Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How Diablo 3 is Good-Bad and Western Fantasy is just Bad. (A Clumsy Metaphor-Assisted Review)

Sometimes I feel like if the entire sum of a game’s impact could be quantified it would be done in units of ire. Video game communities just aren’t all that good at projecting coherent positivity; it happens in these tiny pulses of ‘so cool’ and ‘it was fun’, but seldom monuments to satisfaction and appreciation. Finding ways to articulate why a particular game (or an aspect of it) is enjoyable can feel like an unnecessary challenge that ultimately hinges on an implacable sense of personal taste. Relating a perceived short-fall carries the supposition that weight and precision must support it, or else readers think the issue is, again, one of taste. It’s a shame: taste guides appreciation for refined mechanics as much as ‘good story’, but the former is more alluring for someone who wants to be (or, rather, appear) objective. So, as a consequence of being obliged to split games into themes and mechanics (and the disproportionate attention the latter receives due to being seen as more concrete), most corners are far more proficient at constructing nuanced towers of criticism and general discontent. Take Final Fantasy VII for instance, a game loved by many: the only sentiment I seem to see about it these days is that it is overrated; it has a simplistic system, sub-par models,  slow and easy battles, etc. You might get the idea that the game being described is something that should be avoided, but you’d be wrong! It still measures strong on the Ire-o-meter after all these years. Not an easy feat.

So, with that befuddling idea in mind, Diablo 3: it has accrued much negativity to climb through.  The core of this formed around the many perceived holes in the endgame; not enough scenery to support such a grind, grotesque leaps in enemy strength and an awkward homogeneity between characters of the same class and level. To draw attention only to this endgame aspect, though, implies that getting to that point is fine.  And it is! Skills are well-distributed and the growth in enemy power from Normal to Nightmare to Hell (the first three of four difficulties) is satisfying if somewhat constricting toward the end of Hell. Ordinarily I would say this bodes well; the last Dragon Quest game I played (the ninth, I think) suffered from what could be called—though somewhat carelessly, as these games are very different—the same problems: a dull and un-engaging grind-fest awaits you (Inferno difficulty in this case) once the main content is through. Sadly Diablo 3 doesn’t take an eighth of the time to get to that phase. The endgame to DQIX was an after-thought; Diablo 3’s endgame is the game.

If it’s assumed that players of an online RPG are necessarily sticking around because of how it plays (as opposed to things like narrative, themes and music) you get into a weird place where a mechanically tight experience can be fronted by almost anything, so long as it isn’t intrusive or jarring. In Diablo 3’s case this means inheriting much of its predecessors’ elements: randomly-generated maps (that are actually less variable than Diablo 2’s), the ‘going down’ convention of every dungeon, and a level of what I guess you could call ‘ambient goriness’ that is more ridiculous than horrific. Fan-service abounds: re-use of enemies, shameless amounts of namedropping, and outright ret-conning to bring established (though often peripheral) characters closer together.  It became clear after a couple of plays through the acts that reconciling this conservative and nostalgia-seeking approach with a streamlined and linear quest-to-quest formula makes for a very constricted experience that doesn’t even have the benefit of originality. And as I’ve mentioned: the ire-towers already tilt ominously over Diablo 3’s gameplay philosophy.

Most any other form’s critical circles would find the multitude of well-founded spires of frustration an indication that there are at least some issues here. As I said before, though, this is what communities do to games they like; they criticise the hell out of the specific bits they don’t like. But Diablo 3 has to contend with the invariable disappointment of fans of the series, too. Combine this with around a decade of development time and people are well within remit to slate the hell out of the finished product here. Except, technically, this isn’t a finished product: content patches are going to make a strong impact on people’s experiences over time. So much so that, in a year, Diablo 3 won’t really be the same game; its functionality will have been shifted, increased and further refined.

I think many players know to expect this shifting experience, which makes the breadth of negativity at the moment kind of odd. Or, rather, the lack of breadth: it can’t have escaped people’s notice that there is very little discussion around theming, narrative and art design here (beyond WoW comparisons and ‘I wish it was darker’). These are the aspects of the game which aren’t going anywhere unless Blizzard releases some sort of ‘Characterisation/Originality Patch’.  I’m trying to take into account the disproportionate focus that mechanical discussion tends to attract, but even still the disregard is plain. And the reason for this, I think, is also my biggest issue with Diablo 3. Many western Fantasy titles (and the worlds they build and inhabit) have come to suffer from an absurd amount of homogeneity; the over-arching ‘Not Middle Earth’ convention is ubiquitous, and its comfortable familiarity is too often the front for lazy and cliché-ridden story-telling. Diablo 3 distinguishes itself somewhat by way of its ‘Heaven vs. Hell’ slant, but despite this leg up it plays as though it is striving for the crown conservative story-telling. On the whole there is a fantastic inoffensiveness in Blizzard’s simplistic approach and lack of risk-taking. The more any given area is elaborated upon the more hackneyed and unoriginal it seems to become. Whether it was a wilful decision on Blizzard’s part to craft something so generic doesn’t really matter: you would have to pick through this game with a comb to find the slightest modicum of subverted convention.

The comfortableness of a world so much like all the other worlds we’re used to makes it easy to suspend disbelief and just march forwards.  This ultimately impacts the difficulty of critiquing specific aspects. The twist between Acts 3 and 4, for instance, is remarkably heavy-handed, but I would hate to give the impression that the plot was particularly subtle elsewhere. Likewise it is difficult to pick on the dizzying lack of imagination with regards to boss design when the entire world is just another Western Fantasy realm wrapped in clichés. The choice to have every antagonist update the player with periodic rampage-tweets, too, does nothing but underline the ridiculously generic depiction, however it would be careless to imply that characterisation is particularly decent elsewhere. It is very difficult to dive into a particular aspect here without feeling like I’m excusing everything that surrounds it. Suffice to say the expression ‘by-the-numbers’ was made for Diablo 3.

Okay, that all sounds pretty bad. To me the best parts of Sanctuary, as a world, were the parts I barely heard about; exposition through tiny scraps of dialogue about far-away times and places that actually leaves room for imagination. This comes in the form of piecemeal information about the different classes’ homelands, and from the supporting ‘mercenary’ characters: the Enchantress’s lost time, the Scoundrel’s relationship with his brother and the Templar’s dubious ‘Order’; these were all neat details that didn’t have to bear presentation in the game proper. The kind of un-seen minutiae that help Sanctuary not seem like the giant corridor that the gameplay gives the impression of.

The rapidity of the game can’t be denied, either: it is streamlined in such a way as to make misunderstanding almost impossible, and does so without clumsy tooltips or clunky tutorials.  I’d wager this massive disparity between professional critics and users is owed, at least in part, to how critics will necessarily favour games like this. Diablo 3 is engineered to appeal to them: it is simple, narrow and quick; the five classes are extremely distinct and—though very ‘etch-a-sketch’ in customisability— have a decent range of skills. Moreover it’s so compact, and steps away from convention so infrequently, as to push the player towards focussing on the clearly-refined gameplay; the stuff that holds it together is just taken at face-value. There is little to no point in trying to roam free of the main quest, too, so reviewers can guiltlessly push through to the endgame within a couple of days and have done with it.

Maybe this all makes more sense in the context of Blizzard’s conservative stint in recent years: Starcraft 2’s strongest trait was how it streamlined so many conventional aspects of RTS games into something tight and satisfying, but at the same time the degree of variance and the boundaries of skill-cap were both reined in significantly from Brood War. The last thing Blizzard did that could be considered innovative was sand all of the rough edges along conventional MMORPG models with World of Warcraft. I’m beginning to see a pattern. It feels bizarre that this is the company that invented (however inadvertently) the MOBA paradigm. But maybe this is the crux of what Blizzard excels at now: highly streamlined gameplay alongside thematic content so generic as to demean the form’s ability to tell stories.

Everything sounds kind of gloomy at the moment, but it isn’t all terrible: on its own merits Diablo 3 might have been seen as an extraordinarily tight throwback to dungeon-crawlers that falls victim to its own hubris in the endgame. Except ‘on its own merits’ has little meaning with a game that relies so much on being a sequel as Diablo 3. However you look at it, though, the implementation of the Real-Money Auction House was the unprecedented aspect here. Whether it helps the game or hinders it is a matter of much debate. As many angles as there are to the discussion, I simply feel I would prefer to play a game than to feel compelled to also play a market.

To bring the wheel full circle and look out from this folly of frustration; I still feel like I don’t know if Diablo 3 is a Good GameTM. Some will find it immensely fun even as they rattle off their qualms, but I am not one of those people. I don’t think Blizzard has any excuse for making something so reductive when they are in such a remarkably privileged position; this game was going to sell well regardless of how lowest-common-denominator Blizzard made it. It’s not as though they took risks in the gameplay to make up for this short-fall, either; it is significantly more like Diablo 2 than 2 was like 1. A lot of reviewers like to bottom-line their view with ‘Is it worth your money?’ If you are  enticed by the gameplay shots and have the cash to spare then you can probably get your money's worth in terms of play time. But this question conveniently sidesteps all of the far less well-off developers who actually try to innovate and make unique experiences, and also ignores the fact that we shouldn't feel compelled to vote with our money when half the game is sharp and the other half is blunt. I think time’s going to tell on this: will anyone care enough to spread their ire in a decade? I have a hard time imagining Diablo 3 being looked back on as ‘overrated’.