Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Diablo III (and Reaper of Souls)

Diablo III and its expansion were 50% off sometime last fall, and I decided to finally buy and play the latest iteration of the genre-defining action roleplaying game series by Blizzard Entertainment.

I am a pretty big fan of ARPGs but I did not get the game back at the 2012 launch. Mostly because I did not feel like paying the full price of a 40€-game, but also because I was a bit wary of the always online DRM. And that turned out to be a good call, considering how the launch was with the Error 37 fiasco and all.

The constant internet connection requirement was not to be the only problem the game had, however. One of the other big ones was the real money auction house. It was probably added into the game with at least partially good intentions – to prevent/lessen shady third party item and gold selling. Of course Blizzard did not mind getting a cut of the profits as well.

The issue with the RMAH was that it ended up ruining an important part of the whole genre as people bought their gear instead of getting it by playing the game. Maybe the loot and drop rates were at fault there as well.

In March last year, the Reaper of Souls expansion was released. One could almost say it fixed the whole game. It did not remove the always-online requirement – but it probably should have, as the only thing I have so far gotten from the online feature is seeing gold seller spam until I realized you can leave the general chat like in World of Warcraft. At least there has not been any lag to hamper my enjoyment.

The expansion did get rid of the auction house, though. It also improved the game's loot system and revamped the legacy difficulty level slog inherited from Diablo II, and probably brought some other improvements as well.

I felt like playing a paladin type class, and as my first character I chose the Crusader, who was added in RoS, as she seemed to fit the role. I am currently on my fourth character and the Crusader is still my favorite one. Not only because I liked the skill set and playstyle but also because I absolutely adore the female Crusader's voice-acting. She is voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn who also gave her voice to some characters in Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, which explains why she sounded familiar to me.

Jennifer Hale also appears in the game as Leah. (I just realized Leah is an anagram of Hale. I see what you did there, Blizzard.) I had forgotten Hale was in the game and at first I did not even recognize her as Leah sounds more like Mazzy from Baldur's Gate II than Commander Shepard. Claudia Black – another one of my favorites – is also in the game as the voice for Cydaea. In general, the voice-acting in the game is top notch.

And there is quite a lot of it. The three companions, that replace the mercenaries from D2, comment on things and have discussions with the player character often during the game. They also have a storyline each you can talk to them about, and which culminates into a little quest towards the end of the game.

The game also has lots of lore, all read for you so that you can learn about things while still slaying stuff. And I do like the lore and setting of this game. I have not yet found all books according to the game's extensive achievement system, but the ones I have, however, are starting to get old, as well as the companion stories. The dialogue varies slightly between the player classes but not that much.

The sound design is great as well. My favorite effects are probably the Crusader's Shield Bash and the special experience rewards for killstreaks and such, although admittedly the latter started getting repetitive thanks to the Demon Hunter's Multishot that hits a stupidly large area and was constantly giving me bonus rewards.

The music of Diablo III is not quite as good as it could have been if they had had Matt Uelmen to make it. Russell Brower tries to imitate the work Uelmen did for the series but does not really get to the same level. The expansion's music tries something new, however, and is immediately much better. The game cycles through the tracks instead of having one for some area so I do not know which it is but there is this one that creates an incredible atmosphere when it plays.

Blizzard decided to move away from skill trees in D3 like they did previously in WoW. Instead, you unlock active and passive skills as you gain levels and are free to switch between them at any point with no cost. Active skills also have a rune slot you can switch to change the skill's effect and/or change its type to a different element.

In my opinion, it works and I hope new action RPGs will use something similar in the future. You can experiment different builds and go back to an old one if you so desire. Though I did find it quite difficult to start using a different skill if I had already found one that I liked for that particular skill slot. The six active and four passive skills limit might also be considered a bit simple and maybe designed the console version in mind, but I do like it.

Unlike Torchlight II, Diablo III kept the pyramid of gem evolution. And it is back more massive than ever. At least the lower level gems only take two to make a better one. There is also armor and weapon crafting, as well as the possibilty to reroll one item bonus to a more preferrable one at the mystic introduced in RoS. Between the crafts and loot drops, all your gear slots keep updating quite evenly throughout the game.

Dropped and created items more often than not have their stats generated to fit the class you are playing. This kind of makes you favor the companion who uses similar gear to be able to keep him/her up to date as well. The stat system could maybe be more complicated but at least the existing system makes comparing two items relatively easy. And the game's interface does pretty nice job at telling you which one is better, allowing you get back on the road quicker. Thankfully at least some of the legendary items have unusual effects, the higher level ones probably more so.

D3 – and other ARPGS – could have more linear dungeons. There tends to be too much backtracking to my liking as I am that kind of person who likes to explore every corner in these games. Or there could at least be an indicator where the exit to the next level/back to surface is before you have found it. The overworld maps can stay as they are, as it is easier to avoid running through the same place twice on them.

The physics engine in Diablo 3 was a cool change for me as TL2 does not have one. I also like D3's physics better than of those in Titan Quest and Path of Exile. I think in those two the force applied depends on how much you overkill an enemy and towards the end of the game – especially in TQ – enemies no longer fly as far back if at all. In D3, however, stuff keeps flying, and the ragdolling maybe looks more natural as well.

I am not sure I see myself playing D3 as much as I have played TL2. You only need to play one character to see all the abilities of that class. And I really do not fancy the endgame repetition for better gear. But I will eventually at least play each class once through the game. Maybe once the next season arrives, I will get a class to max level and try the adventure mode, too. It does not seem that fun, though.

One thing I almost forgot: the normal difficulty is really, really easy. At Malthael, the final boss, was the first time I had my Crusader's health drop so low that I got the health potion tutorial tip. Also, I maybe should not have made her a seasonal hardcore character as now I have to make others that type as well if I want to access the same stash. And because they are hardcore, I have not dared to play on higher difficulties as I realized I do not actually want to lose a chacacter...

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