Diablo III and the Road to Hell

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Blizzard Entertainment
Developer:Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date:2012-05-15
Genre:
  • Action,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Although it's been years since we've had a new Diablo game, with all the dungeon-crawling, loot-grabbing, monster-slaying action that fans have been in love with for over a decade now (hard to believe, isn't it?), today we find ourselves just a few short months away from Diablo III's release. A long-awaited closed beta test has come and is now old news amongst players, and Blizzard's fanbase are eagerly awaiting the release of a more public demo and other tastes of the game, though of course, it's unlikely that the hype surrounding the game will be satiated until well after its release early next year.

As much as Diablo is a genre-defining series and, in some senses, the ultimate in accessible PC-oriented action-RPGs, even with the much-awaited Diablo III on the horizon, I've found myself asking a number of questions concerning economics and value, the game's online-only focus, and other design decisions, which really make me question not only how relevant Diablo is to RPGs anymore, but, on a more personal level, to me as well. Although it's still very much the biggest and, arguably, best of hack and slash action-RPGs, I feel very much that Diablo's legacy has, in many ways, outgrown the relatively rigid confines and small scope which in so many ways defined it in the first place... and I feel that it's left me behind, as well.

A Questionable Value Proposition

These days, games can be expensive: both to buy, and to make. While I don't know just how much money Diablo III cost to make, I can bet that it's in excess of most titles on the market these days - it has been in development at least on and off over the course of ten years, after all. More concerning for the end user is the game's retail price. With the cost of PC games continuing to incline, and Activision's PC version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 the equivalent of $80 USD within Europe, it's also certainly possible that Diablo III (published by Activision Blizzard) will end up sharing a higher price than any previous game in the series, before you take the microtransactions, DLC and expansion packs into account. Games have all been steadily rising in price these last few years, so this many not immediately be surprising, but what makes this a bigger issue for Diablo III is that a new, potent challenger has entered the arena.

I'm talking, of course, about Torchlight. Released in 2009, Runic Games' title quickly filled a vacuum in the gaming world by providing a very solid, albeit trimmed-down version of Diablo's gameplay. Torchlight was, however, quite limited in a few ways: its randomly-generated dungeons, while impressive, were also effectively limited to corridors, and there was none of the outdoor exploration that defined much of Diablo II, as well as some of the other Diablo-likes on the market, such as Iron Lore's Titan Quest. The biggest blow for Torchlight, though, was its lack of online multiplayer, which was a deal-breaker for a lot of gamers.

The upcoming Torchlight II, however, is poised to release in as little as a month if all goes well, and Runic Games have taken the time to address virtually every complaint made about the first one. The environments are bigger and more varied. The story is a bigger part of the game, and the campaign longer. There are multiple acts complete with different terrain, towns and dungeons. There are more complex randomly-generated quests and more interactive environments. The classes and loot are more diverse and better balanced. And yes, now there's co-op multiplayer for at least four players, and possibly more. All of this would normally be well and good, but the real kicker? Torchlight II is going to sell for $20 USD at launch.

Now, I am certainly not one to sit here and espouse the virtues of games that I haven't played - and I certainly don't want to give the impression that I think Torchlight II is a flawless gem of a product. Yet, from all we've seen so far, Torchlight II's feature set comes extremely close to what Diablo III will offer players - not only is it the same type of game, it's also likely to be just as expansive, if not more so, and it all comes in at a third of Diablo III's asking price, or even less.

From a gamer's perspective, especially in this tougher economic time, in terms of its raw value proposition... the simple fact is that Diablo III begins to look like a classic case of paying a premium price for a name brand, when the competition is bringing just as much if not more to the table, all for a much more reasonable price. I don't presume to speak for all gamers, but when I look at both games and then weigh the asking prices of each, it's hard not to feel Diablo III simply doesn't provide the same level of value - even were Torchlight II twice as much money, it'd still likely look like a better deal. In the end, you're paying for that Diablo image and entrance to its user community, but not necessarily much else.


Fierce Competiton

Obviously, there are people out there who are going to buy Diablo III no matter how much it costs - and to be fair, that's completely fine, as there's certainly nothing wrong with supporting developers whose games you enjoy. At the same time, though, Diablo III isn't just going to be a fully-priced retail game, it's also going to find itself, for the first time, fighting a battle against not just its own legacy in Torchlight II, but competing with an extremely dense market, not just as far as point-and-click games go, but all other RPGs... and frankly, I'm not convinced that it's a fight Diablo III can prove itself as the go-to action RPG, or even a particularly relevant PC RPG in the grander scheme of things either.

Beyond the obvious threat of Torchlight II, there are a lot of other games out there that look hungry to take the action-RPG crown away from Diablo. Most notably, Grinding Gear Games' Path of Exile, in development for five years now, looks poised to cut into Diablo III's market share significantly by providing a free-to-play and persistent online experience - if anything, it comes across as a truer sequel to Diablo II than Diablo III is, with an even stronger focus on online play, and a gritty, dark aesthetic and smart writing which seems much more in line with what Diablo fans grew up with. On a similar note, Crate Entertainment, formed out of ex-Iron Lore developers, are reusing their impressive Titan Quest game engine to make Grim Dawn, an action-RPG that seems to very much follow in its spiritual successor's footsteps, but unlike Titan Quest, it trades in its Greek mythology for an aesthetic that once again is much more in line with what many Diablo fans want.

On a more general and mainstream level, there's also plenty more competition out there in the form of the industry's biggest RPG developers, who are cutting into the action-RPG market in a way that, while not directly threatening to Diablo's reign, still captures the same target market and the same desire for action-RPG gameplay. Bethesda plan to satiate millions with the impending release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim only a month from now, which provides a dense action-RPG sandbox world to explore. Larian's recent Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga similarly provides a huge amount of content and fast, demanding action-RPG gameplay, and Piranha Bytes' Risen 2 looks to provide much of the same quality that made fans fell in love with even after the loss of the Gothic license.

The indie circuit is also bustling with activity, no matter what your taste in RPGs is. The recently-released Frayed Knights: The Skull of S'makh-Daon provides an old-school dungeon-crawling challenge that hasn't been seen on the PC in a long while. Jeff Vogel continues to crank out his own brand of CRPG on a near-yearly basis, with Avadon: The Black Fortress as his most recent and successful of all, especially as he's now decided to bring them to the masses on Steam. Knights of the Chalice was GameBanshee's own Indie RPG of the Year 2009, and still remains one of the most faithful Dungeons & Dragons adaptations seen on the PC. Finnish developer Instant Kingdom are working their way toward the Q1 2012 release of Driftmoon, their own quirky action-RPG that seems to draw from a dozen different sources. And, while it's been a long road, it seems like Iron Tower's long-awaited Age of Decadence may see the light of day sometime next year (fingers crossed).

Of course, none of these games can be said to replace Diablo directly, and I would never dream of suggesting it - the last thing any genre of gaming needs is for an entire style of gameplay to disappear due to trends. That said, it's clear that RPGs are very much in style in a big way these days, and there is a huge selection of games to choose from; chances are no matter what you're interested in, there's likely a game which will appeal to you. Assuming you're are on a limited budget, picking and choosing between Diablo III and any number of RPGs might be a good deal more difficult than it was back in 2000. For what it's worth, Diablo III is still the one and only Diablo - if that's what you're here to see, then you'd might as well take a ticket and get in line. For players who just want a solid RPG, though, Diablo III is only one of a hundred games on the market, and even within its particular niche, it's under threat by both the mainstream and indie developers, both directly and indirectly.

Always Connected

Previous Diablo games have, of course, largely gained their longevity out of their multiplayer side, with the original Diablo launching Battle.net and setting down the framework for centralized online networks that many games would take after in the future. At the time, this was an innovative step forward for online gaming on the PC. Friends lists, IRC-like chat functionality within the game itself, leaderboards and ladders, game searching, and so on were all things Diablo boasted over its competitors, and those same systems still exist years later in just about every single other online gaming network. However, despite all these multiplayer features, they never ended up imposing onto the main single-player game, or TCP/IP direct connection play for that matter.

Right from the beginning, it's been clear that Blizzard intend Diablo III to be a multiplayer-centered game first, but fans soon learned it would come to the detriment of those who weren't interested in online play. Taking from the infrastructure and successes of World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, no doubt, the new Battle.net offers up a wide variety of new features that gamers now expect from online-focused games. Achievements and other meta-game challenges are in. There's the Auction House, borrowed from World of Warcraft, to help centralize and control the item trade market; however, in a new twist, it will also be possible to sell your hard-earned loot for real money, a decision that's proved controversial amongst players who value the in-game economy. The player-versus player (PvP) side of the game has also been overhauled, complete with new arena levels made specifically for battling others.
The elephant of the room about this, of course, is that Diablo III will be an online-only game. Every player will need to have an active Internet connection to play, even if they want to play by themselves, and speaking from experience, I know that there are quite a few people who do indeed play Diablo as a single-player title as well as a multiplayer one. Of course, while Blizzard can attach a bunch of new features to Battle.net to help mitigate the requirement, there's no mistaking that this is a form of DRM, and one of the most restrictive kinds to boot. Admittedly, staying plugged into Battle.net may sound like a good idea for a lot of people, and they might well go along happily with it. At the same time, it's important to understand what's been lost in this transition.

The first and most glaring issue is that mods are now no longer permitted, at all. In fact, it will get your account banned, no matter how innocuous or innocent that mod is. Diablo and Diablo II never had the biggest mod communities, granted, but there were certainly plenty available that would add new gameplay, character classes, items, areas to explore, quests, and so on. Even basic interface improvements, like larger inventories and higher screen resolutions, could help make Diablo II more playable for some people. Most importantly, many of these mods were cross-compatible with one another and could even be played over TCP/IP and Open Battle.net (a version of Battle.net where characters are stored locally, rather than on Blizzard's servers). I speak from experience when I say that some of my most fun with Diablo II came from playing with mods installed, and now, in Diablo III, that will be impossible.

There are a number of smaller problems that come along with the requirement to stay logged into Battle.net, as well. As of the open beta, you can't pause the game when playing alone, which I think most who have hectic schedules, or families to take care of, will agree is a glaring omission. You won't be able to edit your player character to experiment with the game and its mechanics, for instance, and if you run into a bug or a broken quest, your character save file won't be open for alteration to fix that problem. Since all changes are saved to the Battle.net server, too, if you have an untimely and unwanted death, lose an item you wanted to hold on to, accidentally augment a weapon or skill you didn't want to, etc., you won't be able to roll back to a previous save file you've backed up, either. Some of Diablo III's design decisions do mitigate this somewhat (skills are no longer bought with points, for instance, but instead unlocked automatically as you level up), but the fundamental issue remains that you won't have full control over your characters, or how to play the game.

Is Diablo III For You?

My final bit of discussion here concerns something that might be considered a little bit esoteric by some. For a long time, Diablo has held the throne of the ultimate in point-and-click action-RPGs, if not so much in quality, then at the very least in terms of sheer sales numbers and market-defining scope. However, one thing I've begun to notice the more and more Diablo III coverage I read and watch is that, frankly, it's not looking much like the Diablo I remember anymore.

No, this isn't going to be another resurrection of the debate about the game's artwork because, frankly, whether or not you agree with the direction Blizzard has taken, I think it's safe to say that Diablo III looks great and has a very definitive style. Rather, this concerns the game's mechanics and focus. The original Diablo was in many ways a defining game for me. It was one of the first games that I played online extensively, and in many ways it shaped a lot of what I feel makes for good and compelling gameplay mechanics even to this day: risk versus reward, character advancement with both upsides and drawbacks, and that insatiable "just one more dungeon level" urge that causes you to lose your sense of time as you're pulled into the game. These things are for the most part present in Diablo III, but a lot of the individual details leave me scratching my head and wondering just whether or not this new game is really in the same vein as its predecessors, especially the first one.

The original Diablo was very much a game, strangely enough, driven by story. We tend to think of Diablo as all about leveling up, killing monsters, and gaining loot, and that was certainly true of the first Diablo, but it had much more in common with a traditional CRPG. The fighting monsters and leveling wasn't so much an end in itself as it was a means to an end - it was often a point of pride to be able to finish the game quickly on the hardest difficulty setting, and it was working towards the big bad Diablo himself that kept the game moving forward, not the promise of greater riches.

On top of that, while the game didn't have randomly-generated quests to speak of, it did, at the beginning, select a handful of side-quests to build the game's dungeons around. The Butcher, King Leoric, Archbishop Lazarus - some of the most iconic and memorable characters and quests from Diablo were all things that a player might not even see getting through the game the first time. On a similar note, loot, while still random, was actually predetermined upon starting a new character, so often you would end up finding completely different gear each time you played the game, and it would actually feel unique to your journey, rather than yet another "unique" item that you'd already seen a half-dozen times before. This "what are you going to get this time?" feeling really added a sense of unpredictability to Diablo that worked along with its randomly-generated dungeons, and improved its replay value exponentially.
Diablo II was a bit different in its focus. Aside from the greater emphasis on Battle.net and more refined and expansive gameplay all around, Diablo II brought in magic finding, "boss drops", more varieties of items (rares, sets, etc.), and so on. Rather than leveling and item acquisition being more about getting to the end of the story and building the best character, instead, it became an end in and of itself. With crafting via the Horadric Cube and the "runeword" items introduced in the expansion pack Lord of Destruction, that need for more and better loot was solidified even more, even though that actually legitimately obtaining the best of this loot was almost impossible without an absurd time investment... or a degree of luck which would quite literally see you win the lottery before your prized Zod Rune. And of course, the rarity of all these items also opened it up to more organized forms of exploitation: hacking, botting, gold farming, phishing, scamming, and so on ended up nearly dominating Diablo II, to the point where finding a legitimate version of an item to trade for was extremely difficult, and finding a chat channel without advertising spam was an impossible feat.

Suffice is to say, I wasn't particularly happy with this direction Diablo II took, both because I felt it took away from the real fun of actually just playing the game, and because all of the baggage that focus on a digital economy brought. Unfortunately, I don't think Diablo III is any better than Diablo II in this respect; in fact, given that now the ability to exchange in-game items for real money is included, with Blizzard themselves taking a cut, to me it just seems that the heart of the game has been lost. What's more, with the Auction House open 24/7, trading becomes impersonal - you don't have to talk to people and get to know people, interact with them... it's all very anti-social in what should be a very social game. Even if Diablo II is overrun with hackers, at least you'll need to actually speak with them to make an exchange, and that's more that can be said of Diablo III, and when you add real money into the mix, that adds a certain level of danger and risk to relationships that wasn't there before.

As to whether or not Diablo III is going to place the story more squarely on the loot than the story and gameplay remains to be seen, of course. Certainly, it's also a valid critique that a game is what you make of it, and that players have free choice in how they want to play the game - if you don't like playing online, don't play with other people. Still, given how much emphasis Blizzard seem to be putting on that side of the game, as well as the inevitable bevy of microtransactions (cosmetic or otherwise) that will no doubt creep into the game in the future, I am, at least at this stage, inclined to believe that Diablo III just isn't the game for me, but rather is aimed at an entirely different type of player than the types who in many cases quite literally grew up with the series. I'm comfortable with that, but I can't help but feel just a little bit sad about the direction Blizzard have decided to take the series.

Conclusion

Obviously, Diablo III still looks poised to sell a million billion copies, and it will no doubt be a beautiful, playable and enjoyable game, as Blizzard titles categorically are. I have no question of that, and neither is it my goal with this piece to tell anyone that Diablo is somehow "dead", or that Blizzard have come under control of the devil himself, or to instruct people as to what they should find enjoyable. However, thinking about it lately, I've come to the realization that Diablo, once instrumental in defining my perceptions of PC gaming, has begun to move away from its roots - and it's doing so in ways which may not be beneficial to players overall, aren't necessarily very competitive with the dozens of RPGs we already have to play, and, in my personal opinion, embody some of the most negative trends dominating the games industry lately.

They say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and for all it's worth, I wish Blizzard the best in finishing up Diablo III's development and unleashing it onto an eager gaming populace. While it may end up as one of 2011's best titles, Diablo III seems as if it may be casting aside its legacy, only to find itself upon a slowly-crumbling throne.