Author: Ed Prosser

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Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls

Diablo’s dungeons are Blizzards Lego sets and they just figured out a bunch of new ways to put things together. Reaper of Souls is the first expansion for the Diablo 3, and it adds a new class (the crusader), a whole new Act for the campaign (bringing the total to five) and Adventure Mode, a new game mode allowing for more end game content for those determined to be the most powerful adventurer on Sanctuary.

Act V, Reaper of Souls’ addition to the campaign mode, takes place immediately following the events of Act IV where players defeated Diablo and sealed him inside the black Soulstone with the rest of the Prime Evils. In Act V, Malthael, the corrupt Angel of Death steals the black Soulstone for his own ends and brings chaos to the land of Sanctuary, players have to defeat metal in his fortress of Pandemonium and reclaim the black Soulstone to save all of humanity. The basic plot seems to make sense, but the way some elements are introduced lessen the impact a little, with the Pandemonium fortress in particular being referenced several times before any relevant exposition explains what it actually is. Admittedly, it has been featured as a location in previous Diablo games, but considering that the series’ previous installment was released 14 years ago, it might be asking a little much for the many series newcomers to have any experience with it.

It seems strange for Blizzard, one of the most highly regarded and popular developers of recent years to still be releasing rather old-school expansion packs in the modern era of downloadable content, especially when considering Reaper of Souls retails at £32.99, which seems a little much for one new Act and a new class.

The feeling of being ripped off is exacerbated at first glance, as the theme of Act V seems to be ‘the same as Act I-IV, but more’. It’s certainly more of an evolution than a revolution. The Act itself is easily the largest in the game though, with both enormous individual environments for players to explore, and more side-quests and additional, longer, dungeons to explore. While going some way to justifying the price tag, quantity alone isn’t enough to make it worth your time.

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Thankfully, the world of Sanctuary isn’t just bigger, it’s better. In particular the visual design of the environments is incredible, with lighting and weather effects ramping up the atmosphere so even when there’s not a pack of fearsome monsters waiting round the next corner, it always feels as though there is. The fearsome monsters themselves have changed as well, with a huge amount of new enemy models for players to slay, although the basic enemies in some areas do seem to be variations on the series theme of skeletons or massive flesh ogres.

The new class available in Reaper of Souls, the crusader, is thankfully more than capable of dealing with the almost numberless horde of flesh ogres. Having both class specific weapons (the single and double handed flails) and new crusader only shields, the crusader is reminiscent of the Paladin class from more traditional RPGs. The crusader generates wrath, similar to the barbarian rage and the monk’s spirit, which can be spent to unleash more powerful strikes with both weapons and shields. It’s not all rosy for the crusader, though, as it’s the only melee class not to benefit from the 30% damage reduction enjoyed by the monk and barbarian. The class feels fun to play, and has a lot of potential for different builds, without seeming inherently unbalanced.

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A particularly welcome feature in Reaper of Souls new Act is the addition of companion and npc quests. It works well to round out the stories of the companions who adventure at your side throughout, and breathes a little life into a game world which at times feels like you’re the only living participant surrounded by talking dolls or RPG standard quest-givers who have their feet nailed to the floor.

The expansion, and the patch that preceded it, may not have done much to change up Diablo 3’s traditional dungeon-crawler RPG format, but there have been a host of improvements in what was originally one of Blizzard’s weakest releases of recent years. Both the real-money and in-game gold auction houses closed down a week before the Reaper of Souls hit shelves, and the difficulty and loot systems, which in a dungeon crawler, represent key elements of the experience, have been completely overhauled in favour of a more streamlined and easier to access experience.

The new system of difficulty settings in particular is a vast improvement, allowing players to adjust their game to any one of ten difficulty settings and having the game scale the enemies to the correct difficulty, no matter what level the character or the section of the game you’re playing. However, while this new system allows players to move up difficulties more quickly and find more powerful items and enemies, it does go some way to removing story progression as a necessity.

However, there are still underlying flaws which Reaper of Souls is powerless to completely fix. The game world lacks some of the charm of the more successful Blizzard franchises and after you’ve played through the story once, there’s a grind towards the endgame, which, with PvP still failing to take off in a big way, is just the satisfaction of having better gear than anyone else.

The new addition of the Adventure Mode seems to be a move to stave off boredom in the endgame though. Adventure Mode allows players to go back to any Act they’ve previously played and collect bounties on specific bosses and dungeons (exactly which bosses and dungeons change frequently), in order to get bonus loot and experience. It’s a nice idea, which gives players a bit more freedom to quickly find new challenges rather than having to wade through filler quests in the traditional campaign, and it’s a lot of fun to boot, but at the end of the day it’s delaying the inevitable rather than dealing with the problem.

That said, while you’re actually playing, Reaper of Souls is very enjoyable, the combat works well and there’s enough variation in the class abilities and upgrade runes to build each class a couple of different ways. The loot changes make sure you get items which are actually useful for your class (although this can make gearing your companions slightly tricky if they require different main stats to your character.

This is both the games biggest strength and its biggest weakness. It’s fun to play, especially if you play it with a few friends, or set up a clan with people you know from other Blizzard games, and you’ll have a good time while you’re playing. But the game doesn’t really go anywhere, and after you’ve played every class to a decent level, it’s just a matter of time until the fun wears off. This isn’t unique to Diablo by any means, it’s something a lot of games struggle with, but by putting the emphasis on continued play with the harder difficulty levels (Tormet 2-6 are particularly nasty) players will want to embrace the challenge, only to find that, at some point, the challenge stops being fun.

Overall, Reaper of Souls is a great addition to Diablo 3, the new Act is a nice expansion of the story, minor plot confusion withstanding, and it’s good to see Blizzard trying to change up the endgame with the addition of Adventure Mode. Underneath it’s still the same experience, and while fun, it won’t last forever, although this does stem from certain genre limitations. If you enjoy RPG’s or hack-and-slash games, it’s definitely one to try.

Pros:

  • Combat is fun and intense.
  • Great control of difficulty for players.
  • New class feels great to play.
  • Act V is huge.
  • Environments nicer than ever (the very last one is a particular treat).

Cons:

  • Eventually game feels samey.
  • Endgame is the same but harder.
  • Second half of the Act feels like a race to the end.
Hearthstone Loading

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft Review

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Blizzards new free-to-play collectible card game, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, is a game of questions. The most common and least significant of which is, ‘Is this the right play?’

Hearthstone faces the question of what it sets out to accomplish. Is it a free-to-play experiment? A fun time-waster for people already involved with Blizzard products meant to as an interesting side-project which might end up turning a profit and possibly even revitalise MMO subscriptions on a downward curve. Is it a serious collectible card game, trying to take on the biggest name in CCG’s, namely Magic the Gathering, at its own game? Or is it a cynical attempt to cash in on the popularity of microtransactions and rake in some extra cash off the back of the Warcraft franchise.

The answer (predictably) is that it’s all of these things. Luckily, if there’s a little confusion over the exact nature of Hearthstone there’s little confusion about the game’s mechanics. Hearthstone has pared down the normal CCG formula by removing the instant cards which can be played in the opponents turn and by removing land cards as a source of mana. You simply gain one maximum mana per turn and any mana you don’t use in each turn is wasted. Hearthstone is also lacking the distinct ‘phases’ of player turns, leaving players free to play cards and attack their opponents in any order they choose. Combining this with the strictly turn-based gameplay leaves the player with no confusion of what can be played when and gives the otherwise structureless mechanics an order to fall back upon.

New players are thrust straight into the heart of the gameplay with a series of tutorial battles, before you even reach a menu screen. These are perfectly crafted rigged games set up for the player to win, while teaching them the basic mechanics of the game. After the tutorial, players can unlock each of the nine decks, each named after an original World of Warcraft character class by winning a battle against them in practice mode.

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Expert cards can only be obtained from additional card packs, bought either with in game gold, or real money. This is where Hearthstone has the potential to be a real money spinner for Blizzard. In game gold can be earned by completing a daily quest, which rewards 40 gold, or winning games in the arena, which costs real money or in game gold to enter. Daily quests stack up over three days, making it beneficial for players to play at least every third day. However, quests cannot be dropped once acquired, which can force players to play decks which they don’t enjoy.

Card packs cost 100 gold each or are roughly £1 per pack, with discounts for buying more packs at once and contain five expert cards, with at least one guaranteed rare card. This means that without spending any real money, you can gain about two packs per week, although if you’re anything like me, you’ll be wanting more. I’m not ashamed to admit that between card packs and arena entrance fee, I’ve probably burnt around £10 since gaining access to the Hearthstone Beta. Especially considering that in comparison to many others (TotalBiscuit) I’ve hardly spent anything.

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Hearthstone also has a crafting mechanic to creating specific cards. Expert cards can be disenchanted for Arcane Dust, which can be used to create new cards. Obviously, cards require much more dust to create than they give upon disenchantment.

Like most Blizzard games it follows the mantra of, simple to learn, hard to master thanks mostly to the engaging tutorial. Each deck has a hero to represent it from the Warcraft universe, Thrall representing the Shaman deck, Jaina Proudmore the Mage deck, Uther Lightbringer the Paladin deck and so on. Each of these heroes has a unique power which can be used every turn at a cost of two mana, ensuring that no matter what cards you draw, every turn after the first you always have a move you can make.

Like all good card games, Hearthstone’s mechanics are simple enough that it only takes a game or two to pick up but the depth to which the system can be taken is clear even from the third or fourth game. And this depth becomes more apparent and compelling as you gain more cards and the number of choices available to the player expands, which encourage more gameplay which in turn rewards with more cards, and therefore, options.

These gameplay options come in the form of Hearthstone’s standard ‘Play’ in which players may select any of the 9 basic decks to play as, or use decks of their own. Players can choose to play in either ranked or unranked mode. Ranked mode allows players to advance through a series of leagues, beginning in One Star Bronze, progressing to two and three stars before their promotion into One Star Silver League and onwards in a similar fashion to StarCraft. However, you cannot view your progress towards the next star or league, and so it feels slightly like playing in the dark. Similarly, while it’s presented as a ‘league’ you cannot view your position in comparison to other players, instead, your ‘league’ badge feels more like an average of all the games you’ve played, and each loss leaves me in fear of dropping a league.

The other game mode is the Arena. The Arena costs either £1.49 or 150 gold to enter, and gives players a choice of three classes. You pick a class from the options and have a choice of three cards, and then another, and then another. In this way you build your 30 card deck, from selections of 3 cards which appear, if not random, then only slightly directed.

Once you have created your deck, players face other players in the arena until they have lost a total of three times. Arena games feel much more significant even than ranked league games, thanks to the arena entrance fee. Once players have lost three arena games with a specific deck, they receive a reward based on the number of wins they have accrued with that deck, including gold, Arcane Dust and even packs of Expert cards. This is the central premise of the arena, if you think you’re good enough, you can quickly accrue a lot of gold and cards, however, if you aren’t you can lose out.

The feel of Hearthstone is is like 90’s fashion. It looks like it’s not trying that hard, but it takes a lot of work to look that way. The game boards are all casually interactive, if you can see something you want to click on, you will likely be able to click it. While not directly manipulable, a lot of the elements can be fidgeted with while you wait for your turn to come back around.

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A subtle decision in the sound design is the low level of background noise. There’s a looping track of the general hubbub and conversation playing under the game sounds and music. It gives the experience a very social feel, as though you’re playing cards with your friends in the pub. However, for a game which tries to be social, there aren’t very many social elements. If you right click on your hero, you can perform basic ‘emotes’ to your opponent, and as far as I can work out, there’s no way to add an opponent to your friends list, you need their character code, which you can’t get without them telling you, and with the limitations of the emote system, that’s impossible.

Another feature which is notable by its absence is any breakdown of statistics for certain decks. It would be very useful for players to be able to see, on a deck by deck basis, their win percentage, a breakdown of wins and losses against other decks, on what turn they lose or win etc. If players were able to engage with these statistics, it would go some way to encouraging players to be more active in what is arguably the most enjoyable part of the game, the deck building.

My advice for playing Hearthstone? Dive in headfirst and experiment with every set of new cards you get. Learn from your losses and build the best deck for you.

The good:

  • At a base level, Hearthstone is very fun.
  • Lots of cards to unlock.
  • Plenty of depth.
  • Games are fast paced.
  • Easy to understand.

The bad:

  • Tries to replicate a social experience, with no opportunity to meet new players.
  • While still in beta, the sound does bug occasionally.
  • Similar to most CCG’s, the random number generator will still ruin some games.
  • Lack of shortcuts.
  • Lack of statistics.
  • Quests cannot be dropped.
PS4

E3 2013: Sony

As is customary, drum and bass blares out under a montage of Sony’s best and brightest to kick things off. Seeing that the ceremonial rites have been observed and the all-mighty gods of internet hate-trains subdued, Jack Tretton CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America begins.

It’s clear from the start that Sony have come to send a message. It’s been widely felt that they won the early skirmishes of the console war with their February announcement. Now they feel they have to move in for the kill.

Admittedly though, things got off to a less than stellar start. Interesting, although by no means groundbreaking news of a new Walking Dead episode, 400 Days, releasing on Vita this summer, and Netflix and other video services were plugged briefly before moving on.

Even then however, the conference took its time to really get started. With Sony showing a rundown of upcoming PS3 titles, and while they are interesting, Beyond: Two Souls looking particularly curious if only for its lack of context or information, it felt a bit like Sony weren’t really trying.

It wasn’t helped by the follow-up announcements of Gran Turismo 6 (very pretty) and Arkham Origins (very Batman), albeit with two Playstation exclusive Batman skins.

The PS3 is set to get a new bundle released this September with GTA5 costing in the region of $300 and include a gaming headset.

But that’s when Sony decided to drop the first in a series of bombs which would stun everyone both at the conference and watching the livestream.

We got our first look at the PS4. If I had to describe it, it would be two sleek black monoliths doing something disgusting, but in an incredibly attractive way.

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Sony made an effort to communicate that the PS4 will offer gamers content that has been ‘curated’ for them. Whilst that sounds nice, if a little creepy, it doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete information.

What we do know is that Sony’s Music and Video Unlimited services are here to stay, and that they will apparently be ‘better than ever’. Although I can’t imagine there were too many people who’s worlds were rocked by that announcement.

Next, on Sony’s list of offensives, games. Andrew House stressed that despite all the entertainment features, games are ‘where Sony’s passion lies’.

Shuhei Yoshida announced that Sony’s Worldwide Studios, the first party developer network Sony have set up, have over 30 PS4 titles in development right now, and that 20 are planning to launch in the first year of the PS4.

Of those 20, he said, 12 are brand new IP’s.

With that, we were introduced to the first new PS4 exclusive game announcement of the night. The Order 1886, developed by Ready At Dawn, this game looks to be a steampunk inspired fantasy game including werewolves, guns, possibly with squad or group elements. We don’t know much more about this one just yet.

We saw some footage of Driveclub, and Knack, both of which will be PS4 launch titles, and inFamous Second Sun, which will release Quarter 1 2014.

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Sony have renewed their commitment to the Indie games scene as well, announcing a plethora of indie games which are coming to PSN. Rather than go into detail on each, I’ll provide a list here for your own browsing:

  • Transistor, by SuperGiant Games (makers of Bastion)
  • Don’t Starve, by Clay Entertainment (This game has been a hit on Steam, it will be interesting to see how it fares in a console environment.)
  • Mercenary Kings, by Tribute Games
  • Octodad Deadliest Catch, by Young Horses (this game looks ridiculous)
  • Secret Poncho, by Switchblade Monkeys (an oddball spaghetti western)
  • Ray is Dead, by Rag Tag Studios (recruit an army of zombies)
  • Outlast, by Red Barrel Games (terrifying indie horror)
  • Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty, by Oddworld Inhabitants (Abe’s Odyssey remake)
  • Galaxy, by 17 Bit Games (side scrolling open world space shooter)

Following on from Indie games, we had the chance to see some of the blockbusters coming to Playstation in the coming year. Chief among which were Watch Dogs, Assassins Creed Black Flag, and Elder Scrolls Online. Another PS4 exclusive is the Elder Scrolls Online Open Beta, which will be online on PS4 first.

Even these announcements however, paled in comparison to what came next.

Jack Tretton announced that the PS4 will have no new restrictions on used games. Players will be free to trade their games in at retail, share them amongst themselves, or sell them to each other.

This news was received with rapturous applause and chants of “Sony! Sony! Sony!” from the audience.

Furthermore, PS4 games do not require an internet connection to play, nor does the console have an ‘often-on’ DRM. So the upshot is that you don’t need to connect regularly in order to play your games.

Playstation Plus is being extended to cover the PS4 as well as the Vita and PS3, and the current features will remain and possibly expand.

However, it’s not all good news. It turns out that you will require a Playstation Plus membership in order to access multiplayer content on the Playstation 4. Similar to Xbox Live. Although, with user satisfaction rates of 95%, it’s not really a bad thing to have regardless.

There were two more announcements to round out the conference. Although I’m not sure that anyone was expecting them to be as big as they were.

First off, we had a world first gameplay demo of Bungie’s new IP Destiny. And it looks awesome. The first thing which will strike you about Destiny is that it looks amazing. The environment design is fantastic and works perfectly as they MMO/FPS blend. The second thing is that it really does play very much like an MMO, monsters drop loot there are group quests, and public events which may require a lot of players to complete.

The final announcement of the night was one which nobody was expecting. Sony announced that the price of the PS4 would be $399, and £349. A full $100 cheaper than the competition.

Sony’s job tonight was to send a message. They had to turn to the gaming community, to the developers, to the gaming press and to the general public, and say, we can outperform Microsoft, and we will be the go-to console of this generation, in a similar way that Microsoft did with the original Xbox.

And without a shadow of a doubt, they achieved their goals tonight. They addressed all the concerns that people had with Microsoft, and improved on them.

To sum up:

  • PS4 to cost $399 or £349 – cheaper than Xbox One
  • Used games DRM free on PS4 – better than Xbox One
  • Indie Games supported on PSN
  • Playstation Plus will include Vita, PS3 and PS4 and instant game bundle will remain.
  • Commitment to new IP.
  • Commitment to building Developer relations for exclusive content.
  • Playstation Plus will be a requirement for Multiplayer content.
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Review: Crusader Kings 2

Following up on my feature last week about hard games, I thought I’d review the head crushing depth of Crusader Kings 2.

Crusader Kings 2 is a real time grand strategy game set in feudal Europe and published in early 2012 by Paradox Interactive. Crusader Kings 2 has been updated fairly regularly over the course of its life, with the most recent update coming in the form of The Old Gods expansion.

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