Diablo III

After countless years of development Blizzard finally released Diablo III on May 15.  I haven’t played it yet myself but I’ve a few things to say about it.

As someone who has played World of Warcraft since shortly after it launched I know a lot of people who have been frothing for this game.  And why not?  It’s part of the holy trinity of Blizzard’s famous IPs and (to me) was arguably their most successful brand back in the days of Diablo II.  Since those days Blizzard has focused elsewhere.  With the astounding success of Warcraft III and World of Warcraft we saw much of Blizzard’s creative focus shifting toward that brand.  Or perhaps it was just due to a brain drain in Blizzard North, who were supposedly working on Diablo III back in 2003.  Regardless, the Diablo and Starcraft franchises sat on the back burner for years and years while Blizzard rode upon their good fortunes with Warcraft.  In that time, the company has changed.  And I don’t mean to say that in a bad way, all things must change.  However, I fear much of what made Diablo II so special was lost during this time.

And what made Diablo II great?  In many ways, it was one of the most mindless dungeon clickers to ever gain mass acceptance.  There have been countless similar games since then, many reveling in their derivativeness, but none has gained a player base the likes of which Diablo II saw.  I would argue that the spark which let Diablo II shine more brightly than many of the similar titles of its time and since was its story and the sheer weight of effort put into presenting that story to the player through music, text, and cinematics.  And while Diablo II’s cinematics haven’t held up so well from a modeling or animation standpoint, nonetheless they still have a lyrical quality of genuine narration that is hard to dismiss.  When one looks at this type of storytelling and considers its use in Diablo II, Warcraft 3 (and especially the Frozen Throne), and Starcraft its easy to understand how gamers form attachments to the worlds and narratives Blizzard has created for us.

But over the years Blizzard has begun to turn away from these qualities.  Over the years they have reduced their cinematic teams and turned to creating more visceral, action oriented cinematics.  It is much the same as we see in modern cinema – lots of action, camera movement, and explosions but with less substance.  And I find these new cinematics, and the narratives they spin, hold far less charm as a result.  A cutscene should not be merely a maddening din of extreme actions.  There needs to be an emotional aspect, a building to what needs to be seen, and a poignant move to action at the proper time to gain the full effect and to create the kind of engrossing stories we’ve come to expect of blizzard.  So we’ve seen countless times – The slow reveal of Mannoroth, the brief struggle, the death of Hellscream.  The slow contemplative climb to the Frozen Throne, the freeing of Ner’zhul, Arthas fate at the peak of Icecrown.  More recently, Zeratul considering the appearance of the Xel’naga, a confrontation with the Queen of Blades, and a lament of prophecy.

With Diablo III Blizzard has set new standards for both their modeling and animation.  Yet they have somehow failed to provide the same emotional impact that their other narratives have elicited.  The buildups are often not engaging to the player, the action sequences are  skewed towards anime style action, and there is little to contemplate at their denoument.

Act 1:  This was created as a teaser trailer – it has no particular emotional worth.  No real introductions.  Basically it just shows off how pretty the work of  Blizzard’s cinematic team can be.

Act 2:  The high watermark of the game, if only they could all be this good.  As impressive as the conflict between Tyrael and Imperius is, it is the exposition that stands out.  As Leah picks up her Uncle’s work and Tyrael slowly lowers the torch to his fire there is such a simple grace and beauty to the framing of the scene – it’s a true work of art.

Act 3 : Again, this cinematic was created to be used in trailers.  While it does show some impressive imagery, it suffers from a lack of emotional impact as the first cinematic did.

Act 4:  A battle between Imperius and Diablo.  This mostly relies on being loud and gaudy, but ultimately even the fight itself seems weak due to poor choreography.

So I haven’t played Diablo III, but I have looked into it a bit.  And it just doesn’t seem like it will be able to live up to Diablo II.  Considering I’m a solo player and I’ve heard you can beat the game in 10 hours I’m not in any hurry to buy this one, either.  It seems clear from what’s available that Blizzard didn’t put the care into the storyline that I value in most of their games.

Beta Weekend #1: Graphics impressions

Funcom’s The Secret World has begun its beta weekends in fine form.   While the servers were chaotic during the first hour the beta was available, things quickly settled down and we got a good, stable preview of what the game will be about.  Personally, I’ve had a blast exploring the town of Kingsmouth and I was really disappointed when I started running into invisible boundaries or quests that were listed as restricted in the current beta.  TSW really does stand out as a story driven MMO at this point with quests that are just as engrossing as you’d expect in a single player RPG.

Graphically it’s a mixed bag.  The art direction on the environments is stunning for an MMORPG with a high level of detail and great atmosphere.  You can pretty much play the non-combat segments of the game in first person – a testament to the detail put into the game.  The level design itself feels more authentic than many other MMORPGs because there is less tiling of repetitive resources over and over again – Kingsmouth really feels like a town people were living in.  Every home and business you pass feels distinct and leaves you wondering, “Is this place going to be important to the story?”

The character models have not faired so well.  They’re downright ugly, with terrible warping at the joints when animating, crude looking hands, and depth glitches in both hair and eyelids.  Animation  is adequate for combat, but feels stiff in cutscenes.  In particular faces look like something from 2005, not really fitting in a 2012 title.  Also there are some issues with light sources updating randomly causing shadows to shift unexpectedly.  The lighting engine looks REALLY good when it’s consistent, but shadows popping out of nowhere tends to break that.

One of the neat graphical options is tessellation.  TSW uses this feature to put lots of tiny detail into the ground and other repetitive world objects like brick walls, cobblestones, etc.  I personally really like the effect, but I am using an AMD Radeon 6970 and it hurts performance quite a bit.  Like many other games that use tessellation TSW seems to go WAY overboard in throwing a bazillion polygons around when you enable the feature.   For those who want to enable the feature on older AMD hardware I found that going into the Catalyst Control Center and limiting the tessellation factor to 16 or 32 kept performance much better while still giving you some benefits of tessellation.  It doesn’t create quite as much granularity as letting the application control it, but I haven’t seen any bad graphical errors by limiting it like I have in other games (Crysis 2).

Overall I’ve been able to play the game smoothly on my 6970 running 1920×1080, DX11, FXAA high, tessellation on ground and world, with motion blur disabled – with these settings I’d fluctuate between 30 – 60 frames per second depending on where I was and how much action was on the screen.

I can’t wait to see what horrors await!

The Secret World – Beta Client download, NDA info

For those waiting – it’s arrived!  I’m happy to say that speeds on the download are looking good at almost 2 MB/sec.  Those who worried they wouldn’t have time to get the client before Friday needn’t worry about bandwidth on Funcom’s side.

Funcom is in the process of flagging accounts for the weekend betas so those who are eligible should check their account page for the download link.  Some people may not see the beta download immediately.  From the forums:

Originally Posted by Morteia
Sweet merciful Bee-sus!

Alright, let’s see if I can tackle everyone’s questions and provide some answers. Please let me know if I miss anything major!

1. Yes, beta keys of all sorts are going out right now. There are two – the ongoing closed beta (which may or may not exist based on temporal shifting, gas clouds reflecting light from Venus, etc), and the beta weekends.

The ongoing closed beta we cannot talk about. Sorry about that. If you have been selected to receive an invite to the closed beta – it will state the difference in the email. It’s kind of hard to miss.

The beta weekend emails are in the process of going out. We are sending out a veritable ton of emails – if email can have a physical weight – so it’s going to take a little bit of time for all of the correspondence to get out to the appropriate people. We also have many, many ways for people to get beta weekend keys (pre-orders, TSWar, PAX East, etc), so we have to make sure that everyone gets their key! This means that some people who pre-ordered or are Secret Agents already have their keys, while some have not received them. There’s no particular order to how the emails are getting sent out, but they are getting sent out.

2. The download link. First off – do not post the download link to the forums! It’s actually for a simple reason – the link will not work (it can only be accessed through the individual’s Funcom account page).

The download link works like the email in terms of arrival. Lots of accounts are getting flagged right now for the weekend beta, so it is taking more time than usual for the process to complete. And again, there is no particular order, so if you see some people with Secret Agent already have the download link, but you don’t and you’re a Secret Agent, it’s okay; it’s just taking a bit longer than usual.

3. I do not have an exact ETA as to when all emails and download links will be sent out. They will be getting sent out all this week, so you’ll have plenty of time to get everything set up before the weekend beta starts on Friday.

4. If you see a download link on your account page, but have not received an email, you can safely download the client. If you have two links on your account, it is very clear which one is for the closed beta and which one is for the beta weekends. Only accounts that have access to the closed beta/beta weekends will have a download link present on the account. I’m sorry you didn’t get an email! You’re still good to go.

I hope this has answered some of the more commonly asked questions! We’ll have an article coming with explanations and an FAQ soon, so keep checking back for more information! I guess the best advice I can give is to be patient. Emails and download links are coming!

Can’t wait to see you all in-game!

Funcom has also said there will be no NDA for the beta weekends so we can expect to see a lot of good info starting this Friday.

The Secret World – Weekend Betas start May 11

Funcom’s upcoming MMO will be available for testing starting next weekend and I’m quite excited!  Although the combat itself looks no different from what you’d expect from the genre everything else about the game is a drastic and refreshing departure from the MMO norm.  What’s most exciting to me is the prospect of digging through all of the lore that has been created for the game and trying to figure out the puzzles for myself.  Considering the game has been developed by the same team that worked on Dreamfall: The Longest Journey I’m actually more interested in exploring this game than grinding mobs for skill points.

In the meantime, Gamespy has a pretty good writeup about just WHY the game is worth looking forward to.  Quests that evoke memories of Myst?  No hand holding for those who can’t be bothered to read the text?  Punishing dungeon bosses?!?  A skill system which lets you craft a character to play the way YOU want to play?  I think it’s obvious why 750,000 people signed up for beta access so far.

The game looks like it’s in good form, too.  There are numerous GDC and promotional videos you can find on Youtube as well as a  few videos floating around the internet from closed beta testers: