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.”

Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning – The First Eight Hours

“My name is Cara.  I was dead and am resurrected at the Well of Souls.  I am reborn with no destiny, thanks to the gnomes.  I am the fateless one.  And I choose my destiny.  I cannot remember my past, nor do I know what my future will bring.  Where is the Well of Souls?  Destroyed, perhaps.  I could be the last mortal in Amalur who has cheated death.  You may say all things happen for a reason.  Why does this happen to me?  I honestly do not know.”

Finally, Kingdoms of Amalar (KoA) is out.  I have started playing the minute the game is live and have clocked in eight hours of play time so far.  I reckon the first eight hours into a game gives us a good feel as in whether or not we shall continue investing our time into playing it.  Hence, I am starting a new First Eight Hours series in my website.  If time permits, I shall write a first forty hours follow-up and post it here.

I doubt KoA would satisfy all the role playing gamers out there.  Even Skyrim – recently awarded Game of the Year by AIAS – may have drawn a fair share of criticism that may or may not work for some.  Below are my observations.  Does KoA work for you?  Only you can decide.

Engaging Combat System

My take after playing the demo is still valid.  I have not seen a combat system quite like KoA in any role playing game.  Using a gamepad for the PC platform is highly recommended.  Because of the flexible character development, you can possibly find a balance that suits your play style.  Special moves can be unlocked.  With the dodging and blocking, charging and slashing, very soon, you may find that you are playing an arcade game.  Yes, all combats happen in real time.  There is no pausing and re-positioning.  You roll, you hack, you slash, and you loot.

Open World, Vast but not that Vast

Some say KoA is an open world.  Some say it is merely zones connected by narrow tunnels.  However you see it, KoA does require a fair bit of walking and exploration.  If you feel that walking is too inefficient, you could sprint.  If you feel that sprinting is not good enough, you could open up the world map and perform a fast travel.

The zones are not that vast.  You do not need to comb through a huge area to look for that something.  It is less likely that you will get lost.  It does not feel too empty like some other open world role playing games I have played.  There are always packs of enemies lurking somewhere, guarding some treasure chests.  Some enemies may spawn from nowhere and charge onto you.  There are herbs to collect, and other mini-games to play such as lock picking and dispel.  Enemies seem to respawn at a regular interval.   So there is no shortage of loots and gold, experience points and action.

“Ah, the great outdoor!”

Artwork has a Cartonish Feel

Some despise gaming environment that is too cartoonish, say it is too dated.  Some dig it.  I happen to love how the fantasy world is painted in KoA, as I am a big fan of World of Warcraft.  Since I have only played the game for eight hours, there are two towns I have seen.  One is colorful and shiny like the picture above.  The other is gloomy and dark, full of spider webs.  I can understand why some may prefer artwork to have more realism.  While I am on the topic of graphics, the retail version has a much higher quality than the demo version.

A Game for the Casuals?

Should games be hard?  As hard as, say, Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls?  Some enjoy dying a million times before seeing the ending.  A true test of skill and concentration.  Some prefer playing a game to relax.  The normal mode of KoA is accessible.  My character has yet to die once.  There were some hair rising moments, including a curse that indefinitely zapped my mana and rendered my character incapable of casting any spell until she visited a healer.  But with a bit of dodging and a bit of potion drinking, my character seems to do fine.  Some gamers find the normal mode too easy.  And they find the hard mode too easy too.  If you are one of those, there are always ways to make such a game very challenging.  Inspiration can be drawn from here.

Questing and Questing, Wait, Where is the Main Story?

Coming from the background of a massively multiplayer online game, I find the questing structure of KoA perfectly acceptable.  Each town is a questing hub.  You get to talk to the town folks, learn the town history from different perspectives.  Some may need help from you.  You may ignore and continue pursuing your main quest.  Or you should spend time doing some side quests.  Of the eight hours I have poured in, ignoring the beginning bit that is more like a tutorial, the time I get to experience the main story is very minimal.  There seems to be so much to do.  It take a quality assurance game tester 200 hours to test out all the quests on easy mode, skipping all the dialogues.  It would probably take more than 300 hours to complete everything, if I so choose to.

I have not completed many quests so far, just a handful because it does take time even to tackle one.  Some do have memorable stories provided that you have the patience to listen through the scripts.  I do.  Because I want to know what I am doing, why I am doing things.  For those who prefer to skip through the audio dialogue, these quests would likely be reduced to the common tpes of kill and collect, collect and kill, FedEx, and escort.

Also, because this game encourages open questing, the main story may not seem as tight as those that are scripted linearly.  Pros and cons, for either approach.  I enjoy both extreme.

“OK then, let’s talk.”

PC Version or Console?

I don’t really have a choice.  Because KoA and FF13-2 are released in the same time period, I play FF13-2 on PS3 when Cynthia is not watching TV and I play KoA on PC when she is.  PC provides a higher resolution but requires you to be seated quite near to the monitor, unlike playing console games on a large flat panel TV.  I play KoA through Origin and my progress is saved onto the cloud online.  You can also take screenshot on a PC.  For trophy lovers, you can more easily brag about your achievements on a console platform, or if you play via Steam.  On PC, the switch between keyboard + mouse and gamepad is seamless.  I don’t think playing KoA using only keyboard + mouse is a wise decision.

I am inclined to say that for some, the console version may be slightly better.  Field of View and Level of Detail – both are hot topics on the forum, a concern for the PC gamers.  KoA may be more tuned to console gaming, from the graphics point of view.  Playing KoA on a PC may cause motion sickness.  I would strongly advised you to play as far from the screen as you can.  And yes, a gamepad would help.  KoA is not a first-person-shooter.  You don’t need to spin your view that fast.

Fancy a Re-spec?

I have not tried the re-spec function yet.  But I read that it is possible to reset all your point allocation and potentially play the game in a completely different way.  If stealth is not your cup of tea, no problem, try out a magic caster, or a strong melee.  If you don’t like your skill specialization, reset it!  If you don’t like a hybrid class and want to try out a pure class, pay some gold and get it done!

For my first play through, I have picked a three-way hybrid class.  She is certainly not the most powerful being in Amalur.  What to wear has always been a struggle (armors are itemized to the pure classes).  But I enjoy a bit of flexibility.  Because I cannot decide.

Did I Mention Player’s Housing?

Without giving away too much spoiler, yes, you can have a house of your own.  You can even pay someone to upgrade your home by stages.  There is a stash that store your hard earned loots.  A mirror that allows you to change your appearance.  Your home is going to be very functional too.  You will see.

“Welcome to my home in Amalur!  There is a bedroom upstairs and a basement below too.”

Final Fantasy XIII-2: The First Eight Hours

In the opening scene of Final Fantasy XIII-2, when protagonist of the previous episode Lightning rode in her new divine outfit carrying a silver shiny shield, I was in tears.  I could not breath and my emotion ran high.  This is the pinnacle of video gaming when audience are fully immersed into the story, or rather, a series of stories.  International fans have played through part one.  We were moved and we want more.  For a moment, perhaps a brief moment, we could forgive and forget how the game developer Square Enix destroys the franchise by releasing the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV Online.  So, time for a rewind.  We move forward from episode thirteen to episode fourteen and now back to thirteen part two.

I sincerely hope that the genre Japanese Role Playing Game remains as it is.  Trying to please the West too much may lose this genre’s unique flavor – beautiful animation, deep dialogues, and wild imagination in all possible dimensions.  Not to say that I do not enjoy Western RPG.  I do.  But the two should have distinct flavors.

In some ways though, the inevitable influence is there.  This new installment has been improved upon based on international fans’ feedback.  The story is less linear.  Many cut scenes you could choose not to trigger if you prefer action to sit back and enjoy a good anime clip.  Even the cinematic clips now demand your full attention.  Some of these moments play like action games such as God of War III.  The English version of Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PS3) is a new game released last week and I have spent eight hours so far with it.  Two chapters I have completed.  Barely scratching the surface, for sure.  If you have played or heard of the previous installment and wish to know what improvements or changes have been made, look no further.  Here is a breakdown for you.  I will write another post once I arrive at the next milestone.

Does Time Travel Make the Game Less Linear?

What a coincident that the two games – FF13-2 and WoW – use the same concept of time traveling in roughly the same development period.  Both looks upon end time on how the future may have been and both stories send ripples to the worlds by allowing the heroes to change the events in the past.  In FF13-2, Lightning the new Goddess of Warrior reined over a mystery world called Valhalla, which seems to be constantly under siege by evil forces.  Noel, the last of the humanity, goes through the time portal hoping to change the past, meets Lightning.  Lightning sends him back to the past to find her sister Serah.  In Serah‘s reality, Lightning has disappeared after the fall of Cocoon.  In the previous episode, it was Lightning who searches for her sister.  In this episode, it is the other way round

In FF13, we pretty much follow a linear story that is filled with lengthy cut scenes.  In between the thirteen chapters, there is an open world called Gran Pulse for us to quest and grind.  In FF13-2, each chapter is separated in time and place.  There is a main story that we can go back and forth.  And there are branches to other side stories too.  It may appear that there are choices to be made.  We get to decide how the story is consumed.

Another point to note is that unlike FF13, FF13-2’s map has more options for exploration.  You could of course head from one story trigger to another.  Or you could spend some time to explore and be rewarded with extra items and more side quests.

Where are the Quests?

It seems to me that in FF13-2, we are encouraged to talk to people who are wandering around the area.  It gives you a good sense of where the story is heading.  More importantly, some are quest givers who you would not have known had you not talked to them.  This is old school.  We are so used to newer role playing games that feed us with the question marks on top of the quest givers.  In a strange way, I enjoy this aspect of exploration.

Where are the Monsters?

Vanished.  You hear right.  Unlike FF13 and other role playing games, the monsters in FF13-2 are invisible.  They ambush you instead.  As you walk, all of a sudden, the monsters may appear.  You then have a few second to turn around, move to the monsters, and attempt to hit them before they sense you.  That is the new Preemptive Strike mechanism.  If you remember FF13, this mechanic requires you to go behind a moving monster, which can be a bit frustrating.  I quite like this new mechanism in FF13-2.  Also, it seems more interesting not to see a world populated with groups of monsters that pace around a fix location.

Thank God there are breadcrumbs on the mini map.  I would have been disoriented by the change in direction, all the time.

Where are the Other Members?

Gone.  That’s correct.  Gone are the days when we get to pick which main characters we wish to bring along for a party of three.  In FF13-2, we have Serah.  And we have Noel.  In FF13, from the role playing perspective, if we do not like certain characters, no problem.  We can swap them out.  Not so for this new episode.  We better love Serah and Noel because we are stuck with these two.

I do not think Serah has the well loved character of Lightning.  She does not have the ever so positive personality of Vanille either. As for Noel, he is not as demanding as Hope (phew).  But he does not have the strong personality as Serah‘s now disappeared boyfriend Snow.  Maybe it is still early in the game.  I am hoping to see more from the duo.

Now, to compensate for the lack of playable main characters, we can tame monsters.  Almost every monster out there can be tamed and can join the party.  Each monster is preassigned with one role.  They can be leveled up with raw materials, very much like how weapons in FF13 can be upgraded.  The whole monster management business is in fact pretty complex.  You will need a good guidebook to take you through.  I happen to use one (see the advertisement below).

What the Mog?

Mog is a stuffed toy that flies.  A creature sent by Lightning to Serah through Noel.  And Mog is now Serah‘s companion.  Its job (so far) is to hunt for near invisible items.  Yes, keep your eyes wide opened when playing FF13-2 and look out for those near invisible objects.

How cute is the Mog?  Check out the trailer below.

Action Cinematic and Dialogue Choices

Cinematic clips now require us to pay attention on the screen and press a combination of control buttons.  Very much like Heavy Rain.  Failing to execute the combo will lose extra rewards.  However, you will be rewarded with an alternative clip.  The end result is the same (I think).

This same action feature also becomes a must during battle, when your party’s controlled monster charges up a full bar of Feral Link.

Some dialogues now have four options.  I am unsure if it matters which option I pick.  It plays a different clip though.  Long time ago, I debated on why a linear game may not be bad because we get to see all the contents in one run.  Now, we may need to play it multiple times to see the different dialogue clips.  If you are a completionist, that is.

Paradigms, Roles, and Crystarium

The concept of paradigms and roles do not change much, although FF13-2 seems to reward us for shifting paradigms often during battle (ATB fully charged every other turn when shifted to another paradigm).  Crystarium has undergone a revamp.  Instead of the three dimensional “talent tree” that gives you options of which non-mandatory point to pick, FF13-2 flattens the entire Crystarium into one linear scale.  We now pick which role we level.  Crystarium expands once we reach a certain cumulative level and allows us to pick a bonus (such as ATB+1 or a new role).  It does not affect me too much.  Perhaps simplification is good, much like what WoW is going to do with the talent tree in Mists of Pandaria.

Optimization of Serah and Noel‘s Crystarium is not easy.  I use a guidebook that comes with tables and charts.  I do not think I have time to play a second run in near future.  So I prefer to do it right on first try.

Do We Need to Grind?

I don’t mind grinding.  But I know some do.  If you don’t read the guidebook and play the game as you like, you would probably grind less.  I follow the guidebook’s recommendation to tame certain monsters.  And taming takes time because not every battle yields a crystal.  I ended up going back and forth trying to encounter a particular type of monster and hope to tame one.

This takes time.  But I am not complaining (yet) because I am rewarded with in-game currency and raw materials that can be used to level up the tamed monster.

A Guidebook, Recommended?

I bought the official FF13 guidebook after I have finished the game.  I wish I had one during my initial play through.  This time, I invested on the official FF13-2 guidebook upfront.  I have the Collector’s Edition.  It is beautifully bound and contains tons of useful information presented in eye pleasing colored format.  To get the best out of the game, I would strongly recommend you to get the official guidebook.

Strongly recommended.

Too Long Didn’t Read

Are you a fan?  If you are, buy FF13-2 and play.  You won’t regret it.  The changes are mostly good.  It still plays like the game you have adored a year ago.  Be ready to commit time if you wish to see every aspect of it.

Heavy Rain (PS3) – Immersion Can’t Get Better Than This!

How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love? – from the theme of “Heavy Rain”

It is hard to define the genre of this critically acclaimed title “Heavy Rain”.  It is not exactly an action game, though there are some elements of action.  It is not exactly an adventure game either, though it plays like one at times.  Certainly feel like watching a self-directed movie with full fledged orchestra soundtrack – a movie of a serial killer to catch and a kid to save.  172 days of casting, 90 actors selected from 457 auditions.  You get to switch between different key players according to the key story events.  And because you as a player get to decide your course of action and to participate in the action, the story unfolds based on the decisions  and the mistakes you have made.  Believe me, if you are not an expert in using the game controller or if you are like me who tend to press the wrong buttons or move the motion sensitive controller to the wrong direction when you get nervous, you bound to make mistakes.  Making too many mistakes may lead to an alternative storyline.  Continue to make too many mistakes may lead to a character’s death.  I have learned my lesson the hard way.  I thought I could sit back on my sofa and relax, I was grossly wrong.  And because it is one continuous play-through, you have got to live with your mistakes, for better or for worse.

The characters on the screen reacts to the sequence of buttons you press as guided by the game.  Some motions also take into consideration of how fast or slow you move the game sticks or shake the controller in certain directions.  Some scenes require you to press and hold a set of buttons in a sequential order.  How tricky the combination is depends on the situation.  For timed event, you really do not want to make too many mistakes.

“Heavy Rain” runs in 720p graphic quality.  Although it seems inferior compares to 1080p games such as Final Fantasy XIII, it is by and large acceptable.  The motion sequences are realistic (due to filming using real stunt men).  My only complain is the rendering of characters.  The real actors behind the scene look so much better (I thought it should be the other way round).  The interaction between characters – like the kissing scene with the mouths not exactly locked together – has much to desire for.  Still, consider the complicity of the game based on player’s interaction and the sum of all possible paths, the game play has made up for some of these flaws.

My first play-through does not take long to complete.  Such is the characteristic of a non-linear game.  For one play-through, I have probably only seen a quarter of what the game is.  I will need to replay this game multiple times if I wish to explore different storyline, different endings.  Bonus materials are unlocked based on game progress, such as the making-of videos that are entertaining to watch.  Believe it or not, being able to play this exclusive title is one of the major reasons why I bought a Sony PS 3.  And I am very much satisfied.  I will for sure play it again but not right now.  For such a dark game (and the constant rain) – the mood, the suspense, and the sorrow, it can get a bit depressing.  Such is the beauty of immersion.