Tag Archives: diablo iii

Hands-On With Diablo III, Console Version

Hands-on with Diablo III, Console Version

Blizzard, it seems, is really into drinking and gaming. Hanging around outside of one of the Diablo III demo rooms in the private Activision area at E3, one of the game’s marketing team members tells me that this is his favorite way to play the game. He describes it as Gauntlet (Legends, probably) and perfect for sitting down some with buddies and knocking back a cold one while you slay hordes of demons and ambulatory trees. The guy giving the demo also says that relaxing with a brew and playing this would be a great way to spend an afternoon.

I think I’m inclined to agree.

Based on what I saw, the console version of Diablo III is primed to be a distinctly different but still enjoyable take on the game. Heading into this, the biggest question I had was how they would manage to turn a click-heavy PC game into a controller-based console port that people would actually enjoy playing. Well, they did it by simply taking out the clicks and turning an indirect control scheme into a direct one.

Diablo III (PlayStation 3)

Indirect meaning you previously would just click somewhere and your character would go over there and do at thing. What that thing would be, however, is up to the context of the environment. Walk over somewhere, go flip a switch, or just stand there and cast spells. It was about as indirect as games come, but with a controller, Diablo III feels much more like a traditional action game but, you know, Diablo, which is to say it’s pretty great.

You move around with the left stick and you have attacks and abilities mapped to the face and shoulder buttons (somewhat making up for the expansiveness of a keyboard). The most meaningful change, however, is the right stick. It’s dedicated to dodges which means you can roll or flip in any direction to evade attacks. This turns what is normally just a rote routine of spamming attacks and spells into a skillful interplay of movement, positioning, and inflicting damage. That’s not to say that wasn’t there before, but having a stick that can quickly put you somewhere out of or into danger really moves that up to the forefront. One problem, however, is that I found myself constantly wanting to move and attack in different directions, which meant a lot of quick flicks to fire off some potshots before continuing to hove around.

Visually speaking, the game looks most identical to the PC version. The default camera view is much closer and presents a tighter frame for the action so that the aging PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 can keep up. This does, however, make the assets look a bit softer since you can see things much more clearly.

Diablo III (Xbox 360)

A big change is the UI. Obviously adapted for controllers, your equipment is mapped across a rotary dial on the left half of the screen that you select with a spin of your stick. A high-level overview of your equipment is presented to you on the right that spells out which piece is generally better, though you can still see the nitty-gritty details, too. And when you pick up loot, you can press up on the D-pad to cycle through your recent stuff and see from a glance if something improves your attack or defense and if you want to equip or drop it.

I played shared-screen with another fellow on a PS3; I was a demon hunter and he was a wizard (we swapped after realizing we’d each gotten what the other preferred). Instead of going split-screen, the game will zoom further and further out (the default camera position is much closer than in the PC version) until it hits a maximum range, at which point movement will warp an idle player to the active one. The second player and beyond can log in with his own account or play a guest one with the option to load saves from the cloud or a USB stick, though you can also play online. And while no cross-platform capabilities were discussed, the console versions will be updated with the 1.07 patch.

Diablo III (PlayStation 3)

From what I saw, this may be my new favorite way to play Diablo III as well. It feels much faster and much more gratifying when you successfully kill a large group of enemies with nary a scratch on you. But we also saw just a very small, 15-minute slice of the game, and most of the problems with Diablo III come out in the tail-end. I’m not sure if those will be addressed in any meaningfully different way from the PC version (probably not), but I can at least say that so far, Diablo III for consoles is shaping up quite well. Now where did I put that beer…

Look for Diablo III on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 3rd and PlayStation 4 sometime in 2014.

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The Best Kind Of Failure From XCOM: Enemy Unknown

It’s strange that the greatest learning experiences should come from failure. Speaking from a standpoint of pure numbers, you should be just as clueless when succeed as when you fail if you just go into something once and take the experience whole cloth. After all, without proper application of the scientific process, knowing what contributed to a victory is as much as a shot in the dark as it is to know what contributed to a loss. You can postulate all day, but in the end, you just won’t know.

And yet, failure is our best teacher. Perhaps it’s a psychological deficiency of the human condition; if we win, our inclination is that we can just as easily do it again, but if we lose, victory must be achievable and it’s just that we haven’t yet determined how. It’s a selfish point of view, ignoring the possibilities that you can’t ever win or that our successes are by the virtue of something outside of our control (e.g. their failures instead of yours). It’s mostly illusory superiority, but it could also be any other number or some combination of cognitive biases like the Dunning–Kruger effect or confirmation bias.

That’s not to say, however, that failure automatically brings about an education. Not only does a situation have to inspire you to want to succeed despite your recent defeat but also show you your mistakes rather than tell you.

Video games, in particular, have a tough time with this second part, though it makes sense why. I mean, what is easier to develop: text or a gameplay + feedback loop? And that’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a lot recently: “feedback loop.” It refers to that loop in which you do something and then something else happens, either an event or a reward or pretty much anything so long as it informs you that “hey, you caused this!” The tighter that loop is, the more rewarding a game is generally perceived (at least on a superficial level).

The most common example when describing this loop is Diablo III. You click and damage numbers pop out or you click and treasure chests open or you click and an enemy dies and then loot comes out. It’s such a tight loop that Diablo games often border on being a well-calculated device of addiction rather than a game.

But this loop can also apply to failure, something exemplified by XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the recent Firaxis Games remake of the MicroProse classic. The way XCOM teaches you that you’ve done something wrong is by punishing you. Hard. If you do something wrong or fumble a crucial decision, surprise! A squadmate is dead. If you’re lucky (and I really mean lucky), you’ll get away with a few weeks in a coma or something, but by and large, say goodbye to that guy you went through the trouble of naming, cultivating, and ultimately loving over the course of several hours. Forget to Overwatch? You won’t forget again, I can guarantee that.

And that loop is so small, there’s pretty much no way to obfuscate that lesson. Take bad cover? Dead. Rush into uncharted territory? Dead. Opt for glory over safety? Dead. If you mess up, you will know almost immediately. Call it crude (it basically borders on the same methodology as electroshock therapy), but it works.

But XCOM also makes you care that you’ve failed. In some games, when you fail, you just become indifferent. Dying in something like Call of Duty is such a passive and uninteresting activity that being asked to care about your failures is pretty much like asking a penguin to eat spaghetti with a fork; it’s not gonna happen. But with such permanence and personal loss in a death in XCOM, a failure becomes “I swear to god I’m going to kill those alien sons of bitches” instead of “I wonder if Jimmy Fallon is on yet.”

Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that the aliens of XCOM are so uncaring. When you die, they don’t care. You might as well be a bug on the windshield as they go zipping around space from conquered planet to conquered planet. Call of Duty enemies taunt you and yell and basically make a hoopla over your death, an action that can either rile you up or make you feel kind of gross. Either way, it won’t make you care about dying and learn from that death. It just makes you either want to stop playing or play angrier. When the aliens don’t care, you tend to want to overcompensate in the Feels Department, showing them that they didn’t just kill your medic but also your friend. They will know your pain so they will know regret.

Contrast that with something like Resident Evil 6, the latest entry in the indecipherable menagerie of A-to-Z viruses and corporate shenanigans. While the enemies are indifferent in a rather chilling way (I assume most zombies are emotionless anyways), the emotional investment in any of the three characters of Leon, Chris, and Jake is pretty much zero. When one of them dies, it not only becomes “well, I’ve got two other dudes” but also “thank god, that guy sucked.” So any one of their deaths gives us zero impetus to learn. Like, anything.

But the bigger problem is that the loop in which you learn from mistakes in Resident Evil 6 is just so god damn hazy. If you are shooting an enemy at the wrong time, you’ll never know because they all react the same as if you were shooting them at the right time, which is to say they don’t. At all. They don’t stagger, they don’t bleed, they don’t do anything except die when they run out of health. Each shot you fire should feed into that loop, but instead they just add link after link to it until you can’t tell where you start and end on the cycle. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Not to mention all of the information it withholds. Whereas XCOM withholds ancillary information like what order you should build your base facilities or what makes for an important role later on in the game both in the tactical and the strategy portions of the game, Resident Evil 6 just doesn’t tell you how to play the game in any way. Diving and rolling, for instance, is vital if you are looking to keep you face looking like a face, but it doesn’t tell you how to do that. Did you melee attack just connect or is that zombie immune to kicks? Instead of feeling inspired at each death, you feel cheated. XCOM shrugs its shoulders when you die, telling you that it was your fault, that you fucked up. Resident Evil 6 didn’t even know you were playing.

Failure is important. It is often the first step towards success. If you start out winning, the journey usually goes the other way, but it’s worse when you start out losing and just stay that way through no fault of your own. Humans are conditioned to strive for more, for victory and the like. Either through indifference or incompetence, you are kept away from your emotional and perhaps tangible payoff for all your efforts and it’s frustrating. But when a game like XCOM: Enemy Unknown manages to make you feel like failing is a good thing and even a necessary thing, it’s rewarding every step along the way.

But when those steps are also littered with Thin Men, well, be prepared to cry a little.

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What Makes Good Loot Go Bad

Loot, in all forms, is fantastic. In video games, in real life, whatever. Loot is both a reward and a sign of progress and tangible when reaped, something that can’t be said otherwise when harvesting happiness. It’s key, though, that it fit within the definition of “loot” and “looting.” For instance, having gold may be the end game, but the journey of acquiring the gold is where the moment-to-moment satisfaction is found.

But it goes deeper than that. There is the aspect of the unknown, the chance, the randomness. Say you want an ice cream sundae. Of course you could buy one from your local ice cream parlor and that would be that. You know what you’re getting and you get a commensurate amount of satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with this approach because you want ice cream, they have ice cream, and you have money that they also want. Basically, consumerism!

What if, though, you got your sundae from somewhere else? What if you got it from a source that didn’t even know what went into the sundae? Found on some stoop, taken from a child, or stolen from a secure locked case in the Baskin-Robbins headquarters. I mean, there could literally be anything inside that sundae. You could get extra nuts, a second or third kind of hot fudge, or maybe a colored whip cream spire. Hell, maybe even another sundae!

You could, obviously, also get screwed and end up with a single scoop of month-old, unflavored frozen milk, but that’s part of the fun. It’s the gamble in not knowing what you’re getting with a looted ice cream sundae, but unlike most instances of gambling such as with cards or dice or slots, you are at least guaranteed to get something.

And that’s the difference. In looting, you may be getting a real piece of crap, but at least it’s something. When you throw those dice down the table in Las Vegas, you may end up losing money. In fact, in all likelihood, you will be losing money. Looting, in contrast, is a purely gainful prospect, but the chance is still there. That thrill.

And sometimes it’s good to get a big ol’ lemon out of the deal. Getting zero cherries will make you really appreciate it when you loot a sundae with four cherries. It’s that whole “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” thing, and it’s true. You won’t know what it is to be happy or sad until you get a really shitty ice cream sundae.

But it’s also good to get something way out of your league, like something with eight or nine scoops. You may not be ready for that yet, but when you are, wowee wow are you going to enjoy it. You’re going to soak in all the glory of being able to handle such an impressive frozen treat. Those in your presence will cower at your might.

All of that. All of the good and the bad and the dice-rolling and the illicit-ish acquisitions are all vital to making good loot. It’s a potent combination that is entirely a greater sum than its parts. It’s like baking a cake; any one ingredient by itself isn’t going to be very tasty, but combined, it makes for step one to a great birthday party.

That may be why I soured on Diablo III so quickly. It wasn’t because of the lack of an extended end game like most people (even Blizzard) faulted it for but rather the incredibly banal loot. It felt so…systematic in what I was getting and when and where I got it. As soon as I outgrew my current set of weapons and armor, I was given via loot drops a new set that would perfectly suit me for the next few levels. I rarely got a total piece of crap and I never got something that would stupefy me that anything could be so powerful. Diablo III never sent me to either end of the spectrum so I could appreciate the extremes. All I got was the medium.

In essence, it was as if Diablo III was almost too finely polished. It was a stone too finely hewn; I ended up with a pebble instead of a sculpture. The loot of Diablo II was what kept me playing that game for years on end. Everything was so unknown and it fed perfectly into that “just one more” mentality. Diablo III, however, fed into the “I know what’s coming” mindset, a line of thought easily terminated with “I’ll go play something else.” I want the poorly tuned loot tables corroborating things way below my level as well as way above. I want to feel the cold so I know what it means to be warm.

Perhaps that is why I find both Borderlands and Borderlands 2 to be so successful in the loot department. Borderlands, by most counts, was a broken game, but broken is just the right ways. I recall I once got a shotgun that pretty much had zero accuracy but something like 3000 damage. It was amazing. I could one-shot almost anything so long as I was literally touching the enemy with the tip of the gun. What a blast!

And that was contrasted with the number of times I would get a level 20 gun that would inexplicably have something like 60 damage and no elemental effects. It was worse than vendor trash. I felt bad putting such crap into those vending machines. The next vault hunter there would not be happy with me.

The best part of Borderlands 2 is when I get a gun that’s something like three or four levels above me. It’s a vindication that I had just accomplished something remarkable, sure, but it is also a carrot on stick to push me to keep playing. Unless I’m rocking all purples, it’s likely that even a green or possibly white loot just three levels ahead of me will be better than what I have now, and it makes me salivate. It makes me yearn to have that 20-point bump in damage and half-second reload speed. I can’t wait to get my hands on that 60% chance to ignite and 900 blast radius. I need to get those levels.

And when it turns out that they are absolute crap compared to other guns when I reach that level, I feel even better. It’s a confirmation in my beliefs that there is always something better out there and that I need to find it. It makes me want to open every chest just to prove to myself that I can do better.

Which brings me to a similarly key but mostly superficial point: the chests. Battling enemies and seeing them explode in loot is neat and I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but seeing a big ol’ chest in Borderlands is just magnificent. You see all these little safes and mailboxes stuffed with handfuls of cash and ammo, but you know what you see a honey hole of a treasure chest. It is large. It is ornate. And it pauses.

Yes, that hitch that occurs when you open a weapons chest/outhouse is profound. It’s that moment’s worth of hesitation that makes you fantasize and slobber over the thought of what riches await you. When you press the button to open the chest, it’s very much reactionary. You’ve been trained to press that button whenever you see something lit up in green in the world of Pandora. It’s a call-and-response combination that will always yield you pleasure. But when it hesitates, you are reminded that something momentous is happening. That split second of abject nothingness soaks your brain in the endless possibilities that are hidden beneath that lid. That withholding is both cruel but necessary in the same way you have to unwrap a gift before you know what it is.

And that isn’t really found in Diablo III. The combat is as ancillary-yet-rewarding as you want to make it, but you don’t get the same jollies of opening the big mama chests as in Borderlands. It’s very dry and matter-of-factly in its presentation. Take it or leave it. You don’t get explosions of loot and you don’t get that sprawling, take-it-all-in animation as with those Pandoran treasures. They are propped up, whirring and spinning on mechanical mysteries, and splayed out in a way only Vanna White could handle. Diablo III just poops it out on a floor and leaves it for you to pick it up.

They’re small differences and largely impossible to pin down without coming across as nitpicky and obstinate, but these are crucial differences. When 90% of a game is fantastic, it gets down to those little details that close in on perfection. That last 10% is the small touches that make you feel wrapped up in the game. Diablo III is a good game, but it lacks any surprise or serendipity. Borderlands 2, however, is rife with both. Diablo III is a perfectly tuned drive on the highway from beginning to end while Borderlands 2 is a ski run through untamed woods. And I don’t mind hitting a tree every once in a while if that means I get to dodge a couple along the way.

So I like ice cream sundaes. What are you going to do about it? Probably have one now, too, I guess. I mean it is lunchtime. Kick back and gorge yourself on dessert while you ponder what makes good loot and what makes bad loot. Is that chance of getting crap just as important as getting winners? Or am I wrong on all counts? Tell me!

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Revisitation Hours: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Tomorrow, it will have been two years since Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was first put out on store shelves. Just two short years and yet it feels like ages ago. 2010 was littered with AAA sequels like Fallout: New Vegas, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Rock Band 3 bumbling about the freshly Kinect-laden November, but standout new IPs were easy to come by in the AA and indie arenas. You could find gems like Vanquish and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Darksiders among the Call of Duty: Black Opses and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnames.

October was also overloaded with a Diablo III-heavy BlizzCon and shortly followed in February by the Japanese release of the Nintendo 3DS (North America saw the new handheld in March). And then throughout 2011, we saw even more landmark originals like Magicka, Bulletstorm, DC Universe Online, L.A. Noire, and so on and so forth—and all of those were by the end of June! The 2011 holidays were even more packed than before (one word: Skyrim), and then we still have to go through 2012.

What I’m saying is that a lot has happened since Enslaved first came out. So much, in fact, that I felt it necessary to revisit the underappreciated Ninja Theory title to prepare for the two year anniversary. I recall genuinely loving the game the first time I played it. The question is: does it hold up?

Right off the bat, from the moment the game starts, I’m reminded of why I was drawn to it in the first place: the visuals. Just stellar art all around. The post-apocalyptic urban jungle takeover look has been done so many times (see: Crysis 2) but never has it felt so…right. The buildings feel empty but everything around it feels alive, a key aspect missing from most other titles utilizing this milieu. Human constructs have decayed in a believable way, but it’s perhaps most disturbing how it feels like the most monolithic and impersonal bits have held up the best.

This gives way, though, to allow the cleansing, inspiring, soothing greens and reds to creep up and overtake the industrial slabs. I can feel the painful, wistful longing from the artist for a place that never existed, that place where he’d escape to whenever he got bored in class or couldn’t stand looking at the overcast, rainy skies any longer. It’s that conflation of those idyllic meadows he yearned for and the oppressive urban framework he was escaping.

You can even see it in his concept art. Ninja Theory’s visual art director Alessandro Taini has a blog where he puts up most of his art from their projects, so you can see old stuff from Heavenly Sword and Enslaved but also catch a few glimpses of the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot. Though completely different mediums and of wholly incomparable fidelities, both the in-game art and this original concept art are evocative in similar ways.

I’ve already told you I’m all but dead inside, but the way Enslaved‘s art can make me feel like I’m being wrapped up in the infinite future’s lush, vibrant embrace in the face of a cold and uncaring reality is still unbelievable to me. There are some spanning vistas in the game as well as in Taini’s art that can quite literally give me goosebumps as something deep and untapped within me bubbles up with vague sensations of immense possibilities. There are glowing wisps all around me and I’m trying to reach out and grab them all, but they pass through my fingers as if they were just air.

I know there’s something, though, something worth searching for, and Enslaved can make me feel like I’ve found it.

The actual gameplay, if I recall, was fairly divisive. Some people thought it was bland, others serviceable, but I found it quite fun if simplistic. Combat was basic crowd management of groups never greater than three or four active opponents; stealth was a light mix of pattern recognition and risk mitigation; and traversal was straightforward point-and-jump. Nothing special but also accomplished with aplomb. Enslaved never second-guessed itself in how it played, refreshing given how often it feels like some games are unsure of how to handle themselves.

It’s all ancillary, though, to the story of the game. An early concession made is that since Trip isn’t as climbing-capable as Monkey and he can’t leave her unprotected for too long, he carries her on his back for a good portion of the game. It’s a bit similar to how you hold hands with Yorda in Ico, but also totally different. In Ico, it’s more of an active process of guiding Yorda around and it’s your responsibility to lead her around as you explore her world. It’s not that you have to protect her; it’s that you want to.

In Enslaved, flip that around and you’ve got the right idea. At least, that’s how it starts. You don’t want to protect her but you definitely have to. Her life is your life. Keeping her alive means you are keeping yourself alive, so what better way to guarantee that than to just keep her with you at all times? I mean, if she’s on your back and you fall off a building, so what? You’re both dead. If she dies on her own, though, god dammit that’s her fault.

But around the midway point, things…change. The situation turns from a not-want-but-need to a want-and-need. Trip is no longer my warden but instead the other half of my being. She becomes indispensable in simply moving around the world. She does everything Monkey cannot. She can hack doors, create decoys, explore narrow openings, and warn me of landmines and enemies. Trip is not my captor but my partner. The fact is that even if she were to die and Monkey was not wearing that enslaving headband, he might as well be dead. He simply cannot accomplish the same things as when Trip is by his side. She has become a physical necessity to him, and by extension, to me.

With the art clawing away at something deep in my brain—a wall cordoning off all those fantastical, imprecise flights of fancy—and a relationship as powerful as I’ve ever seen in a video game, it’s hard not to admit that maybe I do have a few soft spots left in me. I mean, if Enslaved can break down my impenetrable fortress of stone cold manliness, just imagine what it will do to the rest of you emotional rubes (just kidding, I love you all very much). Take the ending as you will—I found it interesting—but Enslaved is an odyssey always worth taking.

Hopefully you’ve played Enslaved: Odyssey to the West by now. If you haven’t, then what’s wrong with you?! Probably nothing too severe, I hope, but you really should play it. Has this convinced you or do you now think I’m just a pretentious jerkwad? And if you have played it, do you agree or do you also think I’m a pretentious jerkwad? By all means, have at me!

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