Diablo III – First 80 Hours

What a blast!  20 days into Diablo III and I have clocked in 80 played hours.  On top of that, Ihave finally defeated the ultimate evil for one of my five characters.  One down.  Four more characters to go.  And then onto the next difficulty level.

Note: Did you know the Diablo III runs in both PC and Mac platform?  Once you purchase a game key, you can download and install the game to either platform as many times as you wish.  Do check minimal system requirement though.  To purchase the game, click here to create an account and head to Blizzard Store.  If you are a Android or iPhone user, don’t forget to download the free  Battle.net Mobile Authenticator app (or you can purchase a physical one online at Blizzard Store).  Also, you may wish to turn on the SMS verification feature in your account management for extra security.

“You dare to judge me?!”

Games are certainly more fun played with friends.  In general, that is true – physical and virtual world alike.  So I have played with Cynthia mostly, when she is online.  Sanctuary seems less lonely that way, and less scary for sure.  She can go head-to-head with the mobs at the frontline while I, well, I heroically shoot the enemies from a safe distance.  Now you know who wear the pants at our home.  We have played with our real life friends too.  It is mindless zerging, destroying all things that move, all things that don’t.  It is an insane fun, in a therapeutic kind of way.  Though at times I wonder if we are holding our friends up by too obsessively exploring every corner of the map and smashing every jar we see (there is an achievement for 1,000 jars destroyed for the OCD ones, like me).  At times, we join the public games just to repeat some of the memorable boss fights.  Getting a random group is super fast compares to, say, World of Warcraft.  In that online game, we could end up waiting for up to half an hour or more for a group to be assembled.  In Diablo III, it is instant.  As our party size increases (up to four), so is the strength of our foes.  When one is leaving, no problem.  Our foes will scale down accordingly.  I like this dynamic aspect.  It keeps the encounters challenging and from the social interaction point of view, the more the merrier.  Almost always.

The game in Normal setting does not require 30 hours to beat, which we eventually did.  Typically, it can be done in 20 hours, or even less.  Cynthia and I are the thorough ones.  We enjoy opening up unexplored areas to hunt for treasure and face the seemingly formidable foes.  I take one step further that drives Cynthia nuts.  I listen to all the dialog, again and again.  My only complain with the public games is that most random players would choose to skip the cut scenes and dialog.  That is totally understandable.  But as for me, I am in for the full experience.  Discovering the little stories my in-game companions have to tell, pieces of lore, trivial dialog that keeps the game alive, and more.  To that end, I solo the contents as well.

Scoundrel (my rogue companion in-game when I have no one to group with): Sometimes I wish that when we’d met, you’d taken one look at me and fallen desperately in love.  But then I think of all the gold I’ve gotten with you.

Kasumi (my demon huntress): You know that that it won’t end that way, right?

Scoundrel: Right.

Upon completion of Normal difficulty setting, characters are typically around level 30.  After which, the entire game play can be repeated in a higher difficulty setting called Nightmare.  That boosts character level from 30 to 50.  To reach the level cap of 60, Hell difficulty awaits.  Beyond that is Inferno setting that is tailored for those who demand the ultimate challenge.  If you are seeking for a deeper thrill and a sense of purpose, Diablo III offers a Hardcore mode whereby all deaths are permanent.  That is pretty hardcore.  It is like play Tetris with one life and you want to see how far you can go before getting beaten.  My goal is to reach the level cap for all my 5 characters covering all 5 different classes.  Inferno is likely not my cup of tea.  If and when I reach there, I would love to take a holiday for a well deserved break.  Hawaii would be nice.  How many times must we save Heavens and Sanctuary?  As many times as we defend Azeroth from Deathwing I suppose.

“Cartoon-ish? Perhaps. But the level of detail is astonishing.”

Some asked me if this game is any good.  It is an incredibly easy game to pick up.  In the initial stage of the game, you can simply hack and slash your way using the two mouse buttons.  As you progress, you can use the four extended skills that are mapped to the numeric keys 1 to 4.  6 buttons are all you need to master this game.  You get to choose 6 active skills from a total of 22 at any time of your game play.  Each skill can be augmented with one of the 5 different runes (6 if you count the no rune option).  That in turn changes how the skill works.  On top of that, you get to pick 3 passive skills from an array of 15.  You can do the mathematics and work out the potential number of combinations.  It is rare to see two players picking up the same configuration.  Individual build shapes one’s play style.  Coupled that with the individual’s gear stats preference, there is much depth in Diablo III.  Now, while I cannot vouch for what happens in the Inferno setting, I am pretty sure that it is Blizzard’s interest to avoid cookie-cutting builds that make everyone alike.

If you are into or open to hack-and-slash role playing games, Diablo III is the benchmark.  The game play is fluid.  The artwork and soundtrack is beautiful.  Each time you level, you feel more powerful as more skill options are available at your disposal.  Within the virtual world of Diablo III, you are always gold hungry, loot hungry.  All items’ stats are randomly generated making it unlikely that two gears are identical.  Blizzard, unlike other developers, continues to improve the game based on community feedback.  Other developers more often than not de-prioritize the fixing of their games after they have taken your money.  Instead, their first priority is to build new DLC (downloadable contents) and new expansions.  Not Blizzard.

In this new era, no man is an island.  Collaboration and trading for mutual benefits trump working on your own.  You may hate the concept of the in-game Auction House that facilitates the trading of game items using either in-game currency or real currency.  But it is a good way to help each other in order to fasten the pace and overcome challenges.  Items that you no longer need can be offloaded into the Auction House so that someone else may find a use of it.  Or you may pick up an item from the Auction House that others do not need.  If you are not the type who spends real currency to acquire virtual items, you can stick with the in-game currency.  If you do, Blizzard provides a safe environment for real money trading to occur.  Is Blizzard charging too much as a middle man?  I do not have a benchmark for comparison.  Besides, I hope Blizzard can continue to make money somewhere so that the servers can be funded – free of charge for us folks – for many months or even years to come.

Any downside?  Sure.  It is called weekly scheduled maintenance that happens during our prime evening hours.  Something some of us have been bearing since the launch of World of Warcraft.  It is worse than Error 37 if you were to ask me.

To continue reading my adventure of 140 hours with the game, click here.

“You still haunt my sleep.”

One Month Has Passed Since The Arrival Of Cataclysm …

Last year, our national paper sent in one of our finest journalists – who unfortunately a lapsed World of Warcraft (WoW) gamer – to preview the new expansion: Cataclysm.  It is like asking a recently turned vegetarian to critic on a world class steakhouse dish (and in defense of my humble analogy, it was not clear if that journalist is at all an avid online gamer).  That write-up was less than inspiring.  If you have not played WoW in your life or better still, have not experienced MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game), I envy you.  You are at the golden age of online gaming.  A game that works in both PC and MAC platforms, works in low end high end machines, has been fine tuned and revamped for 6 years, has more than 12 millions subscribers (as of last year), and on day one of this expansion’s launch, 3.3 millions of copies were sold, 4.7 millions copies were sold on the first month.  Now, I know some of you are still on the fence thinking, “Hmmm, should I dive into Cataclysm?”  Cynthia and I have spent a good amount of hours playing the new expansion during the first month of launch.  And we have this write-up to share with you (probably more credible than the one you have read in our papers).

Admit it.  No one wants to buy and play a game that is not addictive.  If you look back in your gaming career, great games are the ones that keep you thinking about them the whole day while you are not at it.  And when you are at it, you wouldn’t want to stop.  In view of this, I am often intrigued by comments like “I am not trying WoW because I may get hooked into it”.  Having said that, I am a responsible person.  If this game has destroyed you in the past and you have still yet to figure out how to moderate your gaming behavior, please continue to stay out of it.  If you are unable to handle the social aspect of the game and cannot handle the fact that while most people are good, some are not, this new expansion is not likely to change your view.  It is like this.  You can play basketball in your backyard all day long.  You can also play basketball in a public court with your mates.  Or even better, you can form a team with new friends and random players and play a proper game of basketball.  Is there a guarantee that you will not meet anyone who is going to piss you off big time?  I think not.  Bullies and morons are everywhere.  That is life.  You can hide from them and miss out all the roses out there.  Or you can ignore them and focus on the good things in life.  There is nothing wrong with playing your own basketball game alone at your backyard though.  It is not as epic.

In this write-up, I am going to touch onto a rather wide range of topics.  Although my main target audiences are the experienced players, where possible, I will write with the new players in mind.  Because this game is big, I will need a little disclaimer here.  By clicking onto the following link, you agree that in the event whereby you are sucked into this game under the influence of my wall of text, the writer (i.e. I) and the website provider are not responsible or liable to any past, present, and future tangible damages (such as hard disk going on fire due to prolonged hours of game play) and intangible damage caused (such as your girlfriend leaving you, your cat deserts you, and your plants and your fish die on you).

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Does The Single-player Aspect of StarCraft II Worth Your US$59.99?

I am not that into multi-player, as far as real time strategy games are concerned.  Even if purchasing directly from Blizzard Store means spending less, Starcraft II does cost more than the average PC games today.  So, is the money well spent?

Many friends asked me: Does Starcraft II play the same way as the original game that is 12 years older, merely as a graphic update?  For a start, this sequel does play like the old game.  But in a good way.  Playing Starcraft II is like cycling.  Once you are on a bicycle, even if you have not cycled for donkey number of years, when you start paddling, it is the good old feeling once again.  If you are new to the game, there are in-game tutorial videos to guide you through.  There are also an in-game reference guide listing of all the units, what their strength and weakness are.  If you have played the original game 12 years ago, in no time, you would start labeling your units and structures, issuing build and kill orders, and building up the defence and a balanced troop – much like a second nature to you.

To say that Starcraft II plays merely like the old game in all aspects is grossly a misconception.  There is a robust achievement system that encourage you to replay each mission with a harder setting or harder goals that are clearly defined .  In turn, achievement scores are earned.  I like this aspect a lot because getting through the plot is rather easy.  Playing a beautiful game is not.  While the achievement score means little other than an overall sense of satisfaction, there are mission credits that you can spent on permanently upgrading your units and structures and hiring mercenaries to fight with you.  There are also Zerg and Protoss research points for you to unlock useful abilities.  Abilities that require you to carefully decide based on the trade offs.  If you are not that into micromanagement for instance, go for passive benefits.

Starcraft II is an accessible game (which reminds me of World of Warcraft).  On normal setting, most of the campaigns are forgiving, except the time critical ones that may require you to up your thinking and execution speed.  There are often main objectives that you must achieve in order to progress.  And there are bonus objectives that are rewarding, but not a must to complete.  If normal setting is too hard for you, you can lower it to casual.  And if normal mode is too easy for you, there is a hard mode.  And there is a brutal mode too.  Completing the entire game in brutal mode will earn you a Sarah Kerrigan online portrait (and a lot of respect from the Starcraft gamers).

There are often multiple strategies that can lead to victory.  Each campaign showcases a new unit.  I must say, I only get to use that new unit a lot on that particular campaign.  Thereafter, I usually stick with what works best for me.  In my case, air domination.  I do at times feel bad that there are so many units that I don’t get to use besides that one campaign when they were introduced.  Perhaps single-player campaigns are training ground to the multi-player games?

Another point to note is that there are rare occasions that you may make a plot related decision that opens up a new mission while closing off another.  But fear not, you get to play these alternative missions after you beat the game.  Instead of progressing the plot in a linear manner like the original Starcraft, you get to take on different mission chains in the order you prefer.  Having said that, you must complete each chain before you can head for the final plot.  In that sense, the plot is still linear.  Just that you get to – most of the time – choose which mission comes first.

It is true that majority of the time you play as a Terran.  Starcraft II is in no way lesser than the original game in terms of the number of missions.  I enjoy the deeper story and character development.  On that note, I can understand why some may wish that the story develops in parallel with the other two races – Zerg and Protoss.

I in particularly enjoy watching the cut-scenes prior and after each mission.  Good story development remains as the strength of the Starcraft franchise.  The cinematic clips are beautiful.  And you get to watch them again and again once you have unlocked them.  The music is beautiful too.  There is a jukebox and it plays some Western music as well as rock music in the 70s (I think … and my favorite track is “Raw Power”).  There is much humor in the game.  I like that anything-but-unbiased UNN news broadcast a lot.

Depending on how good you are with this genre, total play time may vary.  I am not so good at real time strategy games.  I reckon I may have spent about 20 to 30 hours to complete the game in normal mode including reloading the mission in order to try another strategy.  Now that I have completed the game, I may spend some time to collect the missing achievement points on normal mode.  Unsure if I would try the hard and brutal mode but if you do, be prepared to put aside more time and effort.

Does the game worth my US$59.99?  Without a doubt.

God Of War III – “You Are Dead”

Picture this.  I would be siting on the sofa manhandling my gaming controller with such vengeance and ferocity; Cynthia would be siting on the floor reading newspapers or doing her own thing.  Often when she looked at our plasma television, she would see the words in font size one million that said: You are dead.  Cynthia would look at me in puzzlement, on every occasion, and asked, “What kind of god are you?  You are dead again.”  Soon, query became mockery.  Too bad.  Cynthia was not at home when I smashed Zeus’s face until my plasma television was literally painted in blood.  What a vindication it would have been.

I was Kratos – a Spartan, a protagonist, and a demigod.  It just happens that I suck at action and platform type of game.  But with such a highly acclaiming rating, as a proud owner of a Sony PS3, I have got to give “God of War 3” a try.

The Story

Some say “God of War 3” has a story.  I am not so sure about that.  “Final Fantasy” has a story; “Heavy Rain” has a story; as for “God of War 3”, the story is merely taking down one god or titan after another till you face Zeus.  I have not played the previous installments and am a bit lost as the story develops.  I suppose this game would mean a lot more to those who know who is who and what is what.  Cut scenes are short and minimal (which could appeal to the mass public?) except the last set of cut scenes, which manage to tell a rather moving story.  But I was not attached to the characters.  I wanted to cry but I couldn’t.

Maybe “God of War 3” does have a good storyline, as an action game.  It does prompt me to research into Greek Mythology.  It is a typical story of a demigod against the titans and the gods of Olympus.  It is a journey from the Mount Olympus to Hell and back to Mount Olympus.  It can be epic, seeing from that angle.

The Sex

Sex sells.  And the sex episode in “God of War 3” could easily be the most artistically done, exceeding the “Mass Effect” or “Dragon Age” franchises.  Aphrodite – the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality – is beautifully rendered.  The action requires ‘participation’ using the game controller, which if your timing and accuracy is off, you could screw up the scene.  The Smith God – Hephaestus – who has fallen from the grace of Olympus, who is the husband of Aphrodite and creator of Pandora’s Box and Pandora herself, as the story goes, unable to be with Aphrodite.  That is why the goddess has to pleasure herself with two chamber maids.  And that is why you – Kratos – come into the picture.

The best part is, you can do it as many times as you like.

The Action

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of action.  Fighting against the humongous titans is insanely epic.  That involves quick thinking and good timing of special moves as prompted on screen.  Fighting against the bosses and special enemies is insanely frustrating.  This got me thinking.  Game designers could either repeat the similar encounters many times throughout the game (like “Final Fantasy” or “Dragon Age”) or create unique and difficult encounters that require some gamers to keep trying.  The third kind of action tests gamers’ reaction time and precision in executing platform type of maneuver.  Such as flying through a tunnel full of obstacles that have to be avoided.  The tolerance of error can be so low that it can be equally frustrating.

Fortunately, there are plenty of save points.  And there are plenty of auto-saves.  The game play is about 15 to 20 hours.  I have seen “You Are Dead” for close to 300 times at God level (average difficulty).  Yes, I am an idiot.

The Puzzle and Treasure

Most of the puzzles are straightforward.  Some can be pretty hard.  All the jumping and puzzle solving reminds me of “Tomb Raider”.  There are items to be collected within the game to upgrade Kratos’s ability.  Some require venturing a little bit out of the main path or line of sight.  Some require a special technique to retrieve their locations.  Some are rewarded as and when puzzles are solved.

Wait a Minute, This Game Reminds Me Of …

This game reminds me of “Tomb Raider”, “Portal”, and “Guitar Hero”.  “God Of War 3″ only has one main quest.  The weapon and item acquisition path is fixed by the storyline.  There is only one way to solve any given puzzle, with the same set of rewards.  Not that I am complaining.  Does it mean that “God of War 3” is linear?  (On the record, I am OK with linear games, whatever linear means.)

Most Memorable Moment?

Graphically, the game is pretty stunning (running at 720p) and the battle scenes are bloody and epic in scale.  The cut scene and the environment is still not as beautiful as “Final Fantasy” but I reckon it is better than many games out there.  The most memorable moment of the game, for me, is when Kratos teams up with Pandora.  I felt less ‘solo’ and more with a ‘purpose’.  Too bad, that moment is relatively short.  The entire game seems relatively short (between 15 to 20 hours).  Perhaps that is the norm for this genre?

Final Fantasy XIII Scores Very High In My Book

I have always said that Japanese’s imagination knows no bound.  And their commitment to production quality is truly an inspiration.  If I am to combine all the cut scenes from the game Final Fantasy XIII, it can easily be one beautifully made anime in full HD glory (1080p).  It takes me 80 hours to see the ending (still not completing the game yet) and I have lost track on how many and how long the cut scenes are.  Especially in the beginning, I could literally spend a few minutes playing the game and then here comes the cut scene.  It is long enough for me to make a cup of tea, finishing eating an apple, and wash my hands.  As the story unfolds, the gap between the cut scenes lengthens depending on how fast or slow you progress.

Quite a few friends of mine asked if FF13 is indeed linear.  To be frank, non-linear game does not mean that it is good.  Linear game does not mean that it is bad.  It is all about execution.  In terms of storyline, there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, unlike other games.  That also means that you do not need to play the game multiple times to see the complete set of sub-stories.  For FF13, you play it once and be totally immersed.  There is a fixed number of characters and gears you can develop,  But which ones to pick is entirely your decision based on your preferred strategy.  In fact, looking at the game play, the key feature that sets the game apart from the rest is that it has little to do with your reflex actions.  It is the strategy you deploy prior to each battle and the ability to think on your feet every 5 seconds or so during the battle.  The combat system is unique and has earned a lot of praises.  There is no need to mess around with the positioning of your characters during a battle and it does not require you to frantically press the buttons on your controller to beat the enemy.  At a macro level, you control the roles of your characters and switch them at one go by up to 5 defined sets created by you.  At a micro level, you can choose to execute a specific action for the character that you have a direct control with.  And because of the variety of enemies, you are forced to adopt a different strategy for each battle.  Be it as a different role set combination, or even a different set of characters and gears.

Another noticeable difference compares to other role playing games is that the enemies in FF13 do not level as your characters level.  You can go back and revisit your old foes that gave you a hard time and beat the crap out of them in seconds.  Or you may get trashed by some unknown enemies that are so powerful that in the early stage of the game, all you can do is to flee.  Because the enemies re-spawn, there is no shortage of action.  In later part of the game, you can explore the area in any direction you prefer.  Tackle the missions in any order you prefer.  Or if to see the ending is all you want, you could skip the side missions.

While the enemies do not level, at the end of each battle, there is a 5 stars rating system.  The more powerful you become, the target time goes down.  In another word, you still need to work hard for a 5 stars rating.  In some cases, it pays off to get that rating.  Some of you asked if there are a lot of grinding, like other role playing games.  I suppose the choice is yours.  But I find it rewarding to do a bit of grinding to get more powerful and to farm materials to improve the gears. 

Majorities of the battle are quite easy, I must say.  The boss fights from the main storyline are often long (like more than 10 to 15 minutes of intense thinking).  The boss fights from the side missions can be extremely hard.  Some of the tough battles you may take a defensive stance, sacrifice the 5 stars rating, and win.  Others will slab you with a doom counter if you are taking too long.  A doom counter is one that you must beat the boss in 3 minutes or there will be an instant death.  In short, there is no shortage of excitement.  Needless to say, some are so tough that you have to further develop your characters and return for another attempt later.

Judging FF13 from the Western standard, it may fall short a bit (it is after all a Japanese RPG).  But I happen to be thrilled by how beautiful the game is made – the colorful and unique environment, the memorable characters that are so easily to fall in love with, and the dramatic story development.  These days, it is hard to find a non-violence game that does not come with blood and gore and sex – like FF13.  If you wonder what the game play is like, here is a brief breakdown.

Part One – Stories And More Stories

In the first part of the game, you do not get to choose whose is or are in your team.  It depends on how the story unfolds.  There are lots of cut scenes.  The combat system progressively gets more complex, a good learning curve that I like.  Some comment that this part is too linear.  I happen to like the fact that I am forced to learn how to cope with different characters and different team composition.  In FF13, all the characters have different strengths and weaknesses.  Part one took me about 30 hours to complete.  It also accounts for the story of the 13 days prior to where you first started the game.

Part Two – Open Side Missions

Once you reach Gran Pulse, you get to venture to different parts of the map.  As you complete side missions, portals are open to aid you in warping to a different location in the map.  In this part, you also get to pick your team composition.  You do not have to complete all the side missions.  But they are rewarding.  It did not feel like grinding to me, although I have to pass the same area multiple times.  There is always something to be discovered.

Part Three – Head to Chapter 13

FF13 is divided into 13 chapters.  After Gran Pulse, you can do one chapter and return to do more open area exploration and complete more side missions.  The last two chapters can get pretty hard.  That is where the experience (and confidence) you gather while doing the side missions pays off.  Personally I love the story of FF13, although I must admit that I do not quite understand the logic of the Japanese.

Part Four – Open End Game Missions

This is where I am at right now.  After the final boss of the main storyline is beaten, after the story is concluded, I am brought back to the save point right before the final boss.  The difference is that I can now further develop my characters.  There are 64 missions in total.  Quite a number of them are designed for the end game.  Missions can be retaken if getting a 5 stars rating is what you are aiming for.  Or just for the fun of it.

Talking about save points, another good thing about FF13 (compares to other JRPG I read) is that there are tons of save points.  You can pick up the controller, play for 10 minutes or so, stop and do something else in real life.  I find that very useful.