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.

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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: 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 THREE.

After reading my last two articles you might be forgiven for thinking that I dislike Diablo 3. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love D3, both on PC and on console and have sunk a fair chunk of time into it. This series of articles was spurred by a recent bout of play with my Girlfriend and I playing D3 while hanging out at home with our 2 month old son, (occasionally joined by her teenage son). I love it.

Playing the the current iteration of D3 has been a great deal of fun, but I can clearly see that as good as the game is now, there are deep flaws within the basic design. These flaws are so deep that it has taken a powerhouse like Blizzard, arguably the greatest design house in computer gaming, to fix them. This week I will discuss those flaws, how they weaken the game, and then how Blizzard found a way to fix them, despite the flaws in the system.

For today, I will skip the idea that D3 is a fundamentally different game than D2, and focus on mechanical  and the gameplay contract. Let’s start with talking about what a gameplay contract is and a few other definitions.

  1. The Gameplay Contract:  I could call this the ludic contract, from the Ludonarrative dissonance terms, but I prefer clarity in this case. The Gameplay Contract is entirely about the expectations that the player has when playing the game. Good game design will reinforce the Gameplay Contract, while bad game design will clash often clash with it.
  2. Contract Dissonance: Contract Dissonance is when a mechanic, or narrative element clashes with a Gameplay Contract. A great example of this is when a player is playing a badass character and then a cut-scene occurs in which their character is rendered helpless and captured. It breaks the Gameplay Contract, the promise that their character is badass.
  3. Systems Clash: Systems Clash is when two game systems work against each other. D3 suffers from this problem extensively, although I would argue that Blizzard has managed to polish the game to the extent that they the systems clash does not create contract dissonance. This is my own definition, and is not always part of the whole ludonarrative dissonance that others have defined and I am calling Contract Dissonance and The Gameplay Contract.

The Goals of Diablo III and The Gameplay Contract

When Blizzard set out to build Diablo III they had years of additional experience with systems, especially World of Warcraft, but also all of the lessons learned in game’s made outside of their company. Blizzard is a very R&D focused game studio, and so they put a lot of though into their games and tried to apply these lessons to D3’s design.

  • Blizzard felt that cool loot drops were a central part of The Gameplay Contract for the Diablo series. Given that Diablo is known for that, this was a safe bet. Originally they focused on rare items, since these were favoured by many players late in D2. From their World of Warcraft experience they decided that since finding cool loot was a large focus of The Gameplay Contract, then said loot should be the primary way that a player customized their character.
  • Blizzard was also conscious of the way that gameplay congeals around a small variety of effective builds and wanted to fight against that. Their skill system, reminiscent of Guild Wars One in some ways, allows a player to switch out abilities and try a wide variety of builds. While very, very flexible there is not a lot of depth in these builds.
  • For now I am leaving out the fact that The Gameplay Contract that D3 be like D2 may be broken. I’m saving that next week, so I can fixate on a pet theory of mine involving D&D 4th edition.

Systems Clash in Diablo III

If loot is the primary fashion in which a player customizes their character, then it follows that:

a) There needs to be a wide variety of useable equipment and bonuses on said equipment.

and

b) There needs to be some variety in the top tier, or most desireable bonuses on said loot.

Initially there was an enormous variety bonuses on D3`s equipment. Unfortunately the vast majority of those bonuses were useless to most classes.

Rares, the standard high level items, could have up two minor bonuses and up to four major bonuses. The minor bonuses were interesting but are ultimately trivial while the major bonuses ranged from useless to incredibly important. How did this happen? System clash.

D2’s item system is and was almost perfect. A few games have improved upon it in some ways over the years, but it still reigns supreme. D3 is build on that item system, but the game that supports it works in an entirely different fashion, which created a massive Mechanical Clash that Blizzard did not clean up until the release of D3’s expansion.

This Mechanical Clash occurs between several of the core mechanics of D3. It pits the purpose, the very Gameplay Contract of the itemization system, finding cool randomized loot that can be used to customize your character in a variety of ways, against the DPS mechanic and the primary stat mechanic.

  • In D3 maximizing DPS is of great importance since it is the basis of damage for ALL abilities and skills. In D2 builds that depended on damage from spells could often get away with a weapon with lower DPS. In D3 you almost always go with the highest DPS that you can get, with rare exceptions for a few important stats. This go big or go home DPS mechanic severely limits item builds.
  • The primary stat mechanic is nearly as crushing to item variety. In D3 each class has a primary stat. This stat gives them a massive damage increase in addition to the small bonuses that the stat already comes with. In D2 each stat had a set function more or less regardless of class, while D3 changed this up completely. In doing so they removed almost any reason for any class to focus on any stat other than their primary and vitality.
  • Caveat: In Diablo 2 items with Life-Drain were extremely desireable. In order to promote variety, Blizzard capped life-drain at a very small percentage of damage, especially at high levels. Unfortunately, in an oversight that seems very odd to me, they created Life on Hit/Life per second, which are even more necessary for most builds at high level play than life drain was in D2. This was just a mistake, really.

Shortly after release, as players started to get into the endgame, the limitations caused by this Mechanical Clash started to create an enormous Contract Dissonance. Players quickly realized that be best endgame gear consisted of a small number of highly desireable properties with everything else essentially being junk. The worst offenders were items with undesirable primary stats, which were just useless to most players.

Very quickly players whittled down the item system to a small number of desireable properties. Since there was no offset to be had by maximizing skill levels because of the DPS system, most builds had to maximize

  • Primary Attribute
  • Vitality
  • Resist All
  • Life per Second/Life per Hit
  • Primary properties related to damage (attack speed, critical, bonus damage). Given the way that DPS functions in D3 these ended up being more important than they might seem at first.

That really is a short list, especially since not all item types can have all of those properties. The DPS system and the primary attribute system prevented many of the abilities that were randomly assigned to items from having any use to most characters creating itemization that turned out mostly junk with a tiny number of desireable items and no variety at the top. This broke the Gameplay Contract and by making it hard to find cool loot and having very little variety in what was considered useful.

It is my opinion that the DPS and primary attribute systems were too deeply embedded into D3 to be changed once the game was live. This left Blizzard’s development team with the unenviable task of working around the mechanical clash to fix the gameplay contract.

Polishing a Turd into a Diamond

Let’s face, D3 was always going to do well. Much of the success in the design comes from Blizzard’s mastery of UI, look and feel, and the simple stuff that every other company seems to fuck up. Still, breaking the gameplay contract for cool loot did hurt the game. Blizzard fixed this rift with two interesting workarounds, iterated and polished over time.

  • Undesirable properties were removed from items, or shuffled off into minor property slots. Playing a character with a Dex primary stat? that’s cool we won’t drop loot with any other stat. other desirable properties became more and more frequent. This did away with the constant useless drops. (Along the way rares became the new blues in terms of frequency and lower level items simply became fodder for crafting)
  • So if every piece of equipment has a very small selection of stats that are necessary for high level play, how do you promote variety without going back and fixing that pesky mechanical clash? The answer is unique properties on artifact and set items! Basically Blizzard created a series of special items that have gameplay altering effects on them. These have all of the desirable base stats, plus some cool ability that customizes your build, even changing the way some skills function.

It wasn’t pretty, but these solutions repaired the Gameplay Contract, even though the mechanical clash remains and still limits the game. Next week I will tackle why D2 and D3 were so different in terms of basic mechanics and how that also breaks the gameplay contract for older players.

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

This week I am continuing my breakdown of the main mechanical differences between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 [Click here to read the first part]

Before I delve into the the major differences again, I think that it is important to point out that there is a huge disparity of time between the two releases. Diablo 2 was released in 2000 and Diablo 3 was released in 2012. Interestingly the editions of D&D in publication at the time if release were 3rd and 4th edition respectively: I find that significant for several reasons, and I will write about that after I break down the major feature differences, likely next week.

  • Skills
    • D2: Diablo 2 was an early pioneer of skill tree systems, and certainly the most dominant game of the time to use them. The skill trees offered both active, passive, and uniquely flavoured class skills like paladin auras or barbarian shouts. Each class had around 30 different skills once everything was unlocked. Each skill could take up to 20 skill points to maximize (excluding items, which could push the total up to 30 or more IIRC) in effectiveness.
      • A maximum level character could have up to 110 skill points at level 99, spread out over 30 skills with up to 20 levels this made for a large potential variety in builds.
        • Some skills were weaker than others or just did not fit into popular build strategies. Thus, despite the high potential variety, it was argued that actual variety was fairly small in top tier character builds. This was something they tried to address in D3.
      • Some skills had “sweet spots” other than maxing the skill out, while the main skills used by most builds generally desired a full 20 levels at level cap.
        • As a counterpoint, viable builds did have some variety within each build beyond just the core of that build.
        • Mana costs often increased as the skill went up in level. This could result in an odd situation or sweet spot where the player would not want to increase a skill just because the increased cost to effect ratio did not work out. Some skills would decrease in mana cost at higher skill levels as well, which was inconsistent.
      • Skill trees followed a set pattern to get to higher level branches on the tree. This led to characters having to take points in skills that they would not always use. It was fairly minor, but aggravating to some players.
    • D3: Diablo 3 moved away from the skill tree and followed an entirely different skill system. Skills are divided into active skills and passive skills. Each active skill has six runes that can alter the effects of the base skill, often radically. The idea behind this was that there would be a higher variety of builds in D3, since every skill is viable. In practice, however, the variety is limited in the same way as D2 since some skill/rune combos simply work better with the build you want. D3 makes it very easy to switch skills, runes, and passives which create a sense of fluidity in the character.
      • Instead of mana each class has its own unique power pool which helps create a unique flavour for the class.
        • Honestly, aside from different names and different colours the different resources do not really change playstyle too much. If you notice them at all, it is usually because you have run dry…
      • Runes often alter the damage type of the skill. This allows every class to build around certain damage types without limiting their endgame. On the other hand, given the way DPS scaling works in practice you want your skill damage types to match up with any weapon bonuses as much as possible, which can be limiting.
      • Skills in D3 do not have levels. This follows in the same vein as attributes. The way to make your skill more powerful is not to put skill points into it but rather to level your prime attribute, mostly through items, and increase the DPS of your weapon.
      • Items can radically alter some skills, often in very powerful ways.
  • Damage
    • D2: In Diablo 2 damage can come from multiple places. Spells had their own base damage determined by skill level. Strength added to melee weapon damage, while dexterity added ranged weapon damage. A mage character could viably use a weak weapon with desirable bonuses instead of having to max their DPS so long as they had a decent level of skill in their spells.
    • D3: In Diablo 3 all attacks use the same DPS, determined by the weapon the character wields and their primary attribute level. This same DPS level determines the characters base damage for all attacks. Thus your wizard had better well be really well armed.
      • I cannot emphasize how much this makes the two systems play differently, especially in conjunction with the primary attribute system. Weapons in D3 are ridiculously important and weapon damage, along with the bonuses accrued by equipment to your character`s primary stat take the place of skill levels as a provider of damage and even advancement. Shoehorning everything into one stat seems to reduce the variety of play in the game, which seems greatly at odds with the desire to promote variety.
      • The DPS system in D3 was the first indication to me that the game was overdesigned. I will discuss what I mean by that later, but basically it is a level of polish in a system that smooths the game out but makes it rather bland at the same time.
      • Oddly monsters in D3 mostly kill the player with ground effects.
  • Scaling
    • D2: In Diablo 2 monsters had a set power level based on what act on what difficulty level you encountered them on. Damage scaled based on weapon wielded, attributes, and to a huge extent the level of the skill being used. If an area was too tough the player could level up and keep trying until they overcame the enemy.
    • D3: In Diablo 3 difficulty scales with the player and player choices. If an area is too tough, which is unlikely given how smooth the game is, the player can change the difficulty (this is different than when it was first released, when it followed a similar system to d2). You cannot overcome content by outleveling it in the same way that you could in D2.
      • On the other hand you have the ability to start the game on a higher difficulty with new characters, which is nice.
      • The addition of paragon levels to D3 did add some customization to the game, although it is still limited by the game`s inflexible approach to stats.
  • Gear
    • D2: Gear is very important in Diablo 2. Items can make a huge difference in power level. Gear is randomized and is one of the major rewards of playing, beyond simply gaining levels. The Gear system in D2 influences a huge number of modern games.
      • Gear in D2 did scale, but that scaling was not nearly as regimented and the most powerful gear could be found and equipped long before reaching level 99.
    • D3: Gear in Diablo 3 follows the same scaling patterns as World of Warcraft and other MMOs, increasing greatly in power from level to level.
      • Until you reach maximum level in D3 your gear, especially your weapon is disposable. Find an awesome artifact? well it will be good for a few levels at least. This is because the whole game was designed around gear advancement and then balanced to perfection and beyond.
      • Gear in D3 is the main method of mechanical customization. I would go so far as to say that what to equip is the only meaningful choice beyond class that a D3 player must consider.
      • Gear in D3 has a large variety of properties, however, many of these properties are less desirable as others. DPS, Primary attributes, Vitality, and regeneration are of supreme importance. Given that character advancement is so dependent on gear desirable stats become must haves and the variety in gear is actually reduced to better or worse and a few rare abilities that only occur on artifacts.

Ultimately The gear system in D3 is where all of the overdesign problems came home to roost and I think it is at the root of why so many people feel the game was not better than its predecessor, despite a much bigger budget. I will tackle that next week!

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

This is an article about game systems, using one of my favourite game series to illustrate some comments about game theory.

I love both Diablo II and Diablo III, having put hundreds of hours into both. Recently I started playing III again with my girlfriend after work, just as a way of winding down. Luckily for us little Ronan is not offended by this past-time and seems content to feed, sleep, or coo at us from his play-mat as long as we don’t run too long.

Alpha gamers are very vocal about how much they like D2 over D3, and Blizzard has been very forthcoming lately about mistakes and theorycraft around the game. Fans have deconstructed the game as well, but Blizzard’s analysis is very metric driven, which makes it interesting to me.

In both Diablos the player takes control of a single character and runs them through a series of procedurally generated levels. The view is isometric (top down — action figure view if you will) and the main action has the player using various powers to mow down huge hordes of enemies and collect loot: money, modifiers, junk, and powerful magical items. The story in both games is about the player and their allies stopping the lords of hell, usually led by Diablo, and other forces from destroying the world. It is seriously epic stuff, but the story is somewhat convoluted to accommodate game length.

While the story, user interface, and basic elements of both games are very similar there is a deep divide between game mechanics and the driving philosophies behind them. This is why many players hate Diablo III with a passion; if those mechanical changes take away what you loved about D2, very little will make you love D3 — the games are just too different to gamers with an eye for mechanics.

Interestingly, this phenomena reminds me of the fragmentation of the D&D audience with the release of 4th Edition, which was an enormous departure from previous editions of the game. Even more interestingly, some of the major shifts in Diablo III are also present in D&D 4th, especially structuring characters around an all-important primary attribute and the role of loot.

Let’s break down some of the major differences between the two games.

  • Levels
    • D2: Diablo II had a level cap of 99. Each time you leveled up you were given a skill point and a few attribute points. The skill tree had a great deal of breadth, as well as serious depth with 20 base levels in most skills. It could take you some time to max out the few skills used by your build.
      • Monster and item levels did not progress as far as player levels for the most part. Once you reached the final act on hell difficulty monsters rarely got more difficult. This allowed players to outlevel content that might be otherwise hard for their build to overcome.
      • Reaching level 99 and finishing your skill build was a huge deal. Quests often added extra skills and attribute points, ensuring that players wanted to finish all of them on every level.
    • D3: Diablo III has a level cap of 70 (although it has paragon levels, you don’t get new skills beyond 70). Each time you level up your stats increase and you get a new rune, skill, or skill slot. You don’t have any permanent choices to make, and you can switch your skills out with ease.
      • Level in D3 serves an entirely different purpose than it does in D2. It mostly serves as a throttle for gear and a way to slowly distribute skills and powers over the early parts of the game so the player does not drown in choice and has some sense of progression.
      • There is less sense of building a character in D3 because of the way level is used. You certainly would not see people rolling different types of Paladins — you can just change skills whenever you want, which is both good and bad (also very much like D&D 4th)
  • Attributes
    • D2: In Diablo II each attribute functioned more or less the same for every character. While you could gimp your barbarian by maxing INT instead of STR, you sure had more mana. This could actually be useful for some builds. This was compounded by the fact that not all sources of damage depended on a prime attribute, often the level of the skill made the largest difference in damage done.
      • The balance between player choice in attributes was measure against the chance of making mistakes or just confusion as to what each build required.
      • Attributes offered a minimal, but impactful point of customization, both on gear and on leveling up. Sadly, like much of D2 they were not explained well enough for casual players to get it.
    • D3: Diablo III has a very rigid sense of character attributes. Players want to maximize the primary attribute for their class and vitality for hit points, and can safely ignore the other two beyond minimal levels.
      • Attributes are mostly increased through items, increasing the importance of gear.
      • Attribute customization is minimal. You want as much in your primary and vitality as possible and can only really get it from gear.
      • There is no common resource pool — each class has its own way of powering effects, removing the need for balancing mana for your build.
      • The Primary Attribute Mechanic when combined with the Damage Per Second system are what I consider to be one of the cardinal flaw of Diablo III, which I will have to explain in a later post. Just keep in mind how rigid the system is — there really is no choice here, beyond optimizing gear. What is the point in having four attributes when my character is really ever going to use two?

As you can see, there is a huge difference in just two basic systems. In next week’s post I will cover Gear, Damage, Scaling, and Abilities, before delving into the differences in reasoning and where they come from.