Friday, June 29, 2012

Diablo III's failures and why Torchlight II can't come soon enough

Over a month ago, this article would have read very differently. With Torchlight II on the horizon and Diablo III releasing to record-breaking sales, it seemed obvious that Runic Games missed the proverbial train and gamers, like myself, were insulted they'd go up against the behemoth that is Diablo.

However, after a botched launch, questionable updates and a significant amount of time spent in Sanctuary, I find myself looking forward to Torchlight II more than ever before. It's not because D3 is a bad game, it's just a perfect example of how time can change even the most primal aspects of game design.

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you haven't played D3 yet and you're concerned with spoilers, please don't read any further.

Andrew Whipple III discussing why Diablo III was a disappointment


Before we get into the controversial details, understand that Diablo is a franchise I've loved since the original and poured more hours into than I'd like to admit. The original Torchlight was a fun distraction with some amazing ideas that D3 intelligently absorbed, but it was also a game I never finished because I simply wasn't compelled to. D3, on the other hand is a game I've 'finished' multiple times but, to my dismay, still find myself unsatisfied with.

Blizzard has its hands full right now with a community that's in full riot-mode and we'll get into that soon, but first I'd like to talk about the pieces of the game that I feel have held D3 back from true greatness. I can't think of a title that was more anticipated than D3 that wasn't StarCraft II, which dropped two years ago. Gamers have been waiting 12 solid years for this game (much like StarCraft) and some of my close friends even took a week of vacation to do nothing but play D3. Saying that, the foundation for a successful community and game were already present long before the game released. Despite this 'guaranteed success,' D3 still manages to feel like a game that hasn't seen a proper development cycle.

Starting with its launch on May 15th, players ready for demon-slaying at midnight had to wait as servers were hours late coming online. Players then experienced difficulty logging in, game-breaking bugs and then had to deal with servers that constantly went on and offline throughout the course of the day. Some players lost progress in the game and even lost certain achievements permanently. Blizzard knew they were at fault and publicly apologized as Community Manager, Bashiok commented on the matter:

"As many of you are aware, technical issues occurring within hours after the game's launch led to players experiencing error messages and difficulty logging in. These issues cropped up again last night for the Americas and Europe servers. Despite very aggressive projections, our preparations for the launch of the game did not go far enough."

Great as it was for Blizzard to send its apologies, it still baffles me as to how they couldn't have seen this issue coming. It's been 12 years since the last Diablo and they knew how many people were excited for this game. It's not like this is Blizzard's first huge launch either. Back in 2004 when World of Warcraft first launched, they also experienced huge amounts of server traffic which led to many of the same issues we saw with D3's launch. Being their first MMO, those issues were understandable, but three expansions later and still holding the crown with 11 million subscribers and you'd think they'd be ready for something like this. Sure, D3 now retains the record for day-one PC sales but that's still no excuse for botching the launch of such an anticipated title.

Say what you want, as someone who is a dedicated PC gamer, being restricted to playing online only is sometimes a hassle. Some companies, like Ubisoft, have taken this direction (Assassin's Creed) and I just can't agree with that decision or even the often overlooked omission of LAN support. Diablo has always been a game you can choose to play with or without friends, and while you can still do this, having the requirement of always being on is, quite frankly, stupid. For the players that have an unstable connection, you'll never be able to play D3 and that infuriates me.

Bad as the initial taste was for the game, when everything became relatively smooth D3 became a very fun experience. Great as it was for a time, as I got deeper into the mix I began to feel... estranged. If you've never played the previous entries in the series then the feeling will be hard to describe, but let's start with some of the core mechanics changed specifically for D3.

Diablo has always been about crawling through dungeons and looking for gear with your buddies. With several classes and different ways to build your characters, finding that unique piece of armor or weapon was a satisfying feeling - one that no longer exists in D3. One of the major reasons this empty feeling occurs is because the loot table is too diverse. What I mean is, in the first two games, you can play completely alone and within an ample period of time find a multitude of upgrades off of the random drops that don't feel trivial. In D3 this just doesn't happen. At first I thought it was me, but after talking with fellow players, friends and playing more I discovered I wasn't alone on the matter.

No longer can you just play and earn your upgrades by wading through thousands of demons. Technically you still can do that, but finding the items you need will honestly take months and that isn't even for the top-end gear. We're talking just a decent upgrade and you'll be lucky if you find that. Entering Hell, I still hadn't found an acceptable upgrade to my weapon, boots, chest, shoulders or a good ring and I hit a brick wall. Rather than farm mindlessly for eternity, situations like this forces players to use the new auction house. The auction house is a great idea on paper, but it eliminates the satisfaction of finding your own items. By spending a small amount of gold, you can get everything you need and finish an entire act without finding a single upgrade, because you no longer need it.

I have a real issue with this because discovery was always such a big part of Diablo II. Sure, sometimes you had to go back and look for some items, but you were still somewhat effective. By implementing so many useless items, Blizzard has effectively slowed the game down or, in my opinion, MMO-ified the game by superficially increasing the amount of time you need to play to find something worthwhile.

A great example of how anemic items are in D3 is found within the new Legendary weapons (D3's take on uniques). Take, for instance, D2's unique crossbow called the Buriza-Do Kyanon and I'll try and make this as clear as possible. In D2, this crossbow comes with set stats that, in itself, are random. That means you'll always see that enhanced, cold and maximum damage along with some other stats. However, while those stats will always be on the item, each of their properties is completely random. So you might find a Buriza with 200% Enhanced Damage while your friend finds one with 160% Enhanced Damage. This made items worth vastly different amounts when trading in D2 and for a good reason. In D3, every single statistic is completely random on the items, even if it was 'made' for your character.

For the sake of clarity, say you found a new crossbow for your Demon Hunter and it was a Legendary. You'd probably get all excited right? Let's go a step further and say that the crossbow can only be wielded by a Demon Hunter but it had no dexterity on it, which is the Demon Hunter's primary attribute. Even if the crossbow boosted specific skills for the class, having things like intelligence and strength on the item do almost nothing for it. The weapon is for absolutely no one and while there will certainly be trash loot, as there always is, these random stats happening on Legendary items is downright stupid. A friend of mine freaked out when he opened a small chest early on in the game and found his first Legendary in D3's take on the awesome Frostburn Gauntlets of D2. Unfortunately his excitement was dashed when he noticed it literally had every primary stat in the game on it, making it worthless to sell and useless to him. How disappointing.

It's pretty sad when a yellow (rare) is just that much better than a Legendary of the same item level. What's even worse is that picking up all the trash loot and breaking it down in D3's new crafting system is pointless. Having consistently upgraded the blacksmith and broken down practically everything on my way to Hell, a friend of mine asked me why I was bothering. I told him I was building it up to get see about getting some useful gear. Come to find out, D3 doesn't work like that. As a matter of fact, the only equipment in the game that's worth crafting is found off of schematics that drop off of monsters - akin to WoW's system and that's not a good thing.

The last thing I want to do is spend my time creating the same piece of armor over and over in hopes that it'll generate intelligence, vitality and some other useful stats for my Wizard. Why couldn't Blizzard at least make the crafting useful at the earlier stages in the game instead of following the standard MMO approach of making a horde of iron daggers until it doesn't help you anymore? You're better off selling everything to the merchant for gold so you can just use the auction house to buy something worthwhile. Simply put, D3's crafting system is terrible.

Something else that's drastically changed is the leveling and skill system. Usually when you leveled in D2, you'd be given a set amount of points you could distribute between your primary attributes. After reaching a certain threshold, these different attributes allowed you to wield specific armors or weapons. This restriction is gone in D3 as the game allows you to wield any and all types of armors and weapons so long as it isn't class specific. It's a nice touch, but by automatically increasing your innate stats, personal character customization is gone since the only thing players need to worry about is their one primary statistic.

For instance, the Wizard's primary stat is intelligence. Strength and Dexterity are something you completely ignore and I'd go so far as to say that vitality isn't even that important for that class either. On Inferno, D3's new ultra-difficulty level beyond Hell, you pretty much get one-shot no matter what. Doing what I usually do and try to build against the typical style, I tried to build a tanky Wizard that had loads of life and more close-ranged focus, but at that stage in the game it just doesn't matter. So ostensibly you can build your guy in a specific way, but in the end, all Wizards are going to end up playing in a similar fashion. Mass damage, glass-cannon style.

I liked having that option to wield the Skullder's Ire in D2, which was one of the best Magic Find items in the game. By building up to it, my Sorceress was different than others and that's something you won't really see in D3. More specifically, the skill tree in D2 set classes far and away from one another. Two Necromancers could be completely different by going down the Summoning tree while the other one focused on specialized Curses. Some would argue that you can do this in D3 as well, and early on that's definitely true. In order to have success later on in the game though, you're going to have to forgo the majority of your abilities to find the 'cookie cutter' ones that effectively keep you out of trouble while dishing out the most damage.

I'm not against D3's skill system, which is an evolution off of D2's traditional skill tree. What was hard about D2's version was that every little thing was permanent, mistake or not. Late into the game's life, they integrated a skill reset, but D3 doesn't require one. At any time you can switch your abilities and even augment them with a set of runes that make the moves even more unique. A standard meteor can become several waves of tiny meteorites, a ball of frost or even infused with arcane power. As you level up, more and more skills and runes will become available to you adding to your already diverse set of moves. Great as this sounds, it becomes a huge disappointment later on the in the game when you discover that the majority of runes for your abilities are laughable. Just like your abilities, there's really only a few runes that are acceptable, making the rest completely ignorable.

As far as the story goes, I really don't know what happened to the storytelling over at Blizzard. The original Diablo games and even StarCraft wove tales of intrigue with complicated characters that are full of life and mystery. When StarCraft II came out, I was completely underwhelmed by its predictable narrative and safe direction. D3 follows in the same light by resurrecting characters we haven't seen since the original game and treads across an embarrassingly predictable path. Even more insulting is that Deckard Cain, an iconic character to the series, dies in the opening act and doesn't even get his own cinematic death scene. Instead, his death takes place within an in-game cut-scene devoid of any emotion whatsoever. Awesome.

There's a lot of little things that make D3 feel unfamiliar and I still attribute that feeling directly to being too close to an MMO - specifically WoW. Jay Wilson, D3's director, came from working on WoW, making it further evident that the changes I've discussed have that MMO influence. You've always been that super overpowered character in the Diablo universe, cutting down all obstructing your path, and again, D3 feels like you're moving in slow motion - like an MMO. Loot is less rewarding, enemies take longer to kill, everything is given to you in a drip and that's because Blizzard wants you to commit more time to D3. D2 never felt superficially enhanced like this and that truly makes me sad.

I think the worst part about it is that Blizzard's style of 'enhancing' a game is exactly like patching an MMO. Constant changes to classes, buffs, nerfs, people saying this class is too powerful, now this one's too good, it's annoying. D2 definitely received its share of augmentations but it never felt like this. I get that technology evolves and with it the way developers patch their games, but if you need to see how not to do it go ahead and check out D3's latest patch notes. I can sum it all up in a single sentence:

"Weapon racks will no longer drop weapons 100% of the time."

I don't think I need to proclaim how stupid that statement sounds but it just gets worse with a few other changes:

"Destructible objects no longer have a chance to drop items, and will only have a small chance to drop gold when destroyed."

Apparently Blizzard is so worried about people finding good items that they needed to remove the timeless RPG affair of smashing an inordinate about of pots. Terrible as all this sounds, the number one change people are complaining about is the reduction of all attack speed items by 50%. Think of all your damage and the attacks you dish out, now cut all of that in half. Once again, Blizzard has slowed the game down further making D3 even more of a noticeable grind than before. If you need proof to see how upset the community is about this, look no further than the official Diablo forums. it's a mess over there but I can't blame the crowd.

For all of its faults, and there's a lot more of them, D3 has done a lot right. It's still an enjoyable experience but I remind you that we waited 12 years for this. A 12 year development cycle is insane as most triple-A titles out there don't see more than three. D3 feels like a game that's been rewashed again and again until the color has most assuredly faded from its once bright and illustrious form. Torchlight II, would you hurry up and release already?

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