I know and it was fun, more fun than a simple horde mode as any right to be I might add. However it wasn’t even simply enjoying myself that has led me to put as much time into the multiplayer on this game as I have, no that lies firmly at the feet of the unlock system. Rather than a conventional system that unlocks extras as you play and level up etc, etc Mass Effect 3 rewards you with credits for finishing special tasks on waves 3, 6 and 10 of a game. The tasks themselves are either kill 4 marked enemies, activate 4 devices around the map or hold a certain position until a download completes and each one is progressively harder but should you finish the one on Wave 10 you get the big bucks. These credits are used to buy the unlocks, so far so standard but there is a catch. Credits buy Packs which include entirely random unlocks from simple one use equipment to guns and new characters. The unlockables are split into categories of rarity and the more expensive the Pack the higher the chance of getting a Rare or Ultra Rare item. What they’ve done is put the trading card mentality into a video game entirely unrelated to trading cards.

The thrill of opening one of these boxes and not knowing what you’re going to get is much greater than it should be. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or even just a nostalgic throwback to ‘Pok√©mon’ or ‘Magic The Gathering’ I collected when I was younger but the mystery of the unknown coupled with the genuine excitement of unlocking something you want is very real. Obviously it can go the other way too, it is frustrating buying a ton off Packs and getting nothing you want, need or will ever use but you just dive back in and in a few rounds try again. The hunt for the rare and shiny things lurking in these packs has led me to do something I would never have considered in the past, I have played with random people from the internet. *big dramatic fanfare*

My experiences so far? Mixed is as good a word as any, I’ve had the odd group of people who knew what they were doing and together we have done quite well but more often than not at least one person just runs off on their own and dies repeatedly (usually a first time Vanguard) and probably moans when I stop bothering to pick them back up, I don’t know because I don’t communicate with these people but I assume. So well done Bioware and the team behind Mass Effect and its multiplayer. You have created an incredible trilogy of games and added in a feature that got one of the biggest advocates against multiplayer to venture out and do some. Yes it’s much better with people you know and I don’t see my playing with randoms becoming a regular thing but I have had a go and didn’t hate it. Back to a more regular schedule now, until another game comes along and devours all my free time. I’m looking at YOU Diablo III!