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DOS2: An Examination

I have been writing a lot about Divinity: Original Sin 2 lately. Despite my displeasure with its balance decisions, I did want to take a moment to consider them in greater detail. First, because people are still defending the game for some reason. But more importantly, second, because it’s a good reflection on what balance is “supposed” to mean.

Armor Mechanic

One of the biggest changes from the prior title is the introduction of the Armor system. While I do consider it one of the reasons the rest of the game is so imbalanced, I also actually like the system a lot. It’s extremely elegant and intuitive. Physical damage first reduces your Physical Armor before touching your Vitality (HP); same principle with Magic damage. These Armors can be restored with spells and abilities, and are derived from the equipment you choose to wear. You can focus on one or the other or a balance of both.

The secondary mechanic with Armor is its defense against debuffs. You are generally immune to debuffs of the corresponding type as long as you have Armor of that type remaining. If you have Physical Armor, you cannot be Knocked Down or get the Bleeding debuff. If you have Magic Armor, you cannot be Charmed, or Stunned, or Poisoned, etc. Most debuffs come from attacks that deal that type of Armor damage in the first place, so if any damage breaks through, you get the debuff.

In isolation, I like the Armor mechanic, especially compared with other games. I “know” that +5 Defense is better than +3 Defense, but exactly how much better is often opaque and requires math. In this game, you can simply see the numbers go up. Indeed, DOS2’s system reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, wherein armor just straight-up added HP to your character. I’d like to see this sort of Armor mechanic in other games.

Crowd Control

This is were DOS2 falls off the rails. Hard.

Simply put, losing a turn in a turn-based game is crippling. What’s worse is how easy it has gotten to essentially stunlock a character. Before, you sort of had to combo effects if you wanted to try to CC someone. For example, you needed to hit them an ice attack to give them the Chilled debuff, and then another ice attack to promote that status to Frozen. Or get them Wet before an lightning strike. That still exists in DOS2 as well, but the combo itself is useless if they still have Magic Armor. So the strategy is to get them to zero Armor as quickly as possible so that your abilities actually do something else.

I’ll talk about specific broken abilities in moment, but I just want to emphasize how terrible it is that these effects are so binary. For example, if you are Knocked Down, it takes your entire turn to stand back up. Why? Why not have a gradient of effects? The Shocked debuff gives you -1 AP, whereas Chilled reduces movement speed by -35% (both reduce Dodge by -30%). You hardly ever see these sort of debuffs though, because it’s much easier – and more powerful – to upgrade them to “lose a turn” instead.

Overpowered Skills

Chloroform is one of the most broken skills in the game. It costs 1 AP, has a 13m range, destroys 80+ Magic Armor, and then puts the target to Sleep if they have no Magic Armor. Each turn, your characters will only get 4 AP, and the vast majority of the attacks in the game cost at least 2 AP. So why the hell does Chloroform cost only 1 AP and also deal a significant amount of Magic damage and also inflict Sleep?

Chicken Claw is probably more balanced, but also seems ridiculous. It costs 2 AP, requires melee range, and does nothing if the target has Physical Armor. If they don’t though, it turns them into a chicken for two turns, and runs around aimlessly. This works even on boss characters.

Medusa Head is another straight-broken skill. For 2 AP it gives you a buff for two turns that grants a passive petrifying aura – any enemies without Magic Armor within 3m turn to stone. This can keep them petrified for two turns if you keep them in range. The secondary effect of the skill is to grant another 2 AP skill, Petrifying Visage, which deals a lot of AOE Magic damage and then tries to petrify enemies within a larger range. You know, just in case a petrifying aura wasn’t strong enough.

Some skills are overpowered in combination with Talents. Specifically, the Torturer talent allows certain debuffs to apply despite the existence of Physical/Magic Armor. Making someone bleed or burn is usually not a big deal. Having a 100% chance to apply the Entangled debuff via Worm Tremor on the other hand, effectively CCs everyone in a huge, targeted circle for three turns. Well, mages and archers can still use ranged attacks, but none of them can move or teleport.

Attributes/Abilities

The actual stats portion of character building is a huge mess in DOS2 and contributes greatly to all of the problems I have with its game balance.

Abilities are broken down into Combat Abilities and Civil Abilities. Some of them are just completely useless wastes of code. Perseverance lets you regenerate 5% of your Physical or Magical Armor after recovering from CC. As noted earlier though, having your characters get CC’d and otherwise lose entire turns means your whole party will be dead. Retribution reflects 5% of the damage you take back to the attacker. Even if I had 1000 HP and 1000 Armor, that’s… 100 “free” damage. And a dead character.

There are ten Combat Abilities that govern the learning of Skills. For example, you need at least 1 point in Warfare to learn Battle Stomp. Putting that 1 point in Warfare also increases all Physical damage you deal by 5%. This can make for some awkward choices though, considering there are weapon-style Combat Abilities competing for the same points. Single-Handed increases damage and accuracy by 5% when using only a 1H weapon with an empty or shield-wearing offhand.

The important thing to know is most Combat Abilities scale poorly, or not at all. Each point you put into Necromancer increases Life Steal by 10%. That’s not useless, but it also doesn’t cause your Necromancy spells to hit harder – those generally scale by Intelligence, which has its own separate pool of points. Scoundrel increases your critical multiplier and how far you get move per AP. Each point placed in Polymorph grants you 1 free Attribute point to place wherever. The more elemental-sounding Abilities do increase the elemental damage from those spells, but it’s just 5% per point.

Oh, and have I mentioned that you can learn and use skills without investing any points at all, if you have equipment with those bonuses? It may be a waste if you end up replacing a critical piece of equipment later, but there’s nothing stopping you turning anyone into a Pyromancer just because they’re wearing pants with +2 Pyrokinetic.

The bottom line is that the whole design of the game is away from specialization.

At my level, my characters have 15 Ability points to play around with. I could give my warrior character 15 points in Warfare and call it a day. That would give me… 75% more physical damage dealt. Or I could have +65% damage and put one point in both Scoundrel and Polymorph, gaining access to Chloroform and Chicken Claw respectfully. Hell, that one point in Polymorph gives me a free Attribute point I could put in Strength, increasing my damage back up 5%. In which case, I may as well go to Polymorph 2 so I can memorized Medusa Head. Polymorph also has Tentacle Lash, which is real handy for dealing a pile of damage and disarming people at range. Know what else is real handy? Trading another 10% damage to put two points in Aerothurge so I can learn Teleport.

The only real scenario where specialization is encouraged is Summoning. Each point increasing your summons’ HP and damage by 10%, which is whatever, but at Summoning 10 your Summon Incarnate spell summons a real big, beefy minion instead of the normal imp. In all other scenarios, you’re basically just trading 5% damage for entire new ways to CC people.

That seems like a no-brainer choice (i.e. broken) to me.

All Together Now

As you can kinda tell by now, the battle system in DOS2 is broken, but it’s broken in a lot of different ways. If you nerfed the power of Chloroform and similar skills, it’s not entirely clear whether that would be enough to balance anything. Changing the way debuffs work would fundamentally alter combat, but I think people would still be encouraged to go wide on their skill sets. Fixing Ability scaling would probably result in the best change, as specialization nerfs CC in natural ways, e.g. you have less different methods in your back pocket.

At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to lose what makes this game an Original Sin title. Specifically, crazy scenarios with tons of enemies and vast fields of burning poison clouds and electrified blood and slippery ice. From this perspective, I… almost give the designers a pass. DOS2 is probably the closest I have ever felt to playing a digital D&D game, minus a DM who allowed us to overpower everything with spell combos. The whole thing is so out of control it feels like its was intentionally designed to be a sandbox experience.

Unfortunately, there are so many actually broken things and designer traps that remind me that, no, it’s far more likely the designers were just bad at their jobs. That all this chaos is fun is very much unintentional and just blind luck.

Broken Games

It was my mistake for taking Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) more seriously than the designers. Here I was getting all worked up about a useless crafting system that includes products worse than either of the ingredients, or a Skill system featuring dozens of pointless “gotcha!” choices.

DOS2_BadCrafting

Seriously, no redeeming factors here.

As it turns out, the devs are just morons. Case in point: Thievery.

This is a Civil Skill you need to put points into in order to Lockpick and Pickpocket. At level 1, you can pickpocket up to 300g worth of goods. It then quickly scales out of control:

  • 1: 2kg / 300gp
  • 2: 4kg / 450gp
  • 3: 6kg / 1100gp
  • 4: 8kg / 2350gp
  • 5: 10kg / 3800gp
  • 6: 12kg / 6000gp

It actually scales up even higher than this (224k at level 14?!), but Thievery 6 is where I’m at currently with my gear bonuses. I’m in the first major town in Act 2, and most vendors have ~3500g on them, and selling multiple epics/Legendary items… which is its own thing, but nevermind. So, I purchase the expensive goods, then pickpocket 6000g back. The victim will try and find the thief for about two minutes, but that’s it. The only limitation on this mechanic is that you can only pickpocket a given NPC one time… per character. Respeccing is free though, so it’s no big deal to turn anyone into a master thief long enough to rob entire kingdoms blind.

DOS2_LuckyFind

Lucky Find can also break your game with free Legendary items in every X containers.

There is so much wrong with this, that I don’t even know where to start.

So… I won’t. DOS2 is a very pretty game with an interesting combat system submerged in hot, sloppy garbage game design. I wouldn’t expect this level of disregard for balance from Early Access shovelware.

…I mean, do you understand? Crafting being weaksauce (on purpose?) is one thing; that simply means the game is balanced around loot drops. Vendors being able to sell you Epic/Legendaries is whatever, as that simply makes it necessary to collect all the things so you can save gold and buy them. Having a crazy-scaling Thievery skill though, with zero repercussions, that can succeed at any Sneak level by simply creating a smoke cloud, essentially means every single vendor in the game gives you entire dungeons’ worth of loot for nothing. And it’s not just vendors either – I saw a fisherman with 2900g just walking around, so I nabbed that too.

What was this game supposed to be balanced around? Anything?! “Just don’t pickpocket vendors.” Or maybe the professional (?) game designers could change the Pickpocket values to be a tiny bit more consistent or sane. Each step value varies wildly between 40-140%. Go up 300g each time, or increase it by 50% each time, or something. The latter would make level 6 Thievery worth 2278g per vendor, which is still probably game-breaking, but at least not to the same degree.

Know what’s really laughable? One time I stole 5000g from a random non-vendor NPC, but actually got caught. I was given a few dialog options on how to respond, including trying some Persuasion checks or attacking the NPC outright. Or… I could bribe them… with 151g. And, you know, keep the remaining 4849g I just stole from them. So I did.

I could… not do these things. That is a choice that I have. It is also a choice I shouldn’t have to make. I should not have to handicap myself to have fun playing a game. Nevermind the fact that the fun I have playing games usually comes from leveraging my whole mind against the systems in the game, and puzzling out a solution. Optimization is fun. When it’s this brain-dead easy, it’s less fun. When it’s clear that the designers can’t be bothered to care about balance at all, it’s even less fun still.

Everyone has their hang-ups. Maybe it’s cringy dialog, cliche plot, bad graphics, slow leveling, too many random battles, etc, etc etc. For me, it’s when there is evidence the developers stopped caring, didn’t bother to playtest, or never knew what the hell they wanted to do in the first place.

Beta for Azeroth

The expansion honeymoon phase is over for the WoW playerbase, and the rabble is’a rousing. To which I say, “about goddamn time.” The latest fuel on the fire? Ion Hazzikostas himself went into a Reddit AMA and basically said shit is broken on purpose. Which then led to this amusing exchange:

9p3h26ygrcm11In case something happens to the picture, the specific line from Ion was:

We’re crafting systems with an eye towards the grand scheme of the game as it unfolds over the course of many months […]

While it might not have quite the meme potential of EA’s “sense of pride and accomplishment” disaster, it remains one of those insidious bits of accidental truth that rusts out the suspension of disbelief. And lest you extend any sort of doubting benefits to Ion, just read his response to a question about the sad state of Resto Shaman thus far:

We knew Restoration were coming up on the low end in the initial weeks of BfA, and applied some measured buffs to their AoE healing in particular, but we expected the value of their Mastery to rise significantly once higher-end raiding and M+ became more of a competitive focus, and we wanted to make sure not to overbuff them.

In other words, the design team knew that the spec was weak at launch, but felt like gear would fix the problem later, so they decided to do nothing. Did they end up buffing Shaman? Yes… “measurely,” with trepidation. But why wait for a hotfix if you already knew the interim was going to be bad? And more importantly: why make your players wait for the game to fix itself?

Look, I understand the delicate balance the devs are trying to make here. If Blizzard made Resto Shaman competitive in PvE from the beginning, they would have to nerf them in the future to ensure that the Mastery scaling (or whatever) didn’t make them clearly better than any of the other healers. Nerfing always feels bad. But do you know what else feels bad? Being gimped on purpose because there’s some master plan in which you become adequate later.

This perverse philosophy really explains everything that we have been seeing in Battle for Azeroth thus far. The wonky Warfront timing, for example, will “fix itself” later on when there are 3-4 of them running consecutively. Some Professions not having any use for some dungeon/raid crafting materials, is another exa…

This is something we’ve been discussing a bunch. On the one hand, we’d like to add a way to get at least Hydrocores through doing non-Mythic dungeons, so that the professions that DO have a use for them don’t feel like they hit a brick wall in their crafting if they only do matchmade content.

On the other hand, it’s awkward to be swimming in Sanguicells with no use for them as an Alchemist or Enchanter. I don’t have a specific fix to announce right now, but we’re discussing plans to address that problem. (source)

Just kidding, none of the devs put any thought into Professions at all.

Or maybe they did, and they are just waiting to introduce the Expulsom Trader, ala the Blood of Sargeras Trader, into patch 8.1. That would certainly maintain the consistency of “reuse every aspect of the game’s design” method, which more and more seems like it’s done out fear of fucking up the formula than intentional design. But again, why wait? You know the solution, so just do it. Or be bold and make Expulsom/Sanguicell Bound-on-Account.

This entire fiasco reminds me of the advice I gave new bloggers six years ago: don’t “save” your best stuff. In the most charitable, optimistic scenario Blizzard is planning for the final months of the expansion to be fantastic. By then, everyone will have the appropriate Azerite Levels to use the outer rings of any gear drops right away, and there will be hundreds of new Azerite traits, and so on. It even jives with the way Blizzard has handled PvP gear looks for a long time – the first tier looks pretty generic, but by the end you are a proper badass.

The problem is… why should someone play during the broken part? I already used a WoW Token a few days ago, so I feel kinda stuck already, but if I had read this AMA before renewing, then I wouldn’t have. Everything that people praise about the expansion – the music, the questing, the general environment – is still going to be there after 8.1, or six months later, or whenever. I’m not suggesting that you go full Gevlon and essentially wait for the next expansion – which at this point, may end up having the same exact issues again – but waiting for 8.1 or 8.2 seems pretty ideal.

If you ever wondered what the deal was with people complaining about Destiny versus Destiny 2, this was precisely it. Or the Complete Edition of Civilization 5 versus Civilization 6 without expansions. Designers make mistakes, and that is okay. It means they are trying something new. What is not okay are designers who make mistakes, fix those mistakes, and then come out with a new product with the old mistakes baked in so they can sell you the solution all over again.