Saturday 11 November 2017

Diablo III for the PlayStation 3

Sometimes you just want to switch off. The social media is put away, the phone is powered down and anything remotely smelling of news is avoided. At such times other entertainments may present themselves, and these include mindless video games. Feeling this need for a brain detox, I was minded to give Diablo III a try - not least because Halloween was (then) approaching and a comment on it would have made ideal blogging fodder. And it also suits my gaming style. I'm very much a pick-up-and-play person and just don't have the time to spend hours and hours learning complicated mechanics any more.

That's the first thing about Diablo III. The core game is very simple: wander around an isometric world dealing out death to all comers, which are usually a mix of undead, cultists and demons. And when a particular objective has been reached you move on to the next before encountering the level's big bad. Some things never change. I began my game with the most brutal-looking of characters, a giant man-tank barbarian with thighs that could crack breeze blocks, and jumped in. Immediately you find yourself pitted against some restless dead on the road to Tristram, a town under siege by the ghoulish hordes. You carve them up with your blades or whatever, depending on the character and the weapons you possess, and you pick up what is left behind. This falls into two broad categories: money and loot. The first allows you to buy equipment from the merchants you find dotted around the game, whereas the latter are items. They may be bits of weaponry and armour to be used to upgrade the fighting power of your character, or bits and bobs you can craft with.

As an action role-playing game, Diablo III is foremost a button masher. Particularly when you are getting swamped by enemies (it is very satisfying when you're told seven or more monsters have been dispatched by a single blow). And that suits me down to the ground. But as this is a modern game the simple mechanics are boosted in a number of ways. Naturally, would an RPG be a RPG without an experience/levelling system? Of course not. Every enemy in receipt of the slicing and dicing treatment bequeaths experience points, and as per all RPGs these are automatically traded in for extra abilities. Here, however, it unlocks abilities, moves, and skills that are mapped to the controller's buttons. There are loads of these which can be swapped out at any moment for another skill or ability, and allows for a huge array of combinations and therefore styles of play. The fun continues in crafting. Loot picked up from the battlefield can be dropped again, sold off in the shops, or melted down by artisans and fused with other weapons and/or gems to create more powerful items. With dozens, if not hundreds of different bits of kit dropped in-game, combining them all together and trying them out is going to take endless hours of dedication. But the option is there for those inclined toward such things.

The plot is fairly superfluous to the action. It intervenes with some very nice looking cut scenes, but it's not much you need pay attention to. There's the usual hokey affair of ancient evils threatening to consume the world (seriously, what would evil do if it ever won?), but it supplies a steady stream of nasties to kill. What does annoy is the travelling companion you pick up. Controlled by the AI, they are occasionally handy in a fight but tend to repeat the same lines of dialogue over and over. If you happen to have Eirena the Enchantress accompany your male character, expect some cringey and unconvincing dialogue.

Despite this, Diablo III is an enjoyable romp. The graphics are always outstanding and the action can get frenetic. It manages to recapture the fast paced relentlessness of the likes of Smash TV with the slashing action of Gauntlet and Golden Axe, with the action RPG veneer on top for padding and community building via the multiplayer features. The game has also received DLC and is still regularly supported by Blizzard - the latest patch coming out last month.

What can you say? This is old-style gaming extensively tweaked and remodelled for now. The seemingly endless choices of weapons and customisation, the three followers who can tag along with you, the character classes, the multiple difficulty levels and the huge maps, it's almost as if Blizzard are trying to capture a cadre of gamers and keep them imprisoned in the game. Well, there is an element of truth to this. Just as social media platforms attempt to create an enclosed universe to accumulate data, software firms are following suit. Drawing gamers into multiplayer activities introduces new competitive dynamics around the acquisition and unlocking of achievements, but also in terms of loot. In earlier iterations of Diablo III there were in-game auction houses where found weapons and crafted items could be bought and sold for real money. It was eventually patched out, but that offered up an additional revenue stream. Yet that's small beer. Signing in via Xbox Live, PSN or Blizzard's own servers if on PC leaves data footprints. Just as Facebook lets loose its algorithms on all content posted, similar, albeit less sophisticated systems, are at work here picking up on gaming habits, the amount of time is sunk into games, communication between players and whatnot, and these in turn can be used to market services and/or advertising based on avatars constructed out of the data.

It's interesting. We've noted before how accumulation is the absolute heart of RPGs, whether they follow a grindy, tactical, or action-oriented format. Diablo III like all others depends on acquiring experience and loot to enhance the gaming experience, whether single player or no. But once you start moving into the realms of multiplayer it's you, your friends, your acquaintances, everyone you play with and compete with via the networks that become the loot. It's the logical culmination of the RPG. The game play structures how one interacts with the game, reinforces certain habits of mind and latterly, unbeknownst to most, their data embeds them in other strategies of accumulation.


johnny conspiranoid said...

A habit of mind is a habit of body and vice versa. See FM Alexander.

Phil said...

Indeed. It's basic materialism.