Why So Hostile?
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Ni no Kuni - Worst. Demo. Ever.
I'm not a man who has played a metric ass-ton of demos, so I really can't make a statement about the demo for Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch in regards to all demos, anywhere, ever. However, I can say quite definitively that the demo for NnK is the worst demo I have ever played. That's not to say that I've never played a demo that's worse; Daikatana's demo might have been crappier, but Daikatana was universally recognized as a crappy game. But if NnK is as good as the reviews say it is, then it's not that the game itself is bad, it's that the demo is, itself, horrid. It is a textbook example of how not to sell your game.

The demo gives you two scenarios to pick from. The first gives you a story-book format "the game up till now" intro and then puts you into a forest. It doesn't give the game to you from the start, doesn't give you any neato cutscenes, and otherwise puts you into the middle of the game. Personally, with the game's Ghibli connection, I'd think you'd want to include some cutscenes and all of that jazz. But if they're going for just giving you a taste of gameplay, this was probably a good decision. I could see it going either way.

But the problems really start after that decision. You're dropped into a forest, and you are given no primer on how to play the game whatsoever. No buttons are explained. No menus are explained. I pressed all my various buttons and found a bunch of shit that made no sense to me, a bunch of menus I couldn't really do anything with, and some things that I was told I didn't have access to. I walked thirty feet into the forest, and then I was thrown into a boss fight.

A boss fight? Fucking seriously? You are introducing me to the game, and you do so by way of a boss fight? Right off the bat? No time to learn combat, no tutorial-style, low pressure situation? A boss fight?

I was given no instruction on how combat works, no instruction on how my pets - or whatever the fuck they are - work, no instruction on anything but the Defend command, which the game told me I should use at one point (and I did). As a consequence of having no idea what I was doing and being up against a boss, I died. The game stripped me of all my money and offered to throw me back at the beginning of the tutorial. How lovely. I tried again, using my character instead of my summoned whateverthefuck, and I died again. I tried again with my summon, and I died, again. At that point I gave up and quit the game, since there was no option to return to the title screen and try the other scenario.

So, to recap: the demo put me into the middle of the game, gave me no instructions on how to play it, and then threw me up against a boss immediately, who then killed me. Awesome.

Here are some of the things that (upon doing some research on the internet) I learned that the demo did not tell me:

That I can move my character. The combat system allows you to issue one of a variety of commands to your character, at which point it carries them out, pseudo-turn-based style. The characters move around without any input from you, and I've played plenty of JRPGs where I had no control over my character's position on the battlefield, so the fact that I can move my character is not a given. It also does not help that I actually tried moving my character, and he moved so slowly that I thought my input wasn't actually having an effect. Seriously, your creatures move as if through chest-deep mud. It does not look or feel good. It looks and feels shitty.

That I can control multiple characters at once. I guess I can do this? I still have no idea how this works, because the game never explained shit. I guess I can summon a guy, and then control both him and my main character? Do I actually summon guys? Are they always out, and I just pick which one I control off the bat? Or do I have to pick one or two per battle? I have no fucking clue. The game told me nothing whatsoever about my Pokemans. I have no idea how that fucking system works. Not the faintest.

A bunch of other shit. Honestly, I'm sure there's a ton of other shit they could have told me that would have let me win that battle. I don't even know what I don't know. Shit I could have done to prepare for the fight? When, how, and why to use special abilities? Weak spots on enemies? Positioning? Teamwork shit? I have no idea what I don't know, but I suspect it's a fucking lot.

So, after failing scenario one, I went to scenario two. Said scenario was kicked off by the game telling me I was inside a volcano that would explode in three minutes, at which point I laughed out loud. I don't know how to play the game, and my two choices are (A) being thrown immediately against a boss and (B) being thrown into a high-pressure, timed situation. Awesome! Awesome.

Luckily the time limit turned out to be largely unimportant. I tried to avoid many of the random encounters on the way, but it doesn't seem like you can actually avoid enemies, which really just makes the whole thing kind of frustrating. I was saddled with three or four summonable creatures, but they weren't explained to me, so I just picked one at random, smashed the attack button over and over, and won every encounter that way. To say combat was boring is an understatement. Roughly halfway through the maybe fifteen minute scenario, I was so underwhelmed by combat that I nearly turned the demo off. Random encounters (whether you can see them coming or not) are so ten years ago. So is press-A-till-you-win combat.

At the end of the scenario, I was given yet another boss fight - which I lost. It was during that combat that I was indirectly made aware that I could move. Sort of. The game told me that the boss had a weak spot on his tail, and that I should make sure I struck there, which I had no fucking idea how to do.

Upon doing some internet research, I found out that the demo supposedly makes instructions on how to play the game available in some buried menu during the second scenario. The instructions were one of those links that I tried to check out in the first demo, but was denied access to. Because, well, of course it makes sense to not allow players instructions on how to play the game in the first scenario of the demo and then to give them access to those instructions in the second! Of course.

At the end of my brief experience, I quite honestly felt rather personally affronted by the demo. I'm not sure what else they could have done wrong, really. It's almost as if they were compiling a demonstration of what not to do. I wondered for a long time if I were missing something, or downloaded the wrong demo for the wrong game, or was otherwise at fault somehow. I don't think that's the case, though; however good or bad Ni no Kuni is, the demo is, without question, as fucking terrible as demos get. It is so bad that I was ready to purchase the game that day based on the praise it has received, wanted to whet my appetite with the demo, and after less than an hour with the demo, I changed my mind and decided not to purchase the game.

Tales of Graces - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?
Okay. Okay. Okay. Let me just settle a few things first. Tales of Graces is fun. It's fun! It's a Tales game, which means it's a Japanese RPG with an action-based combat system that up to four people can play cooperatively. There are titles to be gained through all sorts of methods, and there's leveling up, and there's money, and a little crafting, and a few neat little subsystems. Graphics are good, sound is good, music is good. The voice acting is quite nice, and the plot was even kind of dark and rough for awhile (though that disappeared, of course).

But that's not why I'm here. This is part two in my "Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?" series, part one being courtesy of Xenoblade Chronicles. The two bits of writing that piss me off are so very similar despite being different, which makes me think this is some sort of genre or cultural thing. I've seen similar shit in anime, so, I don't know. Maybe there's a connection there.

So let's talk about this bullshit, shall we? Again, to do it, I'm going to need to ruin pretty much everything for you. If you care, leave now.

In Tales of Graces, the main character, Asbel, befriends the prince, Richard, and a girl of unknown origin and strange behavior, Sophie. The three of them hang out as kids for approximately one day, go through some trying circumstances, and form a friendship pact, which involves carving their names into a tree. Bad stuff happens, the group gets separated, and life goes on.

Seven years later, it is revealed that Richard is possessed by Lambda, an (are you ready for this shocking surprise?) ancient being that aims to destroy all life, and that Sophie is Protoss Heis, a robotic humanoid created with the sole purpose of killing Lambda. She's also the only one who can do so (or so she and others tell us).

Richard goes around, absorbing power and throwing the world into chaos. Eventually he forms a cocoon over the source of all life on the planet, with the goal being that he will destroy all life on the planet (let's reiterate: he will destroy all life on the planet) when he finishes transforming and descends to the planet's core.

With me so far? It's goofy, it's dumb, it's trite, and it's a plot JRPGs have done to death and back twenty times, but it has yet to elevate itself - or plunge itself, I guess - to new levels of stupidity.

That begins when Asbel insists that he will not kill Richard, the man possessed by the being set on killing all life on the planet. He will not kill Richard because he doesn't want to kill Richard. Even though the thing possessing Richard will destroy all life on the planet. Including, probably, Richard. And why? Because they spent that one day together seven years ago. Naturally.

It fell to the level of face-in-palm, hit-X-as-fast-as-possible, please-make-it-stop bad after a boss fight showdown, though. Sophie tried to kill Richard / Lambda, even though it would mean her death, because he was going to destroy all life on the planet, and because it was her purpose, and because she had the opportunity. Asbel stopped her, though, because he didn't want her to kill Richard. And because he didn't want to lose her.

I mean, never mind the fucking fact that Richard / Lambda was going to destroy all fucking life on the fucking planet, including Asbel, including Sophie, and including everyone else he loved. I mean, hey, why go through the pain of losing someone dear to you when you could just have all life obliterated? Makes perfect sense. Don't kill that one guy that I hung out with for a day seven years ago! Better to have him, you know, destroy all life. Clearly the better option, as Asbel screamed at Sophie for a long, face-palm-worthy scene that I fast-forwarded through as quickly as possible.

And the worst part of this all? Because this is a typical JRPG, I'm sure that Asbel will find a way to save Richard, save Sophie, defeat Lambda, and make everything okay in the world.

There will be no discussion of the harsh realities of war, no coping with the fact that, in times of great conflict, people - even people who matter to you - will die. There will be no wrenching scene in which you are forced to do something you don't want to, something painful to you, because it's necessary. There will be no weighing of what you want against the greater good. There will be no philosophical points or questions, no emotional impact. The game will end up being a perfect example of wasted opportunity, of avoidance of anything meaningful, controversial, or thoughtful, of why video games are still in the Art Ghetto, of why they're still juvenile throwaway entertainment, of why they're not taken seriously.

Or I could be wrong. But I bet I won't be.

Xenoblade Chronicles - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?
Xenoblade Chronicles, as you may or may not know, is something of a cult-hit JRPG. It was brought to the US largely by request of a dedicated fan base, and made a bit of noise by way of the same set of people. It's something of an unlikely hero, being as it is a JRPG on the Wii, not exactly a system known for games that require a hundred hours and lots of number crunching to beat.

It's unlikely in other ways, as well. The game actually has some stunningly good graphics, and a remarkable draw distance that is used to render some huge, sweeping vistas. There were more than a few times when I just stopped running through the world, looked around, and took it all in. It reminds me of playing World of Warcraft for the first time, and marveling at being able to see Ironforge from the other side of the valley. It helps, too, that the world design is pretty phenomenal. The environments that you roll through are unique, imaginative, and spectacular. Honestly, when you see things up close, you realize that it's relatively low poly-count stuff, but they have somehow managed to take the limitations of the Wii into account and put out a remarkable looking game.

The World of Warcraft comparison holds for more than just stunning vistas, too: the game is, well... it's WoW. Take WoW, alter the setting slightly, change a few game mechanics, and add a central JRPG plot, and you have Xenoblade. There are quests, there are exclamation points above heads, there are factions, there are backstab moves that must be executed from behind, there are cooldown timers on abilities, there are effectively three roles (healer, tank, DPS), there are gather quests, there are any number of things that draw a straight line from WoW to Xenoblade. Whether or not that's a good thing is entirely up to you, I imagine. I have long since grown sick of WoW, but I did find plenty of fun in Xenoblade Chronicles.

For awhile, anyway. The game is incredibly long, even if you don't do all the side quests, and stupid long if you do. I grew tired of it and switched to a new game long before finishing it. There are also too many damn subsystems and too much damn loot. I was getting tutorials about thirty hours into the game. I cannot keep track of or remember all the things I can and should do in certain situations. A lot of the time I just sort of power through combat with brute force rather than by using the delicate finesse that the game wants me to, because I can't remember the mechanics of that finesse. And by the time I quit playing, it would literally take me about two hours at a time to sort through and use all of the crap that I got from enemies. It had long since ceased being fun, but the enemies were hard enough that I felt I had to do it.

The game is good, though. It's fun. The voice acting is good, the controls are smooth, the graphics are amazing, and the plot is even actually kind of dark at points.

But that's not what I'm here to post about.

Why, oh why, do Japanese RPGs have to have such stupid, horrible, melodramatic, inconsistent, ridiculous dialog? Why? Why am I left fast forwarding through crucial plot sequences, face firmly in palm, shaking my head and trying my best not to hear what's being said?

Does this shit go over well in Japan? Is something lost in translation? Is there a cultural difference? Is the writing just that bad?

Let me explain. To do so, however, I will basically have to ruin the entire game's plot. Almost. Basically. Read no further if you really care about being surprised by it. Not that it's that surprising.

In the prelude to the game, Asshole leaves one of the main characters to die for petty reasons. Said character, Dunban, does not die, but he was still betrayed. Early on in the game, a huge vicious robot, Face, comes to your hometown, kills half the population, and messily murders Shulk's childhood friend and would-be-wife (even though neither of you are willing to admit that, in classic JRPG / anime tradition). You decide to go on a journey to get revenge, i.e. wipe the fucking robots out of existence. Let's make sure we're clear on that. Wipe them out. And, just to clarify, some, if not all, of these robots appear to be sentient.

Many hours and cutscenes on down the line, you beat the hell out of Face, and it is revealed that Asshole piloted Face. He not only betrayed Dunban and left him to die, he killed countless people and murdered your dream girl. He is the entire impetus for your quest. You know, the one where you decided to destroy all robots.

Let's reiterate:

A robot and his friends kill a whole bunch of your fellow humans, including your lady. You decide to go on a quest to wipe all robots out of existence. You are going to kill all robots because they killed your people. You. Shulk. You're going to kill them all.

When it is revealed that Asshole piloted Face, Dunban goes to kill him. He does your stereotypical raising of the sword, Asshole cowers, and then, of course, Shulk comes in stops him, blocking Dunban's blade with his own. Shulk then gives a heartfelt speech, asking Dunban if he's truly ready to take a life, to kill someone, in his quest for revenge. If he really should kill another human in his anger and rage. The answer, of course, is no. No, he shouldn't.

It is precisely at this point that my face entered my palm.

Let's put this fucking ridiculous bit of plot bullshit into perspective.

Shulk, in his anger and rage, decided to commit fucking genocide and wipe all robots from existence in revenge for their murder of his lady. He is in particular after the life of Face. When Dunban goes to kill Asshole (who is Face) in revenge for killing his sister, Shulk prevents him, questioning his revenge motivation, his anger, and his desire to kill the same guy that Shulk wanted dead so badly.

Asshole's life is spared, of course, but he dies anyway, of course, and then, best of all, Shulk and friends resume their fucking quest to commit genocide.

Seriously? Seriously? What in the fucking goddamn hell.

I cannot remember another chunk of writing so blatantly inconsistent, bad, and fucking insultingly stupid.

The Mistake That is Inferno and the Auction House
When talking about the best game of the last two generations, Demons' Souls, I often get into conversations regarding difficulty, the nature of it, and what makes it fair versus cheap. In my estimation, Demons' Souls is the epitome fair difficulty. Every time I die, I know it was my fault. I forgot about the ledge behind me and rolled off of it. I reacted too slowly to the incoming attack. I got overzealous and attacked one too many times, leaving myself open to the counter attack. Ninja Gaiden, on the other hand - the original XBox one (and the arcade one, actually) - is a classic example of cheesy difficulty. It takes the cheap and easy approach to making things difficult: give the enemies more life, give the enemies more damage, and, optionally, add temporary invincibility, unavoidable attacks, and take control out of the players' hands with repeated stuns and the like. Terrible. Not fun. Hard, but not in a fair way at all.

For the most part - and for most users - Diablo 3 gets it right. The game up through the end of Hell difficulty is a good time, well balanced, and fair. There are difficulty jumps, and things change a bit, but it remains largely a positive experience. Champion bosses come with more life, granted, but they also come with new randomly assigned abilities that alter the way you play. Kiting becomes a bit risky against guys with mortar. Standing still and nuking while your friend tanks isn't so great against arcane sentry. You'll need to get better gear, and you'll need to level up, and you'll die a lot, but there's generally a sense of forward progress and, most importantly, fun.

All of this changes when you reach Inferno difficulty - and not for the better.

Act 1 of Inferno is almost like Act 5 of Hell. There's a spike in difficulty, but it's still manageable. It's not ridiculous. Act 2 on Inferno, however, is where everything falls apart. Despite building plenty of survivability, my character was killed in one hit by pretty much any enemy in the Act. Many of these enemies have instant gap closers that render them invisible, invincible, or both during that movement. All of the sudden there is an enemy right next to you, and you are dead. Does that sound fun? No, it does not. It is the cheapest, easiest, laziest way possible to make something "hard".

It is also compounded by a few aspects of the game that were annoying but mostly unnoticeable up until that point. First, if you click in the lower left corner to run away from an enemy, but there is, say, a barrel down there, you will not run, but will instead stop and attack that barrel (provided you're long range, like I am). On Inferno, that means that if you try to run away and, in the mayhem of the game, click on something other than empty space (not hard), you will instantly die. Awesome. On top of that, D3 takes a WoW-esque approach to attacks. If a huge, slow, sloth-like enemy wanders up to you and begins to wind up for the attack, you can run away. You can run fifteen hundred miles away, cross state borders, and legally change your name and place of residence while said enemy takes thirteen years to wind up their attack animation. When they finally attack, though, they will kill you. They dice have already been rolled, the numbers have been generated, and your fate has been decided, quite apart from the visual indications and supposed physics of the world you are in. I cannot tell you how many times I have been killed by the melee attacks of enemies that are half the screen away from me. Then there's always server lag, and all those times where I swear to fucking god I hit my damn escape ability, but it didn't happen, and now I am dead.

If Blizzard ever fixed the compounding factors - which I'm sure they won't - I might be okay with the stupid difficulty. I might. I don't want the entire game to be easy. I don't want people to have finished everything in two days. It's Inferno, after all - it should be hard. I'll take that to some extent. It's still stupid, and easy, and lazy, but I'll put up with it.

Except for the fact that I cannot get the gear that I need to able to handle Inferno.

The last act of the game I can handle - Act 1 on Inferno - as far as I understand, at present, does not have any chance of dropping the best loot in the game. 0%. In order to be able to hang on Act 2 Inferno, I need to be wearing the gear that I can only get... on Act 2 Inferno. Or even Act 3 Inferno. It is cyclical. I know that some people managed to break that cycle in the first place, but they are crazy motherfuckers who are willing to put up with a level of pain that I am not, or they are crazy motherfuckers that find joy in pain. For the rest of us, there is one answer and one answer only to getting the gear we need to make any progress on Act 2 of Inferno, and it is the same answer that is already fucking up many other aspects of the game, as I have mentioned before: the Auction House.

Given that I cannot get the items I want any way other than through the Auction House, I am reduced to farming gold in hopes of hitting "Buyout" on an item I have searched for through an interface. You might argue that farming gold isn't much different from farming items, but I'd argue that is entirely different. The joy of the kill and the joy of the drop are gone. There's no thrill when you kill a boss. There's no thrill when you see a rare of the proper type drop. You know it's going to suck. You just vacuum up all the gold and items and dump them on the nearest vendor.

That's not even the worst of it. The worst of it is getting on virtual (or is that virtual virtual?) eBay, entering the parameters for the type of gear that you want, hitting search, scanning the list, and hitting Buyout. That is the new way to get loot in Diablo 3. Might as well play Microsoft Fucking Excel. Put in some parameters, crunch some numbers, compare benefit to cost, and then press buy or keep scanning the pages and pages of results. I would have a difficult imaging a more hollow, uninteresting task. The game is gone. Most anyone playing the end-game in Diablo 3 has been reduced to a gold farmer (which was something of a slur in WoW, I might add) who takes the profits from their joyless, repetitive task to a glorified spreadsheet and hits a few buttons to improve their characters by leaps and bounds.

Of course, you could always bypass the gold farming aspect of things by using the real money auction house! I'm sure Blizzard won't mind you helping their bottom line in such a fashion.

To be fair, there are supposedly plans to give the highest level items an incredibly small chance to drop in Act 1 of Inferno. For me, personally, it will probably be a case of too little, too late. Inferno has sucked virtually all of the joy out of the game for me. I also don't really want to start a new characters and play through the game again, particularly knowing that the same end waits me. I want to keep progressing with my character. I want to get good loot myself. But practically speaking, that's not an option.

I am forced to wonder two things with regards to Diablo 3: first, how much the advent of the real money auction house has completely fucked the decision making processes involved in design for Blizzard. I am quite certain that they will never admit to it being a factor in the design process, so it will never really be more than speculation that the notion of a second income stream has fucked up Diablo 3. I also wonder where this game will be in three months, six months, and a year. Once you have five characters at 60, there's no reason to start a new one, really. There presumably will not be new content coming out on a regular basis, as with an MMORPG. The auction houses let you see the best loot possible, and let you purchase it, as well, which takes a lot of the fun and mystery out of the game. Diablo 2 is perhaps the strongest game ever made, as it has been played rabidly for over a decade. I have a hard time seeing people muster that kind of enthusiasm for Diablo 3 six months down the road, let alone ten years. I'm already finding mine dwindling to nothing.

Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems
Diablo 2 is a difficult act to follow. It was a tremendous reworking and advancement of the formula set down by Diablo, and enough of a success that it effectively created a genre, launched a host of clones (none of which were as good), and is still being played today, twelve years later. Of course, that twelve year mark is a big part of the problem for the followup. Most everyone (everyone?) that made Diablo 2 is no longer with Blizzard. The studio that created the game is no longer. All those various clones have brought new features and ideas to the table. PC gaming has changed rather substantially. There's also the burden of twelve year's worth of expectations and build up to deal with.

So now that Diablo 3 has been out for over a week, how does it stand up to its predecessor? Simply put: fairly well. There are some wonderful ideas, and some much needed refinements. There are changes that are just different, rather than good or bad. There are also some major issues with the game that will undoubtedly turn some people off from it completely. As much as this is a refinement of Diablo 2, though, and not a total reimagining, it's also not Diablo 2.5. If you are expecting the exact same experience, only newer, fresher, and in 3D graphics, you will probably be disappointed.

First, some essential facts about Diablo, as a series, that have remained unchanged. It's about leveling up, getting gear, and killing a ton of demons. There will be farming, oh yes, there will be farming. The graphics are stylized and beautiful, and look almost like they're hand painted at times, despite being 3D this time around. The game, being about the demons of Hell and their attempt to destroy both Heaven and the lands of men, is dark in tone, with environments and enemies to match. The sound is well done, the music is good, and the voice acting is quality. The cutscenes are top of the line, and the story is entirely serviceable, though it's as much as is needed, and no more. Diablo is about playing the game again and again and again. It's not really about a once-through plot-based experience.

Also, playing the game solo is a remarkably dull experience. I honestly doubt I would have lasted through the first half of the first act by myself. Somehow, with other people, it becomes a good time. The more there are, the more fun the game is, and the harder and more ridiculous it becomes, though the limit is four here, rather than eight, as was the case in Diablo 2.

Similarities aside, Diablo 3 has made quite a few refinements to its gameplay and formula. It appears that the Diablo team has been paying a great deal of attention to what World of Warcraft has been doing, because - for better or worse - there are a lot of changes from that game in this one. Getting into a group with other people is remarkably easy. All common magic item drops - i.e. blues - are Identified on picking them up. Those that aren't identified automatically you can identify by right clicking on. No more scrolls of identify, and no more scrolls of town portal, either - just press T to go back to town. And while you're back there, if you want to portal directly to another player in your game, just click on their banner. The loot that drops on your screen can only be seen and picked up by you, and there is far less inventory juggling to do, now. Money is meaningful, and in shorter supply - at least initially; I'm sure it becomes meaningless at some point.

Map generation has improved and expanded. Certain quests and events and areas will appear some times and not others, and when you get to the end of a dungeon that forms a sub-section of a level, there's a stone there that will port you out of the dungeon. Once you get to Nightmare mode, the abilities that champion enemies have are new, varied, and interesting. The boss fights incorporate the environment into the fight, and they're fun and interesting. Sure, they're easy after the first pass or two, but your initial encounter with any given boss is probably going to be hard. Also of note, you can easily repeat any quest in the game by selecting it before you log in. Repeating any portion of the game for any reason is nice and simple.

Diablo 2's myriad statistics and item modifiers have been reduced in wonderful fashion, as well. There is no basic attack for any class - only abilities - and to that end, an attack speed increase applies to the use of abilities, which means that it benefits the wizard and barbarian alike. Likewise for critical hit chance and critical hit damage. A two handed sword that's good for a barbarian might be just as good for a wizard.

Your character screen also displays one wonderfully crucial statistic: damage. Damage factors in your attack speed, your critical hit chance, the damage of your weapon - everything relevant, really. No longer will you need to break out the spreadsheet in order to factor your critical hit chance into an equation that also takes your attack speed into account. It's so, so much nicer. And if that's not beautiful enough, when you hover over a new item, it'll compare not just your damage changes, but also your protection and life changes as well. Is the damage higher with this breastplate than this one? Yes, but, I drop 500 life and 1.5% protection. All I have to do now is decide if that trade off is worth it, rather than attempt to calculate the minutia involved as well.

Just as much as there are steps forward, however, there are also steps sideways. The item generator is not quite the same. Maybe it's not as good, maybe it's better, maybe it's neither. There are less garbage statistics, which means you're less likely to get total trash, or to get an item that's mostly awesome, but has a few crap modifiers on it. At the same time, though, it seems like the output isn't quite as interesting as it was in Diablo 2. Things have been streamlined, for better or worse.

The loot system isn't the only place that has seen streamlining, though. Diablo 2 was about two things: getting gear, and building a character. With every level you got a skill point, and with those skill points you could mold you character into your own very unique version of the class you chose. In Diablo 3, every player will have the exact same abilities available as anyone else at their level. The assignment of skill points has been replaced by choosing which six skills to equip your character with, and which runes to modify those six skills with. Number crunching has been replaced by deck building. Fine tuning from level one has been replaced with the ability to switch your character's build at virtually any point. Better or worse? I'm honestly not sure. Some people will love it, some will hate it, and most of us will just note that it's different.

And then there are the things that are worse about the game. Diablo 3 is as internet dependent as an MMORPG. LAN mode, IP mode, and offline single player, which all existed in Diablo 2, are gone, gone, gone. If you cannot get online, you cannot play Diablo 3. If you are disconnected mid session, your game will stop. If Blizzard's servers ever go down, you no longer have a game. This is only an improvement to Blizzard's bottom line; this does nothing to improve the experience for the player. Very much the opposite, in fact. I have a solid internet connection, but I still see the occasional rubber-banding and lag spikes. I cannot imagine playing a hardcore character (if you die, you die, and your character is gone forever) knowing that a latency burst could eliminate my hundred hours of work. I almost did not buy the game because of this alone (I have some serious philosophical issues with what amounts to a $60 game rental), and I am sure this will be a deal breaker for some people. Given the record-setting sales the game posted, though, it would seem that most simply do not care.

The always-online aspect of the game ties into perhaps the other most unfortunate characteristic of Diablo 3: the Auction House. In my opinion, everything about the Auction House (AH) is broken, and it negatively impacts your game even if you don't use it. In quite significant fashion, no less.

The simple gist of it is thus: there is an Auction House, available to all players at all times, on which you buy and sell items for gold. You can also buy and sell items for real money, though that feature is not available yet. I have no doubt that Activision Blizzard's desire to "monetize their player base on an ongoing basis," or whatever other Corporatespeak you care to use, played a significant part in their decision to make the game always online at all times. There the AH is, shining on the hill, always there on the hill, offering you the gear you need to get past the boss you're stuck on, if only you shell out a little money - of which Blizzard will take just a pinch. No one will ever state as much, but the constant revenue stream that World of Warcraft has created is just too big to ignore. So that, right there, is negative impact number one of the AH.

Unfortunately, the Auction House also obliterates the game's crafting system, which is really neat - until you realize it's utterly worthless. You can spend precious gold and other resources to upgrade your two crafters, granting you access to randomly generated gear, or the ability to combine gems into their higher-grade versions. That sounds great, but then you notice that you could spend tens of thousands of gold for the ability to create square gems, and then thousands to create square gems... or you could just buy a square gem from the auction house for less than it costs to combine three lesser gems. You could break dozens of magic items down into their components, spend tens of thousands of gold upgrading your smith, and then spend thousands of golden and components generating a piece of gear over and over again, until you finally get one that fits your character... or you could spend a thousand gold to get the exact item that you want on the AH.

Even loot runs seem pointless now. One of the major faces of the game is getting gear. There's a thrill when a piece that might be good drops, and a bigger thrill when it turns out to actually be good. But now you can just bypass that entire process by getting on the AH. Both crafting and farming have been almost entirely subverted by the AH. If you want to, you can get gear that will blow anything reasonably available to you without the AH out of the water. You can make the game trivially easy with fifteen minutes on the AH. And that's without the real money component in place yet. It's so out of balance that I don't bother using it.

I have a feeling that the game was balanced around the constant availability of the AH, too. By this point in Diablo 2 (the end of Nightmare), I would have seen about a dozen uniques and set items drop. Despite playing with between two and four people at all times, not a one of us has seen a single legendary or set item drop in my time playing. Not one. I get the impression that Blizzard balanced their drop rate around the notion that with ten million people playing, even if there's only a 0.1% chance that a rare will drop in a run through Normal, Nightmare, and Hell, that still means that you'll see a hundred thousand of the things, and thus anyone who wants one can find one on the AH. They balanced to the law of averages, rather than the experience of one person, or of one set of people. Which, again, means that even if you ignore the AH, as I am, you're still being screwed by it.

Perhaps further fitting into the wreck that the Auction House makes of the game's loot system, boss runs have been effectively eliminated. The development team has actually explicitly stated that they disliked the notion of people killing Diablo over and over again for loot. I have no idea at all why they felt this way. I have no idea why they thought eliminating boss runs would be a good idea. That was one of the best parts about Diablo 2. I've never met a player who said they didn't like them. Boss runs were the only thing that made me play Diablo 2 single player, and their absence is a big part of the reason that I don't play Diablo 3 as compulsively as I played Diablo 2.

Instead, all of the good loot has been transferred to champion encounters inside the levels themselves (and to the Auction House), as have all the hard fights. Perhaps this makes some gameplay sense - that you have to try and find monsters worth killing in the levels, rather than running straight to the end and fighting the boss for the fiftieth time. I still think it sucks, but I guess there's some semblance of logic there. Where it breaks down, though, is in game logic. As disappointing as it is that the best loot in the game drops from randomly generated enemy champions, it's even more silly that the hardest fights in the game are, correspondingly, enemy champions. A pack of three champions with arcane and frost are far harder than Asmodan. A champion with mortar and prison poses a tougher challenge than Belial.

Hey, Legions of Hell, this is Diablo, your god and master. I just realized that I'm a huge pussy, and have no right to be running this show. Your new overlord will be Tim from Accounting, who has the vampiric and health mods, and is thus way, way tougher than me, even though I have the power of the seven prime evils inside me. None of those guys were really worth half a shit anyway, so I guess this black soulstone is no big deal. I'll be stepping down now. And, hey, all you guys in the Human Resources department, I know you're rocking some pretty nasty modifiers as well, so if you could please not beat the shit out of me for me making you work overtime five millenia ago, I would appreciate it. Thanks.

I mean, really? No boss runs. Stupid drop rates on uniques and sets. A crafting system so thoroughly neutered that it might as well not be in the game. But an Auction House that will allow you to buy the best gear in the game on a whim. If you play through the game on normal, everything is cool, and everything is fine. But once you get into the higher end of the game, things are completely out of balance. Where Diablo 2 was a complete overhaul of Diablo 1, and redefined (defined, really) the genre, Diablo 3 is just a refinement of Diablo 2. There are some really nice improvements, and some differences, but there are some serious issues at the end game. I am, honestly, worried about the longevity of the game, given that if you have one Demon Hunter at the easily attainable level cap of sixty, completely redefining your character entirely is as simple as a few minutes in the skill screen and a quick trip to the Auction House.

Recent additions

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Tales of Graces - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?

Xenoblade Chronicles - Why Must JRPGs Have Such Dumb Writing?

The Mistake That is Inferno and the Auction House

Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems

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Dark Souls

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Explosions in the Sky - Live 4/11/11