Saturday, February 14, 2015

Impressions #24: Diablo 3: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4)

Every once in a while, I find myself playing a multiplayer loot-fest, where the main point in the game is to grow stronger and acquire better equipment as the game goes on. I am not entirely sure why this is the case. Though I rarely ever get as much fun out of them as other people do, they keep ending up on my queue somehow. In this particular instance, a friend of mine requested that I play Diablo 3 with him, so I got the PS4 version and did just that. Somehow, we managed to make it through both the base game and the Reaper of Souls expansion that came with the Ultimate Evil Edition. While a great game, I feel that Diablo 3 had a couple of big problems that I am not entirely sure how to address.
Initially released in May of 2012, Diablo 3 released to great controversy. The original title included several criticized new features, like always-online DRM and the auction house, in real-money and in-game currency varieties. Others disliked the lower drop rates of items in the first release. Slowly, over time, most of these issues were addressed in updates to the game, to the point where most of the old fans were at least satisfied by the end result. Many new features, like Paragon leveling and PvP, were even added in. The PS4 version I played came out in August of 2014. My version of the game is, as of the time of writing, complete with the only expansion to ever have been released for the game.

As a port, the game is very solid. Though I have no experience with the PC version, the game looks quite good. While it will never be a spectacle in graphic prowess, each area in the game is memorable in its own right. The characters are also quite distinct from one another. At a glance, it was extremely easy to tell my character apart from both my partner's character and the enemies on screen. Furthermore, I enjoyed the use of color in the game. Looking at screen-shots of the first 2 Diablo games, I noticed a very gray and brown palette. Though Diablo 3 is just as dark in its world design, the extra color and style they injected helps it stand out from other games. With loads times rarely, if ever, exceeding a single second, Blizzard definitely gave the PS4 the royal treatment when it came to porting Diablo 3 to the machine.
At the same time, I did find that I had some issues with controlling the game. For those unaware, Diablo presents the player and up to three of their friends with many enemies to fight, and most fights consist of repeatedly clicking on enemies (on the PC) until they die. The PS4 lacks a mouse, so movement and direction have to be handled using analog sticks. For this reason, precisely aiming some special attacks is an impossible task. For example, as I was playing a Wizard, Wizards are given a move where they can summon a black hole that pulls enemies towards itself. There were a number of occasions where it went in the direction I was aiming, but was either too close or too far to my intended target because it was auto-aimed at the wrong enemy. I do not have an easy solution to this problem, because it is inherent to the controller-interface. They may have been able to alleviate it by using the touch pad as a mouse, but I imagine that would have similar issues to using a mouse pad on a laptop computer. It is not an easy fix, but still an issue that needs to be pointed out.
The other control-based issue I had was a general-discomfort from prolonged play. Typically, my co-op partner and I would play for roughly 3 hours in a single game session. At the end of our sessions, we would often experiences soreness in our fingers and thumbs. This mostly came from repeatedly holding down the X button on the PS4 controller for minutes at a time to use our characters' basic attacks. I would even have a switch fingers mid-battle a lot just to make myself feel a bit more comfortable. Like the issue with precise aiming, I feel that this might just be an inherent problem to putting a fundamentally PC, keyboard-and-mouse-oriented game onto a console, because a mouse button is more comfortable to use for extended periods of time. However, unlike the issue of precise aiming, it is less of a minor annoyance and more of a genuine complication. It is difficult to enjoy a game that literally hurts to play at length.

The other interesting thing I made note of when playing is the unique way in which the loot system creates a form of competitive-cooperation. For the unaware, the main method by which Diablo 3 engages players, enticing them to press on, is through a positive feedback. In the version of the game I played, as players defeat monsters, complete quests, and open treasure chests, they will obtain equipment and experience which can be used to further strengthen their characters. After acquiring new more powerful gear, they can tackle more challenging content and obtain even better items. Though there is a story and campaign, this feedback loop is at the core of why Diablo is effective.
When playing with friends, the best thing that Diablo does is give each player their own separate loot drops. In the event that an enemy or treasure chest leaves a piece of equipment behind, each player will have their own items that only they can see. No other player will be able to take them, nor can they take the drops of other players. This neatly skirts a common trap that is often seen in games like Borderlands, where every player sees all the loot. As a result, teams will not have to compete with one another to strengthen their characters. I refer to this as “negative competition,” where the desire to outmatch others results in a dissolution of the team dynamic when the rewards start flowing.
Instead, I found that my co-op partner and I experienced what I would call “positive competition.” We still constantly tried to one up each other in a form of an arms race to see which of us was the stronger character. However, since we both obtained new equipment at the same rate, and could not worsen each others chances of obtaining good loot, we could more easily cooperate towards a common goal. By working with each other, we could maximize our rewards. Afterwards, we would attempt to one-up each other by showing off the items we earned. We would even engage in trade and item exchanges if it meant that our team was more effective overall. Though we were essentially competing with each other, the systems utilized that and channeled it into a cooperative force.

On the other hand, there is an interesting problem that I discovered as I was playing. That is, it became hard to pick a difficulty that was exactly challenging enough to keep me interested in the game, but not enough to make the enemies extremely time-consuming to kill. Since enemies scale to the party's level, the only way to truly control both how tough they are, and how good their loot drops are, is by adjusting the difficulty. Rarely does increasing difficulty ever make the game “challenging,” in that it requires more tactics and use of evasive/defensive skills, unless the player is fighting an elite or boss character. Rather, what usually happens is that the enemies take significantly more time to kill. Not only does it exacerbate the sore-thumb problem from earlier, but it can also really start to bore the player if they go too far. Finding this equilibrium is the real difficulty, not the actual fighting.

Diablo 3 is a great game for those with the correct disposition. Those who adore loot-fests like Borderlands or Torchlight probably already have Diablo 3 at this point, enjoying their experience. Though it entertained me enough to stick with it to the end, I would not have done so without the encouragement of my co-op partner. It is very much a game that works better with friends. The single-player will not find as much value here. Though there is a story, it only does its job by justifying the dungeon-crawling and loot gathering. I think that may be why I find myself quitting these games often. It is difficult to routinely gather a group of friends to play one game. Those who can gather a reliable group will have great times here. Solo gamers need not bother.

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