Saturday, March 2, 2013

Never read games criticism before, because never been into games...  But I stumbled on this review (below) in Edge magazine a while ago (waiting for a rental car in their little waiting room, if you must know) and was struck by the quality of the prose, how vivid and elegant it was. Yet also completely enclosed and walled-inside the games-worldview of functionality and specifications and sensation, no sense at all of any spill over into real life (but then again, you might say the same about most music criticism these days!)

Strange thing, though: the review appears to be uncredited -- i couldn't find the byeline, anyway, either in the physical hardcopy mag in the waiting room, or later looking online. So even if the "Lester Bangs of Games Writing" exists out there, perhaps the readership as yet doesn't --a readership that is looking for a Voice/Leader/Prophet and therefore would anoint such a figure should he or she materialise

I enjoyed this just as a piece of colorful, contoured writing (it starts to get really going two or three paragraphs in) while barely understanding half of the terms:

Diablo III benefits from great writing. Not necessarily in the narrative or dialogue, both of which offer the same old gleefully stagey stuff about warring angels and ancient prophecies. No, it has great writing where it matters: in the names of its class skills. Wrath Of The Berserker, Rain Of Vengeance, Mass Confusion – here’s where creative effort has been spent. Here’s where you can see the density of pulpy exuberance that ten years of development can provide.

As it is for the writing, so it goes for the wider game. Diablo III is defined by its skills, and by the characters who unlock them. With five vividly distinct heroes to choose from, Blizzard’s returned to the dungeon-crawler with rebalancing in mind. Enemies drop the same coins, shields and magical trousers when you hit them, but it now seems like a minor concern compared to your own progression. Diablo’s still a fruit machine, but it’s far more rewarding to step away from the randomness and approach it as a series of decisions. Which power now, which one next?

The biggest decision comes right at the beginning: who to play as? The answer, of course, is everyone eventually, but that doesn’t make selecting your first class any easier. Seek the standard all-rounder for that initial playthrough and you’ll discover that there isn’t one. The Barbarian, for example, is the melee tank rendered seismic. He’s handed the bone-shaking Leap and Earthquake, the latter of which shatters the ground beneath him and brings lava oozing to the surface. However, Ancient Spear makes him surprisingly good for distanced play, since a quick tap of the action bar can harpoon mobs from halfway across the screen, while Whirlwind twists him into a tornado of blades, spinning around like Taz the Tazmanian Devil. Even core skills such as Frenzy bring to the fore leftfield ideas such as incremental speed boosts, each strike diminishing the cooldown before the next. The spirit of Conan is hard to locate within this dynamic, scene-stealing demi-god; he’s not the straightforward option you might expect.

The Wizard’s no more traditional: a youthful mage who plays like a spry angel crossed with a Tesla coil, firing frosty lasers and linking enemies together with lattices of electricity. Decked out in a schoolgirl ponytail and a bright sash, she chucks Magic Missiles like she’s pitching baseballs. And while she’s built for range, she’s an uncommonly hardy tank if you weight your deck with defensive and area skills.

After that, things get really creative. The Demon Hunter is Batman with a Gatling gun, a dark knight of traps, bows and grenades who rolls into combat and dashes between shadows. The Monk, meanwhile, mixes elements from healers with moves you’d expect from Capcom. Seven-Sided Strike rattles him between groups of enemies, and Lashing Tail Kick unleashes a powerful knockback attack that’s accompanied by the sound of a jet engine. Then, of course, there’s the Witch Doctor, the weirdest and most contradictory of the bunch. He’s a confusing blend of ranged and melee attacks, direct and indirect, and each new power represents another trip to the world’s strangest pet shop, summoning spiders, firebats, and zombie dogs that scamper after their master in a disgusting parody of the real thing.

There’s plenty of fun to be had as you use classes together in the churning muddle of co-op – letting a Wizard freeze a group in place, say, before a Barbarian sends them flying – but the addition of runestones ensures that heroes offer endless entertainment for solo adventurers. Runes unlock gradually as you level, allowing you to flare each power in unusual directions by slotting them into sockets. In a game built upon a series of incapacitating choices, they offer some real dilemmas – do you want that Cyclone Strike to be explosive or heal? Like the skills they enhance, runes can be reset at will, allowing you to play across the entirety of a class at once. Diablo’s always been a complex game powered by simple things, and to impulses such as greed and violence you can now add curiosity. Stat-tweaking, loadouts, bespoke resources: the campaign is both laboratory and sweetshop, offering depth as well as sugary fanboy excess. The end result is an embarrassment of rewards, an endless nested arrangement of gifts, levels, abilities, items, runes, sigils, achievements, and AI followers to play alongside.

If there’s a casualty to all this generosity, it’s the loot system, and particularly the arsenal. Assaulted by feisty class powers on one side and sabotaged by an in-game auction house that allows you to trade items on the other, what you’re holding in your hand has far less impact than it used to. Each weapon still has a distinct feel, but you’re not likely to experience much of that as you map gaudier pleasures to both mouse buttons and move through the game performing glissandos on your recharging action bar.

This matters less than you might expect, though, partly because the skills are so dazzling, and partly because the rest of the game has evolved alongside the classes. Diablo III is filled with marvels – its fantasy world has been redrawn in rich colours and mineral textures, eschewing po-faced Tolkien influences for the pulpiness of a horror comic as it paints its forests and oases in deep turquoises and throbbing reds. These environments provide pacing as well as atmosphere, and quests send you between towns, vast explorative areas, and a variety of internal spaces that defy the ‘dungeon’ classification. Blizzard’s tilesets can handle anything from the balanced architecture of cathedrals to the organic sprawl of spiders’ nests, and it’s nearly impossible to tell when you’ve switched between designed landscapes and randomisation.

The game’s filled with detailing, too, from midnight springs turning jerry-rigged waterwheels to useful clutter, such as walls and chandeliers primed to collapse on your foes. The monsters, meanwhile, are a wonder to behold and a joy to destroy, whether they’re Writhing Deceivers (fat, snake-bodied menaces wriggling on scaly bellies) or Grotesques (tottering doughballs that explode when killed and can set off chain reactions). Dune Dervishes, meanwhile, are spectral hard men who spin at you with bladed skirts. They’re joined, in the space of just a single area, by a set of gruesome delights bearing names such as Gore Harrier, Spine Hewer and Copperfang Lurker. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Diablo’s imagination.

Step back and you’ll find a game that’s learned lessons from WOW, whether it’s the scrolling timeline that blends player chat with NPC dialogue, or the ease with which you can connect with friends, leaping into another game at the click of a button, trading, fighting, and then disappearing again. Many of Warcraft’s social interfaces transition across almost unchanged, and you can see the knowledge Blizzard’s accrued from running an MMOG in the headlong rush of the campaign and the cruel entanglement of its compulsions. It’s there in the way a quest leads you past side missions or random events, or the reward schedule that follows a separate rhythm to the plot. Crucially, it’s visible in the fact that Blizzard approaches balance in a manner that sees you orbiting the right level, ensuring you’re either slightly underpowered for the next area, so that battles are tense and exhilarating, or slightly overpowered, meaning brawls are almost shamefully satisfying.

Perhaps Diablo’s learned too much from WOW, in fact. Its least lovable aspect is its mandatory Internet connection. This protects Blizzard from piracy and may help to slow the spread of auction corruption, but it casts out mods and opens the door for frustrating disconnects and freezing. This is a singleplayer game that you may struggle to load at first due to busy servers, or because America just woke up and everyone has logged on at once. It’s a corporate decision that affects you on a personal level, and so it’s hard not to see it as an imposition, an insult, and a worrying precedent. More immediately, Blizzard’s approach is just intensely disappointing: Diablo III’s an amazing place, and it’s a shame that you’ll never achieve the full sensation of ownership over it.

Even then, it’s hard to stop clicking. You may think you know Diablo, but you don’t know it with this level of polish, from the clean brilliance of interlocking skills and classes to the sheer amount of chaos the game’s comfortable with conjuring in its later dungeons. It’s a testament to what money and confidence (Blizzard’s own equivalent of mana and health) can do. You’ll sense those long years of development in characters that suggest a certain approach while supporting myriad different playstyles, and in enemies that aren’t content to simply wander around, but spill from ruptured tombs or burrow out of the dark earth.

To the disinterested, Diablo III’s another game about hitting monsters and looting their corpses. Such a characterisation misses the wider point, however. It’s also the best game about hitting monsters and looting their corpses that has yet been made. [9]


  1. any other non-music criticism you're into? The film critic Armond White for instance is quite good

  2. I remember having a conversation with you, Simon, at a Q&A in London where you were promoting Retromania, possibly a couple of years ago. We had a drink afterwards. But my question to you, which you said you enjoyed was along the lines of the following "surely music has run out of ideas, because no-one pays for it, so there's a brain drain away from it." We then got on to where the talent might be going, and I posited video games, because people still pay a lot for them. And there is still innovation to be found in gaming, and whilst retro classic games are respected and loved people aren't necessarily trying to copy them, as they are in the moribund world of music, because the audience demands innovation.

    This might be an oversimplified view of gaming, there are still tons of sequels and franchises that push conformity. But there is room for and the desire for genuine newness, in a way that there really isn't the music industry now.

    And you asked if there was good writing about computer games, and I said, rather dismissively, there's plenty of wank written about games. And then I cited EDGE magazine. But I regret I shut down the discussion. Because EDGE is very serious about gaming and games writing and has been for a long time. It's closest analogue in music being THE WIRE.

    So I guess I wanted to say that I found it really interesting that you're looking into it now. And that maybe you'll start gaming and writing about it. Because as you say, there is an insularity to the writing that I feel requires a wider context.

    Mark Kermode, another favourite critic of mine has started to engage with gaming over the fantastic LA NOIRE. That might be a good starting point for you Simon.

  3. Bl-rog, was this at the ICA, or at the thing in the bar (Faber Social, with Bob Stanley)?

    i don't know if i'll be getting into games, i don't seem to have enough time for all the music and books and films that have piled up, literally and mentally (baleful lists)

    but i am curious cos it is such a central thing for the generation(s) just younger than me. and my son, 13, is mad into them. my daughter, just turning 7, looks likely to go the same way

    i'll check out Mark Kermode though and LA NOIRE

    this book by Tom Bissell - Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter -- is supposed to be great. It's on my List. i met him at a literary magazine party in LA and i said, "i wanna read your book, cos i want to understand my son". he looked slightly put out -- i think he thought i was implying that games were kids stuff - but all i meant was that i'd had been so utterly cathected to music that i'd missed the Games Thing completely and so there was a generation gap i'd like to at least semi-bridge.

  4. mr hebron,

    yeah there's loads of non-music critics i read and enjoy, although not quite follow in the same obsessive / identificatory / yet also combative way that i used to read music writers when i was a developing mind, and still do read certain music writers (old ones and a few new ones). but that's because however much i enjoy books or films or TV or or art or whatever, i don't feel engaged in quite the same way - at the same deep level of identity-formation

    right now my mind is blanking on who they are though -- which is revealing in itself, i'd have no trouble reeling off 30 names of music critics just like that.

    yes Armond is very good. he's also a good music critic. in fact he did a few reviews for me when i worked at Spin as LPs ed. i remember him being mad keen to review an LP of Morrissey B-sides. "there's this one B-side, it's SO good". couldn't indulge him on that one but he did review Public Enemy's 1998 lp. what a combo - Chuck D and Morrissey. an interesting dude

  5. Hi Simon, here's a blog that collates decent games criticism on a semi-regular basis: