Review: Path of Exile

This week, after a long hiatus I returned to Path of Exile. My main computer gaming pastime of late, Total War: Warhammer, is still building up to a major and I am content to give it a rest until then.

path_of_exile_logo

Path of Exile is a free to play action rpg that has been out for several years. The game that most people would compare it to is Diablo (more like 2 than 3). Regular updates and a strong community keep it fresh.

Path of Exile plays like a typical isometric action RPG. Your character will fight hordes of enemies and nasty bosses for levels and loot. Compared to Diablo 3 the graphics are less impressive, but also less gaudy, and when the action starts much, much easier to follow than the explosion of special effects that define a high level confrontation in Diablo 3. It is much easier to follow what is going on in Path of Exile and the no nonsense approach to graphics means that special touches like an impressive boss or unusual item stand out. I also like that the combat is more tactical, with nods to positioning and ability use and less about dodging ground effects.

Path of Exile is a game that does not hold your hand. It is possible to make characters that are far better than others. The game’s skill web makes the skill trees of Diablo 2 look like shrubs and the skill choices of Diablo 3 seem like preschool.

poe-skill-tree-example

Each of those tiny nodes is a single skill point. Most are small bonuses, but can radically change your character over time, while some nodes can completely change the style of play. There are also ascendancy classes.

While the sheer variety may seem daunting, it is fairly intuitive once you understand how to read it ad the community are always, always talking about builds. The endless theorycrafting helps promote the game.

Melee (STR/Marauder) is supposedly among the weaker built types, but I have no trouble in single player on the first such character I made.

Not that anyone who likes the game would ever stop at just one character, the possibilities of that skill tree are a great lure.

At first glance the item system in Path of Exile is nothing special. The usual rares and artifacts make their appearances. Slots are in as well, though in Path of Exile this is where you get your active abilities from. In is interesting to note, however, that none of the shops use currency, but rather trade in useful commodities like identify scrolls and orbs that reroll the properties of magic weapons. There is real depth in the item system and it certainly holds the game together.

The dungeons and environments are well designed. My favourite is the labyrinth where you get your ascendancy class; a randomized set of trials with challenging traps and interesting, varying mechanics in the boss fights, all with a tight story about an emperor with no heir trying to find someone worthy.

Speaking of story, the world building in Path of Exile is unlike any of its competitors, steeped with western archetypes and what seems to be some sort of Maori warrior lore and crazy ruined empires than run on blood, gems, and the dreams of gods (and men of infinite ambition). If the story of Diablo is Dante’s Inferno cross with a world war, Path of Exile is more comparable to Vance, Moorcock, and the Malazan series. It is dark and brooding, but teeming with life and ambition. All of that grandness though is brought down to earth by interesting characters and a simple motivation: you have been cast out, exiled and left for dead, but you lived and now it is time for revenge.

Best part is the micro-transactions are not prohibitive at all. No pay to win, or pay to remove obstacles to play here.

Good game.

Total War Warhammer: Eye for an Eye Beastman campaign review

Beastman DLC

A fun DLC, if not exactly essential for every player.

I am a big fan of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer. I make no secret of the fact that I feel it carries the banner of GW’s The Old World long after it was ruined in a bizarre business decision. You can read my fawning fanboy review of the base game here.

Call of the Beastmen is the first DLC for Total War: Warhammer. The Eye for an Eye campaign is the mini campaign included with the DLC, which also adds the beastmen as a playable faction to the all-important grand campaign.

The big sticking point for many players was the cost of the DLC at ~20$ and a few important units (Gorgon/Jaberslythe) that were not included. While I can understand that, I am happy with the DLC overall.

The Eye for an Eye campaign has the player take control of Beastlord Khazrak as he seeks revenge against Boris Todbringer for blinding him in one eye. It is one of the more pivotal rivalries in Beastman lore from the tabletop.

The campaign is fun, and does a good job of showcasing the unique mechanics available to the Beastmen. There were some epic battles and interesting choices for a medium length game and I got my money’s worth for sure. On the downside, it does not allow the player to control any leader other than Khazrak and does not quite have enough depth of factions to offer much replay value.

While the Eye for an Eye campaign does not quite knock it out of the park, the Beastman as a faction more than make up the difference. The units offer interesting variations in each crucial role, focusing on mobility, ambush, and charge mechanics. The minotaurs and centigors, in particular, were a joy to use in battle. The roster, despite criticisms, had decent depth.

I did like that Khazrak could get a chariot mount, but you need to focus quite a bit on any chariot to get the best out of it in TWW.

The main difference between the Beastmen and other factions is how they play out on the campaign map. Beastmen are a horde faction (no cities) that have a very unique set of stances. Their basic movement stance has a chance to trigger an ambush battle on the attack, while their encampment stance allows them to hide from all but the most astute of pursuers. They can also raid for money and bestial rage (Bestial rage is similar to the orc WAAAAAGH! mechanic in that it summons a supporting army if you collect enough). Their forest path movement stance works similar to the underways used by the Dwarves and Orcs, but allows access to different areas and map battles.

The stances make for a faction that can survive by guile deep in enemy territory. Where the other horde faction, Chaos, works as an unstoppable juggernaut led by the baddest of the bad the Beastmen are a defter instrument, able to attack in a variety of ways but lacking the same level of brute power. Like orcs, they are very reliant on support character for buffs to give them the edge in a stand up fight. Gorebulls in particular give some nice bonuses.

Ultimately what made the faction for me though is the moon phase mechanics. Every six turns or so the player must choose from four blessings of the Chaos Gods. Each blessing is a bonus combined with a hefty penalty. Depending on the phase of the moon, these can change the character of your horde for several turns. One allows massive casualty replacement, but at the cost of horde growth, for example. Choosing the right bonus can turn a terrible situation around. Choosing the wrong penalty can really screw you. Once I understood it, I really enjoyed it and began to plan my attacks around it. With a little refinement, mostly in making the penalties more consistent (some are easy to avoid), it could become one of the great thematic mechanics of the game.

Overall I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the Beastmen. Eye for an Eye is good, but it is really a prelude to using them in the Grand Campaign.

Review: Total War Warhammer – A good time to Waaaaaaaaaagh!

As I close in on the last few re-writes of Bloodlust: The Seeds of Ruin I have encountered a formidable obstacle; I am positively addicted to Total War: Warhammer.

The Total War series is well known among fans of computer wargames and Total War: Warhammer is Creative Assemblies first foray into a non-historical setting. After two less than stellar releases in Rome 2 and Attila (I pre-ordered Rome2, oops) the boys at CA really must have felt the need to knock this one out of the park, and they did.

Let’s start with the negatives, just for fun.

  • Pre-Order DLC: CA managed to cause a stir with  the news that The Chaos Faction was going to be available for free to people who pre-ordered. This was widely seen as a dick move, in an industry where consumers are constantly being milked. Eventually they reneged and made Chaos available for free during week 1, but it still left some feeling sour.
  • My biggest complaint about the game is the dominance of elite and special units. In the tabletop game even the most impressive armies had to field some grunts due to army structure. In Total War: Warhammer you really want to pack as much punch into each army as possible and the main limitation is the 20 unit/army max (although you can have multiple armies, I feel the cost increase still pushes you toward stacking elites).
  • In previous Total War games and some editions of Warhammer, units had better use of formations and special moves. I would like to have seen shield walls on certain units and grape-shots on cannons (the level of unit abilities in TW: Napoleon would be perfect IMO) for example.
  • You cannot customize your regular troops colour or kit.

Here are some features that I feel are neutral, some people will love them, others will hate them.

  • Heroes can be very, very powerful. Some people like this, some hate it. It was the same with some iterations of the tabletop. They definitely have impact on both playstyle and in combat.
  • As per usual in TW, the AI can skirmish like crazy. I found it irritating to fight Chaos horse missile troops, and just ended up auto-resolving against the armies of the North most of the time in my Chaos campaigns. The AI in general is better than the last couple of TW games, but still predictable.
  • Some people feel the diplomacy and city management are too bare-bones. I’m ok with them for the most part.
  • The battlefields are fairly open for the most part. I have seen some unusual fields, but not a lot of terrain cheese.
  • TW agents can be annoyingly OP.

And finally the positives.

  • Fun battles that are just great to watch, especially on a PC that can handle the largest unit sizes. The level of detail just zooming in on the battles is staggering.
  • Each faction has a unique play style, both on and off the fields of battle and unit roster. While some of these choices do not see play, especially later in the campaign or in competitive multiplayer, there is enough variety in late-game units to create interesting armies.
    • Dwarves, for example, lack cavalry, magic, and monstrous units but have tremendous ranged units and artillery while the Vampire counts have a lot of awesome cannon fodder, fast monstrous troops , and fearsome elites but really lacking in missile weapons and artillery.
  • Multiplayer campaign coop: I cannot emphasize how much I love this feature. I can play a campaign head to head or with another player against the AI. Games you can play cooperatively are just awesome.
  • Most of the battles are fun, especially once you get a decent variety of units. Some of them are just incredible.
  • Quest battles in the campaign are very enjoyable for the most part, with some of them presenting interesting tactical challenges balanced for a single army.
  • The map feels just big enough.
  • CA will be adding the full faction roster from 8th edition, including some for free.
  • Magic feels just right. Sometimes it is crazy strong, sometimes it just does not get you there, just like in the tabletop.
  • While the unit abilities are limited, the depth of tactics on the field is still there, once you get use to it.
  • WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH!

As a whole, I love the game. I have played orcs, dwarves, and Chaos in depth so far and dabbled in empire and vampire counts. I am already drooling over bretonnia, wood elves and beastmen getting added in. It might not have grapeshot, but hey, maybe I can make a mod for that.

Game Review: X-Com 2, sequels, rebellions, the rule of cool, & verisimilitude (guest starring: BACON)

This week I actually found time to finish X-COM 2! I will scribble some thoughts here, which will serve as my review.

XCOM 2 header

But first. This week I came to a realization. Bacon is becoming ubiquitous. I see it as a donut garnish, marmalade, as burgers flavoured with three types of bacon with a bacon-maple sauce. As I stood in the supermarket staring at bacon flavoured breath-mints, I realized that this saturation level has made it less of a treat, less special, and somehow offensive. I still love bacon, but enough is enough.

X-COM 2 is the second installment of the modern reboot. It was released on Feb 4 and has already sold 750,000 copies on Steam alone. It departs from the familiar tropes of the older games and the first game of the reboot in that instead of encountering, then fighting an alien invasion, the aliens have already won and the player is leading the resistance. They do a decent job of connecting the story and update the game-play with some interesting elements. Overall I enjoyed the game, but I found that it did not correct all of the flaws of the previous version, nor do I think that all of the changes will appeal to fans of the first reboot. With that in mind I will start with the cons.

Cons: What I did not like, or thought needed improving.

  • The Scamper System (major): The scamper system where when an enemy or group of enemies sees the player and gets a free action to seek cover is back from X-COM: Enemy Unknown. This is, by far, the weakest mechanic in the new series: it leads to a style of play where the best tactic is always to advance slowly so as to only activate one enemy pod at a time, kill it, rinse and repeat. Enemies in the first few versions of X-COM seemed to activate in a more organic fashion, open to a variety of tactics. In X-COM 2 they patch the holes in the scamper system by adding timers to many missions, forcing the player to move at a faster pace (this is mostly illusory, I rarely ever triggered more than one pod, save through my own stupidity) and reinforcements which drop enemies in the midst of the players with a turn of warning. They also allows players to scout with a concealment/stealth mechanic. While these patches do make the scamper system more interesting, it is still polishing a turd. I feel that the game would be better served by removing it entirely because the right thing to do is always to move forward as cautiously as you can, given mission parameters.
    • I contend that the scamper system could be used for rooms in a dungeon game, but for triggering larger encounters instead of single pods.
  • The Resistance & Verisimilitude (minor): In X-COM 2 the players are guerrilla fighters waging a shadow war against a victorious enemy, at least on paper. In reality the game does not really play like that, save for a few conceits and mission types. There is very little defense, stealth, and scavenging and far too much insurgency and attack. In the end the way the game plays is very much at odds with the idea of a beleaguered resistance. Weapons and armour are a good example, with the player able to research and manufacture their own superior weapons over time. The idea guerrilla force with the ability to manufacture experimental high tech weapons… just breaks verisimilitude. I would have preferred a more low tech response like customizing old tech and salvaging higher tech weapons directly from fallen aliens. Examples like this are why it does not feel like a resistance and steps on verisimilitude.
    • Guerrilla factions spend a lot of time fighting for hearts and minds. This is obvious from modern warfare as well as successful guerrilla insurgencies in the past. This is not well represented in the game. People just kind of rise up at the appropriate moment. It was a waste of the advent speaker character, as well — why make the guy if I can’t counter his propaganda.
    • Guerrilla resistances spread slowly from specific locations, relying on local relationships. The resistance in X-COM 2 is nomadic and wants to spread as quickly as possible for income and bonuses.
    • Smallest insurgency ever.
  • Small Squads (Minor): I may be in the minority here, but with 5 basic classes with 2 specialties each and many different enemy types I felt that squads of 4-6 were just too damn small. I would prefer to see bigger player squads and bigger enemy pods, just to make use of more of the options available.

Pros: What I loved

  • Variety of enemies (Major): The variety of enemies in X-COM 2 is perfect. Enemies are divided into two types: Advent forces which are the augmented humans and robots who are the face of the alien invasion trying to pass as the future of humanity and the aliens themselves. The advent forces are the baseline grunts and elites specialists who stay similar throughout the game and lend the enemy a kind of uniform feel. Their look and their totalitarian feel lend the game a gravitas far beyond what I was expecting. The aliens themselves are all unique, special snowflakes with powers and abilities that make fighting each one different. Together these two forces give the game both a shifting variety of enemies without losing the sense that you are fighting a single, monumental force. Even the look and feel of each enemy type was above my expectations. Loved the enemies in this game.
  • Turn Based Combat (Major): I love turn based combat. The Combat is X-COM 2 is fundamentally sound, with all of the basics from the first and a few nice improvements like concealment and better sets of character abilities. As long as you do not mind RNG and cover and flank firefights you should enjoy it. That said, the tactical depth is stunted a fair bit by the scamper system.
  • Better Research Trees (Major): setting aside the idea that an insurgency has a better research and manufacturing arm than the people they are fighting, the research trees are the best I have ever seen. Scientists and engineers are greatly desire and the end-game tech opens up a large number of tactical possibilities (some of which are arguably overwhelming powerful like mimic beacons and mines, but that’s what higher difficulties are for). It was nice to see some serious variety in armour types and equipment load-outs in the end-game, even if some options are very much superior on paper and small squads limited experimenting.
  • Hacking and Drones (Minor): The hacking system is interesting and I am pleased to see a nod to futuristic tactics with drones being used for healing, buffing, ranged hacking, and even some nasty attacks.
  • Character Variety (Minor): Crazy amount of customization options for your characters. I also enjoyed the ability of each character to learn a single random ability from another class tree as they advanced. These two things combined to give my squad lots of personality, although I tended toward uniforms.
  • Story (Trivial): Although verisimilitude does take some hits in that the campaign does not feel like a resistance insurgency, the story for X-COM 2 is better than any of the previous iterations. I enjoyed the characters despite the occasional repetitiveness of the dialogue.

Bonus Commentary: The Rule of Cool versus Verisimilitude & Unique Identity

Remember when I mentioned Bacon at the beginning of this wall of text? This is why.

Gunslingers and Ninjas with big swords are cool. I am not sure, however, that adding them to the X-COM universe is a great idea. The idea of the rule of cool is that people are more willing to accept offences against verisimilitude if they are really fun or just plain awesome. Think of it like bacon. If people put bits of chicken on your maple donut it would leave you wondering, but if they put bacon on it you will accept that because bacon is awesome (obviously not everyone loves bacon, but you get the idea). So when X-COM 2 gives their rangers kick ass fusion swords and their snipers awesome plasma revolvers that make them (deadly) space gunslingers it is definitely cool, even if the idea of bringing a sword to a gun fight is kind of stupid when you analyze it (a fusion bayonet/knife would be better).

But while I thought it was cool initially, I felt that something was lost in the way that X-COM 2 gave in to the rule of cool. Honestly if you put ninjas and gunslingers (and vikings, and zombies, and jedi etc) in every game they not only cease to be special, but they have a real chance of overpowering the already established aesthetic elements that made your world-building unique and interesting. X-COM was always had kind of a 80s military movie meets 90s x-files feel to it and this got lost when sword-wielding ninja rangers and I-can-fire-faster-than-an-automatic-weapon gunslingers get thrown into the mix. They may be cool, but for me they detract from the already established feel of X-COM.

Simply put: sometimes subtle, original flavours are better off without your favourite garnish. Would you ruin a perfectly good french vanilla ice cream by loading it with bacon? It might be tasty, but the bacon overpowers the vanilla. Really at that point, maybe you should just admit that you just want to eat more bacon and go cook yourself some goddamned bacon instead of inventing new ways of injecting it into everything.

In all seriousness, I do think that including all of the cool stuff in every game has started to make many games feel very samey and detracts from the unique charms of many properties. (And this from a guy who writes about magical superhero gladiators wielding rune weapons and fighting every monster under the sun.)

Ruminations on Intellectual Property: Stranded Worlds

Last week, while writing about how I was playing so many games based on Warhammer Fantasy, I stumbled across the fact that Games Workshop had destroyed the Old World, a setting with over two decades of history and development as a prelude to their new game Age of Sigmar. This fact has been occupying my mind and keeping me up late into the night.

First off, I am neither for, nor against Age of Sigmar here. It certainly has its fans, and some of the ideas within it could prove revolutionary. The mechanics seem weak to me, but I can see how they would appeal to a certain kind of enthusiast.

On the other hand I am deeply offended by the idea that Games Workshop crumpled up a wonderful, deeply developed world just because a competitor knocked Warhammer Fantasy out of the second spot in the list of top ten wargames. I get the need to retool your games lineup when faced with serious competition, especially in a publicly traded company where shareholders have serious performance expectations. That makes sense, even if it may be an unpalatable decision. What I do not get is burning the bridge that got you there. While winding down Warhammer Fantasy for a while may have been a good business decision, even a necessary one, nothing on earth will convince me that the destruction of the Old World setting is a good idea. Let me break that down.

  1. The value of settled IP: The warhammer was and is a valuable piece of intellectual property above and beyond the Warhammer Fantasy game. Books, Background Fluff, Magazine Articles, and Computer Games all contributed greatly to the many editions of the game, gradually turning what was a stock fantasy world into some thing that felt like a living, breathing universe. That kind of IP has incredible value, and harming it by destroying the world just seems senseless.
  2. You don’t need to destroy Warhammer Fantasy or The Old World to create Age of Sigmar: Age of Sigmar is meant to replace Warhammer Fantasy, but there is no real reason that GW can’t just sit on Warhammer Fantasy and promote Age of Sigmar as a different product, instead of a direct replacement. Their goal was not to reinvigorate an old setting, but rather to attract new people to the hobby. Age of Sigmar borrows lore and characters, but really has little to do with the older game. They can easily co-exist.
  3. Even if Warhammer Fantasy is not working, The Old World IP is still very valuable: Even now, while computer game developers and others are in a frenzy making games based on the old world, GW seems to be holding its nose while farming out this valuable IP. So far, that has not hurt, but it is only a matter of time before it is degraded. Put in a fashion that even a biz-dev can grok, the Old World IP is an asset, one which has tremendous potential and value, and it should be treated as such.
  4. A Grimdark Fantasy World with Strong Urban Themes: I wish I had the millions lying around to buy this thing just as computer games and fantasy fiction in general are exploring these themes. While Warhammer Fantasy may or may not have needed shelving, the IP is more relevant than ever.

Currently, I feel that the Old World has a chance of becoming what I am going to call a Stranded World. The IP is still valuable, but that value will decrease over time without new official material and new promotions. The current crop of computer games will offer a short term boost to that IP, but without management and new material that is considered cannon, it will wilt and die. This would be a tragedy, and not just to the players and developers of that world, but to the people who might enjoy experiencing it in new games and novels.

By tossing a valuable IP in the garbage can, Games Workshop management has shown that they are not respectful of the assets that have been created for the company that they run. Age of Sigmar could be a tremendous, smash hit, but ruining the Old World Warhammer Fantasy setting was not necessary and degrades the value of a real, tangible asset that was carefully grown for decades and is still in demand. It is a bad decision all around. You don’t have to burn your bridges to start something new.

PS: Total War Warhammer ended up being the fastest selling Total War game ever, bringing a lot of players to the series. Overall it ended up being pretty stellar, and with a strong modding community (hundreds of mods three weeks after release) it seems to be a good replacement for the lost awesome of the old Warhammer tabletop. See my review.

Ruminations on Intellectual Property: The Great Warhammer Diaspora

Today, I was struck by the realization that the two computer games in my current play rotation and one of the two that are on my release radar so far this year are all based on Games Workshop’s Warhammer fantasy universe.

The first of these is Mordheim, City of the Damned, a turn based strategy game based on the old Mordheim boardgame from what I see as the golden age of GW creativity. The computer game tried to remain as faithful as possible to the rules and spirit of the original while making concessions to modern play styles. It is a decent game, with a fun advancement system, but I wish they had dropped some features of the original altogether in favour of a tighter game. Still, I enjoy it quite a bit and hope it does well so that the studio can branch out on its next effort.

The second of the Warhammer Games I am currently playing is Vermintide. This one is not based at all on a Games Workshop product, but rather lifts the world-building and setting popularized by Warhammer Fantasy and marries it to Left 4 Dead style gameplay. Instead of a modern land overrun by Zombies, you have an ancient city overrun by Skaven. It is one of the few multiplayer games that I am actually willing to tolerate, and makes great use of the IP.

The final game, the one that I am considering pre-ordering (I know, shame on me) is Total War: Warhammer. I love the Total War series, but the modern age has not been kind to it. Rome II was a botched mess that bored me to tears and tried to sell me DLC instead of fixing bugs, and Total War: Attila was not enough to regain lost glory, especially with more DLC shenanigans. While there is a controversy over the Chaos faction pre-order bonus in Total War: Warhammer, the game looks good and the combination of two old franchises could lead to a real revitalization here. I am willing to bet that this one could be a beautiful match.

The other game I am looking forward to in 2016 is the new X-Com, but that has little to do with this topic.

After my little revelation, I realized that the fact that I am knee deep in Warhammer based computer games is not an accident. There are a lot of them on steam and may of them are new. It used to be that Games Workshop was very selective in allowing the use of its beloved intellectual property and consequently we were starved for Warhammer based computer games in my youth. Now, it seems the floodgates are open and I am drowning in options.

Why?

The simple answer seems to be that Games Workshop is a recognizable and valued IP that has been built up over 25+ years and can reach a broad audience, but that the core game is doing poorly. Warhammer has faced strong competition in the US from Warmachine/Hordes over the last decade and from other games in other places. Then as profits began to sag, they blinked. They ran an enormous campaign to hype the players up and they destroyed the Old World, their setting for eight editions in a climactic battle. The thought was that they would reboot with a new setting in the same world a few decade or centuries afterward… instead, GW replaced Warhammer Fantasy Battles with Age of Sigmar.

Age of Sigmar barely resembles the old Warhammer game. It is fair to say that quite a few of those who loved the old games hated the new version, or just found it unrecognizable. Of course, others loved it, but the problem remains that all of that juicy old IP is wasted… or not.

It seems that since Age of Sigmar is the main focus right now, Games Workshop has been allowing much more freedom in farming out that old IP. No doubt they see it as a way to shore up their finances. While GW might not be interested in the Old World, other companies see real value in the IP that they spurn, and thus tons of new players can experience a rich, meaty setting built up through years of lore (including quite a few novels) and play in these new games. The Old World has escaped its masters, for now, and it will be very interesting to see where this great IP diaspora leads…

 

 

The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART FOUR

The first two articles in this series dealt with the differences between Diablo II and Diablo III, two of my favourite computer Action RPGs. The third post discussed how the systems clash between the Damage and Primary Attribute systems and the Itemization system and how Blizzard had to work hard to fix the gameplay contract, namely a game based exciting loot drops that provide the primary means of customization.

In this post I talk about another gameplay contract: namely that of the sequel. D3 is the sequel to D2 in the franchise, but many players point to other games as spiritual successors, and some even feel that the story line in D3 does not mesh at all with D2. But that is jumping ahead of myself. There is an even more basic question that must be answered here:

How much does a sequel owe to the original?

I will admit that I was pissed off that D2 did not have the same classes as the first iteration of the game. My initial complaints, however, were drowned in a Tsunami of awesome new features, combined with reverence for the original game that I knew and loved. D2 was more or less everything I loved about D1, but with better systems and a sweet skill tree to boot. Once I understood the new classes, I saw why they did away with the old. It was pure evolution.

Many people feel that a sequel to a beloved game should stick to improvements on existing systems and save the real innovation for new things (like the skill trees, set items, and sockets added in D2) and not rock the boat too much.

Others are obsessed with originality, and feel that every iteration of a game, even a sequel should strive to be new and different. These critics fear the stagnation that comes with sticking to a tried and true formula.

Both sides have a point, of course. If a sequel strays too far from the original it risks offending fans, on the other hand stagnation seems to be the order of the day with AAA games like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed turning out very, very similar games at a yearly rate.

In the end, a sequel should strive to stay true to the original but it must also try to make improvements in the series.

Is Diablo III a true sequel to Diablo II and why do I keep referencing D&D?

While I love D3, it is not a true sequel to D2, and I feel it breaks the gameplay contract by straying too far afield. D3 changed too many core systems and has an entirely different feel to character creation, leveling, story, and even the role that items play. While it doesn’t bother me, I can see why it upset a large number of people who loved the older games.

I am a huge fan of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t play the game much anymore, I prefer homebrew systems, although I still own books from every edition. Nonetheless, D&D opened up the world of role-playing games for me, and kindled my interest in fantasy, so I love the game. (For the record, I think 5th ed D&D is a great edition for new players and nostalgia driven fans, but that is a different tale.)

Most of the editions of D&D follow a very similar evolutionary pattern, with relatively changes with each new version of the system. Obviously some players preferred the older editions, but as a whole each one felt like a natural progression from the last; even if you did not like where that progression went, you could still see where it came from.

Not so with 4th edition D&D. 4th was a major departure, leaving behind tried and true systems in favour of radical new ideas like encounter and daily powers, healing surges, and so on. Gone were the days when the fighter was defined by being the guy with the high attack value and multiple swings. Interestingly 4th ed also introduced the idea of each class having a primary attribute that mattered more than anything else on all their powers.

Sound familiar? There is no direct connection between D3 and D&D 4th but the design philosophy is very similar. Let me break it down:

  1. Fear of sub-optimal character builds: Both D&D 4th and D3 are afraid that a player might gimp their character by building it wrong. This is where the primary attribute and damage mechanics prevalent in these games come from: they are meant to prevent a player from playing a barbarian who puts all his points in charisma and is not as effective as a strength based barbarian.
  2. A desire for “smooth” gameplay experience and power curves: the statistical analysis that goes into both game is pretty impressive — it has to be because bucking the curve in either one results in a character that is either too weak or game-breakingly powerful. In D3 this is handled by allowing the player to shift difficulties, while in D&D 4th it is up to the DM to be aware of it. Because these systems are so tightly wound around having a certain character efficiency at a certain level they require special systems to cope with outliers. A good example is in D&D 4th where campaigns without magic items must compensate characters with special bonuses to hit and damage so that they can keep up with the expected curve. In D3 they replaced the old normal/nightmare/hell difficulty progression with player selected difficulty, which gives an entirely different feel to the game. When I say replaced, I mean it: D3 originally had a normal/nightmare/hell progression system (with a new level, inferno tacked on… badly) but it scrapped this in favour of a player controlled system, partly to compensate for outliers. In D2 players who bucked the power curve could simply progress at their own pace, but this is a less effective control in a game where DPS is so rigidly defined.
  3. Rigidity of Design: This is the real kicker. Both D&D 4th and D3 are rigidly designed games. Their basic systems are not flexible at all. In creating a polished, balanced experience they have filed off some rough edges that actually had real design purpose in their predecessors. A good example of this is levels in D2 versus levels in D3. In D3 Levels mostly act as a control — unlocking new powers and determining what level of gear you can equip. In D2 Levels were a core framework, directly determining how powerful a character was by offering precious skill levels and attribute points. As a core system levels advanced beyond the difficult of most areas in the game, allowing even the most casual of players to eventually conquer a difficult area by leveling up. A corresponding example would be hit chances in D&D 4th. Prior to 4th the fighter classes enjoyed a much higher attack bonus than other classes, allowing them to reliably land melee attacks, even on higher level creatures. Mages and Rogues were compensated with other abilities such as massive damage spells or exceptional skills and positional attacks. In 4th everyone has very similar damage potentials, hit chances, skill levels, and the general utility of spells just disappears. Most of the flavour and a lot of the flexibility are ground off in order to satisfy design goals of smooth play, balance, and safe builds.

The Gameplay Contract of Sequels

Ultimately a player expects a sequel to be faithful to the original. IP aside, D3 is as guilty of being unfaithful to the original design as 4th edition is. Both games are good in their own right (yes, some people like 4th, get over it), but just play differently than their predecessors. The design philosophy is simply too different. Both D&D 4th edition and Diablo III were influenced by the reigning king of fantasy games at the time: World of Warcraft which needs the systems that they embrace (builds, smoothness, rigidity) to handle the needs of a very different player base.

D2 and D3 are both Isometric Action RPGs with cool randomized loot, but that basically describes the genre that Diablo built. Many games that have been created since are evolutions of D2 while if I took away the name and the visuals I doubt you would recognize D3’s pedigree. The game’s systems are radically different and thus it is easy to see why some people who truly love D2 just feel betrayed by the sequel, even though it is a really fun game. It just isn’t faithful to the original, is it?