John McDonald

Blogging about politics, life, and the web

Diablo III has its moments, but feels unfinished

July 16th, 2012

I wasn’t the only one to be excited about this sequel, and unfortunately, I’m not the only one who has been fairly disappointed in it as well.  While Diablo III has some great features and cinematics, the game feels a little hollow from a general lack of content and challenge.

Always online, a.k.a. lag in one-player mode

Online games are great.  I love ’em.  I’ve been playing them for 16 years.

But when the hell did developers decide that single-player games should also rely on a connection to a remote server across the web?   Diablo III connects you to the server every single time you try to play the game, so it isn’t something you can do for distraction when the internet is down or when Blizzard takes their servers down for weekly maintenance on Tuesday mornings.  If you have a laggy connection or you’re trying to stream too much video at the same time, you can see some significant latency between 100 and 300 ms.

The annoyance of lag is one thing, but for some players it has led to an outright ban from the servers – and a loss of their game.  It turns out that Blizzard is taking a hard stance on what they mean by supported operating systems, and a whole bunch of Linux users just found out the hard way.  Since there is no offline mode, those who Blizzard decides to blacklist from will just be left empty handed – and $60 poorer.

Flashes of light and color distract from the ease with which monsters fall

Diablo III plays steadily – even on my PC. The graphics are toned down a bit, but battle is mostly a chaotic clash of colors and lights anyway.

What about the actual game?

Oh yeah… Diablo is a pretty standard hack-n-slash style of dungeon crawler.  There are some elements of the roguelike gaming style like randomized dungeons, but hardcore mode’s permanent death is always optional.   The graphics are a little bit updated and the environments are a tiny bit more interactive, but there isn’t a lot that is remarkable about the game play.  You kill the monster, you take the loot, you sell the loot, and you use the money to buy some loot that you would actually want to use (which is about 1% of the magical drops in the game, from what I can tell so far.)

In between trips to sell loot, some unremarkable NPCs will tell you about the various quests you are working on.  The plots and characters are incredibly generic and transparent, and questing mostly fails to convey the epic scope and urgency of the story they’re trying to build up.

Fun, but without the challenge

The first time through the game is incredibly easy.  Powerful armor and weapons are available at relatively low prices for low level characters.  Grab a few rare items and watch as entire waves of mobs crumble from your single right click.  Quite often, a boss fight would come and go – and the only way I realized I’d killed something with a name was the pile of rare gear and the notification to my quest log.  There was one boss fight that involved running around frantically on a surface of blasting flames, but the rest were pretty forgettable.

Playing multiplayer mode is quite convenient, and the game definitely gets some points for that.  It is VERY easy to join a game with someone, share quests, trade loot, and teleport to the other character’s location.  If you and a friend or two want to log in for some quick hunting, it is a great game to go to.

The end!  Sort of.

After casually playing through for a few hours, maybe ten or fifteen, you’ll realize that you just killed Diablo and beat the game.  Sort of.  Just as soon as that last epilogue video stops playing, your character will be booted right back to where you started at level one.  Except this time, everything is a little bit harder.

In that fashion, Diablo III recycles about 10-15 hours of actual game content three or four times.  After “normal mode” you will be about level 30 and entering “nightmare” mode.  When you conquer that, you’ll be about level 50 and entering “hell” mode.  If you beat hell, you might actually get to max level and unlock the “inferno” difficulty setting.  I’m just not sure why I’d want to bother since I’ve already seen all of the levels and plot in the game…

At one end of the spectrum, normal mode is ridiculously easy.  You pretty much have to go afk to die.  By inferno, two hits in a row will kill you and there isn’t much you can do about it but try again or buy some better armor from the real-money auction house.

The barbarian watches some ghosts do some stuff

Lachdanan’s Ghost – another unremarkable quest

Diablo III Rules – as a Movie Trailer

The best part of the game is probably the few minutes of animated cinematics that play in between Acts and after defeating Diablo.  I tend to click through cut scenes on most video games, but these were actually done very well.  I won’t give out too much information here, because that would be the best part of playing through the game and I’d hate to spoil it.  On the other hand, you could find them all collected on Youtube and save yourself the $60 and ten hours.

Now… if those 15 minutes of animation were clips and trailers for a Diablo movie, it might be one of the coolest fantasy/action movies in years.  Otherwise, it is a very generic game with very little unique content and an elaborate system of tempting you in to playing it over and over again.  Overall, I kind of wish I had saved the $60 and put it toward an SSD drive or a new phone.

Best Buy has Civilization V – CompUSA and Game Stop don’t

September 21st, 2010

It is oddly hot and humid for late September, so this is exactly the kind of day I didn’t want to spend driving all around town and walking across long parking lots.  Unfortunately, not all of the retailers here in Jacksonville seem to share my enthusiasm for Civilization V.

In total, I checked out two Game Stops and two CompUSA stores.  At the first three stops, no one working there even seemed to know exactly what I was talking about.  At the second CompUSA, an employee confirmed that they did not expect a shipment of Civ V.  Luckily, that store was just around the corner from a Best Buy and they definitely had plenty in stock.

Civilization 5 Box Fresh from Best Buy

They also had some of the collector’s editions, but I just can’t bring myself to drop $100 on a video game.  If you’re interested though, it comes with five metal figurines, a two CD soundtrack, and a hard-cover art book.  Now, I love to support Sid Meier, Firaxis, and 2k games for consistently delivering on my favorite franchise, but I figure I’ll be doing that with all the optional addons and expansions that are sure to come out as this game gets more developed.

Most people will probably be downloading the game online from Steam, but if you’re like me and you like to have a physical box, be sure to head over to Best Buy.  As an added bonus, the box is manufactured with the environment in mind, so you don’t have to feel too guilty for creating more material products.  It is not like I’m going to throw the box away or recycle it anyway, it is going on the book shelf as soon as I find some space!

Well it looks like the installation is just about all wrapped up.  I’m going to go get started on this game, and I might even be able to get a full review of it out in the next few days.  OK, maybe I’ll need a week!

Civilization 4: Colonization is buying us time until Civ 5

September 13th, 2010

Civilization’s latest sequel is on the way to stores this month, and the anticipation is high. Since I was introduced to the series when the third installment came out, I’ve been playing this game through all of its various sequels and expansion packs. You’d think that the same old concept would get tired after a while, but the quality of the strategy and competitive game play seems to only improve with age and refinement.

What really keeps the Civilization game going, in my opinion, is that each expansion or update is a significant departure from the tactics of the prior incarnation. For example, when Civ 4 first came out it seemed like early military conquest was the only way to get ahead – but by the last expansion “Beyond the Sword” you’d actually have a good shot winning with religious, cultural, and scientific strategies. Eventually it does get a bit predictable when you’re playing against the same person and the same computer algorithms, but that is where Civ 4 Colonization comes in.

In the Colonization scenario, you start off with two settlers (one is a worker and one a soldier) aboard a small ship headed to the new world. With the blessing of your king and early tolerance from the natives, you are tasked with setting up a colonial empire that is not only self-sufficient but also profitably exporting resources or even more valuable finished goods that can be fashioned from those resources. As you sell those products back to the European markets, you can hire more specialists to farm food, catch fish, or even build more of those manufactured goods like cigars, coats, and cloth.

Of course, money alone doesn’t make a revolution. Once you’ve got a decent trade economy set up you’ll need to put some specialized politicians in the town hall to whip up colonial dissent against the king. As your citizen’s patriotism rises so does their productivity – and the king’s fear. As the king gets paranoid he’s going to have to raise taxes in order to fund a larger army…

The final step then, is to build or buy enough guns so that you can field a force large enough to defend your cities and destroy the king’s counter-revolutionary army. The first player to eliminate all of their monarch’s ground units wins the game – and if no one declares independence the victor is declared as the player having the most points at the end of a set number of turns.

As the game goes on, all actions related to exploration, political exchange, trade, and military add up points for your founding fathers’ bars. If you collect the appropriate number of these points before your opponents, you’ll get the opportunity to trade those points in for a special leader who gives your colonies a specific advantage like extra liberty points, better resource production, or even free units. While these aren’t essential to winning, the person who gets first crack at the political founders usually has a strong advantage when it comes to who declares revolution first!

Age of Conan Sucks – Don’t Bother

June 28th, 2010

My friend seems to be enjoying it on Windows XP and Windows 7, but if you’ve got Vista like me don’t even bother.

So my friend told me that this Age of Conan game (AOC) is now in some kind of free trial. I don’t know all the details about what’s available in the free version versus the paid game, but I’m assuming they’re trying to copy the relative success of DDO’s free trial strategy.

Unfortunately, AoC just fails to deliver again and again.

From the outset, the installation didn’t want to play well with Windows. Even though I once had Windows Media 11 & DirectX 10 installed but the game decided to “upgrade me” to WM9 and DX9 for some odd reason. After that, it tried to do the same thing with my video cards even though the version I was running was plainly higher than the one they were recommending. At least they asked me before messing up my video card… if only they had been so considerate before screwing up my Windows files.

I suppose there is an actual game in there somewhere to review, so let me try to put this… experience… in to words.

The character creation screen is great. If you’re more concerned about what your guy looks like than what kind of skills, abilities, and development path they’re going to take. Everything about your class and fighting style is pretty damn cookie-cutter, but you can customize the visual details as much as you want.

Inside the game world, the first thing you might notice as being different from other MMORPGs is the collision detection. At first it seems like a nice improvement, but it doesn’t take too long before I’m getting trapped in to very linear paths because visually small objects are actually massive roadblocks.

The first quest exemplifies this. A women is chained up along a large gap in the wall, but you have to walk all the way around the island to confront her captors. Visually though, there’s plenty of room for two Conans to duck and step over her chains.

For a moment, the game seems decent as I get lost in the hacking and slashing of a mindless grind. Then the mindlessness becomes acute: I don’t think I actually lost more than 10% of my health at any given time. I did actually die once on the way to the city, but it happened instantly when I stepped on a rock jutting out 30 feet above a river of lava. I guess the draft was bad because my corpse was incinerated immediately.

In order to get in to the town and advance from there, you’ve got to complete a series of quests that amounts to collecting rocks and talking to a half dozen people. Unless you’re really impressed by the flaky cut scenes, this means a bit snooze fest.

I got to the “night time” mode or whatever, but when I tried to talk to someone a gang of mobs twice my level decided to attack me in the middle of another cut scene. Of course, you can’t fight back in a cut-scene so I just lied down and died. And waited. And waited some more, because there’s no way to leave the conversation when you’re dead.

That was about enough of that, so I quickly forced my way out of the game and went for the uninstall button. Unfortunately, I had at least one more wait left because for some reason closing Age of Conan causes my computer to open Windows Media Center in full screen mode.

I could elaborate about the uninspired directional combat, the extreme graphic effects that are too dramatic to be considered realistic, or the linear quest pathing and shallow story-lines… but now I’ve got to go get my Direct X and Media Player back to where they used to be.

So the Wii does get non-gamers gaming after all

February 5th, 2010

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but the marketing got to my girlfriend and she decided she wanted a Nintendo Wii.  Its been a while since we’ve had any console games in this house and she’s never been particularly interested in video games at all, so you will understand if I was skeptical about the whole idea.

Well, the skepticism was probably misplaced, because the Wii is getting a whole lot of use and Aisling is the primary one using it!  After years of trying to find a video game she could be entertained by (beyond FreeCell), it seems the designers at Nintendo know exactly how to get non-gamers interested in gaming.

While I won’t be giving up my more in-depth and control-obsessed PC games like Dungeons & Dragons Online, Civilization, or Unreal Tournament, I can kind of remember the simplistic appeal of the old two-button Nintendo controllers and I think the Wii has done a great job of recreating that ease-of-play that first got me interested in gaming so many years ago.

My favorite aspect though, is probably that we can enjoy multiplayer games while being so cheap that we haven’t even got a second controller.  The bowling game included with Wii Sports is getting a lot of play time, especially when friends stop by.  With just one controller, up to four people can play at once.  I mean its bowling – you had to stand up and sit down before it was a video game, too.

The difference of course, is that instead of a stale-beer-smelling bowling alley, we can sit on our couch and eat much better & cheaper food out of the fridge.  Considering the cost of drinks, food, shoe rental, and games of bowling, we could have easily spent $200-$300 at the bowling alley instead of buying the Wii.  Well, that seems like a good choice to me.

Then there’s Wii Fit Plus.  That’s Aisling’s favorite game but I haven’t really tried it out so I can’t comment too much.  There are a lot of interesting mini-games in it and they claim to keep track of all your calorie expenditures – but not even I’m ready to concede that a video game could help you lose weight or get in shape.  Its not like she needs to anyway 😉

DDO is a Free and Decent Dungeon Crawler

October 2nd, 2009

I haven’t played too many online RPGs since I spent way too much time with Warcraft, so I was understandably hesitant to try something new. WOW had a whole bunch of problems at the end game, but it can summarized with two major complaints:

  • Raids are designed to be epic, but the reality of putting one together isn’t what I would call “fun.” Its much more like work.
  • You never finish paying for the game. Not only do you pay a monthly fee for connectivity and “new content,” you also have to buy $50 expansion packs every year or two. Of course, the expansion packs also mean that your character and gear is suddenly obsolete, and anything you worked for in those painful raids is out of date.

But eventually, my friend talked me into downloading and trying out Dungeons & Dragons Online.  The core game is free, but there are some optional features and alternate quest lines that are available for a fee.  So I have some limits on how many characters I can have per server, or what races & classes I can sign up for, but you’re able to play most of the game without paying a penny.  You can even earn points in the game that are able to be spent in the online store.

If you want the premium content, you can pay for the regular cost of the game and have it all unlocked.  If you want specific premium content, you can buy just enough points to make those purchases.  If you’re cheap and/or patient, you can just earn them slowly in the game and eventually unlock new bonuses.

About DDO itself:

The game is based on Dungeon’s & Dragons 3rd edition rules.  This is always nice because its kind of familiar and doesn’t require starting all over with a brand new spell & combat system.

Characters are free to multi-class, as well as assign enhancements, feats, and other talents at the time of advancing a level.

All experience is earned through quests, but there are a variety of quests available from the start of the game.  If you don’t know where to look, it can be hard to find ones of the appropriate difficulty level, but if you’re willing to repeat quests a few times there’s no problem leveling up past the bottlenecks.

The dungeons themselves are fun.  At least on the normal level, you can go in and mess around and have some fun without worrying too much about death.  At harder difficulties, you can have as much of a challenge as you can handle.

Don’t have anyone to group with? Don’t worry – you can contract hirelings for an hour at the cost of one or two hundred pieces of gold.

My first character was basically a hack and slasher, but as a ranger he has a variety of ways to go about doing it.  Not only does he shoot down enemies with a +1 composite longbow, he’s also a whirling beast who dual-wields axes in melee combat.  If outnumbered, he can also sneak past his enemies or surprise them from behind…

DDO online is a fun dungeon crawler that doesn’t require the time commitments and mass organization of WoW.  Maybe things will get that way toward the higher levels, but for now its nice to run through the newbie zones and check out the various dungeon mazes.

If you’re in to online RPGs but Warcraft is getting old, be sure to check out DDO here.  You can start playing today, no credit card – or any payment – is ever required!

Hooked on Civilization 4 and Civ Beyond the Sword

August 16th, 2009

OK, so the Civilization line of games has been around for years now and it just keeps getting better.  Unfortunately, this means I’m spending more and more time on them.

In Civilization, you play as the leader of a nascent society.  You start off with in the year 4000 BC with a single city and one military unit for defense and exploration.  From there, you can build workers to improve the land around your city, and this increases your production of explorers, granaries, temples, and libraries.  When you’ve got enough military to defend against the wild beasts and barbarian raiders, you can train settlers to go out and build additional cities.

As the game progresses, players compete for land and resources while balancing financial concerns and scientific research.  New technological discoveries allow workers to build advanced improvements, and they can also open up new buildings and upgrades for the cities.  Certain techs will let civs who have them work on building world wonders – these are unique buildings that only go to whoever can finish it first.   Most of them provide benefits to all cities inside the civilization:  Stonehenge can expand the culture of all your settlements, and the Great Wall can protect every city from barbarian invasions.  In the medieval era, grand temples and cathedrals can spread happiness through the population, and industrial era wonders like the Statue of Liberty or Eiffel Tower can increase the output of cities.  Other technologies found religions when they’re discovered, and then religions can expand organically along established trade routes or more intentionally through the use of missionaries.

Will you pursue military conquest or a more diplomatic path to financial and technological superiority? Each civilization has its own strengths and weaknesses: unique military units, unique city buildings, and even unique attributes that give bonuses to the production of certain improvements or units.

I recently broke down and bought the $20 expansion that was released about two years ago:  “Beyond the Sword.”  I know, big spender, right? This x-pac adds a whole bunch of buildings, wonders, and new civilization leaders to the Civilization 4 baseline game.  For the most part, its Civ4 with more choices – but there are also random events shaping the course of the game and more depth to player vs. player espionage.

Religion has become an even stronger force in medieval era diplomacy: The Apostolic Palace wonder allows players of the dominant religion to make agreements and vote on united religious policies. Of course, this means crusades, embargoes, and other international intrigue.

So far, I haven’t had much of a chance to see all the subtle improvements in the expansion, but its just enough to keep this classic game fresh. With that said, I think I’ll go play for an hour before I have to head out…

What We Do Every Weekend – Try to Take Over the World

October 31st, 2008

Hey buddy, what are we going to do this weekend?
The same thing we do every weekend: Try to take over the world!

Conquering the World

Luckily, we keep it to the board games and no one gets hurt fighting wars in distant lands.

Here’s a painting of us playing Axis & Alies. (Painted by the love of my life, Aisling, for a project a few years ago in college. You can see more of her art over here)

Its just one of many incredibly nerdy board games we have in our arsenal. If you like Risk but wished it relied a bit more on planning and strategy, there’s a lot of other games you might wish to know about. Warning: They’ll take some time to play and you’ll need to convince two or three other people to sit still for a few hours.

  • Axis & Allies – the 1981 classic that got us started
  • Shogun – The older one. The movement system makes chess feel simplistic
  • Risk 2210 – Its like the classic with lunar colonies and nukes
  • Civilization – Yeah its like the video game, but with dice
  • Illuminati – I give it a 12/12, the most realistic guide for anyone looking to take over the world
  • War! In the Age of Imperialism – Huge time sink, epic game

I like the reviews at Board Game Geek because its crowd-sourced. You can see a lot of individuals’ opinions and see what complaints and raves you’re likely to agree with.