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Page 6 of 6Randomness has received a shot in the arm, as well. In Diablo II, most environments were extremely bland in layout, and lacked much in the way of unique and differentiating qualities, many resembling large open boxes or mazes with little direction. That's changed quite a bit in Diablo III - there are more hand-crafted locations, a better sense of direction, and a lot more variety. What's more, many dungeons are random (you might find one large cave in an area one game, and two small cellars in the next), you'll find random challenges from time to time, and some side-quests may not appear in a given session. This makes replaying the game more interesting, though I feel that Blizzard could easily take this further, with more memorable encounters similar to those in the first Diablo.
The graphics debate around Diablo III has cooled off, but I think it's worth talking about them a little. Blizzard's trademark art style, seen in World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, is very apparent, but compared to the earlier screenshots, Diablo III looks very different today. It's gloomier and darker, and characters have a bit more detail and realism to them, with the monsters especially a little more grounded. The hand-painted look is still present, but it's been toned back a little and I feel the end result is a lot more immediately associable with Diablo. The one thing that really sells it for me, though, is the level of interactivity with the environment. Most objects can be destroyed by attacks, walls can be collapsed on enemies, and more. It's common to be able to tell where you've been simply by following the trail of ruined architecture, and it lends a great feeling of power to all of your abilities.
So yes, it's a fantastic-looking game and runs great on a decent gaming PC, but it's also clear that the Gothic horror style of the original game is gone for good as well. Next to Diablo II's "kitchen sink" approach, Diablo III is a lot more visually consistent, which I appreciate, but there are still a few silly bits here and there which I'm not fond of. Some of the character designs are a bit pandering and very MMO-inspired, with female characters all looking universally like supermodels, while a few items just don't fit the serious tone the game is going for. Stomping through the gloomy, zombie-infested fields outside Tristram wearing a leather bikini and a pointed wizard's hat felt strangely self-aware and Halloween-esque to me, and kind of undermines the serious tone of the game.
Last, the online nature of the game also warrants a mention. As I discussed in a previous editorial, Diablo III's reliance on an Internet connection means that even while playing solo, you'll occasionally be subject to lag spikes and disconnects. Moreover, Blizzard now requires that Battle.net users provide personally identifying information, including real name, which caused quite a bit of controversy a while back. The game's multiplayer and social features are extremely robust (though the Auction House and Arena/PvP modes aren't available in the beta), but there are a lot of people uncomfortable with giving Blizzard their identities, as well as those who aren't fans of requiring a login even for single-player. I will say that I did experience gameplay problems, including lost progress and several deaths, as a result of lag, and there were times I wasn't able to play due to server timeouts, but in this pre-release state, it's hard to make judgments as to the reliability of Diablo III.
There's still more to talk about when it comes to Diablo III, but I hesitate to go into balance issues and other related subjects simply because it's still in a beta state, and even as I played through for this impressions piece, an update already rendered some of my thoughts obsolete. There are also a few features which at this point seem a bit poorly realized (gold and merchants seem a bit out of place with the importance of crafting, the game drops way too many health potions, and Scrolls of Companion seem tacked-on, linking spell damage to weapon damage means Wizards are stronger wielding swords than wands), but once again, hopefully that will change in time for release.
Even with all its changes, which are no doubt going to be very controversial for some players, it's hard getting past the fact that Diablo III is an extremely fun and playable game. In 2011 it's rare to see a PC game that runs so smoothly, has such an intuitive user interface and control setup, and genuinely appeals to the strengths of the platform, and Diablo III is at the top of its class in all those respects. I'm still very much on the fence about the changes made to leveling, skills and attributes, but once you're fighting monsters and storming castles, it's hard to care so much about that. The PC action-RPG market has been getting more and more crowded lately, but that doesn't change the fact that Diablo III is set to be one of the best action-RPGs we've seen in a long time.
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