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The Great Diablo 3 Review Adventure

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Diablo 3, Day 1: Lets Go To Hell


I need to preface everything about this series by saying I am not a big PC gamer. I have almost always used my computer to do non-gaming things like make music, graphics, web stuff, programming stuff, and pretty much everything else that isn't gaming.


As a result, I've mostly not been one of those guys who has a $200+ graphics card. My current main desktop machine at home doesn't even have a graphics card. Nope, I'm rolling with an AMD "APU" chip, which is basically a discrete CPU and GPU packed into a single CPU-sized chip. The fact that the APU contains a "real" GPU theoretically means you can game on it.


My first day's worth of playing Diablo 3 has shown that's mostly true. I'll be testing out Diablo 3 on my family room computer tomorrow, and that actually has a graphics card, so we'll see how that goes and if its better / worse than my current experience. I'm not gonna be posting actual hardware specs for now because I mostly wanted to write about the gameplay and how the game plays and feels if you're NOT a super-fan.


The basic question I wanted to address is "What is all the fuss about, and is it warranted?"


While much more of a console gamer, I am not completely inexperienced. I have played through both Diablo and Diablo 2, albeit many years ago. I haven't played such a mouse-intensive game in a while, so I honestly did have several "Uhh, what do I do?" moments while playing Diablo 3 for the first time.


I attribute this mostly to my recent fair being all 3rd person console stuff like Prototype 2 and Max Payne 3, where you drive your on-screen avatar via joysticks. Given that sensiblity, having to click to make the character move to specific spaces on screen is understandably alien.


Of course, its also one of the things that makes Diablo what it is. In fact, that was the thing that most struck me during my initial session: this game is old school! In an era of re-boots, HD re-releases, and general money-grabbing mediocrity, I'm kindof surprised that Blizzard didn't change the game in an effort to make it have a safer, more "general audience" appeal. The design, NPC interaction, even the town music, EVERYTHING screams classic Diablo. Well, everything except the graphics.


The new, modern game engine has all the modern niceties like real-time physics, various kinds of particle effects, and just a general nice-ness. Of course, all that nice eye candy comes at a cost. Even with all the details toned down, I could still only get 15 to 30 fps on my less-than-awesome desktop computer. As a result, you may want to revise your "Its made by Blizzard, so it will run OK on anything!" expectations accordingly.


Of course, I should note that the framerate never dropped too low to make the gameplay suffer, and it generally moved smooth enough to be acceptable while also looking pretty damned good. Again, being a console guy, I'm not accustomed to goofing around with changing resolutions and texture detail levels. I'm planning on trying some other graphics drivers and some other hardware to see how Diablo 3 plays with more horsepower. Tomorrow, I'll be playing it on a 50" HDTV with 7.1 surround sound. Should make for a neat experience.


What I saw looking at this Guest Pass...At the moment, I am playing on a Starter Edition key I got from a friend. Amusingly, I didn't have a Battle.net account, so I had to create one before I could download & install the game.


Much has been made about the game's client/server structure, given that the franchise is widely known, at least in part, because of its compelling single player experience. Indeed, I probably won't be doing anything with the multiplayer aspects of the game for a while, but even just to have a solo experience, you must be on the internet and logged into your Battle.net account at all times. So far, this hasn't been a problem. It'll be interesting to see if your game progress is stored "in the cloud" and so you can easily jump between machines and keep playing where you left off.


I'm playing a female Demon Hunter. In my first few hours of play, I chipped away at the first quest line, killed a lot of zombies, and made it to Level 5. I didn't honestly know what to think of or expect from the various character classes, since they're all new relative to the old games, and all stay away from the super-cliched RPG mainstays of old.


Fortunately, the game feels almost perfectly tuned to dole out just the right amount of new stuff at the right time. If anyone knows difficulty curves, its Blizzard. Like I said earlier, I'm about as n00btastic as you can get at this game while still being a "gamer", so I was surprised at how accessible everything is given the old-school feel. I got as far as unlocking 4 different attacks and one spell-like power. I'll be trying the other classes, I think, but so far I am enjoying playing as a Demon Hunter.


The Demon Hunter's skillset is basically all about ranged attacks. Probably not as easy to start the game with as a tank-like Barbarian, I so far haven't run into a lot of problems. The game is really generous in the opening areas with health potions, and I found an awesome flaming shortbow and some nice magic armor as well.


As with the previous titles, the classic cycle of "Kill stuff and get awesome loot, then go back to town and sell what you don't need so you can get more gold, get more loot, and kill more stuff" hasn't been tampered with at all in this game.


To Be Continued..

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Diablo 3, Day 2: Trouble In Paradise


As my second day of Diablo began, I was kindof eager to see how the game would run on my "home theater" PC. This is my secondary machine, and is primarily used to watch HD movies and TV, so its not exactly a power house of gaming excitement. However, I was unprepared for the kinds of issues I encountered.


Upon first running Diablo 3, I was confused to see that I had an on-screen mouse cursor which wouldn't move. At all. This is a family room setup, so the mouse & keyboard are wireless, so for about 20 minutes I was trying all kinds of hardware troubleshooting, unplugging / replugging the USB transceiver, power cycling the mouse, etc. Switch to Windows, mouse works fine. Switch back to Diablo 3, mouse is frozen again.


Then, my more experienced PC gamer roommate took over and spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out how to change various options on the login screen via the keyboard. No dice. Then, we kinda randomly figured it out: the mouse cursor on screen was some kind of weird ghost render, the actual mouse pointer was invisible, but functional.


Since most of the menu items in Diablo 3 cause either stuff to glow as you mouse over it, or tips to pop-up, we could kinda "feel" our way around on screen via that visual feedback. I fumbled around in this way for another 10 minutes or so, and eventually almost changed my game resolution before saying "Screw this crap!" and doing what most nerds I know do when faced with a tough software problem: Google it! Thanks to Google, I was able to locate some forum threads about Diablo 3's "invisible cursor" problem.


This appears to only effect systems running Windows 7 with the the text size option maxed out. Since the setup in question is running on an HDTV, we have the text bumped up to make browsing the web a bit easier to read. Switching this option from 150% to 125% made my in-game mouse pointer in Diablo 3 actually visible. So, after close to an hour of screwing around with a wierd issue, I was finally able to login to the game! But alas, my torment was not to end there...


See, my home theater box has a Radeon HD 4200. Diablo 3 laughs at this GPU, beats it up, and steals its lunch money. Its not an officially supported piece of hardware, and with good reason. When I finally got my game loaded up and got back into town, I had all kinds of rendering issues. The game ran at around 10 FPS, and there were a bunch of random triangles rendering as a solid colors. Overall, it was just an unplayable mess.


This was made more painful by having already played the game, so I know what it looks like when its running well. It seems like I could have probably stayed on that machine and kept going, albeit with everything looking bad, but I elected to retreat back to my main desktop.


I do want to point out that I was able to jump from one machine to another and have full access to all my stuff. A side effect of the new very server-centric architecture Diablo 3 uses is that all the important stuff is happening "in the cloud", so my character's quest progress, level, inventory, stats, and current checkpoint all just showed right up. It was literally as dumb as signing in and clicking my Hero. I applaud Blizzard for making it that simple, since it should mean I can try out Diablo 3 with "my" game on pretty much any computer that has it installed.


Hardware issues aside, I was able to switch back to my main desktop and continue my Demon Hunter game, reaching Level 8 and finishing off a bunch of quests before calling it a day. I unlocked a few Achievements, some new skills, and grabbed some neat new loot. Probably the biggest game-changing thing I encountered was the new "crafting" system.


Once you have finished off the right quest, the town blacksmith is basically unlocked to you. There are a few things you can do with him, but he basically serves as a magic item generator / recyler. The odd thing is, rather than having your character learn to DIY, Diablo 3 has all the duties parked in the Blacksmith character. Like the other traders, he hangs out in the town and waits for you to come talk to and trade with him.


Unlike the regular merchants, the Blacksmith can undergo "training" to increase his smithing level, albeit for a pretty steep price. Paid out in installments of 2,000 gold each, the first few ranks cost 10,000 gold each to obtain. I was only able to put 6,000 into my Blacksmith so far, so he's just an Apprentice. Aside from sucking up all your money, the Blacksmith can also be used to craft new magic items. Virtually everything even my lowly Apprentice could make was better than what I was carrying, but crafting magical items requires you to "Salvage" materials from other magic items.


So, the sweet bracers I wanted required me to hand over 4 different items. Fortunately, I had just gotten back from some dungeon crawling, so I was carrying a pile of gear, most of which I didn't want to keep. The items the Blacksmith makes have x number of randomized magic effects on them, so you might get better or worse gear out of the deal. It seems like this semi-random way of cyclically processing through the gear you haul in (as opposed to just selling stuff for gold and that's it) has the potential to make Diablo 3 even more addictive than its predecessors.


One other thing struck me: this game is, at least so far, entirely linear in its structure. All the environments and quests I have been through so far only have one real way to do it. When you talk to people, the conversation can only go one way. If you're a big BioWare person, the idea of just clicking "Next" a bunch of times to get through dialogue might seem alien, or downright lame.


Similarly, since the last big RPG I played was Skyrim, the idea of being dropped into an environment where there's one clear path to take and not really any other options did feel kinda weird at first. Its unclear if the game will open up more further in, and its not bad, just not what I'm used to at all. Overall, I am enjoying my time in Diablo 3, though at Level 8, I'm beginning to wonder when I'll hit the limits of the Starter edition.


Continuing on...

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Diablo 3, Day 3: Trials And Tribulations

"This is why I don't play games on my computer..."


Much has happened since I last posted entry. First, I hit the end of the Guest Pass content on my Demon Hunter character. You can get as far as completing the first big boss fight, and then the game pretty unceremoniously cuts you off. I wasn't hopelessly addicted to Diablo 3, but I liked it enough and knew enough people playing it that I figured I should buy it. A friend at work had an extra copy he sold me, and I feverishly punched the game code into my Battle.net account while still at work so the full game would be ready to play when I got home. For some reason, rather than continue on with my Demon Hunter, I decided to try a new class. And that is how King Willie was born...


For those of you who haven't seen Predator 2, its a fairly good example of the exuberant excesses of 80s action movies and how things can quickly go off the rails. It follows the exploits of Danny Glover playing a police detective in Los Angeles, and how he becomes the target of a Predator after investigating the scene of its previous killings. I can't remember exactly how the movie brings them in, but Glover ends up encountering a bunch of criminals, and we are introduced to King Willie And His Jamaican Voodoo Gang.


I wish I were making this up, but alas, the movie actually goes there. Not only that, there's even a scene where King Willie and his men are in the back of a car smoking marijuana. The whole car is full of smoke. Because they're Jamaican, see?? Jamaicans love marijuana! Thanks for being dumb and racist, movie. Also, voodoo is from Haiti, not Jamaica. For all of these reasons, the phrase "King Willie and his Jamaican Voodoo Gang" has stuck with me all these years.


As a result, I made myself a sweet Witch Doctor character. Seeing as how the Witch Doctor seems to be something of a racist caricature already, I figured naming him King Willie was only fitting. I honestly did feel kind of weird playing a totally African guy carrying a spear, like "Is this OK? C'mon Blizzard..."


Racist stuff aside, the Witch Doctor is a pretty sweet class. Because he isn't a standard RPG archetype, I wasn't really sure what to expect. He plays like a weird combination of a necromancer and a druid. My main attacks are a poisonous blow dart attack, an AOE spell that summons a bunch of zombie hands out of the ground to slow and damage enemies in the area, and my first summonable pet, zombie dogs. Yes, you get zombie dogs!


I feel like as the Witch Doctor levels up, he pretty regularly gets cool new abilities which kept the game fun and interesting despite me playing through the same quests I had already done as a Demon Hunter. Once I unlocked rapid fire blowdarts, I found King Willie could chew right though most enemies with relative ease, and I killed the Skeleton King on my first try. This is probably at least in part due to me getting better at the game in general. It doesn't help that I got new hardware.


That's the down side of this update: I pretty quickly decided the built-in GPU in my APU chip just wasn't up to the challenge of playing Diablo 3. I was able to find a pretty decent Radeon HD 6670 with 1GB of RAM onboard in a low-profile form factor for $99. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I had the card in less than 24 hours for $5, and it installed pretty much without a hitch. I had the drivers updated, and Diablo 3 running on that fancy new silicon in no time. The other thing I did was move the game to my SSD drive (same place my OS is installed).


With these two changes, the game has been running smoothly and looking great. I turned off the framerate display since I know its going to always be "good enough". Honestly, now that I have spent a fair amount of time with the game running good and bad graphics hardware, I gotta say, you really can't do the game justice on a GPU that isn't up to the task. Now, like I said, I spent a grand total of $105 on a new graphics card. I didn't need a new power supply, new case fans, or any of the silliness of previous generations' gaming hardware, which is part of why it was so affordable. However, I was a victim of my own nerdery.


I use my main desktop PC to drive a 22" LCD panel where I play games and surf the web and whatnot. It also drives a 42" HDTV display I have wall-mounted across the room, where I run movies and TV shows and whatnot on a media center. Its a pretty snazzy little home theater system, with a good screen, 5.1 surround sound, and even a little clicky remote control.


Also, being a nerd, I was running the preview build of Windows 8, since I like to try new things and stay on top of the trends (the better to be able to write for a tech-oriented website like this one!). Overall Windows 8 has been relatively painless to switch to, and I like the various Explorer enhancements and the super-fast boot time. However, when I installed my new video card, I also installed updated drivers from AMD, and a problem crept in. The AMD drivers (in their infinite wisdom) attempt to auto-detect "television" displays, and when detected, the drivers apply a 20% underscan on the output. On projection televisions like the one we have in our family room, this is helpful because the outer edges of the display aren't perfectly aligned with the actual signal.


My bedroom TV is a LCD panel, so there's a perfect 1:1 pixel matchup on a 1080P signal, and no underscan is needed. The result is a black gap around the outside edge of the signal showing on the TV. Doesn't sound like much, but its annoying as hell to look at, as the picture I took shows. Best of all, this option is only changeable inside the AMD Vision Engine Control Center. However, under Windows 8 with the Radeon HD 6670, this wasn't do-able. The driver for the card installs, but the Control Center won't detect it, because this is Windows 8. OH JOY!


Ultimately this issue lead me to roll back to Windows 7. Yes, I ended up reformatting and reinstalling the OS on my computer. Did Diablo 3 make this happen? No. Did it happen as a result of me playing Diablo 3? Yes. Is it that big of a deal? Not really. But it was a somewhat time consuming process that made for a couple aggrivating days that otherwise would have been spent doing fun stuff instead.


And this, my friends, is why I don't like gaming on my computer. Ultimately, my Witch Doctor has hit Level 12, and I'm starting to pick up some pretty sweet items, and the whole thing just kinda works.


More to come...

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