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Dungeon Hunter 4 and the trouble with the free-to-play fun tax

Nate Ralph | April 15, 2013
Microtransactions are here to stay, but what's the appropriate amount of nickel-and-diming?

But after a while, the nagging starts to weigh on you. Every loading screen cheekily encourages you to spend some gems on items if you're having a bit of trouble. The waves of enemies are fast and furious (as befitting a dungeon crawler), and fights can often be won or lost depending on how reluctant you are to tap that health potion button to stay in the fight. And then there's the inventory, which is aggravatingly stocked with high-level items you don't actually own, but can be unlocked for a few hundred gems.

They're nice items, in the sense that purchasing one will likely make progressing through the game's content a breeze. But this is the same issue that's plagued Diablo III since launch: why churn through waves of demonic hordes when a hefty bankroll and a quick trip to the auction house can make progression trivial? I shudder to think about what Dungeon Hunter 4's player-vs-player arenas are like if everyone can just spend cash to unlock the best gear and abilities; pay-to-win at its most egregious.

My gut instinct is to ignore games like this, and let the free market's will be done. If someone enjoys the experience and decides to sink their money into outfitting their avatar with loot, more power to them; the rest of us can vote with our wallets. That approach hasn't quite worked with Diablo III, but Torchlight II is rather good and Diablo III's console incarnation is scrapping both the auction house and the onerous lack of an offline mode. That's something, right?

Not quite. The state of free-to-play games is troubling, if only because enough consumers are forking over enough cash to keep these sorts of games lucrative.

But I can't quite chalk Dungeon Hunter 4's annoyances up to greed--not entirely, at least. There is of course no such thing as free; games are expensive to make, and developers need to recoup their costs somehow. Dungeon Hunter 4's narrative may be a bit shallow (here be demons, slay them) but the fully voice-acted dialogue and decent visual and atmospheric effects lend quite a bit of polish to the experience. I'd still prefer to tackle these hordes with a mouse and keyboard or even a gamepad but the controls are solid for a touch-screen device, and the combat, while simple, is rather fun. I never felt inclined to spend any money on gems, as the gear I was picking up was appropriate for the fights I was facing. Even that fear of using of potions wasn't a problem, as I could simply play a bit more defensively or put my iPad down when I'd run out of supplies and get back to work.


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