Friday, November 6, 2009

Bearing the Mark of the Devil

Scary scary. The term “spiritual successor” is thrown around a lot in gaming these days. Previews of New Super Mario Bros. Wii are hailing it as a spiritual successor to Super Mario Bros. 3 (prompting discussions of Nintendo’s verbose naming practices - “Why not just call it SMB 4?”). Any time someone makes a scrolling shoot-em-up, someone calls it a spiritual successor to Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga. With rare exceptions, “spiritual successor” is code for “We’re kind of copying an older game that we’re pretty sure you like a lot.”

A franchise seeing lots of successors these days is Blizzard’s Diablo series. The first Diablo hit PCs in 1996, with a sequel arriving in 2000. These games fall into the nebulous Action RPG genre – usually defined by having players directly control an upgradeable character, often in a fantasy setting. In Diablo, players explore dungeons, clicking on hordes of enemies to attack them with weapons or spells. The series prominently features loot – equipment and items that greatly increase a character’s statistics – and lots of quests that the player can complete to obtain even more loot.

With Diablo III idling on Blizzard’s “We’ll Release It When We Want To” calendar, a number of spiritual successors are out to fill the void.

Fleshing Out a World

Though not new by any means, probably the most successful of Diablo’s descendants is Blizzard’s MMO-cum-cash-cow World of Warcraft. Though it's based in Azeroth and builds upon the Hero unit mechanics of Warcraft III, Blizzard’s history with Diablo that paved the way for the most popular MMO of all time.

Streamlined quests, extensive loot, a variety of character classes, multiplayer dungeon raiding. Sure, none of this stuff is new to the MMO genre, but it was all there in Diablo 2. And its worth nothing that WoW is Blizzard’s first and only MMO. They got it mostly right very quickly and have been patching the thing like mad ever since. They’ve also launched a full-scale assault on the main game world, scorching the earth and ravaging earlier areas to keep things interesting for their core audience.

You know you’re at the top when anyone else making an MMO is immediately asked, “So…how is this different from World of Warcraft?”

Carrying a Torch

Staying truer to the Diablo form is Torchlight from Runic Games. Runic’s chock full of developers from Flagship studios, which was comprised of people from the original Diablo team. The experience and proximity to the source material is readily apparent. Players guide a single character though a nigh-bottomless dungeon beneath a small hub world. Sounds like Diablo to me.

The adjustments it makes to the original formula are subtle yet revelatory. As in Diablo 2, some weapons are customizable by socketing gemstones into the item. Previously, it was impossible to recover said stones when you wanted to move on to a better item. Torchlight solves this problem, making the gems recoverable. You might have a magic glass eyeball that you want to put in your new Wondrous Blunderbuss of the Bear (I made that up but there’s a good chance it’s in the game somewhere). Torchlight is totally cool with that.

Torchlight’s standout improvement upon Diablo is the implementation of a pet companion. In the action RPG genre, minions are generally relegated to a specific class: Hunter, Beastmaster, Necromancer, etc. Torchlight gives every character, regardless of class, an animal buddy. You can choose between a dog and a cat, both more feral than your average domesticated critter. Not only will your animal run around and maul foes for your, s/he can equip magical trinkets and spells – which it will unleash at will (mine currently shoots fireballs). Pets may also be used as pack mules and will gladly hoof it back to town to pawn all your goods. I do feel kind of lonely whenever he leaves, though.

Diablo with Guns

Gearbox’s Borderlands has been marketed as the result of a one-night stand between an RPG and a first-person shooter. The result: an RPS, or role-playing shooter. Leading up to its release, developers and enthusiast press alike referred to it as “Diablo with guns,” a moniker previously given to the failed Flagship Studios title Hellgate: London.

I never played H: L, and I’m happy about that. Because it sounds like it did everything wrong. Borderlands, however, does a lot of things right. (Don’t be mislead. This is not a review. Our editors’ review is forthcoming).

Like Diablo, it has you scurrying from area to area offing beasts and acquiring loot. In fact, the skeletal plot isn’t much more than “Search out this mysterious location where I bet there’s some sweetass loot.” Also, Diablo sort of established a color-coded hierarchy of item rarity, something that Borderlands has no problem using. A more slightly more subtle nod to Blizzard’s dungeon-crawler is the way loot flies out of fallen monsters like candy from a piñata.

Why Diablo?

Loot heavy dungeon-crawlers tap generally employ a Carrot-and-Stick system of item and character progression that’s starting to permeate a variety of genres as developers strive to make their games increasingly Compelling. While Diablo’s certainly not the first, it and games in its lineage urge the player on by dangling new items and abilities just inches from his nose. The phrase “Just one more quest” seems like a cliché in a world where World of Warcraft is popular enough to be mocked on South Park, but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t uttered those words more than a few times in the past month.

These are games to be played simply for the sake of advancement. Learn that new skill. Find that new item. Discover that new area. And they wear it (and their heritage) on their sleeves. If only other titles were so forthcoming.