Monday, March 24, 2014

Diablo III Expansion Reaps Praise, but Cannot Redeem Soul of Diablo

Diablo III expansion reaps praise, but cannot redeem soul of Diablo

or, I Remember Diablo II

My rose-tinted glasses

It turns out that Diablo II is the game I remember playing.  It's hard not to clearly remember when one has hundreds of hours under one's belt, spanning multiple playthroughs of Normal and a few playthroughs of Nightmare (and a few ill-fated run-ins with Hell).  I remember the mediocre story, which I'd give maybe a 6.5 out of 10.  I remember the unwieldy potion-juggling minigame, where the player trades half the screen space for godly amounts of sustain.  I remember Energy, the noob trap junk stat, and tons of junk skills.  I remember Identify and Town Portal scrolls sort of taking up space in the inventory without really adding any gameplay.   I remember the tedious manual gold pickups which always led to a useless Flamberge sneaking its way into a 2x4 block of my inventory.  I remember over a dozen fetch quests.  I remember a somewhat tedious third act which, even worse, featured racist caricatures of the Pygmy people as enemies.  I remember a short and equally non-varied fourth act.  I remember helpers who were a bit too fond of getting themselves killed rather than truly putting their gear to "good use".  I remember chill attacks being a bit more effective than necessary, all but invalidating the option to tank through it in any situation whatsoever. I remember Hell spamming immunities as if it were the only way to balance a hard mode, and as if only Hammerdins deserved bragging rights.

And recently, I remember Blizzard changing the Diablo II Battle Chest to no longer include the original Diablo, running away from the fan base cultivated by Blizzard North in pursuit greener pastures.

So naturally I was insulted by Jay Wilson's attitude when he claimed that players like me see Diablo II with rose-tinted retrovision.  And when he told one of the fathers of the series what to do with himself, it was clear that it was Wilson and Blizzard who did not remember what Diablo II was – or worse, remembered, but didn't care.  And when Blizzard moved Wilson to a new project rather than outright fire him, it should have been clear to the entire world of gaming journalism that Blizzard had not changed at all, but had merely shuffled its cogs around for the sake of PR.

But everything's better now, right?

It would be difficult to argue that the removal of the Auction House wasn't a step in the right direction (even if the exact timing was a bit convenient). The replacement director, Josh Mosqueira, was absolutely correct to make it a priority to improve Legendary items so that they stand a fighting chance of being usable, as well as endowing them with unique twists absent from the bland release-date legendary items.

And from the start, Diablo III had all the markings of an adequate PC action game. It had a smooth and responsive engine – once enough players quit in digust to get your ping under 500 milliseconds, anyway. The Monk and the Witch Doctor even had some interesting mechanics and visual style which hadn't really been seen before in the series. The game is arguably worth the $20 Blizzard is currently charging for it.

So is everything better now?   In a word, no.   For this gamer there remains a problem that is too big to solve with mere expansions and patches, and that problem is this: I remember Diablo II.   And worse, some of the latest changes in Loot 2.0, which paved the way for the Reaper of Souls expansion, distance Diablo III farther from its roots than ever before.

Loss of identity - taking the RP out of ARPG

Both the Diablo franchise and the individual player character lost their respective identities with the launch of vanilla Diablo III.  Players of Diablo III make no lasting choices in how to differentiate their character from other possible “builds” of that character's class.  Take, for example, the Diablo II Necromancer, and its closest Diablo III analogue, the Witch Doctor.

A Necromancer could play it classical, raising a dozen or more skeletons to do his bidding as he sits ducks around behind his ranks and curses enemies.   He could specialize as a “Bone Mage”, walling away those who would wish to harm him and filling the screen with projectiles late-game.  Or he could choose a Poison build, spending the early game relying on his hireling and risky hit-and-run tactics to bring down his foes before later learning to spread poison from the corpses of his enemies to those still standing in a sadistic chain reaction.  He starts off shooting only a bone sliver or two, or summoning a lowly skeleton or two, or having to resort to melee combat to inflict poison damage before the skills ramp up in power not just numerically, but visibly and viscerally.  Most importantly, he could pick any combination of the above builds (though most skills were either one-point wonders, mere pre-requisites, or all-or-nothing skills – the game wasn't perfect).

If you play one of the above strategies, you might run into problems later on.   In particular, the Bone Mage has the easiest time soloing act bosses, but that just comes with the territory of choosing your identity – living with the consequences, learning to leverage your strengths and cover your weaknesses, and maybe even grinding a bit extra when the burden is at its greatest.  And if you re-roll a new character and start over, you get to watch your new skill of choice gradually mount in strength in satisfying ways.  New to the game? You can one-point everything to get a feel for the class as a whole, have some points left over for your favorites, and still finish Normal in a reasonable amount of time, despite not being as powerful as you could have been – and if I remember anything about Diablo II, it's that I wanted to play through a second time after the first.

By contrast, a Diablo III Witch Doctor automatically learns the skill Zombie Dogs and can summon four of them, period.  He or she has the option of blowing them up for area of effect damage with another hotkey. He or she can fire Poison Darts that are mostly spammable from a safe distance.  He or she is a jack of all trades, capable of doing any of dozens of things equally as well as any other Witch Doctor on the server, but inexplicably can only remember how to do six of them (and three passives) at any given moment (because in D3, so much is balanced around cooldowns, and it's necessary to elbow skills that your character “knows” out of the game somehow when all skills are always at “max level”).  After one playthrough, I would feel disinclined to play the class ever again – that is definitely the case with my Wizard, the only character I ever got to 60 (and even then, only because the 50% experience buff made it bearable, and I wanted to see what the buzz was about Loot 2.0 and Paragon levels).

In Diablo II, you can only gain skills at levels that are multiples of six, and you build up toward them by at least one-pointing the prerequisites to tide over your damage output.  The character was becoming a certain variation on its class, and the player was looking forward to that next multiple of six at all times.  By contrast, Diablo III keeps unlocking skills and modifiers for you, inflicting a sort of scatter-brained mania on characters levels 1-59 by forcing them to change entire builds around every time a new skill or skill rune one-ups what they had before.  I grew to dread the level-up notice before I even hit level 30 on my first play-through.  First Ice does the most damage, and then fire, and then Arcane does the most damage and also does crowd control, and then suddenly Ice has these synergy passives and runes that make it do the most damage while still doing its usual crowd control, and... etc. etc.

Ultimately Diablo III permits the player to choose one of five totally pre-defined “roles” to play, and all of them are polymaths in their broader fields of study.  A master in Diablo III is never a specialist with his or her own style – only a typical general education student with bigger numbers.

As this pattern is deeply entrenched in the game, I imagine that it would almost be easier to simply start making a new game than to overhaul character building in this game, doubtlessly causing a huge controversy among players who either didn't play Diablo II or didn't value the depth of its customization options the way that I did.

Loot 2.0 - Your dude got buffs

It is rather quick and easy to summarize what life is currently like for those playing Diablo III with characters below the level cap after the Loot 2.0 patch – your dude got buffs.  Loot drops are less frequent, but way more powerful than ever before, and the stat points on your drops are automatically configured to have the only two primary stats your character could conceivably ever use.  All changes to skills have been major buffs – mostly by factors of 1.5 or so, but often by factors of 2-3 and sometimes as high as 10 or 12, giving Loot 2.0 all the look of a fan patch rather than that of a late-iteration tune-up for a years-old game from a AAA developer.  The only changes with any real depth and personality have been to Legendary items, which in addition to the usual across-the-board buffs have received some cool and unique special effects more in line with the Unique item drops of Diablo II.

Some of these buffs were needed because the PC version of the game had previously been balanced around having to buy everything at the Gold or Real Money Auction House, which led to item drops being consistently underwhelming for the sake of fighting against deflation in the Gold Auction House (and by corollary, deliciously inflating the almighty USD in the Real Money Auction House).  Aside from the neat unique effects on legendary items, and the partially necessary buffs here and there, the remainder is dripping with greasy excess.  Lead Content Designer Kevin Martens (perhaps unintentionally) drives home the tawdry excess of the Loot 2.0 patch by promising gamers metaphorical “Lambourghinis” by the hour, like a Californication version of Oprah Winfrey's Everyone Gets A Car: the ARPG.  Why should you come back to Diablo III?  Because your dude got buffs.

I find it remarkable that these changes have been more than enough to garner near-universal praise from the gaming media.  Yes, the Auction House was a cynical abomination.  But Loot 2.0 didn't give player characters a sense of identity, and even worse, it reinforces existing problems with Diablo III and introduces new ones.

Level scaling and Paragon levels – because life begins at 60

A sometimes-hated innovation in the world of RPGs is level scaling.  This current trend in RPGs is intended to open up the world, making it more attractive to explore and re-visit areas by having enemies level up along with the player rather than become obsolete.  “Soft” versions like in Grim Dawn, which nudge monsters away from their “base” level gently, can smooth out the challenge curve a little, but when level scaling is used in its extreme one-to-one form, as in Oblivion or Sacred, the end result is a never-ending limbo in which a character can supposedly “level up” while in reality, they are leveling down relative to their foes, who don't have to procure new level-appropriate gear.  Finding replacement gear, then, is the ebb balancing the flow of leveling up.  The ARPG ceases to be a journey of advancement and instead becomes the lowly existence of a shipwrecked sailor on a raft, wobbling endlessly in an infinite sea and given the meaningless option of grinding all the way to level 60 in the first act if he feels like it, without ever feeling any more or less powerful from one level to the next.

Diablo II was sometimes quite hard, if the player wanted it to be.  By skipping randomly-generated minor sub-dungeons, the player was allowed to willingly take on greater challenges with less preparation than may be advisable.  Diablo III was, until Loot 2.0, much the same way.  However, Diablo III added level scaling to Loot 2.0 and replaced the natural-feeling choice to rush onward to bigger challenges with a simple slider bar.  But this is merely a slider bar that changes the weather pattern of the shipwrecked sailor's particular ocean, not a satisfying set of milestones one journeys past at one's own pace.

Even worse, the Master difficulty is easy.  It is easier than trying to play through pre-Loot 2.0 Diablo III without stopping to grind.  To unlock Torment difficulties, the player must level up to 60, and only then can the player (slowly) progress in a way that is not in lockstep with enemies through the use of account-wide bonuses known as “Paragon levels”.

If you want to have a difficult game, or if you want to grow stronger than your foes at all, then life begins at 60.  Those wanting to play the expansion can look forward to instead having life begin at 70.  When you do get to Torment I, it isn't as fun as it should be, either.  While normal mobs were often dangerous in Diablo II, they are consistently a joke in Diablo III, even at Torment I difficulty.  Aside from act bosses, the only challenge I found in Torment I was in the form of Elite (“yellow”) monsters.  They had tremendous damage coming from affix sets like Frozen Mortar Desecrator, but this damage is more or less trivial to side-step.  But other affixes grant the ability to instantly grab you and put you in a box from an entire screen away, namely Waller and Vortex – and the result when a single monster has all five of these affixes is a frustrating, artificial-feeling difficulty spike with little counterplay in the middle of an otherwise easy and mindless grind.  There is probably a way to win this by playing “find the exploit”, but that is a metagame unworthy of further resurrections.

I understand that level scaling is supposed to pave the way to Adventure Mode, but frankly, I think they are breaking something that used to work with this change.  My suggestion would be to re-implement the old Normal-Nightmare-Hell-Inferno progression for Campaign mode with no level scaling, and open up Adventure Mode as an optional way to level up on the side, possibly even earning the right to skip chapters/acts if one skips ahead enough levels.  Perhaps having one version of each Adventure Mode side-quest that is static, but has selectable versions staggered out 5 levels or so apart could re-introduce the feeling of progress to this mode as well.

All in all, one-to-one level scaling is a blow to the role-playing experience, and Diablo III's post-60 balance is anchored to over-cheesed monster affixes.  These problems should be relatively easy to fix, but even if this were to be done, there would still lurk one more demon in the bowels of Diablo III.

The Journey

"[K]nowing that you don't have to play story mode over and over again allows people to relax and just enjoy Act V for what it is; and they may or may not come back to it after that, but they don't have to. It doesn't feel as onerous to sit through those things."

Diablo II may have had its Act III, but “onerous to sit through” is far from the language that fans of Diablo II would have used to describe it, let alone the campaign as a whole.  Bear in mind that Martens touted Adventure Mode as “the main selling point” of Reaper of Souls in the same interview.  Again, I am not at all opposed to having more side-content for the purpose of variety, but it's hard to mistake this admission of failure on behalf of Diablo III's writing and exposition team for anything other than what it is.

"Blizzard also does an excellent job of integrating their awful storytelling into gameplay; dialogue from idiotic demon lords and cheesy secondary do a great job of highlighting just how actively and egregiously bad it all is while you’re in the middle of the action, so all of Diablo III‘s storytelling failings are very, very hard to simply ignore. The lore also plays off like audio logs, as you pick them up, and they expand the world in ways that just make it far less interesting. Less is more. The less I know that the demon lords were just a bunch of quarreling and bickering politicians of Hell, the more I believe that they just are and are going to skin everything alive, because they’re just evil bastards like that."

Leoric the now-Skeleton King spends most of Act I rounding up his ghost buddies and re-telling his life story in little intermissions everywhere you go.  Maghda stalks you through most of Acts I and II and won't ever shut up; she always throws a few minions at you and then teleports away, but inexplicably doesn't do so when it's time for her to be a boss fight.  Then Zoltan Koole follows you around mid-to-late Act II and won't shut up.  Then in Act III, the role is taken over by Azmodan, who repeatedly tells you his plan and dares you to stop him like a Saturday morning cartoon villain, and is replaced in this capacity by Diablo himself in Act IV.  All of Hell got video-enabled Twitter accounts, your iPhone is welded to your face, and you can't unsubscribe. “Onerous” is an understatement.

In Diablo II, the title character had only eight words to say in the entire game, and it was horrifying to behold.

Not even death can save you from me.”
- the complete script for Diablo, the Lord of Terror, in Diablo II

As I said at the beginning, Diablo II's plot gets a 6.5 from me. But it was a brilliantly-employed 6.5 of a plot that knew its place – a humble guide on the outskirts of the vast ruins of a civilization at war with the forces of Hell.  This war with Hell was a literal war, complete with mutilated bodies.  I was a young man, maturing like many other 80's kids side-by-side with a gaming industry that was just beginning to include such content in its digital “toys” assumed to be the domain of children.  The shock and scandal of seeing the first few dismembered bodies soon gave way to a somber realization that this was a world where Terror, Death, and Destruction were a unified, powerful, and mobilized force at war with humanity.  The quantity of dreadful things depicted in Act I is such that it's hard to speculate whether a high-fidelity remake would even make it past the ratings board.

Despite early claims that Blizzard was paying careful attention to the difference between “motivated gore versus unmotivated gore”, the dead of Diablo III are mostly of the living kind and look fit to play a role in Plants vs Zombies.  Humans are kept in cages to be rescued X times to unlock achievement Y.  The gore in Diablo III comes mostly in the form of giant monsters exploding like piñatas (and as of Loot 2.0, guaranteed to drop a plethora of blood-soaked Lambourghinis).  Another example of “motivated gore” is the last level of Act I, in which enormous mechanized cleavers rhythmically slam the ground in a way invokes about as much pathos as a Mario platformer with extra marinara and a propensity for shouting, “I amma M for mature, wahee!” every so often.  Death is not a plague sweeping across the land – it only comes for named characters, like the ghosts of the Skeleton King and his wife, and for Deckard Cain - and in Diablo III, death is never bloody for people.  Blood is merely the paint on the wall, the confetti in the parade, and the candy in the piñatas.

Breaking immersion left and right with endless chatter from every NPC from Azmodan to Zoltan Koole, and celebrating endless violence against toothless foes, Diablo III does not present a journey into darkness.  Diablo III marks the game in the franchise which stopped believing that a game can be art, instead believing that the purpose of art is to sell games.

Having made the plot unbearable, the way has been paved for Adventure Mode – a convenient vehicle which could be used to deliver DLCs in the near future as Diablo III scrambles to find a new business model for microtransactions.

If you enjoy some good, mindless action, then I do not intend to stand in your way.  If it were its own game and had no legacy to live up to, Diablo III would be just another AAA title worth picking up from a bargain bin some time in the future.

But I remember Diablo II, and this is no worthy successor.  It is merely another M-for-mature game which is neither for children, nor for truly mature audiences.  I can only dream of what could have been if the intellectual property and financial resources behind Diablo III had been placed in worthier hands a dozen or so years ago.

Original work, published 3/24/2014.  Do not post this as your own work.  Link directly (or at least to if you quote it.  Email mtaurgames at gmail dot com if you would like to run this as a paid article, in which case this blog post will be replaced by a link.


  1. Replies
    1. I never went that far, but I guess by the time I got around to that part, I had enough perspective to realize that other people can pick up where they left off using a different name.

  2. I agree, this level scaling bores the hell out of me. Why am I grinding out 70 levels when nothing changes? I don't care if the whole game is "relevant", if the whole game is boring. Where's the sense of progression? Gone!