Friday, August 10, 2012

Badminton in the Olympics

My first article that's not about gaming still has a theme that is very important to a wide gaming audience: competition. The Olympics are a competition, just as many multiplayer games are a competition.

Olympic Badminton isn't a competition, apparently. It's a sham. Whoever the organizers are for that tournament should be embarrassed for themselves and for their sport.

To recap what happened: The tournament was designed in such a way that it was not only possible, but likely that a team would find itself in a situation where losing was more advantageous than winning. Four separate teams found themselves in that position (essentially, losing this match would grant them an easier opponent in the next round), they all attempted to lose on purpose, and they were all disqualified from the tournament. The blame in this case lays entirely on the tournament organizers, and not at all on the players.

Real competition, at its core, is about winning. There is a very real division between casual competition and real competition, where something is at stake. Let's take a fighting video game as an example of what that line is.

If I invite a friend over and we're playing Soul Calibur together, we are in a casual competition. We each want to win while we're playing, but having fun is more important overall in this setting than winning. If I find an attack or sequence of attacks that my friend can't block no matter what he tries, I could easily win every match by just continually executing the same actions. That's not fun for either of us. I wouldn't continue to do such a thing. For the sake of having fun, I would use different moves even though they are not optimal or pick a different character that is more evenly matched.

On the other hand, a real competition would be something like a tournament setting. If my friend and I enter the same Soul Calibur tournament, and wind up matched against each other, I would be stupid to not pick that character and use that move over and over for an easy match win. It's not poor sportsmanship. It's not being an asshole. I am doing everything in my power, within the rules, to win the tournament. If I do anything less than that, I don't deserve to win.

Professional game designer David Sirlin has written an entire book on this concept, and it's a great read. I highly recommend it.

In the fighting game tournament example above, if I were disqualified outside the written rules of the tournament for playing in a specific way, the blame would lay entirely on the organizers of the tournament for not understanding how to run a tournament, not on me as a player.

The rules of badminton in this case are important to know. The outcome, whether it be beneficial or detrimental, of any action in a tournament should be defined in the rules before the tournament beings. Let's look at the relevant rules for badminton in the Olympics.
A player shall not:
16.6.1 deliberately cause delay in, or suspension of, play;
16.6.2 deliberately modify or damage the shuttle in order to change its speed or its flight;
16.6.3 behave in an offensive manner; or
16.6.4 be guilty of misconduct not otherwise covered by the Laws of Badminton. 
Administration of breach
The umpire shall administer any breach of Law 16.4.1, 16.5.2 or 16.6 by: issuing a warning to the offending side; faulting the offending side, if previously warned. Two such faults by a side shall be considered to be a persistent offence; or in cases of flagrant offence, persistent offences or breach of Law 16.2 the umpire shall fault the offending side and report the offending side immediately to the Referee, who shall have the power to disqualify the offending side from the match.
Relevant sections are in bold. Rule 16.6.4 is a travesty. "be guilty of misconduct" is about as vague as it gets, and has no place in any kind of official documentation. What is misconduct to one person may be completely acceptable to another. Let's say attempting to lose intentionally is somehow caught under this hood, however, and move on to The rule states that they will be disqualified from the match. Not the tournament, but the match. That is exactly what the team intended to have happen. The team is using the rules of the tournament to its advantage.

That is exactly what you're supposed to do in a tournament setting. Do everything in your power, within the rules of the tournament, to win the tournament. If losing a match aids you in winning the tournament, it would be stupid not to do it.

Some people claim that there is some kind of ethical standard to the Olympics. The players shouldn't merely be playing to win the tournament, but to win each individual match to prove their dominance. They should be an unrelenting force that sweeps through the competition without fatigue or remorse, obliterating all in their path. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement, but the general idea is that everyone should be giving it their all throughout the entire competition. You shouldn't let up for even a moment in your quest for gold.

Why don't you tell that to the runners? In most running events, there are multiple heats where the top few competitors will advance to the next round. For example, in the sprinting competition, there are groups of 8 competitors. Within each group, the 3 fastest times will advance to the next round. It is completely normal for someone who is about to finish in second place during a preliminary heat to ease up and take second place without a struggle. He stops giving it his all and accepts his advancement to the next round. He doesn't expend extra energy attempting to finish first in a preliminary heat.

Should he be disqualified from the Olympics?

I am saddened by the reaction to this badminton ordeal. The scorn that is rampant for these players is an atrocity against the spirit of competition.

Do I think playing to lose is good for the sport of badminton, or any sport in general? No, of course I don't. When people are playing to lose, it's going to destroy credibility in the sport that they are playing and the tournament they're in. But do I blame the players for doing it? Not at all. I feel sorry that the players had to resort to such a tactic. The tournament should never have been constructed in a way that rewards losing.

In a tournament, losing should always be bad. Any tournament organizer should strive to use a format that penalizes losing in every single case. Doing anything else is just asking for trouble.

If I were in the position of these Olympic badminton players, I would have done exactly the same thing, even knowing I would get unfairly disqualified. It shines a light on the tournament that was sorely needed. Hopefully the Badminton tournament in 2016 will be structured competently.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Scary Games: F.E.A.R. vs. Dead Space

I bought a lot of games during this most recent Steam Sale, and many of them were in genres I never thought I liked or just never got into. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has re-affirmed that I indeed still do not like stealth mechanics, but that's a topic for another article. Instead, I'll talk about horror shooters. Specifically, F.E.A.R. and Dead Space.

I finished F.E.A.R. a few weeks ago and I'm about a third of the way into Dead Space. Clearly, I am not a veteran of either franchise, but it was a genre that interested me. Now, I can see that grouping these two games together under the same "genre" only really works as far as "shooter". The two have a similar goal in mind: scare the player. They go about it completely differently, and with varying degrees of success.

The Plan

It's important to separate what it seems that each game was intending to do from what each game actually successfully accomplished, because they are not the same. Each has its own individual downsides.

F.E.A.R. went for a subtle creepy approach, in a sense. There's a creepy little girl who is clearly supernatural right from the early stages of the game. She generally appears when you are in a compromised position and can't react properly, such as when you're crouching through a tight space, descending a ladder, jumping down off a balcony, etc. It's a good idea, and it caught me off guard a few times and gave me the jitters.

Dead Space is a much more blatant in your face approach. There are horrific zombie/aliens that come in various shapes and sizes and jump out from behind corners and generally appear behind you when you're just starting to feel safe. They want you to always be on the edge of your seat, expecting a horrific alien appendage to begin brutalizing you from any direction at any time.

The Result

In F.E.A.R., the thing that they really overlooked in these creepy segments is that they are never really dangerous. The little girl appears, or you're briefly warped to a bloody hospital hallway, or a shadow realm, or whatever. They are intended to be scary, but they have the opposite effect after a while. There are a few minor exceptions (and one notable one), but really these sequences are the part of the game that started making me feel the most safe. "Oh, the little girl is around, that means there aren't any real enemies." I was free to explore at my leisure, with no real fear of anything bad happening to me.

Dead Space almost has the opposite problem. Nothing is sacred. There is no safe zone. I must be constantly vigilant because supplies are limited, and healing is expensive. I can't afford to take any damage or else I'm probably going to be screwed in the next area. It requires so much constant focus and concentration that I simply can't play for a long time at once. Every time a new type of enemy has been introduced, it has completely altered how I have to approach combat. Not in an Anomaly: Warzone Earth way where it just undermined all your previous efforts, but in a way that builds on what you know. It's great game design. It's just also intimidating given the rest of the atmosphere of the game, and it makes me put the game down and stop playing for a while.

Do I even Like the Genre?

Honestly, I don't know. I finished F.E.A.R., but I kind of blitzed through the end because I was getting bored. The gameplay wavered between the borderline silly "creepy" segments and the borderline brutal "combat" segments in a way that really had no intelligible flow. The overall experience was forgettable, and hopefully something that is remedied in the sequels (although hearsay reports that I should keep my expectations low).

I haven't finished Dead Space, but I don't know if I have the willpower to do it. The controls for PC are atrocious (the worst I've experienced in any game in my entire history of gaming), which makes it difficult to go back and play when I have smoother alternatives like Deus Ex: Human Revolution beckoning. I feel like each of these games has good ideas, but there needs to be some balance struck between the two.

And for the love of sanity, Dead Space, why would you not allow saving at any time in a modern game? I thought we were past this. Another article for another day, though. I should really make a list of these somewhere.


If you're going to pick up one of these games, get Half-Life 2 instead. It mixes all the elements mentioned here in a game that has proper flow. You're not constantly on the edge of your seat, expecting something bad to happen to you at any turn, but you are sometimes. The game successfully mixes puzzle solving segments with action sequences and fast zombies in a way the other two games just couldn't emulate.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning Curve

Shouldn't I be writing about Diablo III? Maybe some other time. Most of what I have to say about it is covered in various other articles.

Instead, let's cover Anomaly: Warzone Earth, a game I picked up on a whim during the Steam Summer Sale because it was only $2.49 and it had an interesting premise: reverse tower defense. Instead of preventing a bunch of little critters from reaching your castle by building towers all along the path, you are the bunch of little critters and you have to navigate past all the towers along the path. At least, that's what I imagined when I first heard the concept.

I don't know exactly what I expected out of the purchase, but what I got was decidedly not it. For those of you who are not familiar with the game, who I will assume is pretty much everyone, the gameplay is fairly simple. You get one commander unit who represents you. You can move him around the battlefield and deploy various strategic abilities. You can also buy and upgrade and reorder up to 6 units that will travel through the labyrinth in the path you select. Six? That's...awfully few. And if any of them die, it's pretty damning. They are relatively expensive compared to how much you can expect to earn over the course of a map, so it's a lot of money wasted.

Not really the tower defense kind of vibe I was imagining.

Whatever, though. My expectations hardly matter in the long run. All I'll remember is how the game plays. The game introduces units, abilities, and enemy towers to you slowly, over the course of many levels. The first ten levels are fairly straightforward. You get a healing ability, a smoke screen, a decoy, and you learn how to use these effectively against all types of enemy towers.

Then comes level eleven. I can't remember the names of any of the levels, because the plot is a weak excuse to put the gameplay together, but they are conveniently numbered, so at least that's unambiguous.

Level eleven introduces a new enemy tower that spits in the face of everything you've learned so far in your entire experience playing the game.

Towers are tough to take down; even the basic one requires a couple shots from your strongest offensive unit. Because of that, taking down a tower is one of the main satisfying things about the gameplay. The new tower in level eleven expands on the opposites of this feeling in what is in close contention for the worst game mechanic I have ever encountered.

If you use any abilities at all within range of the tower (which is massive), the tower fully restores all other towers within that same range. Every time you have to heal, decoy, or smokescreen (which is generally at least once per encounter with a tower and considerably more if you encounter a cluster of towers like you're greeted with on level eleven), every single tower you've killed in that area comes back and starts killing you again. Take too much damage so you have to heal? Well I guess that's a loss since now you're right in the thick of things with 8 towers shooting you instead of at the edge with only the first 2 in range.

I'm not sure the designer here is familiar with how a learning curve is supposed to work. Games should get progressively more difficult. As the player masters earlier concepts, more difficult ones should be introduced. That is essentially the basis for any good game that has ever been developed. And the first 10 levels of Anomaly: Warzone Earth follow that formula without much issue. A few snags on a few new towers but nothing game-breaking.

Then, in level eleven, these new towers undo everything you learned about tactics in the game. Every single piece of tactical knowledge that you have learned before is rendered worthless. Every action you can possibly take results in completely ruining your strategic positioning. So there's that; an overhanging cliff as you're climbing the difficulty curve, moving you along backwards and forcing you to unlearn things the game has specifically taught you were good things to do.

But there's also a snowball effect. When things start to get grim for your six or fewer attacking units, you have one and only one possibility for recourse: use an ability. Except now, using an ability only makes things even more grim. If things get bad against this new tower, then you have already lost. You need to play flawlessly, even on the easiest difficulty setting. And to be honest, I don't have the patience to figure out what that flawless play is.

I think this is another example of the classic "strategy game turned puzzle game" that turns me off so much. Strategy games are good when you can overcome problems by executing a well-thought-out plan. The plans don't have to all be the same; and it's important also to be able to adapt your plan on the fly. Once you add a mechanic that removes almost every viable option, the game stops being about strategy. It starts being about whether you can think the same way as the designer.

This game was not worth the $2.49 I spent on it. I wouldn't even recommend playing it if it were free.

I bought 16 other games during this Steam Sale. I expect every single one of them to be worlds better than this one.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Damage Output and the Monk

Having played the Monk primarily since the release of Diablo 3 and thinking about its advantages and disadvantages, I want to address the problem of dealing damage as a Monk. The Monk is crazy defensive, the best (and possibly only viable) tank in the game. That's all fine and good. But we were promised tons of viable options. I should be able to build a damage dealing Monk maniac, and I can't. The Monk is very limited in how he can deal damage, and it's mostly because all of the damage-dealing abilities are, well, just bad.

There are two different kinds of abilities for the Monk whose primary function is to deal damage. The generators deal damage and provide you with spirit that you would, in theory, spend to deal even more damage (or perform other useful combat actions). As of right now, the "other useful combat actions" are the only viable ways to spend spirit, and abilities that spend spirit primarily to deal damage are pretty awful.

Let's go into detail on all of these abilities, in both categories. If you find any flaws in my reasoning, please point them out to me. I want to be wrong about this analysis. I want to have more options than I feel like I do. But I've tried them all out, and I've come to these conclusions with experimentation.

Fists of Thunder - This move hits in mostly the same way as Way of the Hundred Fists, but not as hard. Both have small AoE hits initially and a bigger one on the last attack. Both can be runed for a mini-teleport and for additional spirit generation. The only possible reason to use Fists of Thunder over Way of the Hundred Fists is for a bonus dodge chance, if you are going very focused on a dodge-centric build. I'm not sure exactly why this skill exists, honestly.

Deadly Reach - This skill seems fine. The damage output feels low but there are no glaring flaws with the design of the skill. The damage probably only feels low because the spenders don't help out, so when all of my damage is coming from this one skill, I am being outclassed by all the other classes in the game.

Crippling Wave - This skill seems fine. The one skill that they got right, in my opinion.

Way of the Hundred Fists - While the argument against Fists of Thunder is that it's obsoleted by this skill, the argument for this skill is that it's garbage compared to Deadly Reach and Crippling Wave. Area of effect attacks are important, and single-target damage attacks are important. Any good build is going to have both. Way of the Hudnred Fists is very clearly designed to be a viable single-target generator option, and while it may not be flawed for that reason, it is flawed when taking a look at the Monk's damage-dealing abilities on the whole. Our AoE damage options are so limited that it is almost mandatory to take an AoE generator, which Way of the Hundred Fists does not quality for. Way of the Hundred Fists can be made viable simply by fixing the Monk's other abilities.

Lashing Tail Kick - Of the spirit spenders that deal damage, this is far and away the best. It's awkward to use and unreliable in a pinch, but it's still the best. What I mean by this unreliability is that Lashing Tail Kick has a very long startup. There's a lot of downtime between when you press the button and when the actual damage occurs. In a fast-paced action game like this, that time makes an enormous difference. You have to predict when Lashing Tail Kick will be useful, instead of using it when it is useful, because that's generally too late. That said, 30 spirit for 200% AoE damage is a bargain compared to the Monk's other skills. It is the best of a bad lot, but could probably still stand to be buffed a little bit. Its sheer damage output is hard to calculate because of its knockback. If you try to use it multiple times in a row, it generally will miss on subsequent uses due to knocking enemies out of its reach on the first hit.

Wave of Light - It's hard to pick one ability as the worst of the damage-dealing spenders, but this is one of the two that's in closest contention. It costs 75 spirit to deal 215% damage in a very small AoE in front of you (far enough away that enemies in melee range are actually missed by this attack), followed by a pittance of 45% damage in a line. This is a total of 260% AoE damage for 75 spirit, or 3.46% damage per spirit. Compare to Lashing Tail Kick's 6.66% damage per spirit (which also hits a more useful area more consistently). If Wave of Light cost the same as Lashing Tail Kick, it still wouldn't be as useful. The cost should be reduced to 25 spirit at most, one third of its current cost. Whoever's job it was to balance skills against each other did an absolutely atrocious job with this one.

Exploding Palm - This skill is also complete trash as it stands, just like Wave of Light. It costs 40 spirit to do 220% damage, or 5.5% damage per spirit. It's not as cost efficient as Lashing Tail Kick, and this only affects a single target, and over time at that. It is more cost effective to spam Lashing Tail Kick against a single target than it is to use Exploding Palm, a single-target-only ability. That is ludicrous. To "compensate" for that, Exploding Palm does 30% of the target's max health in damage if it dies before the damage over time effect finishes. That's hardly a consolation, however, because that as a mechanic is inherently flawed. If you use Exploding Palm against trash mobs, that damage is meaningless because you could just have killed them more effectively with real AoE abilities. If you use it against strong mobs, you're crippling your ability to kill them quickly using a garbage damage over time for one explosion of damage that you're lucky to see hit any other enemies. Exploding Palm can sit with Wave of Light in the trash pile of the Monk skills list.

Seven-Sided Strike - This skill is an interesting beast. Seven-Sided Strike, with all but the Fulminating Onslaught rune, is effectively a single-target only ability. What that means is, it deals 777% damage all the time. With Lashing Tail Kick, an area effect, you deal 200% damage to each enemy within a range. With Seven-Sided Strike, you deal 777% damage divided among enemies within a range. This means that one cast of Lashing Tail Kick has the potential to deal much more than 200% damage, but Seven-Sided Strike will always deal exactly 777% damage. At 15.54% damage per spirit spent, this sounds like a great deal anyway. The problem is the cooldown. You can use the ability once every 30 seconds. I don't understand this at all. Monk abilities are all expensive enough that you can't spam them more than a few times before having to rely on your generators to build spirit back up. What's the big deal if you use Seven-Sided Strike 3 times in a row and utterly drain yourself of spirit so you have to play defensively now? Finally, we come across a skill that has the potential to deal real damage, and it's nerfed back down with a cooldown. Against a group, you're better off attacking once with an AoE spell to deal more damage than the entire activation of this skill. Against a single target, your burst using Seven-Sided Strike barely increases your overall damage per second because you're rate-limited. One thing it does have going in its favor is that you are invincible during the animation of this skill, so there is a trade-off here. Even so, the cooldown at 30 seconds is far too long. The only legitimate use of this skill is with Fulminating Onslaught against tightly-packed groups of enemies. This one may see the light of day, but it's going to be mostly for the invulnerability period and not for the damage output.

Sweeping Wind - This is another skill that's strange to analyze. There is no simple equation to do for this skill that will give you damage per spirit spent, because this skill can last for as long as you are able to keep yourself in combat at a one-time cost. You deal between 15% and 60% damage (depending on luck and runes) per second to enemies that are very close to you. Getting up to the maximum damage doesn't generally take terribly long, so I won't worry about that here. My gripe with this ability is that it just doesn't have enough of an effect. It is by no means a bad ability, but this isn't something you can rely on for bursty damage output like I want to see on the Monk. It's not the kind of spender you can rely on in a pinch to deal some big damage or to give you that breathing room. At 75 spirit, Sweeping Wind costs the same as 2.5 Lashing Tail Kicks. Using Lashing Tail Kick 2.5 times (deal with it) against a single target will deal 500% damage. Sweeping Wind will deal 15% damage per second, which would take 33+ seconds to deal the same amount of damage. Even if you rune Sweeping Wind for damage and assume you can instantaneously get to maximum stacks, you're talking about 8.33 seconds to deal the same damage you can do with 3 activations of Lashing Tail Kick. Is Sweeping Wind useless? No. Sustained damage can be very useful in the long drawn-out battles of Inferno. Is it a good crutch, though? The kind of damage you want to rely on? No, not at all.

I have now addressed every single Monk ability that is intended to be primarily a damage dealer. Everything else is for utility, defense, survivability, etc. All things told, the Monk is going to be relying on its generators very heavily for damage output. You would think that spending spirit to deal damage is a mechanic that would be rewarded, but it really isn't. Your damage comes from Deadly Reach or Crippling Wave, because you just need that AoE. Lashing Tail Kick's awkward startup actually doesn't make it do too much more damage than Crippling Wave. It's a slower animation, so you can't use it as quickly.

I haven't found a combination of skills to use for the Monk that included any spirit-spending damage-dealers where I didn't just settle back into a pattern of relying on my generators to deal damage and ignoring the skills I was trying to focus on.

If you have a build that is able to make good use of one of these spirit spenders to deal damage, please let me know about it. Yes, Lashing Tail Kick can be runed for huge knockback and slow, but that doesn't help your burst damage; it just helps your survivability. I want to deal damage, and I'm starting to think I just need to pick up another class for that.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Damage in Diablo 3

I doubt I will have much to say in the near future about anything other than Diablo 3. This game is a behemoth that I have been anxiously awaiting ever since Diablo 2, and with it so close on the horizon (under 1 million seconds!), and sure to hold my attention for so long after its release, it only makes sense that I would mostly talk about this game.

There are a few interesting things that Diablo 3 is doing with damage calculations, and there are a few interesting strategic choices to make based on those mechanics. I want to highlight the two that I find most interesting here.

Both will be best served by examples. I'll be using exaggerated examples here, just so you can get an idea for how the mechanic works, but the actual game will probably have items much closer to each other statistically than the numbers I'm using.

Firstly, there is a discrepancy between DPS (damage per second) and DPA (which is an acronym I just made up to mean damage per arcane power--although it also works with mana, hatred, etc.). Imagine you have two weapons: one is an axe that attacks once per second and deals 40 damage per hit; the other is a dagger that attacks four times per second and deals 10 damage per hit. Both clearly have 40 damage per second. If you were to wail on enemies with a basic attack, the only difference between the two is the frequency of damage output and the magnitude of individual hits. Overall, however, they work fairly identically.

This is also true of using skills with these weapons. Because all damage is dependent directly in item damage, and even skill attack speeds are modified based on the weapon's attack speed, you'll notice the same thing if you were using Arcane Orb, for example, rather than a basic attack. With the axe equipped, you would attack much less often but each individual orb would be much more devastating.

So far, this is all pretty straightforward. Your average damage per unit of time is unaffected by your weapon choice, so long as the DPS stat of those weapons are the same. The thing that throws a wrench in this whole equation is that the cost of Arcane Orb per cast is completely unaffected by weapon. This means that, because you are casting four times as frequently with the dagger equipped, you are using your Arcane Power four times as fast for the same DPS as if you were using the axe.

The faster the weapon, the less efficient your resource usage will be. The DPA (damage per arcane power spent) is much reduced for weapons that attack faster, if the DPS on the weapons are equal. Attacking fast is fun, and the utility of having a faster attack animation should not be overlooked. This is not to say slow weapons are the ultimate winners of the war. But if you are having trouble sustaining as a Wizard, always low on Arcane Power, consider switching to a slower weapon and see if it helps you with your resource management. This same math is true for the other classes, as well, but since the Wizard seems like it's going to be doing the most spamming and spending of resources, it is mostly likely to affect the Wizard's equipment choices more than the other classes.

The other really interesting damage-related math that will affect your equipment choices has to do with dual-wielding. The mechanics for dual-wielding in Diablo 3 are very simple: first you attack with one weapon, then the other, back and forth. Each individual attack uses only the stats for one of your equipped weapons. The DPS that is shown in your inventory is simply a calculation of the DPS you would be doing if you alternated attacks like this, averaged over a long period of time.

If you're really astute, you would be thinking that clearly, this doesn't make any sense. If this were the only thing that were done, then dual wielding would always be strictly worse than equipping one weapon. Why would you want to waste time attacking with an inferior weapon when you could be getting your damage wholly from a superior weapon?

Before I get into the solution Blizzard used to solve this problem, let's define the problem a little bit better. Again, let's say we have two weapons: a sickle that attacks once per second for 4 damage each hit, and a club that attacks three times per second for 3 damage each hit. The sickle has 4 DPS, and the club has 9 DPS. If you were to alternate attacking with these items, it would break down like this:

You deal 4 damage with your sickle
You wait 1 second
You deal 3 damage with your club
You wait 1/3 of a second
You deal 4 damage with your sickle

For each 4/3 seconds, you are dealing 7 damage, making your total DPS with this setup 5.25. This is way lower than the 9 you would get if you were wielding only the club. If the DPS of the sickle were closer to that of the club, your DPS would approach 9 until the sickle's DPS is the same as the club's. There is no advantage to dual wielding; using the superior weapon is always the superior option.

Blizzard realized this, and added an extra incentive to dual-wielding. If you have two weapons equipped, you get a 15% attack speed bonus. This means that weapons with DPS close enough to each other equipped at the same time give you an overall boost to your DPS instead of a penalty. If you use weapons that are still massively different in DPS, you will still suffer an overall net decrease in damage output.

These are just a few things to keep in mind in 11 days, when you're slaying the minions of hell and enjoying the new release of Diablo 3. Hopefully this little mini-guide proves helpful!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Diablo 3 Is Coming

It's been a while since I posted, but I come out of my hiatus to bring you extremely important news.

Diablo 3 is coming soon. As of the time of writing this, there are just over 20 days left. Blizzard was kind enough to have an open beta weekend this past Friday through Monday, and I was keen enough to participate in that, playing all five classes to the beta level cap of 13. I don't know if it was actually Blizzard being kind or Blizzard covering their asses so that the full release goes smoothly with all the servers and such, but I'm leaning towards the latter. The servers were down or overloaded for the better part of the weekends. Still, that's a good thing; it means there shouldn't be as many issues at full launch, and that is much more important.

All that aside, however, let's get to the gameplay. The beta is a tease at best. People are decrying the franchise because of the small amount of content in the beta. Well, that's what the real game is for, isn't it? You haven't paid Blizzard yet (well...maybe), so quit your whining. It's a test. Blizzard needs to fix stuff before they go live. If you want all the features, play the full game.

Oh wow, look at that, I got to ranting again. Gameplay! I promise this time.

I lied. First, we're going to go into all the things that weren't in the beta, that will be in the full release. And this list has me much more excited than anything I actually did see in the beta.
  • Character levels 14-60, and all the class skills that go along with this. To put this into perspective, let's examine the Monk. The monk unlocks 18 skills, runes, and passives by level 13. He unlocks 122 more from levels 14 to 60. This means that we have seen only 12.8% of what the Monk is capable of in the beta. The numbers are similar for other classes.
  • The rest of Act 1, the other 3 acts, and the other 3 difficulties. Whoa, that's a lot of content. Keep in mind that the difficulties are not only going to be more difficult, but they are going to introduce new content as well. New items are available in nightmare and hell difficulties, and new monster affixes are available in each new difficulty as well. Who knows what else they have in store?
  • Speaking of monster affixes, we only saw two or three in the beta. Champion groups could teleport or knock you back and...that was about it. In the full release, there are supposedly 50 or more possible monster affixes. That's a lot of stuff to prepare for.
  • Gems and socketed items. Remember, there are a ridiculous number of gem levels in this game, not just the 5 from previous games. Gems actually seem to be items worth putting in your equipment now, rather than being kind of meh like they were in Diablo 2. Amethysts were the worst; I hated those things.
  • Set and Unique items. And more? Who knows. We'll have to wait and see how this all plays out.
  • More item affixes. We haven't see anything that increases specific skill powers and barely anything class-specific. Most beta items are pretty mundane and samey, but they promise to be much more unique at the full release. One problem that people were worried about was what happened with items in Torchlight. Essentially, you could repeatedly craft the same item in Torchlight over and over, adding more and more attributes to it. This made all items into pretty much even copies of each other, as they all got the same affixes just in different ratios. Diablo 3 looks like it will not have this problem by having more affixes and no stacking mechanic. Once an item is crafted, there it is. Take it or leave it. No further adding more ridiculousness. Items look to be a unique way to customize your character.
  • Shrines. It's a minor thing, really, but shrines are neat. In the beta, we got 3 shrines: experience gain, attack speed, and armor. In the full release, there look to be 50 or more different kinds of shrines available.
This was off the top of my head (except for those Monk numbers; I did look those up). I'm sure there's plenty more that I'm missing, and tons of stuff that's going to surprise me as I play through the game the first time.

But, however cool the sheer amount of content in this game is, it's all pretty much worthless if the game isn't fun to play.

Luckily, it is fun to play. It's got a different focus than Diablo 2 did, but it's got its own charm and its own appeal and it's most certainly a blast. I was especially delighted to play with some of the skills that I had read over and over in the calculator, but never gotten to actually see or use before.

Let me say this: the skills are much, much more satisfying in game than they sound like they'll be when you read them. I don't know if there were any exceptions to this. Corpse Spiders, for example, sounds absolutely pathetic. Why would I ever use this? But this wound up being my bread and butter. Spamming the stage with 16 or more spiders at a time that swarm your enemies and slowly siphon the life out of them is fun.

Another thing that pleasantly surprised me was the profound effects even a subtle-sounding rune could have. For example, I fully expected every reasonable Monk to run Deadly Reach. I couldn't even fathom, in all my theory, why any Monk would opt for any of the other generators over this. That was, until I actually used the other skills. Fists of Thunder seemed like one of those skills I would never look at twice. But when I unlocked the first rune, Thunderclap, I decided to give it a shot. I never went back to Deadly Reach. The description of this rune just doesn't do the skill justice. The small boost in AoE damage has much more of an effect than you would guess. The teleport before the first strike is absolutely incredible, and increases your mobility to ridiculous levels. It was the best feeling in the world to find out through experimentation that my theory was wrong. Both skills are viable. It comes down to preference. What are you trying to do with your character? Well, you can do that. And it will work.

When's the last time you saw a viable Holy Fire Paladin in Diablo 2? Or a Spearazon? Or a double-throw Barbarian? There were skills in Diablo 2 that just weren't useful, or were completely outclassed by later skills. Diablo 3 doesn't have any of these issues. Skills are all situational, and it's on the player to figure out which skills he wants for which situation. This is because damage is all normalized, yes, but it increases tactical options and satisfaction. Damage is normalized in other games, whether it's behind the scenes or it's as obvious as it is in Diablo 3. The difference here is that Blizzard can use the normalization to their benefit and make tons of interesting abilities, instead of fearing that one will become incredibly imbalanced.

The last point I want to make for now, because this article is turning into an absolute monster, is about strategy and tactics. In Diablo 2, your strategy choices were few. For each class, there were 2 or maybe 3 ways to viably build that class, and everything else was worthless. Your strategy was to follow a guide and build as you were told. For most classes, your tactical choices consisted of spamming your main ability nonstop. All those other skill points you spent? Synergies, powering up your main spell. Nothing more. I remember killing Uber Diablo by using frenzy for a few minutes, literally doing nothing but holding my mouse button down, while my friend did the same with his meteor Sorceress. I'm not trying to talk down about Diablo 2--there were interesting sections of that game which required a more tactical approach--but Diablo 3 seems to take this to a whole new level.

Strategy isn't as limited in Diablo 3. There are still going to be bad builds, but the good builds are going to be much more plentiful and diverse in Diablo 3 than they ever were in Diablo 2. You can't just pick any 6 skills you want and expect to succeed, but if you give it some thought and come up with creative ways to use the spells at your disposal, you'll assuredly be able to come up with a unique build that fills its role and is successful. Tactics in Diablo 3 (partially because of the implementation of the cooldown for some skills, but also just naturally because of the nature of the skill system) are much more diverse. You don't just constantly spam your meat and potatoes spell nonstop all battle every battle.

For example, as the Witch Doctor, at one point I was using Corpse Spiders, Grasp of the Dead, Soul Harvest, and Haunt. In each battle I came across, I would use these skills in a different order, or skip one or more of the skills completely. If I was against 3 larger enemies, I might slow them with Grasp and Haunt them, leaving them alone to die at their leisure. Against a larger group of lesser enemies, I could Soul Harvest a bunch and finish them completely with empowered Corpse Spiders.

Overall, in case you couldn't tell, I am excited. I am counting down the seconds until I can play this game, and I have been ever since the date was announced. But now that I've played the open beta, and spent time with each class and each skill up to level 13, I am more excited than ever. Getting to level 13 and knowing that I couldn't get any further yet was painful. I just wanted to unlock that next skill, get to that next area, keep going just a little bit. And I know I will again, and again, and again.

I don't know how often I'll get to post during the early days of Diablo 3, because I will be playing, but hopefully I'll get some post-launch impressions up here reasonably soon afterwards.