Wednesday, 30 May 2012

E3's a coming...

Next week sees the start of this year’s E3, the premium video game trade show that allows the industry to showcase what they have coming up for the year ahead. Over the years, the press conferences in particular that run the days before the show official starts, have seen many shocks and surprises as the major platform holders demonstrate their new hardware or games.

This year however, things are altogether a bit more muted. Microsoft and Sony are not expected to make any big announcements as the console cycle is coming to an end and neither company is ready to show anything of their new systems. Also company's traditional stick to tried and tested formula as the console cycle winds down, so we are unlikely to see any surprise game announcements with publishers holding back most things for the next generation. This leaves it up to Nintendo to provide the surprises, with the Wii U set to get its full unveiling along with perhaps a price and launch date. 

When the Wii U was initially announced I was pretty sceptical. Whilst I had been excited about what the Wii meant for the industry, the terrible banality of a lot of the software produced, and a couple of lean years from Nintendo themselves, meant that I had lost a bit of faith in Nintendo and doubted whether they could produce another top level system. However as E3 approaches I find my excitement growing, I’ve always had a soft spot for Nintendo and I admire what they try to do with home consoles. The industry would certainly be a worse place if they did a Sega and just concentrated on software.

For me this excitement over what Nintendo is going to announce is what E3 is all about. Gaming is meant to be exciting and E3 can deliver that in spades, it’s just a shame that there is very little prospect of surprises this year. 

Regarding the show itself though it is good to see E3 getting back to where it belongs. A few years ago, during the financial crisis, people were questioning the need for such an expensive trade show, something I think they was wrong. Yes to an extent E3 had become overblown and companies were spending far too much money on the show, but the show gives the industry a unique platform to publicise their wares to the wider, mainstream media; people who don’t come to preview events and only really cover gaming when it is deemed newsworthy i.e. X game has been linked to Y violent act. This in turn gets gaming into the public conscience and portrays the industry in a positive light. Every major entertainment media has their marquee event and this is ours, without it, as an industry, we would be diminished. 

So while publishers, games journalists and developers bemoan having to spend a week in LA rushed off their feet, I will be rejoicing in all that E3 brings, hoping for that major surprise and thankful that we have such an event in the first place.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Stay a while and listen.

There is really only one subject that I could talk about on this week’s blog, Diablo III.

It's been 12 years since the previous game, Diablo II, and fans finally got the chance to play Blizzard's latest game in the serious last Tuesday. Unfortunately, as has been much documented across the Internet, the launch didn't exactly run smoothly–with login errors, server queues and even server failures all making the first 48 hours a bit of a chore for most. Even after the issues had been sorted players still complained of huge lag and for the first four days not one session would go by without some sort of lag interrupting my game. To add insult to injury, as things had started to calm down towards the end of the week and the weekend approached, fresh disaster hit on Sunday when Blizzard had to take the servers down again, due to problems with Battlenet. They were off for around four hours in total and during that time Blizzard were unable to give any indication as to when they would be coming back. 

Thankfully since then there have been no serious server issues, and lag has also reduced. However there have been fresh issues in the form of accounts being hacked with items and gold stolen. Blizzard's response to this has been swift, but strange claiming that this kind of thing is normal when a new online game is launched. That might be the case, but if it keeps happening and Blizzard know it is going to happen, why are they not doing more about stopping it? Especially since the whole point of making Diablo III an 'always online' game was to reduce this type of thing. If they had kept the singleplayer offline then most of these people probably wouldn't have had their accounts hacked and we certainly wouldn't have had the problems we have experienced over the last week. However this post isn't going to focus on the merits or pitfalls of the 'always online' side of the game. I disagree with Blizzard's stance and believe that the singleplayer portion of the game should be playable offline, but today I want to focus on my thoughts of the game itself, putting aside the server issues.

I have always liked action rpgs, there is something inside me that just loves finding new loot and unlocking new skills and whilst other genres have started to incorporate these mechanics to varying degrees of success, arpgs, and the Diablo series in particular, have got this form of gameplay down to a fine art. With Diablo III though, Blizzard has made some changes to the formula.

The first thing to say is that Diablo III doesn't do anything revolutionary. At its core you still bash/slash/stab/kick/punch/cast spells to kill monsters, who upon death shower gold/armour/weapons/trinkets out of their corpses for you to pick up. Bigger and tougher enemies lead to better loot drops and every time you level you unlock new skills, but this is where things are slightly different. Diablo III no longer provides you with skill trees to progress along. Instead you unlock skills in various categories which can then be tweaked by adding runes to them.  

The major addition to the series though is the auction house. This allows players to sell loot that they have found in-game which in turn other players can buy using gold they have collected in the game. This is a unique feature, but for me it totally destroys one of the major reasons why I play these games. The thrill of finding new loot completely disappears if I can just pop on to the auction house and buy it. Yes you can just ignore the auction house, but when you play co-op and your mates are sporting gear much better than yours because they have been able to purchase it from the auction house, it spoils my enjoyment of the game. If you do cave in and buy new gear then it often dwarfs anything that drops in-game for a good long while, in fact you could go from level 10 to the end of the game without using any loot found in-game, making the loot system completely redundant. 

The auction house and skill system, for me, are not enjoyable additions to the game and make it an inferior game compared to previous Diablo games. However it is still enjoyable to play as the world Blizzard has created, the polish applied and the fact that while I would prefere a skill tree, the skill system in place still provides enjoyment with each class having some fun abilities make it a great game to play. A mention should also go to the excellent co-op system. The game really shines when there are three or more of you blasting through Diablo's minions and the systems within the game make this easy to accomplish. 

The major thing that is bugging me though is that Diablo III doesn't do anything new. The arpg genre has been pretty stagnant with developers prefering to copy the template set out by the original Diablo with only Torchlight adding anything new. With 12 years to think about it I was hoping that Blizzard would add more than they have. This game is incredibly polished, but baring the slightly different skill system it is really just Diablo II with modern graphics. Not every game needs to do something new, but I feel that Blizzard had the opportunity to create something unique and for whatever reason they bottled it. It seems like it is left up to Runic Games and Torchlight II to take the genre forward and do something new. In the meantime I will continue to enjoy Diablo III, but with the nagging feeling that it could, and perhaps should, have been a lot more. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Diary of a Warlock

My time with Warlock: Master of the Arcane.

Month 1: I have just been crowned Lich King the IV, but to be honest it isn’t anything to shout about. I barely know any spells and my kingdom comprises of just the one city. Looks like I have my work cut out if I want to create a kingdom that will allow me to be top Warlock.

Month 2: I have told my scholars to concentrate on discovering some nice destruction spells and commanded my generals to recruit some troops. Hopefully soon we will be able to strike out and deal with the pesky spiders that have been harassing my borders.

Month 3: My squadron of Skeletal Archers and Skeletal Warriors easily squashed the spider hive and the way is now clear for me to create my first new city, and thus double the size of my kingdom. This ruling lark is child’s play.

Month 4: My barracks have been churning out the troops and I now have three Archer and three Warrior squads along with a squad of Zombies. These blokes are great as they slowly regenerate health and will surely scare my foes out of their wits. Funds are a bit low so I have ordered another city to be founded to the south, near the coast where I can hopefully go for my summer holidays.

Month 5: I met my first rival this week. He is a lowly Rat King and although he has four cities already I don’t think I will have too much trouble dealing with a lowly rat. However he has blocked my path to the west so I will have to look to the East for a place for my next city.

Month 6: Curses! The path to the west is also blocked by a certain Nicholas Frost. What kind of name is that for a Warlock? He sounds like the offspring of a certain winter dweller. He is already starting to try my patience by demanding a tribute of 50g. I paid up for now as I am unsure of the extent of his forces and kingdom and only a fool goes into battle without doing a bit of reconnaissance first. My scholars tell me they have discovered a powerful spell that will allow me to call a firestorm down on the heads of my foes. Maybe I will use it to melt Frost if he continues to badger me.

Month 7: Right, I’ve had it with Frosty boy. He sent another of his lackeys to court today demanded another tribute of 50 gold, he really has some balls does old Nicholas. My spies tell me that his army is made up of men and the city closest to ours is poorly defended. Maybe it’s time to set a fire under Frost a cause a bit of meltage.

Month 8: Well it’s war. Frost sent yet another demand and by this time I felt my troops were sufficient in number to take ... so I politely declined. Having prepared myself for perhaps having to teach Frost a lesson I had already stationed my army near the border so it was just a simple matter of moving in. Back on the home front and I have managed to recruit a Ghost Squadron. These guys are bad asses as they are totally immune to normal damage. Lets see how Frost’s forces stand up to them.
Month 9: It seems the intelligence was correct as ... fell with barely a fight. Half the citizens ran away when faced with my ghastly army and the other half soon capitulated after a few fireballs. If I knew it was going to be this easy I would have attacked a lot sooner. Still at least I have added a new city to my kingdom. Not bad work for around two months rule.

Month 10: My scholars continue to impress in their work and I now have a collection of spells that will strike fear into the armies of Nicholas Frost. They are a pretty timely arrival as the war seems to have bogged down a bit. The next city in our sights is Vindoland, the capital and seat of Frost. If I can take that down the rest of his kingdom will fall apart. However it is guarded by a mountain range upon which the enemy has dug in and are backed up by a catapult. Whilst my troops haven’t suffered any major loses it is proving difficult to wear the enemy down. Due to their superior defensive position it takes more than one squadron of Skeletal Warriors to make an impact on one of Frost’s squadrons. Consequently they often withdraw before we can wipe them out. In turn we can’t purse due to the devastating fire from the catapult. There is a town to the south, but advancing towards that would leave ... open to attack and we don’t quite have the forces to both protect ... and advance on ...

Month 11: Finally a break-through. My ghost squadron was able to advance through the enemy line thanks to its resistance to melee attacks and attack the catapult. I helped things along with judicious use of my fire spell and that was the end of that. Now we should be able to drive the humans back and move on to Vindoland. I have to say that is rather a strange name for their capital. It sounds like the name of a curry. Maybe Frost is partial to the Indian dish.

Month 12: Things never run smoothly. We are still at war with Frost and now Rat King is demanding a tribute of 200 gold. I would have thought that the way we have been bashing Frost in the West would have made Rat boy be a bit more civil towards me. If I had been able to role Frost’s forces back a bit quicker I would be marching on ... to shove Rat King’s request up his butt. However for now I will pay the price for peace, but I ordered the formation of more archers and warriors in case Ratty’s greed gets the better of him.
Month 14: Well it’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence the gap. We have eradicated Frost’s forces and my troops surround Vindoland. Unfortunately the stubborn fool will not give up and keeps summoning squadrons of pesky bats. My forces can easily deal with them, but added to the immense fortifications surrounding Vindoland it may be a while until we can take the city.

Rat King has been far too greedy and soon requested another 200 gold so I thought it time to show Ratty that the Lich King’s army has no equal and it is war on two fronts. Because we had reduced Frost’s forces to nothing I felt I was able to move some troops from the western front to the new war in the east. Added to my forces that had already started to build up in the area we steamed into Rat man’s territory and soon took Axelos Christ. Despite the easy with which we took the city my experience with Frost made me cautious, as while there seemed to be no forces anywhere in sight I knew that Rat King had a large kingdom and no doubt there would be forces hiding further east.

Month 15: Another major unit has been added to my army, Vampires. We also met the vanguard of Ratty’s army. It seems that he has gone for a different approach to Frost in that his army is small, but full of large units. It took four squadrons of warriors to take down the Werewolves, but having done so the way was open to Goblincliff and after dealing with a few more Werewolves that city fell into my hands as well.
I have to say that the human troops I conscripted from ... have stood up pretty well. Originally I thought I could use them as fodder to wear enemy troops down, but they have proved to be more durable than my Skeletons. 
Meanwhile in the West, Frost has suddenly had a change of heart and wants to sue for peace. Does he really think that after his behaviour I will let him keep his capital? Dream on Mr Snowman, Vindoland will be the jewel in my eastern empire crown.