Hearthstone & Diablo III

I’m not a huge fan of most Blizzard titles, but I did play the hell (sorry) out of Diablo I/II and tried the free Starter Edition (a.k.a. playable demo) of Diablo III when it became available. Unfortunately I found it rather boring, and I was put off by Blizzard’s open contempt for people who wanted to play solo or didn’t like the new auction house. Two years later the company has reversed itself entirely, and as I reinstalled Battle.net to check out the first official Hearthstone release I decided to revisit Diablo III as well. So here are some first impressions from both games.

Updates: Added a section with more extensive impressions from Diablo III after finishing the first act (2014-03-17), and another section on the expanded PS4 version (2015-03-18).

Hearthstone

Hearthstone is as nicely polished as you’d expect from Blizzard and free to boot, but ultimately still a Magic: The Gathering clone. This means you’re supposed to memorize a dozen heroes and approximately two billion cards in order to optimize your decks. That’s way too intellectually involved for me! The tutorial campaign was fairly entertaining but I lost all interest when Hearthstone presented me with pages upon pages of cards to build my deck from, just for my one tutorial character. I prefer simpler card/dice battling games without deck construction, like Ascension or Quarriors. However, if you do enjoy M:TG-style card collecting you should certainly give Hearthstone a try – it’s wildly popular with fans of this genre, and its free-to-play monetization scheme is reportedly extremely lenient.

Diablo III

Diablo III has improved greatly in two years of patching, mostly thanks to the ability to select a harder difficulty right from the start. Enforcing the completion of each level in sequence made the first one or two campaigns laughably easy for experienced players – a bizarre design failure of the entire series that most other action RPGs avoided. Curiously, the free Starter Edition doesn’t let you pick a difficulty level when starting out, but you can later switch from Normal to Hard while playing.

There were also numerous other welcome additions and changes since the game launched, notably the upcoming removal of the real money auction house and the corresponding rebalancing of items so you’re more likely to find good gear for your current character. Battle.net now even logs you in automatically, finally abandoning Blizzard’s habit of asking for the password on every start-up, as annoying as it is futile on a typical single-user machine.

Thanks to the imminent launch of the Reaper of Souls expansion, you can get the base game for just US $20 directly from Blizzard. I’m still contemplating getting the expansion on the PlayStation 4 (if I ever find one of these mythical consoles) since I prefer playing single-character action games with a controller, but $20 on Windows was too good to pass up.

Another DPI Scaling Failure

Disappointingly, even Blizzard still can’t figure out Windows DPI scaling in 2014. The Battle.net launcher is marked as DPI-aware but doesn’t scale at all, so you get tiny text at high DPI. However, Diablo III itself freezes the mouse cursor unless you manually check the Windows compatibility option “Disable display scaling on high DPI settings” on its desktop shortcut! That’s a pretty impressive show of incompetence, especially for a company that has specialized in Windows development for decades. On the bright side, I did not encounter any other technical issues in a few hours of playing.

Diablo III: First Act Complete

I finished the sizable first act of Diablo III over a rainy weekend, so here are some more impressions. First the bad news, namely one other technical issue I encountered. Despite Blizzard’s other changes Diablo III is still an online game, even in single-player campaign mode, and this means you can still get kicked out of your solo game when you are disconnected from Battle.net for any reason.

This happened to me once when I left the game idling for 15 minutes or so, although I don’t know if that was in fact the cause. You don’t lose any character stats or equipment or story progress, but you do have to restart from the last unlocked waypoint, with all maps and monsters reset and newly randomized. This is also what happens when you deliberately quit the game for any reason – all your character progress is saved but nothing else. So the game is still unsuitable for anyone who cannot reliably have gaming sessions of 30+ minutes without lengthy interruptions.

Gameplay: An ARPG Revolution

Now for the good news. My first impressions of the gameplay were positive, and it just kept getting better. Most notable are the long-standing nuisances of the ARPG genre that aren’t there:

  • Scrolls for Town Portal & Identify. Both features always work and are completely free, except for a small delay to prevent you from using them in the midst of battle.
  • Health potions with different sizes & stacking limits. There’s one size which always refills all your health, and I’ve stacked 31 potions so far. This is counterbalanced by a fairly lengthy cooldown timer, but that is counterbalanced by generous instant health drops from fallen enemies.
  • Any other potions. Your mana equivalents recharge automatically, aided by skills or equipped items, and the recharge speed regulates how often you can use your most powerful skills.
  • Continually recasting passive skills or auras. Any skill that has no instant effect is passive, and any passive skill is always on while selected. Simple as that, and a huge relief.
  • Manually increasing attributes when leveling up. Your character’s attributes automatically increase in the class-optimal distribution. This removes both busywork and a common trap for novices who don’t know the optimal attribute distribution.
  • Severe death penalties that make you throw your keyboard out of the window. Unless you’re playing a hardcore (= permanent death) character, you just suffer some easily repaired durability loss on your items. Then you can respawn wherever you like, including right over your corpse – and you’re even invulnerable for a few seconds to change position.

The near-total lack of penalties for dying might sound too lenient, but it’s no different from any other game that allows reloading. The traditional heavy gold or experience losses only add mandatory grind to make up for lost ground, and that quickly turns fun into frustration. Moreover, you do lose any temporary beneficial effects when you die, including another neat innovation: Pools of Reflection that increase experience gain not for a certain time but until you reach a certain number of XP. You can play as slowly and cautiously as you like, but you must avoid dying!

At least for the Demon Hunter class I’m playing (which is vicious fun and highly recommended), there’s also not one but two different mana equivalents, Hatred and Discipline, which enable different skills and recharge in different ways. This is such an obvious and effective way to diversify the “click on monster until dead” gameplay that in retrospect it’s amazing no one else thought of it.

The well-publicized replacement of skill trees with freely swappable skills and runes unlocked by leveling up works extremely well. Forcing the player to make permanent character choices might be RPG dogma but let’s face it, the choice between killing monsters by fire or electricity is not exactly dramatic soul-searching stuff. In this genre skills are simply another kind of weapon or armor, so it makes perfect sense to allow changing them as easily as any other equipment. Here, too, Diablo III has successfully shed an encumbering heritage from “real” RPGs that are really quite different games entirely.

Lastly, hard difficulty is balanced exactly right for a new character. It’s not overwhelming but does force me to use my character’s skills properly. I died only a few times when running into especially nasty elite mobs. Bosses are exceptionally powerful to be sure, but refreshingly not the tedious unkillable hitpoint tanks as in most ARPGs. And the world is well-stocked with varied monsters and side quests, so you aren’t generally running around looking for something to do. (I’m looking at you, Torchlight 2.) We’ll see if the remaining acts keep up this high level of quality, but so far I’m very impressed and willing to declare Diablo III the best ARPG I’ve yet played.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

After finishing both the Windows version of the basic game and the PlayStation 4 version of the Ultimate Evil Edition which includes the Reaper of Souls expansion, my positive impressions remain unchanged. Blizzard did keep up the first act’s level of quality throughout, although admittedly later acts were somewhat more repetitive, as often in story-driven games with multiple acts.

One valid criticism is the relatively short final act and the lack of closure for the companion storylines. Both were addressed in the Reaper of Souls expansion which is not only enormous (easily over 10 hours) and surprisingly varied, but also includes personal quests for each companion. I do wish the new “transmogrify” feature affected more than just item appearance, but that’s my only complaint.

The PS4 port is excellent as well, both visually and in terms of controls. Personally I much prefer gamepads over mice when controlling a single character, and Blizzard’s precise and responsive control scheme leaves nothing to be desired. If you still haven’t played the game and own a PS4, I recommend the Ultimate Evil Edition.

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