Deeper Thoughts: Nightmare Reflections

With another two weeks passed and Nightmare difficulty completed with my Wizard character, I want to go into more detail about some of the mechanics of Diablo 3. There are plenty of things that I didn't have time to discuss in my initial writeup, or simply didn't notice during my first pass through the game. Seeing everything on a second pass made many of the design decisions that went into the game more clear. By the very nature of the subject matter, this article is going to be more indepth and somewhat more pedantic than my initial overview. (Hence the title: Deeper Thoughts.) Let me be clear: I still like Diablo 3, and I definitely recommend a purchase to anyone who liked the previous games and remains sitting on the fence. That said, there are some issues here that are not entirely to my liking.

My Wizard character relied on a fairly standard skill setup throughout Nightmare, which I rarely changed. Magic Missile on primary attack, Arcane Orb (this game's version of Fireball) on secondary attack. Then one other attack skill (Hydra) along with a bunch of defensive/utility skills: Diamond Skin, Teleport, and Energy Shield. I found that having more attack skills didn't really do anything, because I would just run out of Arcane Power and find myself unable to use them. Three attack skills (and Hydra being somewhat of a utility skill itself) proved to be plenty. The real star of the show was Diamond Skin, which I found to be almost mandatory when proceeding through the game. One of the big differences between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 is the problem of avoiding damage. In D2, there are a couple of features that allow you to avoid taking much damage as long as you have room to maneuver. You have the ability to run (which is not present in D3 at all, and it's a good change) which automatically makes you faster than nearly everything in the game. Monsters generally only appear at the edges of the screen, giving at least some time to react to their appearance (and kite them or whatever). Ranged attacks tend to be pretty dodgeable, whether it's arrows or magical spells or whatever. The Bone Spirits of the Obilivion Knights were so tough precisely because they were one attack that couldn't be avoided, not without waiting for the spell timer to wear out.

All of this has changed in Diablo 3. There's no run toggle at all, and many monsters are as fast as your character - or faster. Bosses also have tons of crowd control abilities - your Jailer, Waller, Freeze bosses and so on - which forces your character to have some kind of disengage skill. All five classes have something of this sort, and you are clearly intended to make use of them. For the Wizard that would be Teleport, and while I didn't have to use it that often, when I did need to Teleport out of something, I found that I needed it immediately. Another problem is the way in which monsters will pop onto the screen; tons of them will literally appear next to you, from under the ground or out of the sky or whatever. You will often have almost no warning whatsoever before monsters are on top of your character and banging away. In one way it's a neat challenge, but in another way it's somewhat cheap and unfair. There's no way I can hear the noise that tells a rock worm is about to pop out of the ground in the middle of a large fight. My character simply gets popped for X amount of unavoidable damage. Fun, that. I also found that for whatever reason, it's much harder to dodge ranged attacks in Diablo 3. This is partly due to particle speed; the arrows and spears that monsters throw travel MUCH faster than in Diablo 2. I could nearly always walk out of the way of such attacks in past games, and it rarely seems to work in this one. Missiles are just too fast. Secondly, due to some combination of hit box detection or server lag, I constantly find myself getting hit by attacks that appear to miss. I swear that an arrow misses my character by a good two yards, and then I take the damage anyway. I have no idea quite what's going on here, but it's extremely frustrating and serves to lower the skill cap of the game. Why bother trying to dodge missiles and kite mobs if I just get hit by the projectiles anyway?

My answer to all of this was to rely very heavily on the Diamond Skin, which grants you a temporary shield against damage up to a cap. The closest skill I can think of from Diablo 2 is the Necromancer's Bone Armor, although Diamond Skin only lasts for a few seconds before going on cooldown. Nevertheless, you are practically invincible for the six seconds that Diamond Skin lasts, at least in Normal and Nightmare difficulties anyway. It will block all of the damage. I felt that this was somewhat cheap and uninteresting as a skill, but in the end I found myself using it nonstop. It was the only way to prevent myself from taking nonstop damage from enemies. Against anything ranged, it was just impossible to avoid taking hits. Impossible. Might as well throw on the Diamond Skin so that you don't have to rely on health orb drops constantly. It was the same story against melee attackers in the end stages of the game too. Nearly everything has a gap closer or blink attack at the end of the game, and I simply had no choice but to turn on Diamond Skin in every fight. Impossible to maintain distance and kite against many of these foes. This made the gameplay somewhat one-dimensional, and it was not as interesting as I had initially hoped.

It's been interesting watching different reactions from different players about the overall difficulty level of Diablo 3. I have seen a lot of people claiming that the game is "too easy", which has not been my experience at all. Perhaps their experience is nothing but four-player co-op, with frequent use of the auction house to outfit their characters in very strong gear. Getting an excellent weapon drop or purchase certainly has a drastic effect on the overall challenge level of the game. Or maybe these players don't consider dying to be a major issue. After all, there's almost no penalty for dying, and you can retry the same fight over again immediately. Repeated dying in an online party of four has even emerged as a zerging tactic for advancing in Inferno, from what I have heard. Anyway, I don't believe that Diablo 3 is "too easy" at all, by my definition at least. Playing almost exclusively solo, without a follower and without touching the auction house, I found the latter stages of the game to be rather difficult, and I'm not a bad player at the Diablo games. One thing that distinguishes Diablo 3 is the scaling challenge level within each difficulty; Act I is by far the easiest, followed by Act II, and things get significantly harder in the later stages of Act III and Act IV. The last act is very short, but it's a real pain in the rear from a challenge standpoint. Several of the bosses are incredibly unfair and cheap in Act IV... let me explain in more detail.

My character suffered four deaths in total in Nightmare, in two pairs of two. The first two deaths both occured in the later stages of Act III, both times against a elite mob of Fast-attributed Phase Beasts. The Phase Beasts are really nasty opponents for a casting class, melee opponents with an innate teleport ability such that they can always close the distance next to you. Unlike most other monsters with gap closers, they have high HP totals and deal very heavy damage; other monsters like the little frogs who latch onto you with their tongues have significantly less of both. So I ran across two Phase Beast elite groups with the "Fast" boss attribute, which means that they are much faster than my character, and they can keep teleporting on top of me, and there are five of them. Instant death, nothing I could do about it. I drank potions, I teleported away, I used Diamond Skin - didn't matter. After the second time that this happened, I realized that I needed to come up with a better strategy, or I was going to be dying endlessly whenever this combination appeared.

What I came up with was the cheesiest solution imaginable. I call this the "Doorway Shuffle." The instant that you see a teleporting/extra fast/whatever elite group, run away as fast as possible. See if you can string out the elites and fight them one at a time. (This is much, MUCH harder to do in D3 than D2, in my experience.) Regardless of whether this is successful or not, keep running until you reach the doorway to this particular area. Fight the enemies at the doorway and deal as much damage as you can, then step out of the door into the previous map. Now you are completely safe, and you can wait for cooldowns to reset and/or regain health. You can go back to town and heal your character if desired. Then when ready, step back through the door again and fight the previous boss group, with the damage you inflicted before still present. Rinse and repeat as necessary until they are dead. It's unbelievably cheap to fight this way.... but you know what? Elite mobs that can teleport endlessly and swarm you under are also unbelievably cheap. In a previous Diablo game, I could fight that battle by drinking potions off the belt, and do a "whole belt" fight to survive. But nope, not an option here because of the way that the potions work. All potion usage on a 30 second cooldown. I actually do like this idea, but there's a crippling problem here: the potions don't restore enough health. They are nowhere near sufficient, because they don't scale up properly with game difficulty. In Normal, you keep getting new potions with each Act that will pretty much take you to full health when used. Awesome. At the beginning of Nightmare I noticed that the potions were starting to fall off a bit, not keeping up with the huge rate at which my health orb was increasing. By the end of Nightmare, this was a complete joke. Potions restore 4500 health or 6500 health. My character has 20,000 health. Yeah, that doesn't really help that much, thanks. It needs to be one of two ways. Either we can drink as many potions as we want, even if they are weaker, or potions are on a cooldown and they restore essentially all of your health. One way or the other. Sucky potions that are ALSO on a 30 second cooldown are unacceptable. The current design is really not fair when you have a difficult running battle. It pretty much forces you to resort to cheese like the Doorway Shuffle to survive those really difficult fights. Blah to that.

I've mentioned before that I liked most of the boss fights in this game, and I do enjoy many of them. However, the huge exception to that rule would be the Act IV boss fights, all of which are cheap and unfair in one way or another. The first battle against Iskatu swarms the player with vast numbers of little shadow beasts, without any warning whatsoever. This fight resulted in a death in Normal because I had no idea what to expect or how to counter it. It's a dumb battle because it has a few narrow solutions: find some combination of skills that deal area of effect (AOE) damage while keeping you safe. For the Wizard class, that's the Archon skill, which rapes this battle incredibly hard and turns it into complete cakewalk. It's a stupid battle though, a pure variant buster that relies on certain narrow combinations of skills to succeed. I can't say that I like it. Rakanoth, the next boss, has a (nearly) undodgeable teleport attack that hits the player from off screen. You're taught from every previous boss fight to keep your distance, and then Rakanoth changes that by tele-attacking you from off screen for huge damage. Very lame. The sad thing is that this battle isn't truly that difficult, merely requiring the player to memorize when the teleport attack is coming and react appropriately. It's a pretty cheap fight though, because the whole gimmick is that you don't get to see the attack coming, therefore getting no time to react. You simply have to memorize the pattern ahead of time. That's not where game design should be in this day and age.

The mother of all cheap fights, however, is the one against Izual. I died here in Normal, and my character died here again (twice!) in Nightmare. This is the single biggest bullshit fight in the whole game. Izual slowly lumbers after your character, not doing much of anything for most of the fight. Then he will pull out his charge attack, which is virtually a one-hit kill. I don't know the exact numbers, but my Wizard character was doing well in the battle and had about half of her life remaining. Then I was charged, and I was simply dead. Bam. Half of my life orb gone instantly, 10k health gone in a flash. That kind of nonsense has no place in a game like this. It's another freaking Duriel puzzle, a battle with narrow solutions wherein you get killed if you don't pick one of them. For the Wizard class, the answer is to prevent Izual from every getting next to you. Use Blizzard to slow and Hydra to deal damage passively and just keep running. Eventually they will get the kill. You can never leave yourself close to Izual, or he can virtually one-shot your character with his charge attack. What a load. This is not an interesting or fun battle, just a cheap trick on Blizzard's part. Now that I know what's coming I can probably survive better, but the battle is so out of character with the rest of the game... Most of the bosses are handled well. They have numerous attacks, which you can see coming and react accordingly. Even Belial is a better fight, although the constricted space there is still pretty unfair. The last battle with Diablo is actually done very well - it's a tough but fair encounter, requiring execution for long minutes on end, but not overly punitive in any way. The rest of Act IV though... meh. I don't think I'll be hanging out there very much. Those bosses are not well designed.

I mentioned before about the issues that I have with the health pots in this game. The real problem here is not the health pots per se, it's rather a larger problem with the issue of scaling. Diablo 3 has a ton of scaling, more scaling than just about any other game that I can remember. The game starts out very easy, and gets progressively more difficult as one goes along. In addition to this, the items that drop and the stats on the monster continue to scale as well, both from Act to Act and from difficulty level to difficulty level. Your character also scales at nearly the same rate, with Vitality and character life increasing massively as levels go up. (At the start of the game, 1 Vitality = 10 HP; at character level 60, 1 Vitality = 35 HP. That's per point, mind you!) None of this is inherently problematic in and of itself, but the rate at which the scaling takes place can be pretty insane. Check out the stats on an enemy from Act I across different difficulty levels:

Act 1 Ghoul

Normal: 41-82 HP, 43 damage
Nightmare: 339-678 HP, 397 damage
Hell: 2800-5601 HP, 3677 damage
Inferno: 13000-26000 HP, 180000 damage

The game scales up incredibly fast, significantly faster than previous Diablo games. You will find that gear even one Act out of date will quickly fall by the wayside, as new stuff keeps dropping that outclasses what you previously had. The only time that you'll wear something for a long time is if you happened to get a nice drop from a boss with a monster level significantly higher than the normal critters. (Act end bosses on Normal are probably the best example of this, where you are guaranteed to get Rare item drops at a much higher monster level.) When I walked into Tristam in Hell for the first time, I instantly found a weapon in the store that was better than the one I had used all through Act IV Nightmare. What I had was already obsolete. This is a deliberate design decision on Blizzard's part: they want new and better stuff to be dropping constantly, because it serves to funnel people to the online auction house. Something that's good right now will be obsolete five levels later. If you are constantly picking up new stuff online as it gets unlocked by your character level, you keep getting stronger and stronger. If you have to wait for something good to drop, well, sucks to be you, buddy. Blizzard doesn't design the game around you. Not when there's untold thousands of people willing to fork over real money to make the game easier. This is the contribution that Facebook games have made to the world of gaming, and Blizzard has designed Diablo 3 with that system in mind. Pay for power. Now again, this is a Player vs Enemies game (PvE) so none of that really has to dampen my own experience, right? In a sense no... but then again, in a real sense, yes it does. Blizzard clearly balances item drop rates and difficulty level of monsters with the auction house in mind. They were very open about stating that they crippled the drop rate of rare and set items for auction house purposes. Can't have too many legendary items floating around, then people would be less willing to buy them online! None of this is game-killing, but it is a huge disappointment nonetheless. I was looking forward to finding crafting recipes and making my own legendary stuff. Ha! How naive. The drop rates for that kind of thing are infinitesimally small due to auction house purposes. I'll never be seeing any of those things unless I replay Inferno mode endlessly (and that's not happening).

Weapons on sale from the Hell vendors. All my gear is instantly outclassed. (This isn't even my Nightmare weapon, I've already upgraded once in Hell.)

The extreme rate of scaling has other insidious effects as well beyond the item economy. Because everything scales so incredibly fast as you progress through the game (again, a conscious design decision to encourage frequent online purchases) it's basically impossible to play online with other people who are above or below your character level. A difference of a single Act between characters would be fairly trivial in Diablo 2, at least outside of Act I/II in Normal difficulty. In Diablo 3, being a single Act ahead means that your character virtually enters god mode when replaying previous areas. When going back to earlier areas, your character is unkillable and the game is boring for your friends, since you are so much stronger than everyone else. When venturing ahead into a more advanced part of the game, your character is completely worthless and will be completely ineffective for anything beyond crowd control. This phenomenon is far, FAR more pronounced in Diablo 3 than in the previous two games in the series, and it all goes back to the decision to have everything scale so hard. Blizzard uses their online servers to disguise this problem (the matchmaking will automatically put you in games with characters at the same level/location) but I see it as a real problem. It's just hard to play online with friends unless you have characters at exactly the same point in time in terms of game progress. Someone's not having fun otherwise. When I played online with VarisNox, his character was a mere 3 levels ahead, and even that small of a difference was notable. I had more Vitality, but his character had fully 1000 more health, which was a good 10-15% total life, just due to character level difference. He had also found a really sweet Demon Hunter bow and I hadn't been as fortunate, so his character was doing 1800 DPS to my 1000 DPS. The minor difference between character levels and the presence of one good weapon was enough to reduce me to second fiddle status. Maybe not everyone cares, and maybe some people even like this kind of thing - it's easy to godmode characters past challenges by using more advanced friend accounts. I see this as a real issue, however. Too much gap. If your characters aren't VERY closely matched, the co-op mode turns into an uneven experience. Too easy for one player, too hard for someone else.

I also have to mention that account security has turned into a major issue for Diablo 3. Huge numbers of accounts are getting hacked and having all of their items sold off, then their gold tranfered to online bot accounts. There's all sorts of heated rhetoric flying around about this right now, and I'm not enough of a tech person to know how or why these accounts are getting hacked. The main point is that this has developed into a serious issue, and it feels necessary right now to use an email authenticator just to play the darn game in safety. Blizzard has had to delay the "real money" portion of the auction house because this has turned into such of a pressing concern. At least right now it's just in-game items and in-game gold getting hacked, and not actual financial information. All of these issues have led me to question the decision to make Diablo 3 online-only, and place so much attention on the auction house. Yes, if it all goes according to plan, it's going to make Blizzard a ton of money. At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the deleterious effects that the auction house is having on gameplay, and the very serious problems with lag, account hacking, and server downtime that's aggravating the player base. There are a lot of mad customers out there. Would it really have been that big of an issue to allow players to opt-out of the whole online thing, and simply create Single Player characters if they wanted to do so? I'd be happy to authenticate my account each time I played, if I could just get out of the online mode afterwards, avoiding lag and hacking and all that other crud. Diablo 3 is going to sell over 10 million copies before its run is done; it moved over 6m in the first week alone. At some point, maybe Blizzard should just be happy with all those sales and not try to keep forcing more MORE MOAR online transactions on its player base. It's cool for those who want it, but not all of us do, you know? It would be nice if our opinions were considered as well.

Anyway, like I said at the beginning, this was going to involve more nitpicking and criticism than my first thoughts. I think that about 85% of what Diablo 3 does is really great and makes for a fabulous gaming experience. The other 15% is unnecessarily aggravating and head scratching. That's almost exactly the same way I felt about Diablo 2, a mixture of mostly good and some incredibly frustrating ideas. I can see why Blizzard made the choices that they did from a design perspective, and yet many of them aren't proving to work out in the way that Blizzard was expecting. I will be interested to see where they go from here in the patching process. Variant characters are still a fair ways away for me; need more time to become familiar with the gameplay and the various combination of skills. If I can't play through the game deathless, then I still need more practice, and I'm not sharp enough for variant play. Dying 80 times to progress through the game is not my style. Stay tuned.

Issues With Diablo 3: Poor Implementation of Difficulty
Issues With Diablo 3: Itemization

EDIT: Found these short videos today on YouTube. I did not watch these until after writing the above thoughts, and yet this individual has come to nearly the same conclusions about issues with Diablo 3's design. Worth a look.