Faithful – Diablo III First Impressions

Dress it up how you like, there is no mistaking Diablo 3’s classic roots. Blizzard plays it safe, sticking to gameplay elements, setting and storytelling that worked the first time. New players are quickly acquainted with the lore and characters at the heart of the original, most successful Diablo title.

Speaking of dressing up – Blizzard didn’t skimp. The new animated sequences are beautiful, and tailored to your character choice no less. The voice acting is above par for a Blizzard title. Better still are the ambient tracks and musical score – each lending to a rich and faithful return to Tristram and the blood-chilling catacombs that lay beneath.

Combat and character advancement is familiar and easy – perhaps the most streamlined, usable of the trilogy. Despite borrowing resource and attack synergy concepts from the massively-complex World of Warcraft playbook, the same clever style is tamed to just a few action hotkeys and your two mouse buttons. All the time you might have spent learning a more complex interface and combat system is far better spent doing what made Diablo so fun – clicking on swarms monsters to kill them.

So far, the multiplayer elements seem to combine both their own experience and lessons learned from other popular titles, as well as the familiar matchmaking of systems like XBOX Live. Players each receive individual loot without worry of competition or messy loot rolls, and grouping with others is refreshingly no-fuss and instantly fun. It is clear Blizzard put extra effort into taking the learning curve and tedium out of these key gameplay elements.

While I have only played through the first bit of the story, it is clear that the hype can be substantiated. Full review after the credits roll.


Cataclysmically Superior

After seven years of reserving the toughest “end game” content for the top 1-5% of players, World of Warcraft “cataclysm” concludes with a raid dungeon tuned for casual players. It’s epic online gaming now available at the drive-through, and it’s good.

Getting there was no easy feat for Blizzard. Historically, dungeons that required five players to complete demanded coordination and communication between teammates, and ten and twentyfive player raid dungeons were challenging enough to exclude the majority of players who did not have the time or dedication to devote to perfecting their characters and gameplay. To attempt the same dungeon with four (or twenty four) other complete strangers was folly. These latter types of groups were dubbed “PUGs”, or “pick up group” and were frequently, famously horrible bad dungeon attempts that would end in frustration.

The carrot, at the time, was to encourage players to team up with friends and make new friends to work together to defeat the toughest content. I could not find reliable statistics, but sources suggested only 1-5% of World of Warcraft players were successful in completing the toughest dungeons from each expansion.

Later, at launch of the most recent expansion “Cataclysm”, Blizzard introduced what seemed like a streamlined PUG making machine, for all horror and apprehension it was worth, called the “dungeon finder” feature. It was a match-making service that automatically paired you up with four other appropriately geared strangers to complete a dungeon, including players from another server. Given that the difficulty of the dungeons at the time rivaled the toughest dungeons from the original game and first expansion (Burning Crusade) this seemed like a fast track to frustration.

This same year marked a sharp decline in Warcraft subscribers – no direct correlation to any particular feature is necessary, some players were just ready to move on after six or more years.

Yet, with a little time and more content, Blizzard fine tuned many aspects of the game to keep it challenging and still friendly to the majority of players. The dungeons were softened up, but were still interesting and extremely accessible. Gear curve finally matched the content and story – if you let the improved quest system lead you to the content, you’d be ready to complete it with a group. In a way, they have “dumbed down” end game character advancement and dungeon roles to help ease more players into the final chapters of the game.

Once adopted, using the dungeon finder ushers your character to the next most challenging set of dungeons once you have sufficient gear. Assuming you learn your characters basic role in a party of five or more people, you will continue to encounter tougher dungeons until you are ready to begin the final three dungeons that tell the expansions closing chapter: The Hour of Twilight.

Following the Hour of Twilight dungeons, and assuming only minor attention to equipping your character with the best gear available from those dungeons, you qualify to use the “Raid Finder” match making service to join in the twenty-five man “easy mode” version of the final raid dungeon: the eight boss sequence concluding in the showdown with Deathwing the Destroyer, the enormous molten metal dragon from the TV commercial. It’s a blast – an “ah-ha” moment for World of Warcraft. Why reserve the “end boss” of a game for only the 1-5% of the most dedicated players? Whatever the reason was seven years ago, it seems short-sighted in comparison.

Blizzard, in the meantime, has been busy in the kitchen. Very busy. With “Diablo 3” and “WOW: Mists of Pandaria” both completing beta soon, and the top-secret “Titan” project coming later, the online gaming pioneer has no plans of fading into history.





Review: Skyrim rolls a twenty, crits your weekend plans

Not only did it cancel your plans, it called in sick for you and brought you your slippers. Skyrim puts the game back in roleplaying in the latest “Elder Scrolls” title.

Prior experience not required. Even if you have never played (or didn’t care for) the previous four titles in the series, Skyrim is highly accessible to both the seasoned roleplaying game fan and new player alike. It wastes no time drawing you into the story and rich world, easing you into game controls and character creation along the way. It is instantly interesting and difficult to put down, setting a new standard for what an engrossing game should play like.

Like the preceding Elder Scrolls titles, the story, world and flow of game is highly dynamic and open ended. The core storyline drives just a few of your objectives and encourages you to explore and make your own agenda. Even the main story content itself adjusts and adapts to your choices – making no two players game experiences alike. Case in point: both my wife and I started new games individually and had a different gameplay experience. The dialog and even a few of the characters you’d interact with first changed.

Where Skyrim succeeds the most, though, is in the fun factor. It’s one thing to hand the reigns over to the player in an open-ended world, but another to make it actually fun. The places, people, landscapes and dungeons are memorable. Character development is smooth and well thought out. Progression is anything but a grind, and rewards you for simply doing what you want to do. Favor a sword and shield? Put one on and go. Prefer to sneak and dispatch your enemies from the shadows? Just do it. Dabble in spellcraft, but want to blacksmith? No problem.

One more thing – you’ll be playing this RPG with the sound on. The ambient sounds, effects and musical score are a knockout. Look for this title in the “game of the year” section of your favorite gaming magazine soon. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an pesky ice troll to settle a score with….

RAGE – act one? (spoilers)

Epic, post apocalyptic blank canvas. Id software leaves us wanting more in it’s latest shoot-em up “RAGE”. The successor to the popular Doom and Quake series is built on the long anticipated id Tech 5 engine, which like it’s flagship title is a great start.

RAGE takes place in a barren, near future world ravaged by a meteor impact, where survivors of the armageddon struggle to survive swarms of mutants, and each other.  Your character gets a familiar set of weapons ranging from the indispensable settler pistol, your trusty shotgun and a sniper rifle to more fantastic weapons. For example, once you’ve got the hang of the wingstick, a self returning thrown blade, you’ll keep a few of them handy in all situations. There’s a lot more – a silent crossbow with various bolts including explosive tipped and mind control darts. Remote controlled bomb cars, automated gun turrets, pet sentry robots, EMP grenades and much more.

Each area of the game has a distinct style and several types of opponents including various mutant types and many different styles of bandits. The AI keeps the combat fresh despite the mostly simple smash-and-loot and occasional escort mission style. The enemy tactics, reactions and audio feedback are very well thought out and add rich texture to the combat. The fights are frequently difficult, some with emphasis on learning how to properly use all of your equipment to come up with creative solutions to big, mean and ugly problems. A shooter, well done.

Adding depth between sessions of frantic closed-quarters shootouts is tightly integrated armored vehicular combat. The size and detail of the outdoor world is only more complimented by the relative lack of loading screens, with the exception of the two main quest hub cities. Exploration is rewarded and there are plenty of distractions to keep you busy. Mysterious robot drones hover in various places in the wasteland, and like any post apocalyptic armored buggy driver worth his spit, you are rewarded for finding the correct way to launch your vehicle off available terrain to crash into them. It gets tricky. While the racing mini-games in the main cities themselves are mostly a distraction from the story, they provide a fun way to gear up your buggy for hours of mayhem demolishing bandits in the wasteland. In RAGE, the vehicle game play could stand by itself.

Spoilers here. If you have read any reviews at all, you may have read about the ending, or lack of one. I absolutely loved the game but brace yourself now: there is no boss fight. It’s not even an anti-climax. It just.. ends. If this effect was deliberate, gimme part two already! Without going into the story itself, you could summarize that this was just the beginning of a bigger picture. This was back story, a canvas. It’s primed for downloadable add-on content, or could even make a good stage for an MMO or persistent world.

I felt the amount of time to beat the game without solving the numerous side quests and exploring each optional area to be just right. I’ve read folks beating it in just one day, skipping non-essential content. I could have stayed longer. I look forward to seeing what’s next.

ten year commemorative pen NOT mightier than

…these swords! Blizzard skipped the pens for their employee five, ten and fifteen year commemorative awards. See for yourself:

epic loot!

a cup of autumn

October one; cue brisk autumn breeze. Cooler weather puts me in a creative mood, and invariably with it comes a craving for my favorite hot drink.

Spiced Hot Apple Cider

  • 2Q – 1 Gal. apple cider (not juice).
  • 2 – 4 slices orange with rind (or just the rinds).
  • ~tsp whole clove
  • ~tsp whole allspice
  • 2-3 cinnamon sticks.

Add all to crock-pot, heat on low for six hours (or longer), or on high for a few hours if you are short on time. Sometimes I put the cloves and allspice in a spice ball, but it seems to turn out best if I just let it float with the orange slices.

For the grown up version, try a touch of Cointreau or Triple sec to your mug when served.

look on the bright side – Greedo still misses

Starwars fans upset with Lucas, again? Nooooo!

Seriously, who is surprised Lucas made additional changes to the Starwars Trilogy for the blu-ray release? Are they really worse than the initial changes made to “A New Hope” and “Return of the Jedi”? Are all of the changes so inexcusable? Changes in this release include adding a single, shouted “Nooooo” to Vader’s dialog in the final battle with the emperor in Return of the Jedi, as he saves luke and sacrifices himself. Other changes were to replace the ewok eyes with CG rendered eyes, and a jarring change to the sound Obi-wan makes in A New Hope to scare off the sand people.

Fans have been particularly critical of the changes Lucas made to the Starwars trilogy, even though the business of changing movies for a re-release is not new business at all. There are FIVE versions of Blade Runner in the collectors edition. Lion King has been changed three times. Rob Zombie changed the entire ending of the newer “Halloween 2” in the DVD release. Peter Jackson changed his Lord of the Rings once between the theater and DVD and again for the butt-numbingly long (but good) extended editions (nevermind the changed between the print and his retelling….).

Don’t like it? When in doubt, don’t get your wallet out.

I am among the fans who did not like many changes to the original Starwars trilogy – my favorite catch-phrase after all is “Han Shot First”. I didn’t like the additional, poorly done scene with jabba the hutt, nor the changes to the hologram of the emperor and dialog. I am indifferent to the changes to the spirits shown at the very end of Return of the Jedi. (put your pitchforks down, guys). On the other hand, the numerous subtle improvements to image clarity and cleanup of special effects glitches were actually a big improvement, notably in the epic battle of hoth and pretty much every space battle scene in all three episodes. The sound is better in the new(er) editions – and being a bit of an audiophile it is hard to pass up the 7.1 stereo enhanced effects in favor of the barely two channel classic just in the name of protest.

I won’t get the blu-ray editions, but I’m not roasting Lucas and the franchise over the recent changes either. I am content with the DVD set that included both the special editions and original format bonus disks. If I want to relive A New Hope as it was meant to be seen, I can. If I want to enjoy my newer TV and stereo equipment, I’ve got the updated version. That’s good enough for me.

Concerned fans should speak with their wallets.

better late than mediocre

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”

In classic Blizzard tradition, the ship date much anticipated sequel “Diablo 3” will be pushed back until early next year, costing them a holiday release. This isn’t news to many fans though, who are used to waiting. In twenty years of genre dominance, I don’t think they have released a major title on time. Or too soon, as it were.

Here is a link to the original Diablo 3 teaser trailer, posted 2 years ago..

Diablo 3 Teaser on YouTube

Few game companies could afford to consistently miss release dates, or delay games for as long as Blizzard has delayed some of it’s titles. At a glance, it would seem that they risk releasing a game that is graphically or technically inferior to competing titles developed to leading edge standards in less time. Yet this has yet to make much of a difference, given that Blizzard titles are comparably “graphics-light” stood next to other eye-popping graphics-heavy competition.  Compare the graphics in the initial release of World of Warcraft next to a number of competing MMO titles that were out about the same time. Starwars Galaxies, Anarchy Online, Asheron’s Call 2 and EverQuest 2 were all very glossy, high end graphics productions. World of Warcraft was cartoony by comparison,  but demanded far less in terms of system requirements and as franchises go; left the competition in the dust.

It later closed the gap in terms of high end graphics support, while still allowing players like me with average hardware to enjoy the game with the extra eye-candy turned off.

an unbreakable record?

Time to check some really old math, again. More than a hundred years of well-proven science assume just a few things are perfectly constant; Newton’s gravitational constant and the velocity of light are on the short list. Our most treasured theories (think: everything since Einstein’s Relativity) are based on them.

These fundamental laws of physics have been called into question a number of times since, as have the theories based on them. Even Einstein revised his work based on observations in the universe that begged closer scrutiny, like Red Shift. These second glances, in turn, have also been called into question as scientists work towards a utopian grand unified theory of physics that, one day, will explain the questions our founding theories did not answer.

Most recently, particle experiments at CERN may challenge what we know about the “constant” velocity of light. CERN scientists are welcoming close scrutiny of this recent observation, which clocks neutrinos breaking the law. Here are some links to more on the subject.

A great 2005 Scientific American article discussed the same in “Inconstant Constants

Finally, my personal favorite set of articles challenging well-held theories including the big bang, see Dr. Halton Arp’s website

Blizzard’s 180 degree turn

Blizzard recently announced it would partner with Paypal to support buying virtual assets with real world currency from other players in the upcoming “Diablo III” in-game auction house.

Read the press release here:

This is a crisp 180 degree turn for Blizzard, who has invested much effort to combat the unauthorized sale of gold, items, characters and accounts in “World of Warcraft”.

Not dissimilar to buying premium content in single player titles like “Farmville” or numerous other successful mobile titles, this will allow players the option of purchasing in-game items they might otherwise not have the time or inclination to earn themselves. It also ups the potential for reward for any player who does acquire very rare in-game content.

Fans are grumbling, but sale of gold and items in World of Warcraft persisted despite ongoing efforts by Blizzard to put a stop to it. Dedicated gold-selling players became increasingly clever, giving rise to various sophisticated tactics used to gain access to other players accounts with intent to sell the virtual belongings for easily transferable gold, which would be sold for real world currency. Such tactics included phishing scams in email or on web sites to trick players to give away their passwords, to much more aggressive malware keylogging viruses such as the one found to have infected a computer aboard the International Space Station. (see following ZDnet article).

Blizzard’s surprise change of policy towards buying gold and items may be a gamble worth taking; by giving malicious gold-sellers legitimate competition.

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