NMY vs The World Video Game Hall of Fame Class of 2015


The Strong, an educational institution in Rochester specializing in the study of games, announced the six inaugural inductees of their World Video Game Hall of Fame yesterday. So what? Well, it made its way onto a lot of major news sites, which means it is probably going to resurface again next year and, in time, become the closest we’ve got to an “official” Hall of Fame.

My gut reaction was “my what a pretentious title”, because the “World” VG HoF looks incredibly U.S.-centric. Their game history timeline pretty much completely ignores the fact that the U.S. did not control the international gaming market for the vast majority of the 20th century. I mean, this timeline is crazy. 1982, the year that the bloody Commodore 64 was released, they feature Chicago-based Midway’s Tron instead. 1986, the year that Dragon Quest set the standard for the next two decades of role-playing games, they are at such a loss to find anything novel that they dig up Reader Rabbit by Boston-based developers The Learning Company. In spite of devoting 1992 to Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios’ Dune II, LA-based Blizzard Entertainment steals 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Does the invention of RTS gaming really deserve two years? Well, it’s not like it was competing with the release of the Sony Playstation or anything. Oh that’s alright, we’ll feature it in 1995, since that’s when it came to America. This list also devotes 1993 to the development of the ESRB rating system (which only applies in America), 1996 to Lara Croft’s tits (seriously, does anyone actually give a shit about Tomb Raider?), and 2002 to the U.S. Army, because uh, freedom!

So yeah, World Video Game Hall of Fame my ass. But that doesn’t mean they got the first six wrong:

Pong (1972)

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have been hand selected to choose the five games which will accompany Pong into the Hall of Fame.” It had to go something like that. Pong invented gaming like Al Gore invented the internet. Could you imagine a Hall of Fame without Pong? I mean, it’s Pong! Really though, wasn’t computer gaming kind of inevitable? Was it the first game? Nope. Did it stand the test of time? Not really. Did it usher in the age of arcade gaming? I guess it did, but the game itself had little to do with that. It was a novelty. Replace it with anything else, and that other game would be just as famous, regardless of its content. I don’t like that. There is a reason why Pong is the only game of the six Hall of Famers that I never played as a kid or else upon release, and that has nothing to do with my age. I think we get hung up on its simplicity, its catchy name, this idea that it all began with two paddles and a ball, and the desire to point to something and say “this started it all”. Pong deserves recognition in any gaming hall of fame eventually, but top 6? We can do better.

NMY gives this selection a 5/10

Pac-Man (1980)

What are Pac-Man‘s claims to fame? Well, it was the first video game to be a major social phenomenon, generating a huge market for spin-offs, toys, animated cartoons, and all sorts of other consumer products. It was the first video game with a really memorable theme song. It remains the best-selling arcade game of all time. It generated a chart-topping shitty pop song. It even destroyed the gaming industry. (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has absolutely nothing on the devastating consequences of Pac-Man‘s abysmal Atari port.) And sure, it’s pretty boring, but it still lasted well into the 90s. I had a pirated DOS copy as a kid. Do you think anyone bothered to pirate Pong? Uh, no.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Tetris (1984)

Tetris is a game that we all agree to love because it is Russian, and like Russia, it is really evil and kind of a dick. Four Z blocks in a row? Really? I didn’t double tap that button. Go back! Ugh…. Tetris annoyed the hell out of me as a kid, but I certainly did play it. It also spawned a ton of cheap rip-offs, novel improvements, and largely unrelated block puzzle games that stole its name for publicity, and a lot of these vastly outclassed the original. If I look back on all the fun I had playing Tetris Attack for the Super Nintendo, or hosting TetriNET tournaments online in the late 90s, or the amount of time my wife wastes on Candy Crush Saga, it is hard for me to pretend that Tetris was not significant. It was the mother of all “endless puzzle” games, and it deserves credit for that, even if I hated the original Alexey Pajitnov Tetris, with its never-ending tiers of frustration.

NMY gives this selection a 9/10

Super Mario Bros (1985)

This is the real shoe-in. Nintendo was able to turn Mario into (I am assuming) the most recognizable fictional character in the world because the original Super Mario Bros was so great. A game released in 1985 is not supposed to still be this much fun 30 years later, but from novel settings and mechanics to outstanding control, this game ran the gamut of what a great side-scroller was supposed to be. This, at a time when there was very little in the way of quality competition to take inspiration from. The game’s lasting legacy is so pervasive in our culture that I would feel silly even bothering to summarize it.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Doom (1993)

“Why an FPS, World Video Game Hall of Fame?” Because “it also pioneered key aspects of game design and distribution that have become industry standards“, according to the official induction explanation. Design-wise, they laud it for “a game ‘engine’ that separated the game’s basic functions from other aspects such as artwork.” That might be an interesting point. I don’t know much about it, though I have to imagine that anything Doom did, Wolfenstein 3D did first. Distribution-wise, they talk about how id Software marketed downloadable expansions and encouraged multi-player, online gaming. That point fails to impress me. Doom launched in 1993, which means no games before it really had the option to market themselves in this way. “First” only counts for me if the move is innovative, not inevitable. So we are left with some sort of novel modular processing system and the fact that it was the first really successful FPS. Those are fine points. I might not like FPS games, but I can’t deny that they have had a more lasting impact than say, fighting or sports games. Placing so much weight on the play style does, however, open up the doors for a lot of why nots. Why not Diablo? Why not Dragon Quest? Why not Command & Conquer?

NMY gives this selection a 7/10

World of Warcraft (2004)

I am not entirely sure why the World Video Game Hall of Fame chose World of Warcraft, because they aren’t telling. Their write-up goes into detail on what makes MMORPGs so revolutionary, but none of it is really unique to WoW. They throw out some numbers about WoW’s player base and monthly profit, and then bam, inaugural hall of fame induction. I am probably the last person to give an accurate assessment of how World of Warcraft changed gaming, because I still actively play it, but I have to believe that its enormous popularity had a lot to do with its place in time. Coming in to the 21st century, we all knew someone who played EverQuest, and we all (all of us, right guys?) secretly wanted to abandon our real lives and nerd out in 24/7 multiplayer fantasy immersion. I never played EverQuest, however, or Final Fantasy XI for that matter, because I still had dial-up internet. World of Warcraft launched right around the time that the majority of gamers were becoming equipped to play something of its magnitude. That being said, WoW is going on 11 years now, and still going strong. I’ve never seriously considered canceling my subscription. Blizzard landed on a market ripe for the picking, but they have carefully cultivated it ever since.

NMY gives this selection an 8/10

Over all, I think the World Video Game Hall of Fame is off to a good start. Pong is the only inaugural entry I strongly disagree with, but were it missing, would people still take the organization seriously? Doom is a bit sketchy to me, because its only claim seems to be “first popular FPS”. I think GoldenEye 007 was the game to push FPS into the mainstream and really reach beyond the genre, while Blizzard clearly dominated online gaming with Diablo and Starcraft, whatever id Software happened to do “first”. Doom is a good candidate, no doubt, but I feel like it belongs in another class. It would have fit in more nicely in a 2016 school that pushed genre-standardizing games like Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter II, and Space Invaders.

Is that what we have to look forward to in 2016? Well, based on the runners-up from 2015, maybe not. The list did include Space Invaders and The Legend of Zelda, along with worthy contenders Pokémon Red and Blue and The Oregon Trail. Beyond that, it got a bit dicey. It is hard to imagine that Angry Birds, for instance, almost made the top 6. Sonic the Hedgehog would be long forgotten if not marketed as Sega’s response to Mario, yet it was a contender. FIFA International Soccer was the only sports entry–an odd choice, given that I have never heard of it, it only came out in 1993, and Tecmo Super Bowl exists. The other options were Minecraft–a bit young yet, don’t you think?–and oddly, The Sims, which I am sure was quite fun to play and left no lasting impact on gaming whatsoever. Well, they’ve got another year to straighten things out.

BlizzCon 2014: Day 1 Recap, Cinematics & Gameplay


The first day of BlizzCon 2014 is coming to an end. While the Starcraft 2 stage pulls an all-nighter with live demonstrations of Archon mode from Legacy of the Void featuring such big names as MC and Polt, the rest of the Anaheim Convention Center has cleared out and gone home. Of course Overwatch was the biggest deal. What were some of the other interesting announcements?

Hearthstone will be getting a new expansion in December called Goblins vs. Gnomes. There will be 120 new cards, and the game is coming to Android.

Warcraft the movie will be released in March 2016, and it will be based on the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans RTS.

Legacy of the Void matches will start with 12 workers, and players will not need to own either Wings of Liberty or Heart of the Swarm to play it. Lurkers are coming back, along with a whole mess of new units, and resource availability has been cut back to force faster matches. I’m not sure the last bit is good news for those of us who would rather watch the pros than play ourselves, but time will tell.

Everything was pretty quiet on the Diablo 3 front. I missed its hour slot, but considering it was on a side stage and got zero mention on the main stage, there couldn’t have been anything substantial. Heroes of the Storm got a lot of demonstration love, and Blizzard explained the rational behind a lot of the class and loot changes in Warlords of Draenor. Legacy of the Void demonstrations are still going on as I write this, and it might be the most entertaining segment we’ll see at BlizzCon. All the pros that lost in the round of 16 are going up against each other in Archon mode–shared-control team matches–messing around and showing off the new units. The commentary and in-game banter has been pretty hilariousl I’ll post up the cast of MC and HyuN’s TvZ stomp tomorrow if I can find it.

So anyway, I’ll close out the night by sharing the videos from day one that I think matter most: new cinematic trailers and gameplay videos for Overwatch and Legacy of the Void:

Overwatch Cinematic Trailer:

Legacy of the Void Cinematic Trailer:

Overwatch Gameplay Preview:

Legacy of the Void Unit Overview — Protoss:

Legacy of the Void Unit Overview — Terran:

Legacy of the Void Unit Overview — Zerg:

BlizzCon 2014: Opening Ceremony, Overwatch Announced as New Franchise


BlizzCon 2014’s opening ceremony just ended about 10 minutes ago, and it ran the gauntlet of new Blizzard products. Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Legacy of the Void got some attention, but the big news was about a franchise I did not expect: a brand new one!

First we got to see some Heroes of the Storm clips, and they announced Thrall, Jaina, and The Lost Vikings as playable characters. Nothing particularly “new”, unless you were already actively involved in the beta and recognized a new map or ability. The Hearthstone announcements were much more substantive. First of all, they announced that the game would be made available for Android “tablets”. I am going to assume that means it will work on my smart phone too. Hey, it’s not technically “texting” while driving. Count me in. We also found out about the next expansion, which Blizzard oddly called the “first” Hearthstone expansion. I am not sure what that makes Curse of Naxxramas, but suffice to say Hearthstone: Golbins vs. Gnomes is going to be way bigger. There will be a whopping 120 new cards, and we won’t have to wait long to see them. The game is coming in December 2014. Whaaa?

Legacy of the Void was covered next. Lurkers are coming back. Sweet. There will also be an “Archon” mode that didn’t get much of an explanation, but it was described as a mode that will allow you to see the game “the way the pros do”, giving you a grand view of everything at once. I’m not sure what that means, or whether it’s going to be more than a well-made UMS, but I’m intrigued.

That was the first half hour. Some big announcements for Hearthstone–a Goblins vs. Gnomes expansion with 120 new cards due out in only a month, and an Android edition. Heroes of the Storm and Legacy of the Void didn’t get much of a substantial update. Then on to Chris Metzen in a horde hoodie (racist!). “17 years since Blizzard opened up a new world”, he tells us. And it’s true. Everything has been Starcraft, Warcraft, or Diablo based since the mid-90s. Not anymore.

Overwatch. The cinematic opens with some kids in a museum watching anime footage of an old cyborg task force called “Overwatch”, that had once saved the world from something or other. As they walk through the museum, explaining that Overwatch has since devolved to scattered mercenary task forces, two groups of cyborg dudes including a giant gorilla in a space suit and Ghost Rider’s alter-ego bust through the ceiling and start duking it out, apparently trying to nab old Overwatch technology on display in the museum. The video revealed nothing about the game, besides gorillas in space suits, and the audience was kind of “meh” when the trailer ended. Not to be realistic, Metzen said “It looks you guys really liked that!” and introduced Jeff Kaplan to explain the game behind the cinematic.

Jeff Kaplan described Overwatch as a “team-based multi-player shooter” and kicked off the trailer to the game proper. I don’t really like first-person shooters that aren’t GoldenEye 007, so I don’t really know what I’m looking at mechanically, but the graphics were really impressive. Vibrant and colorful, we see none of the gritty realism that FPS games like to push. The game is set in Japan with an anime vibe, and the character abilities appear to be far from conventional. I saw characters cast spells, teleport through walls, fly around in the air… It’s certainly different. We don’t have to wait long to check it out either, relatively speaking. The beta will launch some time in 2015.

And that’s that. Nothing on Diablo, as I kind of expected. Warlords of Draenor will in fact be a two year expansion, as expected. Legacy of the Void should be out in a year or so, as expected. Heroes of the Storm still exists. Hearthstone is getting a major expansion in only a month, 120 new cards, and an Android edition. That’s pretty sweet. The big deal was all Overwatch. It felt a little anti-climatic to me, but hey, Blizzard have been trying to make an FPS since Starcraft: Ghost like two billion years ago. They’ve had plenty of time to figure out exactly how they want it, and this is not a company known for half-assing their products. It’s not my style, but you can bet I’ll be playing it anyway, at least for a little while.

BlizzCon 2014: Rumors and Speculations


Well, we are now only a day away from Blizzard Entertainment’s eighth BlizzCon convention, and as has become a sort of tradition here, I will aim to bring you as much coverage as I can while I watch the live stream. I’d like to get a bit of a head start this year by setting the rumor mill in motion.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind will inevitably be: what is Blizzard’s big opening surprise announcement? BlizzCon has traditionally been the company’s favorite venue to open the lid on secret projects and plans. The first BlizzCon introduced us to The Burning Crusade. In 2007 we learned of Wrath of the Lich King. 2008 gave us our first in-depth look at Starcraft II and Diablo III. 2009 brought Cataclysm, 2011 ushered in Mists of Pandaria, and 2013 introduced us to Warlords of Draenor. But 2010 was a bit of an anomaly. In 2010, we got nothing, and it’s probably no surprise that I remember that year the least of the four I followed.

Even numbers are off years for Blizzard. There was no BlizzCon 2012 for a reason; they had nothing substantial to announce. So where do we stand in 2014? It is too early to announce World of Warcraft 7. Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion is less than a year old, and we’ve known about StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void forever now. There is Hearthstone. But as fun as it may be, it’s just a card game. So you might be thinking Heroes of the Storm, Warcraft: The Movie, or Project Titan.

Titan would be the best guess, as Blizzard’s biggest, most ambitious upcoming project. Except Blizzard canceled Titan in September. Yes, after seven years of development, Project Titan went the way of Starcraft: Ghost. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, either. Blizzard had been “reevaluating” the project for a year, aka deciding if they should can it, so it’s not as if this was going to be the big BlizzCon announcement and they had to change their plans at the last minute.

Hmm… A repeat of 2010 then? Maybe. Probably? If Blizzard have a truly new game in store for us this year, it’s going to catch everyone off guard. Blizzard trademarked the title Overwatch earlier this year, and that has gained a lot of attention for lack of anything more concrete to speculate over. Overwatch could just as easily be the next Hearthstone expansion though, following Curse of Naxxramas. I think we can safely assume Blizzard will pump one of those out a year as long as people are willing to keep buying them.

So what will the big opening showcase definitely not be? I remember hearing a rumor years ago that after WoW 5, which would be Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard were going to shrink their expansions from two years down to one. That’s stupid. I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’ll still think it’s stupid. There will be no World of Warcraft 7 announcement at this BlizzCon. It’s also not likely to be Warcraft: The Movie or Heroes of the Storm. How do I know? Because there are introduction and overview slots scheduled for both of these projects immediately following the opening mystery segment.

But wait, Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 are going to have “What’s Next?” segments on the panel stage after the opening. So that leaves ???. Maybe, just maybe, Blizzard have a really big announcement in store. But they have scheduled events in such a way that it appears to rule out all six of their currently known major projects. Blizzard take years upon years to develop new games. That is why we knew about Starcraft: Ghost for an eternity. That is why we knew about Project Titan for an eternity. That is why the Starcraft II announcements were really just icing on a cake we had long known was in the oven. Blizzard is a company with Duke Nukem Forever syndrome, not an organization that spits out new titles out of the blue in a year’s time. Whatever the gaping two hour gap between BlizzCon 2014’s Opening Ceremony and its first presentations and panels will be, I predict that it will be anticlimactic.

Still, why the secrets? If the space is just going to be filled by a general overview of everything Blizzard, surely they would tell us. They wouldn’t get our hopes up for nothing, would they?

Well, I have one idea. StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. The one hour “What’s next?” panel certainly suggests that we won’t already know what’s next, but that could be misleading by intent. Wings of Liberty was released in July 2010. Heart of the Swarm came out in March 2013. At that pace, Legacy of the Void is due around November 2015, conveniently coincident with BlizzCon 2015 (where World of Warcraft 7 will be the obvious big deal). If Blizzard don’t want Legacy of the Void to go up in a puff of smoke, November 7, 2014, is the day to hype the shit out of it. They surely aren’t going to give it a measly one hour discussion on a side stage. Sure, it’s going to be more like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls than a big freakin’ deal, but Starcraft 2 needs more publicity. The Diablo series is now intimately tied with Warcraft. Every WoW subscriber owns the original D3, because you got a whopping year-long subscription free for buying it, and it only came out two and a half years ago. Starcraft 2 has been around for four and a half now, and let’s face it, the solo campaign for Heart of the Swarm was a boring letdown compared to Wings of Liberty. The game lacks casual players like me because it requires constant practice to maintain skill, so it competes with WoW for Blizzard fans’ time in a way that Diablo 3 doesn’t. It’s by far Blizzard’s best franchise, never mind that I’m a WoW junkie, and it’s been slowly isolating itself to Koreans and hardcore aficionados. My realid list is always capped at 100 players, and it’s totally normal for me to catch a WoW gamer playing Diablo or Hearthstone. Starcraft just never happens. It should, because it’s better than all those other games, but it doesn’t.

So what do you do at BlizzCon 2014? Hype the hell out of Legacy of the Void and announce a streamlined, highly publicized and consistently broadcasted esports league that brings the top tier of Korean competition to the front page of my Battle.net app every weekend. If I could watch Day[9] broadcast a Jaedong vs. Life zerg throwdown at the click of a button in my Battle.net interface, without having to dive into a foreign corner of the internet to find it, bye-bye raiding. And don’t worry Blizzard, I’ll still subscribe to do mindless fishing and archeology while I watch. The tail end of the SC2 WCS Global Finals is getting exclusive coverage with no overlap from other events on Saturday, so I’m pretty excited about that. And Day[9] is one of the tournament’s broadcasters. His commentary is always epic. I don’t know if that’s a sign of anything. Maybe it’s just a distant hope.

But are there any other options? Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s DotA-style free-to-play project, is getting one more hour of show time than any other project, and the official BlizzCon 2014 site background suggests it:

Kerrigan as a human, Arthas as a Death Knight, and a Diablo III Warlock all engaged in combat? That sounds like Heroes of the Storm to me. But then, if that’s the game they’re openly making a big deal about, it’s not going to be the secret surprise, is it? Well, I’ll break down the announced non-competition content and you be the judge:

World of Warcraft: 4 hours total
1 hour WoD changes overview
1 hour Content Q&A
1 hour Cinematics panel
1 hour Documentary

Warcraft: The Movie: 1 hour presentation

Diablo III: 2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.

Hearthstone: 2 hours total
1 hour “What’s next?” panel
1 hour Arena guide and strategy Q&A

Starcraft II: 4 hours total
2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information

Heroes of the Storm: 5 hours total
1 hour “Overview”
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information
1 hour audio panel
1 hour character and team-building guide

*mysterious* Unannounced Content: 3 hours total
2 hours of empty space to follow the opening ceremony
1 hour of empty space on the main stage Saturday, 11:30 to 12:30.

Review: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft


Like most of my b.net friends (that is: auction house junkies and achievement whores), I downloaded Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft for a free mount. What I got was an addicting breath of fresh air laced with all the appeal of nostalgia. In Blizzard Entertainment I’ve trusted since I first picked up my copy of Starcraft back in 1998, but it would be hard to argue that the company has not grown a little washed out of late. Starcraft 2, for all its glory, faces too much competition to match the popularity of its legendary predecessor; Diablo 3 was a bore to all but the most devoted series fans; and World of Warcraft is gagging on the fumes that keep it running. I thought BlizzCon 2013 was the nail in the coffin (and I still do), but Hearthstone definitely breaks from the current trend. It is the first Blizzard release since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) that felt fresh to me.

Hearthstone is an electronic card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Unlike M:tG, you’re not going to find yourself at a loss for players when your friends grow up and get “lives”. (sigh…) I’m sure plenty of online M:tG-style card games have existed in the past, but what’s significant here is that I have never played them. Hearthstone had a few things going for it pre-launch that genre competitors lack: it is free, it is Blizzard, and its launch coupled with a long over-due Battle.net meta program that makes it highly visible to current Blizzard customers. The minute you click play, you’ll find a few other perks. Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant, the game is conceptually very simple to grasp, and the graphics strike that balance between clarity and imagination that is non-existent in modern gaming. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider a modern game with severely limited character development–say Mists of Pandaria–to an old-school NPC overload like Suikoden, and ask yourself which game you remember more characters in.)

Once you’ve been at it a while–I’ve been playing for all three weeks the game has been public–some obvious cons will emerge. The game is highly dependent on card acquisition, and the availability of new decks is unnecessarily limited. Playing strictly for free, a casual Hearthstone fan will accumulate roughly two card packs every three days. A pack consists of five cards, with at least one guaranteed to be rare or higher (rarities roughly parallel WoW’s system of common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary). Because the game is new, the total amount of cards out there is relatively low, leaving little room for creative builds that can succeed in the absence of numerous epics and legendaries. Unfortunately, Blizzard offers no easy progress through pay. Booster packs (5 cards) can be purchased at a rate of 2 for $3, 7 for $10, 15 for $20, and 40 for $50. At the outset, nothing short of the all-in $50 deal is going to guarantee you much of an upper hand, and by the time you’ve accumulated 20 or so free decks through casual play the $20 and lower options seem like too much of a gamble. So if you want to roll your way up into the higher ranks, you’re stuck paying the full retail price of a major release or else sticking it out for free over an extended period of time. There is no financial happy medium. You will likely find yourself wavering between ranks 17 and 19 for a long, long time until you’ve gotten lucky enough to build a competitive deck. I would happily pay $20 for 40 booster packs at least once, but $50 is unreasonable.

Blizzard does not currently allow cards to be traded or sold, and that makes some practical sense. (I would just roll fake accounts and trade free boosters to my main until I had the full collection in a matter of days.) What they offer instead is a “disenchant” feature, where you can permanently destroy cards and use the byproducts to craft others of your choosing. The problem with this system is that it leaves collectors in the dust early on. Until you’ve accumulated enough duplicates, you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice between remaining in the lower ranks and abandoning rare cards.

On the plus side, extensive losing streaks are pretty uncommon. The game seems to be very well balanced to match you against players of similar skill/decks. Skill development will cap out before deck improvement, unfortunately, but the monotony can be broken by a system that allows you to play 9 different classes loosely based around their World of Warcraft parallels. My Warlock deck might cap out at rank 17, but I haven’t even touched a Druid yet. Boosters are not class-specific, so what I earn on an alt class is of equal worth to me. Whether alternate class play too will dull before higher-level decks can be built is still too soon to tell. I can say that three weeks into the public launch, Hearthstone is still sufficiently captivating to chew up an hour of my evening daily.

I love this game not only for its innate appeal, but for its status as proof that Blizzard can break from their self-imposed molds and release a game that is not dependent on a franchise model. My dreams of a World of Starcraft are still far-fetched, but I really, really hope that Hearthstone succeeds. It serves as a reminder that, before Blizzard found themselves inextricably bound to decade-old gameplay models, they were the most innovative corporation in the world of PC gaming.

Did I mention that Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is godly? Russell Bower might be at the peek of his career with Mists of Pandaria, but this is what I want to hear in a game. Two thumbs up for Hearthstone all around.

Shad#1129 on battle.net if you want to hit me up for a round or two. 🙂

The Reaper of Souls


Diablo_3_reaper_of_souls_box_art_0

There’s no need to be afraid. Spoilers do follow (to the extent that a Diablo game can be spoiled). You have been warned.

So, in the relatively recent (surprisingly still recent!) past… Blizzard Entertainment released a hilariously long-delayed sequel, which is sort of their hallmark, in Diablo 3. Probably everyone who had some interest in the Diablo franchise played it. And, in several ways, it was sort of the ultimate evolution of the Diablo formula and format. Is the storyline silly? Yes. In fact, it borders on preposterous. But it also holds together in a ‘good enough’ way to propel the action through a variety of beautifully rendered locales killing everything in sight. Reaper of Souls does not alter this formula. Presumably none of us tuned into Diablo for storytelling, right? It’s not an RPG. It’s a game where you click on monsters and kill them. Your reward is better loot, which makes it easier to click on monsters and kill them. It is weirdly absorbing in its way, but it is not high art. This is a game about a visceral experience; it is purely about fun.

And Diablo 3 was fun. It improved heavily upon Diablo 2. Each class can now be either sex! Each class now has a half dozen abilities in play at a given time, rather than just ‘left click’ and ‘right’ click… and the procedural generation, while still present, is a little more structured… or, at least, it feels a little more structured. Some areas seem to vary little between different playthroughs. To be perfectly honest, while it is a very competently produced game, a tight experience, with lovely graphics… I didn’t feel like I had $60 worth of game when I acquired Diablo 3. I think I eventually got enough play hours out of it to where I can shrug and move on… but I didn’t expect to find myself shelling out another $40 for Reaper of Souls. I did it anyway, though.

The good news is, for what fence-sitters may remain… Reaper of Souls is pretty good! Let’s discuss several reasons why:

– Act V. Act V is a massive act, easily twice the size of any of Diablo 3’s four acts. It comes complete with an entirely new selection of monsters, three major bosses with complex battle mechanics and a variety of environments, all of which are pretty cool. It’s hard not to respond to Act V as the best overall Act available in the game now. Act V, for those who haven’t been paying attention, follows the Nephalem’s quest to save the entire world of Sanctuary from a renegade angel, Malthael, whose exact plan remains unknown.

– Crusader. Crusader is the new class, a melee attacker like the Barbarian or Monk. The Crusader uses a weapon and shield style, though the weapon can be two-handed with the use of a passive skill slot. In play, they feel strong defensively, with a good area of effect capability. I have yet any of their legendary items with my own eyes, but the class does represent a new way to experience the game. I certainly can’t claim to have 60’d a Crusader, let alone 70’d… but I have played the Crusader, and it is good.

– Loot 2.0. I know this actually launched at the start of March, but it was part of the build-up to Reaper of Souls. I get how a company seeking profit would clamp onto the idea of the real cash auction house. I get how the economic power of the World of WarCraft Aution House could invite the creation of a similar body in Diablo 3… but even the most hardcore players I know would suggest that the existence of both cash and gold AHs was a mistake in Diablo 3. At best, they did nothing to improve the experience. In the real world, they significantly harmed it.

Now that the Auction House is gone… we get Loot 2.0. A universal improvement over loot 1.0, randomly generated loot now tends to generate according to your needs. Stats are much more likely to roll for your class, legendaries will (almost) always be for your class. Sets? I haven’t seen much of, despite a good number of hours invested… but I assume they adhere to similar principles.

– Bosses 2.0.

One area where Reaper of Souls really shrines is in boss design. Did you like the act bosses in Diablo 3? Because loot 2.0 comes with boss 2.0, and even without the expansion, the purple encounters throughout the game have been tweaked, revisited, improved… and it goes double for Reaper of Souls itself. Uzrael, the first of three significant act bosses, was more complex than the act bosses in Diablo 3… more complex than Baal had been in Diablo 2… Blizzard applying lessons learned from years of creating raid encounters for increasingly sophisticated MMO players. But there are balances to be struck, and they differ between products. A single character has to be able to confront Malthael at the finale of Reaper of Souls, and ultimately that’s as much a part of the game as 10/25 man raids are for World of WarCraft. This is a process that easily could have been screwed up, but instead it’s been implemented beautifully. Malthael’s encounter is an epic affair, featuring no easily discernible pattern, with Malthael possessing at least a dozen different types of attacks, some of which are not easy to dodge. He will test both your skill and your gear, and it was awfully satisfying to finally see him fall.

– Difficulty 2.0

Reaper of Souls heralds a new dynamic difficulty system for Diablo.. one that is based, more or less, on your gear… rather than your level. In Diablo 2, and again at Diablo 3’s launch, difficulty consisted of Normal, Nightmare, Hell, etc. difficulties, each higher difficulty “unlocked” by completing the previous one. In order to proceed, you have no choice but to play through the entire storyline, consecutively. It made it harder to just “jump in” to games with your friends unless they were in the same difficulty of the game, and the difficulty jumps generally were quite drastic.

Difficulty 2.0 attempts to smooth all of this with a much more dynamic difficulty system. Now, the player has access to a several ‘standard’ difficulty levels, and then Torment levels which are designed for high-level (60+ minimum) play. The higher the difficulty you play on, the bigger the bonus is to the player’s experience points earned, gold and item find. Since this sliding scale also stacks with the inherent bonuses from having multiple players in the game, high level runs on Torment difficulties with your friends can produce quick dividends in terms of loot. Of course, there’s always better loot just around the corner…

These are the most substantive changes. They were needed, they are positive, and if anything could re-invigorate the Diablo 3 experience for you… this patch and expansion will probably do it. The game features many other improvements, like customising items (both a single property of a given item can be swapped out, and its appearance ‘transmogrified’, using a new artisan in town), an expanded stash, re-worked items and class features, and so on.

There are two big negatives, however. They are intertwined, and they are compelling.

– $39.95 U.S.. And that’s not me getting overcharged for physical media at Wal-Mart. That’s from Blizzard’s digital store, through my Battle.net account. For an expansion? Ouch. Now, obviously, they did a lot of work on this one. Act V is big, Malthael is a bad ass, and all of the other updates and improvements were welcome… but it’s still a stiff price tag to pay for a game add-on. I’m suspicious of the idea that a new character class is really that big of an addition to this type of game. But there it is. They’ve already got my money.

– It’s still Diablo. That means that its replayability mileage for you [i]may vary[/i]. Just keep that in mind, before you shell out your hard-earned money. Still, if Diablo has always been something you’ve enjoyed, you will find this the most pleasing offering so far.