When making an action RPG, the most important task — important above all else! — is to get the moment-to-moment hack-and-slash right. It has to be gratifyingly chaotic, splashy but not too confusing. The camera can’t be zoomed out so far that you can’t appreciate your character and her gear, but neither can it be zoomed in so far that you can’t see monsters coming. It’s a difficult balancing act. No one does it better than Blizzard, which is hardly surprising given how much practice they’ve had.
If you can’t get this stuff right, there’s no reason to continue development. Just throw in the towel and make some free-to-play thing for the Apple Store about waiting for crops to grow. But if you get that stuff right, if you tune and tweak and cajole and code and flex videocards and wring every ounce of sweat from your animators and carefully calculate the line between too much and too little — if you do all that — then you’re half way there. Next comes the really hard part.
After the jump, the Iron way
That moment-to-moment hack-and-slash is all well and good, but the people playing your game can get that from plenty of other places. Diablo. Marvel Heroes. Victor Vran. Any number of games not nearly as good as those. Depending on how closely you hew to the formula, there are so many choices. The difficult task before you is making people want to play your game instead of those other games. Your task is to make them crave your hack-and-slash more than anyone else’s. You do this with all the stuff between the hack-and-slash. You do this with careful game design.
Having accomplished both tasks previously with Titan Quest, the folks at Crate Entertainment (nee Iron Lore) manage a repeat performance with Grim Dawn. They get the hack-and-slash right and they furthermore get right the game around the hack-and-slash. They do this with effective and unique design ideas for skills, loot, and geography.
A character’s class in Grim Dawn is never just one class. It is instead two classes. That’s not particularly unique. That’s how it worked in Guild Wars. That’s how it worked in an MMO called Rift. In Victor Vran, your character build is basically which two weapons you carry. But the first place I saw this additive approach to classes was Titan Quest. Grim Dawn does the same thing, presenting you with your choice of six classes when you start a character, each with its own skill tree. When you get to level ten, after having played your class for a while, you add a second class from any of the five remaining choices. Now spend your points as you like among two skill trees. Now build your choice of peanut butter, chocolate, or peanut butter and chocolate.
And that’s where it would end with the average game. But Grim Dawn isn’t done with your character build. You also get skills from your loot. I’ve seen plenty of games where gear is a significant part of a character build. I’ve seen plenty of games where you level up and develop weapons. But I haven’t seen a system like Grim Dawn’s that dovetails so neatly with the rest of your character build, where your gear is almost like a whole other skill tree.
Furthermore, it’s under your control. In most games like this, gear is at the discretion of the various loot pinatas you’ll bust open. But Grim Dawn doesn’t expect you to wait until you get something you can use or use something because it’s what you’ve got. Instead, you collect pieces that you put into your armor and weapons to make them do whatever you want. This is often something active. A frost nova. A fireball. A stun blast. Your weapon, your armor, your rings and amulets are receptacles for additional skills, which can be every bit as meaningful as the the skills you got from your class trees.
But where Grim Dawn has a unique draw, where it even holds out against the gravitational pull of whatever improvements Blizzard has added in their latest Diablo III patch, is this last bit. This is something I haven’t seen an in action RPG. This is something the average RPG wouldn’t dare do. Geography as a part of the character build.
Grim Dawn doesn’t have procedurally generated levels. Like Titan Quest, it is a hand-built map. That door will always be there. That cave will always veer left. That corridor will always dead end. I know, I know. Bleh. Who wants to go through the same door, veer left in the same cave, and turn around at the same dead end every time? To be fair, there is some randomness. Sometimes a path will be blocked. Sometimes a chest will be in that basement. Monsters are randomized. But the world of Grim Dawn (I’m pretty sure it has a name, but you’ll probably have to read the lore hoo-ha to know it, and I haven’t been reading the lore hoo-ha) is fixed with a specific geography because Grim Dawn is also a hand-built treasure hunt. There are reasons to explore the doors, caves, and corridors. Those reasons are called devotion shrines, and they’re part of how you build your character.
There are about fifty devotion shrines in Grim Dawn. Each one expects something from you. Spend this doo-dad. Fight these waves of monsters. That sort of thing. Once you satisfy the devotion shrine, you get a point you can spend to unlock a star on a screen of sprawling constellations. That point will advance you along your choice of paths through, uh, the forces of destiny or the cosmos or something. They’re themed. If you want specifics, you’re going to have to read the lore. Your path along these stars will be a major part of your character — a full third alongside your classes and your gear — and it’s tied directly to how far and wide you’ve explored the world Crate Entertainment has made. If there’s something Blizzard hasn’t figured out yet, it’s how to make a world worth exploring, because Diablo doesn’t take place in a world. It takes place on a shuffled set of modules and tilesets, as slick and superficial as linoleum. And while I look forward to sliding around on that linoleum again, it’s going to have to wait, because I’m pretty sure there’s a devotion shrine somewhere in these ruins. I’m one star away from finishing the ghoul constellation that will let me gain health as I do damage, which is going to be a cornerstone of my soldier/nightblade build. Diablo III can wait. Those words are usually much harder to say.
(For a video overview of Grim Dawn, watch my video on the Quarter to Three YouTube channel.)