Hyperbole – or why Diablo 3 is the most dissapointed I’ve ever been in a game.

Let me say right off the bat that I almost certainly got my moneys worth from this game. I paid $100 (Collector’s edition you know), and I certainly got more enjoyment than I’ve gotten for other things I’ve paid $100 for, but it doesn’t change my overall opinion.

So let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Two months ago today Diablo 3 was released, and in looking back over these two months now, I’ve never been more disappointed in a video game. I may even go so far as to say it has essentially killed PC gaming for me.

Before that, a few stats! I work as a game developer, so I have a lot of friends/associates that are in the industry as well. A very large number of them were stoked about Diablo 3 as I was, and they were on my RealID list. In addition, I’ve played World of Warcraft since launch, and have quite a few folks from there on my list as well. Those first few days after launch my friend list was completely full of folks playing. It wasn’t uncommon to see 20+ people on at any given time.

I just logged on a minute ago and looked at all my friends. It tells me the last time they’ve been on, and aside from a single outlier, not a single friend of mine had been on in 18 days. I had 2 friends who were last on 18 days ago, the vast majority of folks were last on 30-45+ days ago, which means they only lasted 2-4 weeks in the game. Do I have enough data to form any valid statistical conclusions out of this? Of course not, but the fact that the first two weeks the game was out, i had approximately 95% of my friends list playing the game, and these last two weeks I’ve had only about ~3% of my friends list even *log on* (who knows what they did in that time) is damning for a game Blizzard has stated they wanted to last for “years”.

Why has the game been so disappointing though? What prompted such a bold statement to begin with? It’s a combination of things. I won’t even get into launch day problems because they’ve been re-hashed over and over again, but it’s an indicative outcome of their mindset (if you ask me).

There is no way the sheer number of people waiting to play at launch was a surprise, after all they stated themselves that it was the game with the largest number of pre-orders ever. They’ve been running the most successful MMO for years now, they new what it would take to have a successful launch. It would have been expensive though. They would have had to stand up enough servers to handle the launch rush and then had a ton of excess servers doing nothing a couple days later when everyone had settled into their normal playtimes and habits.

Do i understand that? sure. That doesn’t change the fact that they looked at the situation and decided having a large group of their customers having a horrible (and essentially non-functioning) experience was an acceptable byproduct to save some money. Completely inexcusable and the Blizzard I remember from the past would have never made that choice.

Of course, this is all because the game requires a connection to Battle.net to do anything, always online. This is done for the sake of the auction houses (which I’ll get to shortly), but you can’t even *access* the auction houses in game! I mean, really? The vast majority of the game is spent staring at the AH UI which is horrible to begin with. You could have just as much fun playing multiplayer Excel.

I’m no stranger to making a call on whether a particular nasty bug can be shipped or not. It’s an unfortunate necessity when doing any software development, and games are no exception. I’ve shipped games with bugs in them, we all have. Most times these bugs are found very late. Yet some of the bugs in Diablo I wonder how they could have been found late, and how they could have decided it was ok to ship with them.

For example, once you’ve reached maximum level, you get a stacking buff called Nephalem Valor. The “expected” game play needs you to have that buff maxed out at all times. You can lose the buff by leaving the game or changing skills. However, that’s not even true. Let’s say for example, you accidently drag one of your abilities off the toolbar for a moment (not hard to do in a game that requires frantic clicking).  Instantly you lose all your stacks, even if you drop the ability right back where it was. So naturally they have a “lock toolbar” command yes? I mean, World of Warcraft had one seven years ago. Nope, not only do they not have one, they said they would try to add one in a few patches.. ie, months down the line. I mean.. seriously, what? It takes months to add a single boolean variable option which they’ve already *half* implemented? Come on now, seriously?

of course, you don’t even need to do that. You can go to your skill list in the UI and look around, check out some other skills, but ultimately go back to the same skill set you had. You better make sure you click cancel there though, otherwise, if you click OK, you lose your stacks then too.. Even if you DIDN’T CHANGE anything. I mean, come on?

Doesn’t get any better either. What if your internet had a hiccup and you got disconnected for 2 seconds? All your stacks gone. Oh, if loot had dropped and you were about to pick it up when that happened you lost the loot too.

I said a few seconds ago that the stacks of the valor buff were the “expected” way to play, and I gather this because anything that was *not* playing in this way, they’ve nerfed to the ground. Want to kill a enemy with a lot of magic find? Oh, well we’ve made it so those enemies ignore magic find. Want to break vases for gold? Well they drop nothing now. Want to clear a dungeon that’s pretty hard and then collect stuff from the chests? Oh, well chests now ignore magic find too.

The entire *point* of Diablo was farming items, and Blizzard has continually nerfed every ability folks had to farm items somewhat quickly. Why? To “promote a stable economy” or something, but who the hell cares? This is supposed to be an action RPG, I want to play, and get powerful. I want to do this without being forced into the auction house.

Before i get to the auction house though, I just want to reiterate that I sincerely believe someone(s) at Blizzard has lost their way. They’re treating Diablo like it was an MMO which it wasn’t. They’ve continually sacrificed the fun to make something “balanced” (again, who cares?). They’ve continually punished *real* players to try and stop the “bots” from “ruining the economy”, which is ridiculous and has failed anyway. The economy is already ruined, and it has been since the game launched. After all their fixes, has it gotten better? No, prices continue to rise, gold continues losing its value.

The items themselves aren’t even that interesting like they were before. There were items in Diablo 2 that let me use other classes abilities! Now all I get is some +int or whatever other stat I’m going for. On Inferno difficulty you’re essentially forced into 1 or 2 builds for your class to have a chance (so much for build diversity), and the *entire* gameplay is based around gear. Getting 1 shot by an enemy you never saw is not skill. Getting a bit of gear so you can maybe survive that one shot isn’t skill. Kiting an enemy to kill them is skill, but hey, they decided if you couldn’t kill them quick enough, they enrage and insta-kill you. So the little skill you could use is laughed at and you’re told once again “no, get better gear”. Oh, and they *punish* you by dramatically increasing the repair cost of the items if you happen to die. As mentioned, you *will* die, because you will be one shot from something off screen you never saw. Or a huge lag spike (always online remember) will kill you. I feel sorry for those folks playing hardcore. The entirety of Inferno is predicated on you finding better gear.

Will you find this better gear while playing though (even after the “increase in drop rates” – which doesn’t even come close to counteracting the nerfs they put in place)? Possibly, anyone can get lucky, but almost certainly not. You have to get extremely lucky three times in order to get a good item. First, you have to have an appropriate level item drop. Then that item needs to have rolled the right stats for you. After that, the item needs to have rolled into the high ranges of those stats. All of it is possible to happen, but the odds are dramatically stacked against you.

So what do you do? You have to go to auction house, and it doesn’t take long to realize how terrible that is. You can either pay an extraordinary amount of gold for an upgrade, or if you’ve been unlucky and not found anyting to sell (so you don’t have much gold to use because you spent it all on repairs), you can spend real money on upgrades. Everything in the game seems tailored to encouraging you to go to the auction house to get gear. Fun has been sacrificed all over to get you to go there.

Myself personally; any upgrade I could get will cost me millions of gold I don’t have. I will never *ever* purchase anything from the real money auction house because I won’t be giving Blizzard anymore money. So my choices are to bang my head into the desk while I farm the same areas over and over again, never getting anything remotely useful to anyone and never having any sense of progression, spend real money to get said progression, or stop playing. It’s not a hard choice at all.

In Diablo 2 I almost always felt some sense of progression. In Diablo 3 once I hit the level cap (which was extremely easy to do), it basically stopped.

I’m tired of writing so I’m going to wrap this up, and I didn’t even get to some of the other problems Blizzard has caused, such as the “Hey, you paid for the game, but you can’t play it for 3 days” (even if it was a “mistake”, how could you *ever* release that), or the huge nerf of IAS (improved attack speed) items. Imagine the guy who paid $200 in real money for an item to log in the next day and find the items power was cut in half. Yeah, that’s real fair.

To finish with the hyperbole I started with, Blizzard has completely and utterly failed me as a gamer with this offering and their reputation has been soiled tremendously in my eyes. So much so, that I won’t be picking up Mists of Panderia, nor probably any other game they make in the forseeable future. I used to respect that they made games that were fun above all else, but they’ve lost that in my eyes. Ruining the fun of a game to increase it’s profit is a losing strategy, and the Blizzard I remember from 15 years ago would have never been so naive to believe the opposite.

I have every Blizzard game made in the last 15+ years. If there was a collector’s edition of the game, I have that as well. They were the definition of what I considered a great video game company. It saddens me immensely that I’m now saying that in the past tense. Given the only PC games I’ve *really* played over the last 5+ years have been Blizzard games, Diablo has effectively killed PC gaming for me as well.

Duke Nukem Forever, or when 14 years later is still too soon…

Duke Nukem Forever
Duke Nukem Forever

I first heard about Duke Nukem Forever before I even started working at Microsoft. In my previous job Duke Nukem 3D was one of the games we played constantly and we had more fun than we should have playing it. I was naturally pretty excited when I first heard about Duke Nukem Forever.

Of course, that was sometime around 1997, and I heard it was coming in 1998 if my memory serves me. I heard something similar for 1999 and 2000 or 2001 as well. After a few more years it became a running joke. 3D Realms kept saying it would be done “when it was done”, and “when it was done” seemed to be “never”. After more than ten years of “coming soon”, the game was completely cancelled a few years ago. Take-Two sued 3D Realms for wasting so much time and money and the game had completed it’s life by becoming a laughing stock.

Of course, behind the scenes there were still dealings going on. It turns out gearbox was in negotiations to release Duke Nukem Forever (one of the founders of gearbox worked on a version of Duke Nukem 3D). Finally at PAX last year they announced that the game would finally be released after 14 years.

Duke Nukem Forever ScreenshotI have to say that I was pretty excited. I imagine that nostalgia was kicking in or something, but it made sense at the time. I absolutely loved Duke Nukem 3D and the last gearbox game I had played was Borderlands which was amazing as well (I should write a review about that one sometime, if you haven’t played that game yet, go buy it now, it’s only $15). Between the next version of a classic game I loved being finished by a developer who developed a recent game I loved it was a perfect recipe for awesomeness. Unfortunately, even perfect recipes can be burned.

After yet another delay (minor in comparison to the others) Duke Nukem Forever was finally released on June 14th 2011 and since I had pre-ordered it I received it that day. I was excited to play it when I got home from work that day and jumped right in to do so. I played through a bit before going to bed that night. The next day when asked by a coworker what I thought of it, I summed up my thoughts by saying that “it is a terrible game, but I am glad I bought it”. By the end of the week I realized what a stupid statement that was.

First, the game starts off as a game inside the game and you’re literally pissing (or can be). I suppose that’s sort of funny, or at least it was when I was 11. Worse, the stall next there has a piece of shit you can play with for an achievement, and I’m not even making that up. I’ve been in the game for 90 seconds and I’m already covered in urine and feces? He was saying some classic “funny” lines though, so I forgave that part and continued on. The graphics looked like they were out of the 90s (oh wait, I guess they were), and while I never expected it to live up to some of the modern day games graphic wise, the poor quality of the graphics was jarring. There were mirrors all over and when I jumped, my character in the mirror simply didn’t move. In 14 years, couldn’t the artists figure out how to assign more than 6 bones to the character?

Duke Nukem Forever

I honestly expected most of the graphic inferiority to be a “by-product” of the game within a game motif that you start under. Yet, when that game was over and I was in the “real” world, the graphics were exactly the same, and I was quite dissapointed in that. Of course, who cares about graphics if the game play is top notch right?

Except, game play was horrible as well. It’s like they forgot what made Duke Nukem 3D fun. It certainly wasn’t his witty lines, they added flavour, a nice bonus, but didn’t make the game fun. It definitely wasn’t digitized boobs, and even if it was due to the grahpical inferiority displayed quite a few games out now show you better anyway. They took away the ability to hold every gun in the world down to having just two (which I didn’t like in Halo and still don’t like now). No longer do you have health, but now you have “Ego” which is simply a glorified health/shield combo (again, like Halo and every other shooter in the world nowadays it seems).

Yet, even after taking some of these “design decisions” for more recent games, they completely skipped some of the other ones like helping to improve aiming (via magnetizing or auto-aim or something) which made it into a complete chore to shoot things. Plus, I could barely tell if I was actually hitting the thing I was shooting at to begin with. Oh, and can we make a new rule? Water levels are terrible and they should be outlawed.

Duke also has a reputation for being cocky. I like that actually, I don’t mind arrogance at all, but you need to be able to back it up. Duke had the cockiness down without the amazingly good game to back it up though. Throughout the game he makes fun of Halo (when he see’s master chiefs helmet), Gears of War (Gears 0, Duke 1), Valve games (Half life or portal? who knows, he says “I hate valve puzzles”), all of which are vastly superior to Duke Nukem Forever.

Duke Nukem Forever screenshot

I normally don’t play a ton of multiplayer with these types of games (for a variety of reasons), but since I remembered all of the fun I had playing multiplayer back in Duke Nukem 3D, I gave it a shot here, and it wasn’t terrible, but it certainly had lost alot of the fun. The graphic problems were even more noticeable (it’s one thing when the image of yourself in a mirror is not moving while jumping, completely different when it’s your opponent). It’s still fun to shrink someone and stomp on them though.

After all that, I haven’t even talked about my biggest problem with the game, and that was loading times. I don’t know who worked on the system for loading in this game, but he/she/they should seriously consider a different line of work. I can’t fathom how anyone could look at the loading times this game had and think “yup, that’ll work”. You had 14 years to make this damn thing, loading should not take 45 seconds anytime something minor happens. I’m fighting a boss and I died? The last save point was exactly where the boss was? All you have to do is reset the bosses health and my health and ammo and we’re good to go? Nope, 45 seconds of loading time.

Now, I know that I’m a bit of a stickler for performance and loading times. I mean, I’m giving a talk about this exact issue at Gamefest next month, and I’ve given several performance talks at GDC over the years, so perhaps I’m just naturally inclined to notice them? I’ve had several other people who have complained about them with me as well, so it isn’t just me. These are extremely noticeable and very frustrating. Hell, part of me wonders if it wasn’t done on purpose, because I think I would have to work hard to get things to load so slowly (without putting artificial waits around everything). I simply cannot fathom what was going on during those loading screens other than maybe Duke was praying we would just stop playing.

At the end of the day, I bought this game on nostalgia and little else. For Duke Nukem Forever, nostalgia and 14 years simply wasn’t enough. The game needed a lot more work to be worthy of the gearbox logo if you ask me. It was one of my most disappointing purchases ever.

My thoughts on L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire

Last week I purchased the Rockstar Pass for L.A. Noire which gave me access to all of the DLC for the game. Inspired, this weekend I finished the game completely, 100% story, hidden items and achievements. Actually, I think this is a personal milestone for me since I have 1400/1400 gamer score in this game which is the most I have in any single game.

For those that aren’t aware the game is based around the life of a new police officer in 1947 Los Angeles, Cole Phelps. He’s fresh back from fighting in World War II (and winning the Silver Star), and is looking to be the best cop he can be. You will go on cases, collect clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects and try to solve a wide variety of crimes as you move up the ranks in the department!

Now, I do not know what the budget for this game was, but would be surprised if they didn’t spend a huge portion of it on Hollywood talent. I have never before seen a game in which almost everyone was someone I recognized from television or movies or both. One of the early cases had me exclaiming “Hey, that’s Matt Parkman!” Every time I turned around there was another actor I recognized. There are 21 cases in the main game (plus 4 DLC cases currently), each case having at least 3-4 new actors in it (along with the recurring characters). The credits listed at least 100 different actors which doesn’t even count all of the other people involved in making the game. Given the seven year development time, and this list of talent, I’m sure the cost of the game was much higher than I’m imagining.

The technology they used for capturing facial expressions and displaying them to us during the game was absolutely amazing. While they probably could have made the game without using “real” Hollywood actors, I think the game would have suffered for it. Using “real” actors and this technology was incredibly immersive. It was the closest I have ever seen to getting out of the uncanny valley, and part of me wants to argue it succeeded in getting out completely.

Of course, simply having this technology without using it for some game mechanic would have been silly, and the major mechanic for this game is the requirement that you “read” the person you are interrogating’s face to help determine if they are telling the truth or lying. Having real actors here was both a large success and a bit of a letdown. It was a success because they did an amazing job in getting the emotions across, but at the same time, it was a bit too easy for the same reason! For example, if you tell an actor to say “sit there and act like you just lied”, well, they will look like they just lied!  It was relatively easy to determine whether the response to a question was the truth or a lie.

Having only those two options would have made the game entirely too easy though, so lies (by far the more common response) were broken up into two different categories.  You could either choose “doubt” when you thought they were lying but had no proof or “lie” if you thought you could prove they were lying. The “lie” choice always felt entirely too arbitrary though, much like the old adventure games back in the day. If you weren’t following the exact logic the game designer was, deciphering whether or not you had “proof” of a lie was a dice roll half the time. Early on in the game I figured out that accusing someone of lying would sometimes give you a hint as to what kind of proof was needed, and you could always “back out“ of the accusation so that became the way I played most interrogations. If I wasn’t sure if I had proof, I would accuse them anyway, and if I didn’t get a hint that helped, I would back out and choose “doubt”. Sort of a “trial by error” way of gaming that hints at bad design if you ask me.

The game itself was extremely easy to finish if you didn’t care about your “case ranking” (how well you did) or anything. Finding clues was almost done for you, simply walk around and push the A button when the controller vibrated. Once all the clues were found, the game would play a little chime and the music would stop so you always knew when you were done.

The story of the game was another factor that I liked. It was basically broken up into two overarching sections as you worked your way across five different “desks” in the precinct. You start as a lowly beat cop on patrol before working your way through traffic, homicide, vice and finally arson. There’s an apex of sorts at the end of the homicide cases and the final resolution of the game at the end. The story was well told and kept me intrigued through the end, but I have one big complaint about it.

I hated Cole Phelps. If you remember back from the second paragraph, Cole Phelps is the person you’re playing as. Having the person I’m supposed to be playing (and having a connection to) be on my “I hate this guy” list doesn’t seem to be a great way to endear him to me. What’s worse, I get the feeling that I was *supposed* to dislike him! Towards the end of the game they try to redeem him in the story, which falls flat for me because I don’t want him redeemed since I disliked him to begin with. The flashbacks to the war did nothing but make me dislike him more (and why did he treat Jack Kelso the way he did?) The big “twist” towards the end didn’t make me feel sorry for him, it made me feel he got what was coming to him.

I liked all of his partners though, particularly Roy Earle which is weird because I don’t think I was supposed to like him either. Aside from one time early in the game when he slapped a girl though, I always got a kick out of him.

Having said that though, it’s a testament to both the actor who played Cole Phelps as well as the technology they used in the game that I got such an emotional response out his story, even if I didn’t necessarily like him.

There were also minor complaints in that my interrogations would go from calm talking to yelling insanely accusing people of lying back to calm talking in a matter of seconds, but given the huge dialog trees and the various outcomes that were possible depending on how I reacted, I don’t fault them too much for that. Overacting a bit perhaps, but nothing too detrimental.

I also liked how the DLC packs integrated right into the story if you happened to be playing them then. They were simply more of the same from the original game, but since I liked that, it worked out pretty well! Plus, since each DLC case cost 320 points individually, but I bought the pass for 960 points for all four cases (plus a few suits), it was a great deal!

All in all, I enjoyed my time with L.A. Noire, enough to even go searching around for all of the film reels. Enough to buy all of the DLC packs as well.