Saturday, May 19, 2012

Video game review: Diablo 3

  When I was still a teenager in 1997, the video game developer Blizzard released this game called "Diablo". I still remember installing this game on my Intel Pentium I PC, with 120MHz CPU and 16MB of RAM. The game ran flawlessly on Windows 95, and I had a heck of a good time playing this game. Some of the most fond memories of Diablo I, included playing against a friend from school using dial up modem connection. The game became a must-play classics for every hardcore RPG gamers in the late 1990's.

3 years later, in year 2000. Blizzard released the sequel Diablo 2. The sequel turned out to be a bigger and more elaborate game than Diablo 1. Diablo 2 became one of the most popular RPG to embrace the video game market. I remember playing Diablo 2 from time to time until 2005. Those great memories of playing Diablo2, came from the days when my friends and I used to have a LAN party after our university exams.

Diablo 3 was first announced in 2008 and released in May 2012. Despite the fact that Diablo 3 has broken the record of "most pre-ordered PC games on Amazon", I was not particularly excited about it. Largely because I only play video games on special occasions these days, but also because I no longer possess the same enthusiasm about video games as I once did. Although I wasn't particular thrilled about the news of Diablo 3, but for old time's sake, I pre-ordered the game anyway.. simply because it's a Diablo game.

Diablo 3 collector's edition content

The funny thing is, when I finally picked up the game from the shop on the release day. I couldn't help but felt a tinge of excitement, as I held the massive box that contains Diablo 3 collector's edition in my hands. All of the sudden, as I stare dumbfounded at the size and the weight of the game's box. The memories of my nerdy teenage years flashed back in my mind, I remembered the good times I had playing Diablo I and II, as well as the days when I played the game with my friends of old.

With this new sense of excitement. I went home and installed the game, then start the game. I was first greeted with the message of user agreements, then I was notified that I needed to create a battle net account. Then I realized, Diablo 3 requires constant internet connection to play. "No problem", I thought, "I have unlimited broadband internet, surely this will not be a major issue". How wrong was I to have thought so...

I created the battle net account, chose my username and password. Then eagerly launched the game, thinking of re-living my nostalgic and glorious gaming memories of the past. An error message popped up, saying that the server was too busy and refused to let me log in. The next 30 minutes consists of desperate, and unsuccessful attempts to input of my battle net password to try to access the game, with no luck. Disappointed, I visited Blizzard forum, only to realize that there are hundreds of post from people on the same boat as me.

Apparently, too many people wanted to log in and play Diablo 3 on the launch day. The server network at Blizzard could not handle the traffic, and folded...

At that point, I wondered to myself: "Can this Diablo 3 really be the high quality Diablo game I remember from my teenage years?" Here I will give you my review for the much anticipated Diablo 3.

Examples of Barbarian concept art


 The story of Diablo 3 started 20 years after the original events in Diablo 2. New evils threaten the world of Sancturay. In the face of new threats, new heroes came from all corners of Sancturay in attempt to defeat this new evil.

The adventure starts in a town called New Tristram. The old town of Tristram, after the events of Diablo I and II now lay in ruins. People have re-built the town in a new location. Following the event of a fallen star crashing into the town, news of the appearance of demonic monsters spread. The would-be hero arrived at New Tristram to investigate this new threat. Only to discover a series of evil plots, and raging battles that will lead to the resurrection of the Lord of Terror, Diablo himself.

Character selection screen

The story telling method in Diablo 3 has been revamped. In previous Diablo games, while the story was interesting, it was never very involving. In Diablo 3, many new elements in the story telling method give the player a more immersive experience. For example, the player character is now fully voiced, and can have conversations with NPCs. The towns in act 1 to act 3 are also bigger, with more NPCs to speak to. On top of this, the NPCs and followers sometimes have conversations with the player character through real time speech, or cut scenes in the dungeons. This method of story telling prevents interruption with the pace of the game. Most importantly, there are beautifully rendered CG movies, narrating the story from the protagonist's perspective. To make the adventure more interesting, there are also events that will trigger randomly as the player happens upon them. Finally, the world of Sanctuary is full of lores, these lores can be picked up in the form of lore books. The player can listen to these lore books while adventuring, if they are interested to explore the background of the game world a bit deeper.

There are four acts in Diablo 3, each act varies in length and intensity. While the first half of act 1 may develop slowly, but after that, the pace and the intensity of the game pretty much resembled an aeroplane taking off on a runway.


The gameplay in Diablo 3 remains very similar to the previous Diablo games. The player chooses one of the five characters in the game: Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Demon Hunter, and Witch Doctor. In Diablo 3, now the player can choose to pay either male or female for each character class. Each character class has his/her own unique skills and strategy in game. When the player logs in, he/she can either embark on a crusade against legions of demons in a solo adventure. Or, alternatively the players are also free to choose to wage the war against demons in co-op mode with their friends.

Desert land (zoom in)

There are four difficulty levels in Diablo 3: Normal, Nighmare, Hell and Inferno. When the player starts a new character, he/she is playing at normal difficulty, beating the game will unlock the next level of difficulty. Blizzard has issued a claim, saying it is impossible to solo in Inferno level because the difficulty is too high.

The co-op mode shines brightly in Diablo 3, offering much challenges and fun . The difficulty of the game rises as you team up with your friends. This means if you are building a large team, you better have a team with balanced skills, and wide range of character classes to complement each other. Only then can you hope to defeat the toughest demons that spawned from the deepest recess of hell.

The game still uses the isometric camera view, and the control only involves mouse and keyboard. Left click on the mouse attack, right bottom of the mouse activate special attacks. Which other keys that can be assigned to execute special skills.

Blizzard is the master at crafting games that provide non-linear gameplay experience. This is done by using randomly generated dungeons. Every time, when the player re-play a dungeon, it will never be the same map. In addition to this, when monsters are slain, they will drop random loots. This means even if you created 50 wizard characters , you will build 50 very different characters, because you don't know what equipment you will get in the game for each character. This obviously adds great replayability value to the game, a trademark for the Diablo games.

Desert land (zoom out)

In previous Diablo games, when the character levels up, the player can choose to increase attribute points such as: Strength, dexerity, vitality, and intelligence. In Diablo 3, the attribute system is dropped. Instead, when the character levels up in Diablo 3, the player can acquire skills. The higher the character's level means more skills can be unlocked to aid the player's quest to anguish minions of Diablo. However, the interesting thing about the new skill system is, the player is free to switch between skills at anytime. Meaning the player can choose a combination/set of skills that best suit their play style and strategy. While able to change to a different strategy if they want to. This new skill system works wondrously, because this encourages people to experiment with different strategies and explore different skills, allowing the player to have more freedom to explore the gameplay mechanism in more details.

Another new addition to the game is the follower system. Previously in Diablo 2, the player can hire mercenaries on their epic quest. However, the mercenaries are essentially mute and dont' have stories, when they die, you just go back to the town and buy a new one. It was not very interesting at all. In Diablo 3, the new follower system is in place. There are 3 followers that can join your honorable quest to defeat the Lord of Terror: Templar, Enchantress and Scoundrel. Each follower has his/her own unique background story, and will have conversations with the player character randomly. The player can customize the follower's skills and equipment. When I played Diablo 3, I took followers with me because it was interesting to have them along.

Inventory screen in Diablo 3

The most useless feature of the new gameplay system, is the newly incorporated feature of auction house. The idea of the auction house is that the player can put their excess items on auction (because some items are class based, so if you are using a barbarian you are unable to use the equipment of a wizard), in a public domain on the Blizzard network. Other players from around the world, can purchase the equipment of interest by using in-game gold, or alternatively, using money in real life. Personally, I think this is a poor excuse for Blizzard to make more money, by handling the transactions from such trades in the auction house.


Many people will say that the graphics in Diablo 3 is not spectacular. While it is true that the graphics is no match for Mass Effect 3 or Batman Arkham City, but I do think the graphics in this game suits its purpose for a game like Diablo 3. The isometric view is probably the most efficient method of display in a hack and slash RPG. This allows the developer to craft big areas in the game. At the same time the explorations of the dungeons won't feel overwhelmingly long. Furthermore, the graphics look superb on a 3D TV, with great 3D depth and elevations for environmental details.

The centre of New Tristram

One of the most interesting thing about the graphics in Diablo 3, is the use of color in the art design. I noticed that each act in the game have their own unique color set. Creating a sense that each chapter is distinct in its area, location and lore. The use of the color scheme also created great immersion for players, a sense often missing in traditional hack and slash RPG. Overall, the atmosphere of the game stays true to the previous Diablo games, dark, bleak and depressing. With a sense of dangers looming around the corner.

Music and sound effect:

The music of Diablo 3 remains to be one of the best aspects in the game. The soundtracks are atmospheric and sometimes, creepy. The sound effects are very well done, from the slashing sound of the sword to the death cry of the demons. The sound effect and the music of Diablo 3 brings this dungeon crawling adventure to your living room.

What I think about the game:

I thin Diablo 3 is a very good game, hands down. This is probably the best game in the series. It has a lot of improvements on gameplay, story telling and graphics compared to its predecessors. The story is the good old fashioned tale of good versus evil. With a mixture of tragedy, desperation, loss of hope and the ultimate triumph of good against evil. While the story is not epic in scale such as Baldur's Gate, the story of Diablo 3 is interesting enough to attract the players to spend time to listen to the lores, talk to the NPCs and wanting to know what will happen next.

The gamplay mechanism added new elements and improvements in Diablo 3. The new skill system is very interesting, and will encourage the players to explore different play styles and strategies. While some may accuse Blizzard of "dumbing down" the game mechanics. Personally, I think the new system allows the player more freedom to craft their own unique strategies and play styles. Everything else about the game, from the graphics to the music and sound effects are pretty good, well suited for a game of this genre.

In other words, I think Diablo 3, is definitely (or better than) the Diablo games I remembered from my nerdy teenage years. But I am also sad to report that my experience of Diablo 3, was ruined by cob webs of technical problems.

An example of a skill tree layout

A more terrible foe than the Lord of Terror:

As if the quest to vanquish Diablo does not put enough chills into the spines of the would-be heroes. There is a even more horrifying foe that stands as the insurmountable enemy, threatening to thwart our noble quest. That foe, is none other than the abominable entity known as "Blizzard server network infrastructure".

Seriously, other than unable to log in to the game on the launch day. In the first two days, I experienced constant error messages (error 3007). Telling me that I have been "removed" from the server. This happened at 15 minute intervals. Thousands of people have posted on Blizzard's forum, reporting they the same problem. This means everytime this happened, the game crashed and I lost all the progress I made in the game. In the 20 hours that I played this game, I experienced in excess of 100 disconnections, meaning I had to restart certain dungeons more than 100 times! Honestly, this is not a technically sound product. While it is true that the network problem, is due to the network traffic caused by millions of users playing this game on the server. However, this does not excuse Blizzard from the responsibility of preparing for this kind of network traffic before the game was released.

Currently, the work around for error 3007 is to join the general chat in game. This also requires the player to say something on the general chat channel every 15 minutes. To "keep the network connection alive". In the last two days, whenever I played Diablo 3, I was always frantically type in something on the general chat channel. In order to remain connected. Suffice to say, I am not the only one spamming the general chat to avoid the infamous error 3007 message.

The reason for this network failure, is because Blizzard has made Diablo 3 to requires constant internet connection. Even in solo single player mode! Why do I need to be constantly connected to the internet, if I am only playing solo adventure? All we can hope is, Blizzard will release a patch shortly to address this problem. Otherwise in the meantime, Diablo 3 is almost unplayable due to the technical problems with the servers


Story 8.5/10
Gameplay 9.5/10
Graphics 8.5/10
Music and sound effect 9.5/10
Replayability 9.5/10
Recommended age of audience: Mature audience only

Final score: 9.1/10

I really like Diablo 3, I think it is a great game. And unlike Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, I can actually see myself playing this game from time to time in the next few years. From its game play mechanics, random dugeon/loot system, multiplayer co-op mode, and wide range of characer class choice. Diablo 3 has much to offer in terms of replayability. I wouldn't mind playing this in co-op mode with my friends. unfortunately at the moment, the more diabolic element of the game is not Diablo himself, but the poorly designed Blizzard network infrastructure, which has rendered the game almost unplayable. Today I heard that Blizzad issued an official apology to the customers. Promising to release a patch to fix all the problems. Let's hope they do so in the very near future. Otherwise, it will be a shame to see such a jewel of a game being ruined by a poorly executed technical infrastructure.

P.S. This game is quite violent, and the atmosphere of the game is very dark and depressing. The general vibe is a blend between horror and fantasy. Therefore, I do not think it is suitable for younger audiences. The horror theme might frighten younger audiences (I used to have nightmares in my sleep after playing Diablo I some 15 years ago), and the game can be very violent at certain places.

 ** This review is based on playing in normal and partially, nightmare difficulty (both solo and co-op mode). Game play experience might vary according to different game play difficulty settings.**

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Book Review: The Saga of Beowulf

Beowulf, is arguably the oldest surviving English literature. The epic poem tells the story of heroes and glorious battles in the days long gone. This piece of literature has been passed down from generation to generation for the last thousand years. The epic poem of Beowulf, is one of my most favorite of all time. To me, not only is Beowulf the Scandinavian version of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian in epic poetry, but the character of Beowulf himself is a hero of mythic proportion. Everything about Beowulf is intriguing: A hero with the strength of 30 men, slayer of giant sea serpents, swimming for days, the hand to hand battle with the troll Grendel, the battle against the troll hag and his final confrontation with the dragon, has captured my imagination ever since the first time I opened up the magical pages of this ancient poem. In fact, it is not hard to find traces of Beowulf in J.R.R Tolkien's Middle Earth  Saga [1], and C.S Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Independent author R. Scot Johns, after a decade of research on the historical background of Beowulf, and the ancient poem itself. Has written a novelization of this epic poem, titled "The Saga of Beowulf". While the original poem consists of roughly 3200 lines, this novelization version amount to almost 620 pages, and is quite a hefty tome. The would-be reader must be willing to invest some time if they are interested in this book. Is this book worth your time? Let's find out.


To begin with, forget about the 2007 Hollywood movie "Beowulf" with Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie. All I can say is, that movie was not a faithful adaptation of Beowulf. In fact, it is everything but Beowulf, with main storyline so disfigured from the original. This is hardly a surprise since the script was written by Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods) and he was on a mission to not only remove all the Christian elements from the original poem, but Gaiman has taken a step further to attack Christianity in his script. The bottom line is, if your only impression of Beowulf is based on the 2007 movie, then you need to read the original poem. Only then can you appreciate the beauty of the original story and realize how poorly written is the Hollywood adaptation (the only redeeming quality of the 2007 film were the soundtracks, and the 3D effects in the cinema).

It seems that the modern attempt to adapt Beowulf into a movie has failed to capture the spirit of the original poem. What about this massive novel? Before I give a brief summary of the story, I am happy to report that most of the essence of the original Beowulf poem has been captured in Scots' novel, but not without flaws.

The story of Beowulf probably took place at around 500-600AD, mainly in Denmark and Geat land (in modern Sweden). Unlike the original poem, the novelization portrayed Beowulf as more human, and has more background stories about the history at the time, and also has many complex characters in the book.

The story started with a troubled mead hall of Heorot in Denmark. The kingdom has been besieged by a monstrous troll, Grendel for 12 years. The human eating monster comes into the hall night after night, and no warriors can stand a chance against this super natural monstrosity. Many brave warriors have stood in front of the monster and fell. Including Beowulf's father, the crimson warrior Edgetheow, an exile from the Geat land and a right hand man of the Danish king Hrothgar. However, Grendel has never attacked the king himself. After a siege of 12 years, most of the king's warriors are slain and Denmark was in a pitiful state. As a grown man, and a warrior of renown, Beowulf led a small war band to Denmark, in attempt to slay the monster and also avenge for his father's death. In an epic battle, Beowulf managed to tore off Grendel's arm in hand to hand combat, and in effect slain the troll that has laid waste to Denmark. Little did Beowulf know that the Orge battle is but the beginning of a series of struggles against fate, where his struggle will leave behind an epic tale of legends.

What I think about the book:

R. Scot Johns has done a great job at novelizing Beowulf. It is evident that he has done thorough research in the historical background of 5th century Scandinavia. This book is on the borderline between a historical fiction, and a historical fantasy novel. Johns has successfully portrayed the human side of Beowulf that were present in the poem, and presented Beowulf as a complex character who is more than just having the strength of 30 men with a bunch of heroic deeds. Equally as well done, is the cast of supporting characters in this book. From the heroes to the villain, all the characters are well developed and their motivations are well presented to the readers, making this a deeply involved story.

It is interesting to note that the author has removed all the Christian elements present in the original poem in this novelization. I am not sure what the author's intention was for removing the Christian elements. However, while the poem Beowulf was originally a song sang by bards, circulating in Northern Europe in pre-Christian era, it is also know that the first written composition of Beowulf was probably by the hands of Christian monks in 800AD.  Therefore, maybe the author's intention for removing the Christian elements is to present the book with a more accurate historical background. Because in the time when the story of Beowulf took place, Northern Europe has just begun the process of converting to Christianity. Some have even speculated that the written poem of Beowulf in 800AD, was an attempt to reconcile Christianity and Nordic religious belief. Because the poem was largely appealing to the Norsemen's culture and code of honor in battle and glory, and at the same time trying to portray Beowulf as a Christ like character, while the poem bears many imagery to the story of Jesus Christ.

In this novel, all the Christian elements from the original poem are absent. Christianity is presented as a budding religion in certain parts of Europe, while the Norsemen were still pagans who believed that a glorious death on the battlefield, will grant them a seat in Valhalla across the bifrost where Odin awaits the brave and the courageous. Very interestingly, this novel was written from the perspective of Nordic mythology belief, which reflects the Nordic culture and the belief in fatalism, where one's struggle against fate matters little to the entirety of things, but it is the struggle itself that will bring glory and the heroic deeds from the struggle will be sung for ages to come. Perhaps it was the harsh weather in the Nordic regions that shaped the fatalistic belief? I don't really know, but I think some interesting discussions can be followed up on this topic of fatalism, Norse mythology and early Christianity in Scandinavia.

Personally, I think this is a great book. The only flaw is that sometimes the author can get pretty wordy, and pays too much attention to details that becomes distracting to the pace of the story. I have certainly speed through some of the paragraphs that seemed out of place. Nevertheless, the book is very well written, and the 1980's dungeon&dragon style cover doesn't really do justice for this otherwise fantastic novel. I think as an independent author, R. Scot Johns should probably find a good book cover artist to design the cover of his books. After all, appropriate book cover art or even illustrations never hurt, but can only be good to improve the artistic value of the book.

Final score: 4/5

The Saga of Beowulf, is the first novelization of the epic poem Beowulf. R. Scot Johns did a great job at modernising the poem and giving it more story with the rich historical context, complex and deep character development, and is very well written. The only downside of the book is the occasional wordiness in some paragraphs, which distrubed the pace of the story. The novel has successfully captured the spirit of the original poem, and R. Scot Johns has weaved an epic tale worthy of reading.

P.S. If you like this kind of books, make sure to check out Poul Anderson's "Hrolf Kraki's saga", a novelization of the 11th century Norse epic saga "Saga of King Hrolf Kraki'". This saga is actually remotely connected to Beowulf, in that both epics have mentioned King Hrothgar of Denmark.


[1] J.R.R Tolkien, Beowulf: The monsters and the critics, Proceedings of the British Academy, 1936 pp. 245-295