Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Game Review: Diablo 3

This is going to be an interesting experience for me, because my review of the new video game Diablo 3 isn't really going to have anything to do with the game itself. But that is fairly fitting, because with Diablo 3, Blizzard has delivered a product that has almost nothing to do with the game itself either.

Before we get into the meat of the review, then, let's get the game stuff out of the way: it's fine. It's fun even. Diablo 3 pretty much has everything Diablo 2 had, except with graphics and an interface that are a decade better. If you enjoyed playing Diablo 2, chances are you will enjoy playing Diablo 3, which is basically the greatest version of Gauntlet ever created. It's fine.

Unfortunately, though, creating a fun game just isn't enough for the folks at Blizzard these days, because instead they've created what is either a revolutionary new gaming model that will change how people play for the next decade or more, or they've created the ultimate online pyramid scheme. Or both.

At issue is a little thing you may already have heard about in regards to Diablo 3, namely the fact that you have to log into the Blizzard servers and play online even if you are playing a solo, single player campaign. There have been a lot of complaints about this and it received a lot of media coverage when the game was released last month, but after playing Diablo 3 for a few weeks, I can assure you that as far as Blizzard is concerned, this is definitely a feature and not a bug. And it also drives every single facet of the gaming experience.

That's because here's a deceptively simple reason Blizzard makes you play online: You can't really play the game otherwise. Blizzard has designed the game in such a way that even if you could play it offline, you couldn't, because at higher difficultly levels you are required to interact with other payers in one way or another to progress through the game. And they've brilliantly set this up so that most of that interaction takes place at the true heart of Diablo 3: The auction house.

See, in Diablo 3, unlike Diablo 2, equipment is randomly generated by the mobs when you kill them. That means that if you want to get a specific item, you cannot, say, do Baal runs over and over again until you get the drop, because the bosses in Diablo 3 have no set loot table. In English, this means that there's never any way of knowing what any monster you fight is going to drop.

And even if you did know, that knowledge would be useless because Blizzard has randomized the stats on all equipment drops. The upshot of this is that when you do get an item, it will have between 1 and 6 random stats from a possible chart of say 15-40 different effects; and each of these stats will then have a random numerical value between 1 and 250 or something.

As you can see, it's all incredibly random, which becomes a major problem when you want to actually get gear that is useful for your character. On lower difficulty levels, finding a piece of gear that boosts one of your stats modestly is enough to get through. But when you get to higher difficulty levels, you need to have gear with stats specifically catered to your character's build. And since finding gear with the exact stats you need is almost literally impossible, the only option players have is to turn to other players who have likewise been getting random equipment they can't use and trade or buy each other's stuff. Aka, the auction house.

Now, here's where things get really interesting. You see, ever since the days of Diablo 2 (and into Blizzard's other big game, World of Warcraft), players have bought and sold items (and gold) on the black market. This has always been technically against the terms of service and if you are caught you get banned, but thousands of players still do it all the time. With Diablo 3, however, Blizzard has decided to co-opt the black market by building it into the game and controlling it themselves, via the brilliantly insidious creation of the Real Money Auction House.

If you want to buy or sell an item for real money, then, you can do it right in game through secure systems that Blizzard has set up themselves. This removes the risk of getting your info stolen by some Chinese hacker. But more importantly, it also potentially makes a mound of money for Blizzard themselves, as they charge a flat $1 service fee for every transaction, along with a 15% additional fee if you sell items using PayPal.

So let's review: Diablo 3 is designed in a way that requires you to use the auction house, and every time you do, Blizzard takes a piece of the action. In essence, Blizzard has designed Diablo 3 in such a way that the entire player base becomes gold farmers working for Blizzard.

Of course, there are some benefits to this for the player. One of the main drawbacks of games like Diablo -- and to a lesser extent MMOs such as World of Warcraft -- is that there's no real purpose to anything. Once you've finished the story of Diablo 3, you can go through it again on higher difficulty levels, but essentially when you buy or find better equipment, there's no actual point to it. Because the only thing having better equipment does is allow you to go through the game easier and quicker... in order to find more equipment. It can be fun, but it's also a pointless, closed loop that eventually becomes tiresome.

The Real Money Auction House, on the other hand, removes this problem in part, because now there is a reason to keep playing to find that better equipment: You can sell it for real American cash on the auction house. Which in a way is an even more brilliant fact from Blizzard's perspective; after all, you have a highly addictive game franchise played by a population known for obsession and then you add to it the possibility of actually making money for playing?

This does affect gameplay in some unexpected ways as well, though. Previously, when you found equipment in a game that you didn't personally need, you would almost always sell it for gold or trade it to other players in order to acquire equipment that you do need. And you can still do this via the regular, gold based auction house in Diablo 3. However, let's say you find some great Monk shoulders, but you are playing a Demon Hunter. Are you going to want to use this to buy a better bow for yourself? Or do you sell the item for real money instead?

Here's a real life example: Yesterday I got lucky and found a legendary helmet called Andariel's Refuge. I was playing on my 59 Barbarian, but I also have a 54 Witch Doctor whom I don't play very much and for whom this helmet was a huge upgrade. So what do I do? Sell it for gold and buy something awesome for by Barbarian? Give it to my Witch Doctor? Or sell it for real money?

Obviously, I sold it for real money, making a cool $10.61 as just a side effect of doing something I was already doing just for fun anyway. And it's an obvious but true fact: once you start making real money for playing a fun game you were already enjoying, it becomes much more enticing to play more and continue playing. In the first week of the RMAH, I cleared just over $30 -- and that was just from stuff I either had sitting around my vault or that I found while leveling up alts, without any dedicated farming involved at all.

But is that a good thing in terms of either Diablo 3 being a good game or the future of gaming itself? Because, make no mistake, if Blizzard ends up making as much money off of this as they seem poised to do, the industry is going to take notice. For instance, that $10.61 I received for the helm was only after Blizzard had already skimmed $2.88 off the top for themselves. And that's just one transaction out of what is probably thousands and thousands every day. Once the money starts rolling in -- Blizzard hasn't yet implemented stuff like buying materials, gold and even characters, which they are going to add later -- how long to you think it's going to take for Blizzard to implement a RMAH in WoW, for instance? And if it does become a successful model, that means you can look forward to a whole new generation of games that, like Diablo 3, are designed from top to bottom around the auction house rather than around, you know, actually making a good game.

It's kind of fun. It's fairly addictive. It's almost satisfying. But is Diablo 3 a good thing for games and gamers?

One thing for sure: It's a great thing for Blizzard's bottom line.

My Grades: As a game it gets an N/A because Diablo 3 isn't really a game at all. As perhaps the most well-crafted way to harness the earning power of gamers and trick millions of players into becoming free labor, it gets either an A+ or an F- depending on your outlook.

Movie Review: The Avengers

Now, some of you have probably been wondering why I haven't posted a review of The Avengers yet. And the answer is pretty simple: I've been too busy seeing The Avengers over and over again for the past several weeks to write about it. But now that I've finally exhausted my life savings buying disposable 3-D glasses, I've found a little free time to write up a review for you. You're welcome.

Before we get into the details, let me put out a disclaimer: The Avengers has been my favorite comic book series since 1986. It's no exaggeration, therefore, to say that I have been waiting for over a quarter of a century for this movie to come out. So I am not an unbiased viewer. On the one hand, this means that I am predisposed to like The Avengers, assuming they do it right. On the other hand, I am also probably a lot pickier than your normal moviegoer as this material is close to my heart. So you can consider those facts when reading my review.

Because, honestly, I loved the damn thing. It might not have been perfect, but it was as close to perfect as I could possibly have hoped. And not only is it an excellent comic book movie, it's also an excellent summer popcorn movie. You'd think those things would naturally go together, but often they really kinda don't.

So what works with The Avengers? Well, let's start with the basic concept, which is probably the trickiest part to pull off. After all, Marvel has been carefully (some would say ponderously, slowly and tediously) laying the groundwork for The Avengers for years, setting up plot threads in every one of their previous films. That sort of thing could lead to an exposition heavy, continuity clogged data dump and could easily derail the entire film.

Instead, director Joss Whedon and company manage to intertwine all the elements and all the characters as seamlessly and organically as the situation allows for. And the result of that is that, while knowing all those earlier bits of setup help make The Avengers a more interesting experience, being up to speed on every niggling detail isn't necessary at all to enjoy the film. In other words, it stands on its own.

Much of that credit, of course, has to go to the cast, which is uniformly excellent. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans, as the leads of individual franchises, are very strong, as they each manage to maintain the integrity of their character while still fitting into the smaller role called for by the team environment. It's a tricky balance that everyone manages to pull off just right.

Even better, though, are Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner as Black Widow and Hawkeye, characters who could have been throwaway space fillers but who instead manage to come to life and be vital pieces of the Avengers puzzle. And best of all is Mark Ruffalo, who somehow actually made me enjoy a Hulk appearance, which I literally did not think was possible. Ruffalo's wry and bone dry humor was a perfect match to the character here and worked superbly within the context of the team.

The upshot of all of this is that The Avengers doesn't just satisfy all the expectations that were created by the years of buildup in Marvel's previous films, it actually justifies Marvel's previous films. Iron Man 2, for instance, felt at the time like a bit of a bloated mess, with a bunch of Avengers stuff shoehorned into the action to the detriment of the film. Now, however, it retroactively gains entertainment value thanks to The Avengers.

Not that redeeming their few missteps is Marvel's primary goal here; entertainment is the top priority, while setting up even bigger future blockbusters is clearly a close second. Which may be the best news of all about The Avengers, because if you liked this one, well, trust me: There's going to be a whole hell of a lot more where this came from.

My Grades: The film as a whole gets an incoherent fanboy squee, which roughly translates to an A+. All of the actors get an A, with the exceptions of Mark Ruffalo and Tom Hiddleston, who both get an A++; and Scarlett Johansson, who was mostly really good but did flatline a couple of bits, so I'm just going to give her an A-. The post-credits teaser for the upcoming Avengers arc gets an I for incomplete only because the character teased has had far more crappy appearances than great ones, so even though Marvel has a really strong track record, I'm still not entirely sold yet. But here's hoping.