May 24 2012
I know I spent some time last week reminiscing about where the Diablo franchise began, but now that I’ve got my hands on a copy of Diablo 3 I figured I would take some time and talk about some of the updates to their well-worn skill system for this week. I’m not saying this new system is better than its predecessor, as a matter of fact I don’t think it’s really fair to compare two games made a decade apart simply because they were made by the same company, so I won’t. However, after spending a few hours (ok, way more than a few) with the game I’ve decided that there are a lot of things I like about this seemingly simple skill system.
I love skill systems. I’ve spent countless hours over the years pouring over skill trees and builds, testing new theories while looking online for inspiration from others. There’s a fun, yet addicting science to it all. While I haven’t yet decided where Diablo 3 sits among all of the other skill systems I’ve used in my time, I can say there are some features in this system that I prefer now that I’ve used them. I think even the old-school diehard fan in me has to admit that some of these features are really just common sense. Below is a list of five things I like (or love even) about the Diablo 3 skill system after my first playthrough as a Barbarian.
I’m not penalized for experimenting
I like to tinker and mess around with builds while playing a game like Diablo 3. The more I can mess around and the more I can change things, the happier I am, generally. So far with this new system, I can pretty much mess around as much as a like without being “taxed” in any real way. There’s no financial requirement, no items to grind for, there’s really almost no time sink at all to changing abilities. There are no hidden time sinks either like trips to specific vendors or the endless clicking of dozens of skill points. You just open your spell book, click, drag, and press OK. It’s so easy it makes you wonder why it was done any other way.
This allows for not only rapid experimentation, but on-the-fly skill swapping as well. My low-level Barbarian was primarily using Cleave to get through Act I. This was fine until I reached one of the bosses and realized Cleave was pretty much useless against him. Normally this would mean all sorts of antics; changing a build, perhaps grinding out another level, buying some items, etc. But with this new system I just tweaked my spell book and tried again with a different strategy. It took about a minute, tops. I’m more likely to mess around with builds and try new things if it’s this easy, it also allows me to spend more time playing and less time performing tedious gaming maintenance.
Remember this? Not error friendly.
What do I mean by modular? Well, as there are no skill trees to climb each ability is independent from the others, each standing on their own. You simply receive a new skill or skill rune at the appropriate level and then can use it without the typical Everest-like skill tree climb to get gain access. This means that less time is spent on “throw away” points, giving players access to more resources in order to carve out their own specific builds. As a matter of fact, not a single point is wasted with each assigned to abilities I choose worthy.
This isn’t just a good thing for gameplay; future developers will most likely find working within a more modular system a bit easier. Instead of having to re-evaluate an entire skill tree every time an ability needs a buff or a nerf, developers can now just alter the one ability specifically, with as little butterfly effect as possible. Keeping abilities compartmentalized keeps the game flowing in case there are errors as well, “Whirlwind is crashing the game, better just remove it for a bit and figure it out.” In fact, entire new abilities could be added in future patches without much disruption of the skill system’s current infrastructure.
We almost got stuck with another non-modular skill tree, whew…
Players determine synergy, not developers
Older skill systems established synergy by having some sort of elemental fire theme or by simply placing abilities within the same skill tree, “this is the two-handed weapons tree, you can tell because all of the icons are of two-handed weapons.” Synergy wasn’t earned so much as it was told to you in a tooltip or forced down your throat via pre-requisite skills. By removing skill trees all together, players are able to decide for themselves which of their abilities’ synergize with their play style instead of being told which ones do. Essentially the only factor in determining synergy is gameplay, which is really the way it should be have been all along.
This added freedom also gives each newly learned skill vastly more importance. Unlocking a new skill may open up an entire new build or strategy for your character. Even the skill runes and passives have enough of an effect on gameplay to warrant a constant evaluation of your build, with pretty much unlimited freedom. Sure if you want to run around naked as the Barbarian using nothing but a shout bound to each hotkey, you could do that, but you wouldn’t get very far. Naturally each player will develop their own play style with skills and skill runes that all synergize differently.
Score one for finding a naked barbarian warcry picture!
There are many people who are opposed to any sort of character development that lacks permanent build or skill choices. But let’s be honest, there’s really nothing worse than realizing you’re stuck with a terrible build after 40 hours of gameplay. No wait, I lied; having the correct build, but allocating the points incorrectly due to a miss-click caused by lag, a brain freeze, or a cat is much, much worse. There’s really no reason that a player should ever have to take a risk like that if they don’t want to. An honest mistake shouldn’t turn into an enormous penalty for the player; a game should be a place where mistakes are allowed and easily fixed.
I understand why people like permanent character choices; they show determination, planning and some discipline. But there’s still Hardcore Mode for those that want to live on the edge, and there’s also a really robust achievement system in case you’re looking for a place to showcase your dedication to a character. Some of us however, like to have the freedom to make mistakes because we make so many, and for once it’s nice to not get penalized for making knuckleheaded mistakes.
Even though you are spending vastly fewer skill points than in most games, there’s enough variety to trick you into thinking there are more classes than there are. While you may make fewer choices, each one is very important, shaping your character into the form you want it to take. For example, the Barbarian doesn’t have just one tank build with a few subtle differences; there are many different ways to play as a tank. The same can be said about his DPS builds, I’ve tried nearly a dozen different viable strategies by only switching a few of his passives and utility skills around.
Each time I thought I had a handle on my class I would encounter an enemy that would force me to go back to the drawing board. It took a few days, but this flexibility and simplicity has allowed me to spend the vast majority of my time thinking about gameplay and theory, and not mindlessly clicking or paying some invisible time-sink tax. I’m all for tradition, but I’ll take common sense changes that make playing a game more enjoyable over tradition any day of the week.
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