Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Diablo III Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4)

Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition is the latest iteration of Blizzard's randomly generated dungeon crawler. I remember getting a demo of the first Diablo way back in 1996 at Mpath from Blizzard's team and thinking, Oh, just a Nethack with prettier graphics. To my surprise, not only was the game very well received, it was one of the few games I actually finished.

By contrast, I never finished Diablo II, mostly because I started getting worried about RSI from clicking the darn mouse so much. Thus I avoided Diablo III on the PC, and only picked up the Ultimate Evil Edition for the PS4 when it went on sale during the holidays.

The big disadvantage of the game on the PS4 is that the controller has much fewer buttons than the keyboard, so you're restricted in attacks to the 4 face buttons, R1, R2, and L2. (L1 is reserved for the healing potion: there are no other potion types in the game as far as I can tell!) The flip side of this UI is that the PS4 controllers are much better for you ergonomically than the mouse, and you're much less likely to get RSI from the PS4 controller than any mouse.

The most impressive thing about Diablo III is how well balanced it is. I have no shame when it comes to playing video games: I start every game on Easy, and I never upgrade difficulty levels because "Easy" hardly ever matches the description when you're over 40 and the typical gamer is 9 years old and has the reflexes of a ninja by comparison. Well, "Easy" on Diablo is called "Normal", but within 6 play sessions, I'd realized that I wasn't ever using healing potions and upgraded to Hard, then Expert, Master, and then Torment I, before dropping back down to Master for the final boss fight when I died once. The algorithm suggested on the internet for determining the correct difficulty level is that if you have an easy time killing the treasure goblin, then you should up the difficulty level. If you have a tough time killing the treasure goblin, then you should go down one difficulty level. In practice, being one difficulty level too hard (on a Wizard, at least) is no big deal and won't kill you too often, but makes progressing challenging as every minor fight takes a long time.

The smartest thing about the difficulty level system in Diablo III is that it gives you something back for picking a higher difficulty level: you gain experience faster, and the loot drops are better. That gives you an incentive to self-adjust the difficulty level to optimize your experience. Far too many games rely on trophies to drive you to play at higher difficulty levels or new game plus, but those incentives don't work on me. Diablo III's rewards, however do.

After a bit, I realized that the reason for this is that Diablo III's difficulty is dependent much more on character optimization than on game play technique. In other words, if you frequently check your character stats, and optimize your character's equipment loadout, then pick spells (I was playing a Wizard) your playstyle (which in my case was to forget about staying far away from enemies but just getting close to them and unleashing a barrage of spells) didn't matter that much. Your total damage per second would be so high that you would essentially wipe the floor with enemies. Only in special situations (when facing elites that could block off escape routes) would my character die.

Death has a very low penalty in the non-hardcore version of the game (and I'm not dumb enough to start off in hardcore mode): your equipment loses 10% of it's durability, and you'd have to pay to repair it. Given that gold is fairly easy to come by and you quickly run out of uses for it, this is no big deal, and you could respawn and finish wiping the floor with a renewed character (dropping in difficulty if you have to) and then keep going.

Up until around level 60, the leveling up frequently unlocks new spells and other character abilities, giving you new modes of play, which would change the game enough to keep you interested. The story is cliched and boring, but you don't play any version of Diablo for the story anyway. Even the cut scenes seem particularly uninspired in this one. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered even the hidden level during my first play through.

I tried a few levels in co-op, and the game is surprisingly fun, even when the two of you don't coordinate and end up playing Wizards. The difficulty of the game gets bumped when you add players, but this didn't seem to affect game play much. The game truly is well balanced and scaled well. There's even an apprentice mode, where the lower level character is beefed up so as to not automatically die if a 1st level character was paired up with a 30th level character. I tried this with my 3 year old son playing my 30th level Wizard, and me playing a 1st level Monk, and it did work. I had to quickly stop, however, when Bowen started discarding valuable magic items through some combination of key presses on the controller which I hadn't known about and have no way to disable.

There are a few nits in the PS4 version of Diablo III. There's no explicit save that I could find, so occasionally, I'd play until I get to some level of the dungeon, have to quit the game for whatever reason, and upon coming back discover that I'd have to redo most of the work. My memory of the original Diablo was that on the PC at least, you could save anywhere and resume anywhere and retain all your state, but the PS4 version for whatever reason doesn't do that. It took me a while to figure out that I had to keep playing until the next "Checkpoint Reached" banner, which could take quite a while, since the randomly generated dungeon could put your objective in the opposite corner from where you started exploring.

The other nit has to do with the display. The game doesn't always do a good job of telling you where your character is in the display. This is particularly bad if there are walls occluding the characters and your characters are surrounded by monsters. During those fights you just fight blindly and are thankful that there's no such thing as "friendly fire" in the game. The game does run well at 60fps, with very rare glitches that aren't noticeable no matter how busy the game gets. The PS4 does however run the fan pretty hard while you're playing.

With console games, I'm always tempted to sell them after I play through the first time since it's unlikely I have enough time to play it again. However, I'll make an exception for Diablo III: with 5 more character classes, an adventure mode I haven't explored yet, and a co-op mode that's very promising, I could see it as a game that I could return to time and again.


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