Friday, August 23, 2013

Exciting Expansions (Part 1) - Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls

This past week, two expansion packs were announced for the recent iterations of Diablo and XCOM. I felt that both of these games fell a bit short of their potential. Over the next two posts I will talk about where these games went off track and my thoughts on how an expansion might benefit them. So, without further ado, lets dive into Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls.

The Diablo Legacy

Diablo 2 caught lightning in a bottle. Releasing around the same time that the concept of online gaming started to explode, millions of players worldwide found themselves sucked into the ‘one more run’ mentality of the ever addictive loot-grind. I am sure many people have vivid memories of finding that perfect unique or making that unbelievable trade that personified the game so well. Diablo 2 rightfully belongs on anyone’s list of top games of all time and, although looking a bit dated now, is still a mechanically sound fun romp. It is not hard to see why expectations for Diablo 3 were so high. While I think it is totally unreasonable to expect Diablo 3 to be the masterpiece that its predecessor is, I also feel that it didn’t perform as well as it should have given the near full decade of development time from drawing board to gold. Diablo 3 wasn’t a Daikatana or, more recently, Duke Nukem: Forever flop, but it just seems to have lost much of the magic that made Diablo 2 so great.

Where it Went Wrong

I think one of the biggest problems with Diablo 3 was that it purposefully challenged the core systems of Diablo 2. At first, I thought my sentiments on this may have been driven by nostalgia or in some other way were blinded, but given that I feel the same way over a year after release, I believe that my feelings are not being biased. I applaud Diablo 3 for trying to move the series forward, but feel the direction taken was either in the wrong heading or taken too far. Helmed by Jay Wilson, a Blizzard superstar who was integral to making some of the most beloved Worl of Warcraft content, it was inevitable that an MMO vibe would make its way into Diablo 3. Jay Wilson, who obviously went with the approach that Diablo 3 would be a major evolution of the series, applied what he knew best to the core design of Diablo. This approach wasn’t necessarily bad and I think Jay Wilson gets a lot of undue criticism for trying to progress the series. If Diablo 3 was the exact same as Diablo 2 but with slicker graphics and some quality of life interface improvements, everyone would have been up in arms that the series hadn't changed in over a decade. All that said, somewhere down the line, whether it was the skill bars and cooldowns, the abandoning of skill trees, or the auction house, Diablo 3 came out well below the illustrious standard set by Blizzard games. The game was good but not amazing.

The Expansion

Under the command of a new lead (Josh Mosquiera), and having baked through enough patches that the engine is rock solid, I feel that the upcoming expansion (Reaper of Souls) presents an opportunity to elevate Diablo 3 to that amazing calibre of game. Below I will tackle the key new features announced for the expansion in succession and give my take on just how much of an impact I think they will have.

New Act
This is actually one of the least interesting aspects of the expansion for me. The lore of Diablo 3 is pretty rich, but, at their essence, the games have never really been about story. It has been stated that the new act will feature a predominantly Gothic tone which will be a bit darker then the vanilla game. I didn’t have a problem with the tone of the base game and always felt that the setting conveyed the world of Diablo convincingly. I suppose that a bit of a darker atmosphere won’t hurt anything but, again, this isn’t fixing anything inherently broken with the game. Perhaps the most exciting part of a new act is the prospect of some more memorable and colourful NPCs; I found the base game to be missing some flavour here. All told, the new act alone wouldn’t be enough to bring me back to Diablo 3 unless it was priced extremely competitively (i.e. 5 dollars or less).

New Class (Crusader) and Revamped Skills

The new Crusader class offers a whole new set of skills and, hopefully, an entirely new set of strategies to destroy monster hordes with. The thrill of discovery and figuring out which skills combo well together is part of the allure of Diablo. If I were to have any complaint here it is that only one new class is being introduced. That said, it will almost certainly be strength based and nicely rounds out the selection to two classes per main attribute. Further, it has been stated that numerous skills for the base classes will see significant reworking and that each class will receive a swathe of new abilities to play with. This alone should create a bunch of variety for the base content and, if limiting the expansion to one new class means extra resources for redefining the old ones, I am all for it. Time will tell just how much of a difference the new skills and class will make to the game, but even the staunchest pessimist has to see the potential for a better game here.

Level Cap Increase to 70/Paragon Becomes Account Wide

By finally applying the bonus paragon levels to the account instead of the individual character, Blizzard is making a move that should have been patched into the game months ago. Paragon levels are an added incentive to play once you hit the level cap. By making them character specific, this provides a disincentive to play more than one class and nonsensically artificially limits variety. I honestly hope this will be something that will implemented as part of a patch rather than an expansion exclusive feature because it really seems like a design fault in the original paragon system. As for the increase in level cap, I see less value in this. Paragon levels already take a ton of times to grind out, adding 10 more levels to the base might provide a bit of breathing room for skill unlocks but really provides nothing else.

Enhanced PvP

I never got into the PvP scene in Diablo but fully acknowledge that there is a significant percentage of players who actively partake in it. Few details on how the expansion will enhance the PvP system have been released but I see no harm in it being beefed. As long as this feature doesn’t hurt the single player experience, I only see benefits here.

Less Auction House Dependency
I will also only briefly mention this as few details have been revealed but the expansion has pledged to shift the focus to loot finding through gameplay rather than through trawling the auction house. I don’t mind seeing less dependence on the AH, but think that it should still play a fairly major role. I would be extremely satisfied if the AH morphed into a more trade-centric approach much more in line with legacy Diablo systems. I have no idea how this will work and am curious to see what Blizzard comes up with.

Loot 2.0 and Loot Runs
Probably the most notable changes for me will be coming in the new “loot 2.0” itemization philosophy and the implementation of loot runs. While, again, I question whether this should be implemented in a patch versus an expansion, if significant enough changes are made I don’t mind shelling out. One of the major features of loot 2.0 is that there will be significantly less overall item drops but each drop will be potentially of much better value. The idea is that the likelihood of any particular item dropping being good is much higher than in the base game and players should feel less like they are picking up junk all the time. Coupled with this is a revamp of legendary items to make them feel more unique rather than just a powerful version of a base item. If all goes right, every legendary should have its uses and should be of value to some class or build. Rounding all of this out is the concept of loot runs which are a short 10-20 minute randomly generated dungeon that should end with a boss fight. The entire concept of loot runs should really recapture the feeling of doing ‘chaos runs’ in Diablo 2. I sincerely hope that the boss at the end of each run has a really high chance of dropping a legendary item to provide a more consistent method to see these drop (just like how beating Diablo at the end of a chaos run had a really high chance of a unique item dropping). Everything I have heard about the revamped loot system seems like a major step in the right direction and, if the development teams makes good on the promises they have made, the revamped loot should put Diablo 3 back to the top of the play list for many gamers.

Final Thoughts

All told, I think that an expansion pack is just what the (witch) doctor ordered for Diablo 3. The game engine is sound and the base game is already fairly good. Instead of letting Diablo 3 fall of the radar, an expansion has the potential to resurrect the game for many people. If done extremely well, an expansion may even give Diablo 3 the chance to live up to its predecessor’s lofty example.