Diablo III Review

22 May 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Blizzard Entertainment
Developer:Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date:2012-05-15
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Action
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Isometric
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Diablo III is a promise never fulfilled.

That might sound a little bit grim, but I think it encapsulates both the end product, as well as the core gameplay that the franchise has built itself around. Diablo III is a colossally polished title, that much is clear upon even just a few minutes hacking and slashing through monsters, but it's also one which is never really able to live up to its potential, just as most players who ever pick it up will be able to fully conquer Inferno difficulty.

So, while it might be an exceptionally pretty and expansive game, with more art assets, loot tiers, skill and stat combinations than most other titles on the market today, Diablo III is also unfulfilling, like a sugary snack - it never leaves you feeling satisfied, only wanting more, whether that's more loot, a more competently executed story, or a more interesting character system. For many players, it's that desire to run endlessly on the progress treadmill that will keep them going, and the experience will no doubt be flashy, pretty, and fun, but even so, Diablo III simply left wanting.  For a game with a decade in development, I have to wonder if it was ultimately harmed by so many years in the making - perhaps we'd be playing Diablo V by now, as well.

A Legend in the Making

There's little to say about the Diablo series that hasn't been said. While the original game started out as a faster-paced, atmosphere-drenched roguelike, Diablo II defined the modern hack-and-slash, creating a genre based purely on the most basic elements of RPGs (kill monsters and collect their loot), but did so with such excess and such presentation that the end result is complicated and interesting enough to still be fun for players today. Diablo III, at its core, changes little from its immediate sequel. It's still a game about slaying demons and collecting gear, then doing it all over again. The isometric camera with point-and-click interface remains, some old character classes are still around, the story revolves around familiar and nostalgic faces, and so on. But, as always, the devil is in the details.

Diablo III has been an interesting game to follow. Although some of the first footage became available around 2006, showcasing some drastic changes from the usual formula, such as cartoon-style World of Warcraft-influenced visuals, and towering boss enemies that filled up the entire screen, the title has been in development far longer than that, in one form or other. Leaked screenshots of an earlier version of the game from 2004-2005 have also appeared, showcasing a game that was far closer to the Diablo II fans know and love. If nothing else, Blizzard have been busy endlessly tinkering with the game to bring it to a state they were satisfied with.

Diablo III is also somewhat unique in that it's a game which has had quite a lot of public visibility over the last few years of development. Additions such as floating Health Orbs replacing typical healing potions, a more character-driven storyline, a drastically overhauled skill system, and an Auction House allowing gamers to spend both in-game gold and real currency have all been under the microscope long before the game's release. Even during the course of the beta release, which I had the chance to play a few months ago, there were some drastic changes made, including the removal of one of the game's crafting elements, a restructuring of character attributes, and more.

This long history makes itself visible in Diablo III for better or for worse. It's a bigger title than prior ones in the series, with tons of small details that most developers wouldn't care (or be able) to put in. At the same time, though, Diablo III is also a bit of a grab-bag of ideas, with clumsy attempts at building the narrative and lore of the franchise, and game mechanics that have either been stripped away without clear reason, or conversely, have been kept in despite them not really fitting in with the changes made (such as identifying items). Parts of it also feel strangely rushed and bloated with boring filler content, as if Blizzard ran out of ideas halfway through. For a Blizzard title, who are known for such painstaking polish and playtesting, it's quite curious to see Diablo III with so many rough edges.
Barbarians, Wizards and Witch Doctors, Oh My

As with any Diablo game, the place to begin discussion about gameplay is in the characters available to hack and slash through the forces of Hell with. Blizzard, in keeping with Diablo tradition, provides a few classic staples as well as some more exotic choices. As I noted in my beta preview late last year, the new classes are the Barbarian, Wizard, Demon Hunter, Monk and Witch Doctor, and these roughly correspond to Diablo II's Barbarian, Sorceress, Amazon, Assassin and Necromancer. All of them are fun to play as, though they conform more to typical gameplay roles than they did in Diablo II.

While the possibilities in actually outfitting and using your character remain compelling, across the board the questions that are posed are less about what role you want to fulfill and more about how you want to fulfill it. Take the Barbarian, for example. Although it's never been an especially complicated character to play as, Diablo II's had a number of war cries and other abilities that made the Barbarian both a front-line fighter, but an equally capable support character as well. In Diablo III, the Barbarian's abilities are a bit more limited, with more skills dedicated to dealing direct damage and fewer dedicated to support.

The more exotic choices are definitely more interesting to play as. The Witch Doctor especially feels like a smart combination of the Druid and Necromancer from Diablo II, taking the best aspects of their summoning skills while also having more value in an offensive role. The Monk plays similarly to the Assassin, with skills based around building up combos, crowd control, and so on, and is also made valuable to party-based play thanks to a number of mantras that provide passive bonuses. Even so, they still come across as a bit less versatile than the classes in Diablo II, or the upcoming Torchlight II for that matter.

While this is a subjective point, I also wasn't especially thrilled by the classes' personalities. They range from familiar and inoffensive (Barbarian), to rather arrogant and snooty (Wizard), to preachy and sanctimonious (Monk). When you're going to be spending potentially hundreds of hours playing the same character, it's important you're happy with the character both in terms of gameplay as well as personality and attitude, and by giving the different classes much more dialogue and an active role in story conversations, some players might find it harder to find a class that they really enjoy.

Arrested Development

While the character classes are more or less the same as they've always been, Diablo III has a number of changes under the hood, including a complete restructuring of the way the game handles attributes, leveling up, damage, and so on. While it all can be said to work (mostly), I still find myself unconvinced that the changes made are for the best, or that they necessarily solve the basic issues that Blizzard set out to solve in the first place.

The most controversial of these changes is that "manual" leveling has been removed. Instead, the character advancement system has been set up in a way which, frankly, resembles Call of Duty's online multiplayer more than anything else. Whereas in Diablo II, leveling up provided a skill point and five attribute points to allocate, Diablo III has attributes increase automatically for each character class, and new skills or skill runes open up every level on their own. It's a drastic change which has both upsides and downsides.
The biggest benefit, and one that is admittedly quite welcome, is that players will no longer find themselves stuck with a character they made mistakes creating. Since all customizable stats are tied to gear, and skill load-outs can be changed at will, it's impossible to make a bad character, only play poorly. Whereas Diablo II had no respec options and had a lot of ideal builds players refined over the years, making your characters on your first play-through potentially useless for high difficulties or PvP play, Diablo III, in theory, requires less grinding to get the results you want.

The downsides, however, are equally obvious. First off, it's hard to even call Diablo III an RPG, because a core tenet of RPGs is the division of character skill and player skill, and there's really no such thing as "character skill" in Diablo III, only skill load-out and item selection. Moreover, it's hard to feel invested in your characters because any level 60 Barbarian will be the same as any others, save for loot. There's no long-term consequence to character building, and while it's a convenience, there are other ways Blizzard could have handled the problem (even if it was something as simple as a gold cost for respecs).

Skills and Combat

There are also a number of smaller changes which affect gameplay more than I initially expected. For starters, Mana has been overhauled such that every character now has a unique resource governing skill use. The Witch Doctor retains traditional Mana, but others, like the Barbarian, build up and spend Fury in battle, the Wizard has Arcane Power, which regenerates quickly but is fairly limited in quantity, and so on. These all work well and make using each class feel a little bit different.

Summarily, many skills no longer have costs; depending on your character, they'll either be free, limited by cooldown, or actually build up your resource(s). The Barbarian's basic skills, for instance, actually build up Fury, meaning you'll almost never use a "normal" attack except for the very beginning of the game. Effectively, Blizzard have embraced the skill-spamming that many players enjoy, and as a result Diablo III actually revolves much more around ability management, including cooldowns, than the previous games in the series.

A lot has been said about skill runes, modifiers you unlock on level-up that change the way your skills work. In a few cases, skills are changed dramatically - for instance, the Witch Doctor is able to summon very different creatures depending on rune selection - while others are much more basic, such as the Wizard's Electrocute spell behaving slightly differently. As you go deeper into the game and level up more, skill runes become more drastic in their effects, and it's a good way of ensuring that flexibility grows as the game goes on, while also allowing basic skills to still be useful. Overall, skill runes work well, even if many of the changes aren't as drastic as Blizzard has made them out to be.

Once you're in combat, there are even more alterations from the normal formula. Diablo II was oft-criticized for relying heavily on potion-guzzling to keep players alive, especially at high difficulties, with many boss enemies difficult to defeat without multiple trips back to town for potion refills. Diablo III instead attaches a cooldown to potions to prevent their frequent use, and Health Orbs are dropped by enemies during combat that give you a quick healing surge when they're picked up. Some gamers have been concerned that Health Orbs make the game too easy, but they really don't. There's a strong risk/reward proposition at play in picking them up, and I actually found myself relying on healing potions more than I expected to.  Other changes, like converting the Town Portal into a spell with a 5-second casting duration, further ensure the old tactics don't work as well.

The end result of all these tweaks is combat and character progression that feels distinctly more MMO-like and more distant from the roguelike roots than ever before, especially for the classes that rely heavily on cooldowns. Moment-to-moment, fighting the legions of Hell is still fun and engaging; it's the larger gameplay systems like character-building that have been sacrificed, and, in my opinion, this just wasn't necessary. Blizzard's goal was clearly to keep players engaged, running into combat instead of running back to the safety of town, while constantly using their abilities, and for the most part it works well - it's just shallower than raising a unique character up from level 1 to become a god among mortals.
The DPS War

The greatest consequence of Diablo III's systems changes actually appears in the equipment side of the game. Because all character growth is now effectively gone, characters are exclusively defined by the gear they find, or purchase. This is sure to make players who love obsessing over equipment happy, but it's also easy to look at this decision with a cynical eye.

In Diablo III, DPS (damage per second) is king. At the end of the day, between all the attribute bonuses and other modifiers your gear can have, your ability to deal DPS is the major determinant of success. This doesn't just apply to melee and ranged attacks, it also applies to spells that have nothing to do with your equipped weapon. As a Wizard, dropping a Meteor spell onto a pack of foes is influenced by the DPS of the weapon you have in hand just as much as it is should you choose to bop them over the head with it. While it's a matter of presentation, it just doesn't quite feel the same to know that launching a Magic Missile at an enemy is effectively identical to shooting them with an arrow.

Like most of the changes made in Diablo III, this has some strengths and some weaknesses. On the one hand, the game is more balanced than previous games in the series. Since everything relates to DPS, skill damage and effectiveness scales naturally with your overall progress in the game, and everything retains its usefulness well into the game. On the other, tying everything to gear means you have little recourse when your equipment becomes outdated, as both your standard attacks and skills/spells also become ineffective. This can becomes a problem for some classes; my Wizard struggled with the final stages of the game because the gear I could find or craft simply wasn't up to snuff. Eventually I had to resort to the Auction House to get better weapons, rather than face the prospect of grinding for another few hours.

Truth be told, for a game that places all the emphasis on items, Diablo III is also a little pared-back compared to its predecessor. While unique (legendary) and set items remain, they have been made extremely rare and difficult to find, to the point where many players have reportedly hit level 60 and not seen one of either. Things like runes and runewords have been removed, and the general focus of the item game has been placed on rares. This isn't a terrible thing, but the list of modifiers is extremely low compared to Diablo II, there are few truly game-changing effects available, and uniques are frequently outclassed by rares of the same level and type. Perhaps Blizzard are saving these for future updates or expansions, but either way I don't feel that Diablo III retains the complexity in equipment choice of previous titles despite there being more slots to equip overall.

Other MMO-style conceits make themselves apparent in the loot game. Along with the Auction House, crafting makes up a very long-term goal, existing both as a way to get some effective loot as well as a money sink. Instead of leveling up your character, focus is put on obtaining enough gold and necessary items to improve your different artisans (Blacksmith and Jewelcrafter), and it will likely take months for the most dedicated players to reach the top tiers. Even if you don't want to craft, you'll still need to pour gold or real money into getting the gear you need to compete at the higher difficulty levels. While other Diablo games have been grindy, Diablo III takes it to excess, and, without any PvP or other post-ending goals right now, I had little desire to go back and play the game once I was finished, despite there being many more character classes, weapons and so on to try out.

A Story (Not) for the Ages

Despite being a game primarily built around slaughtering hordes of monsters and collecting the shiny trinkets they all seem to conveniently carry around in their pockets, Diablo has always had a strong devotion to its own lore and characters. Even though many players aren't all that interested in the finer details of the universe or the games' stories, Blizzard has opted to place a greater emphasis on their storytelling this time around.

This has manifest in a number of new techniques for conveying information and plot points that are, as a whole, very effective. The main characters in the story interact with one another directly, and often follow your own character around on quests. No matter who you're playing as, he or she will also take a more active role in conversations, exchanging back-and-forth chatter with NPCs rather than simply serving as a mute player avatar. Idle secondary characters offer up comments as you walk past them, and there are journals and books to find as you explore the environment, a great deal of them optional. These are all storytelling techniques which have been used for years by traditional RPG developers, and they are well implemented in Diablo III.
However, presentation isn't everything. The sad fact of the matter is that Diablo III's story is borderline moronic. While the earlier games never set records for tight storytelling, Diablo III's plot is simultaneously convoluted and simplistic, with too many pointless side-characters and worthless diversions that add nothing to the storyline whatsoever. It also suffers from pacing issues, with the first two acts full of plot development and side-quests to undertake, and the final two lacking these almost entirely. It's not that the story events lack emotional impact or don't hit the right notes, but there are so many plot holes, retcons and other issues that really harm what could have otherwise been a genuine evolution for the hack-and-slash genre.

Unfortunately, the story can't be saved by the quality of the writing and voice acting. There's tens of thousands of lines of dialogue, but much of it is juvenile even for Diablo standards. Once-fearsome characters like the silent Skeleton King have been transformed into moustache-twirling cartoon villains, and even old stand-bys like Deckard Cain have been changed in ways that don't fit with the previous games, solely in order to make the story work. The voice actors, though in some cases clearly having fun with their roles, often sound like they were recorded on other sides of the country, and conversations are frequently disjointed because of this - suggesting it's more an issue with direction than any of the voice talent involved. At best, the dialogue is satisfactory; at worst, though, it's cringe-worthy, and usually at the worst possible times too.

Of course, one has to say "this is a game about killing monsters and collecting loot, what did you expect?" and it's a fair point to make. But, Blizzard also made it a significant point to improve on Diablo III's story, both in terms of complexity of the plot and its delivery. While the presentation is impeccable and engaging (at least in the first half), much of it goes to waste because the details are frequently nonsensical or, frankly, stupid. Considering Diablo III is a game that was in production for close to a decade, I think it's more than fair to hold it to high standards, especially the ones it sets for itself.  It simply comes across like so much wasted potential, and needlessly excessive to boot.

Hell's Never Been Prettier

If there is one thing that Diablo III nails, it's presentation. Boasting a somewhat controversial painterly visual style, Diablo III is a beautiful game. The amount of detail is obscene, and while it might not be the most technically proficient title on the market (close-up you'll notice low-res textures, blocky character models and liberal use of 2D sprites), it looks just as nice in motion as it does in screenshots. Special effects are equally impressive, with high-level spells wreaking visual chaos. Artistically speaking, however, Diablo III is quite different from previous games, and the traditional Gothic architecture, gritty and dark atmosphere, and twisted religious iconography is entirely gone, and it made me miss moments like treading through the blood-stained Aztec-style temples of Diablo II's third act.

Unfortunately, playability can sometimes suffer as a result of the visual direction. Though the game is gorgeous, and characters stand out from the backgrounds nicely, interactive parts of the environment are sometimes hard to pick out amidst all the detail, and can't be highlighted to differentiate them. Sometimes the screen is also filled with so many particle effects that it becomes hard to tell what's going on, as well. Additionally, the expansive levels are often a sight to behold, but their layouts have been heavily simplified, most likely in the name of visual splendor - a few are even long, straight corridors of the most literal variety, and as such the dungeons lack that maze-like feeling.

The aural side of the game is very capable, though perhaps not impressive. Many melodies are reused from the previous games in the series, with a tendency towards the epic, Wagner-inspired soundtrack from Lord of Destruction. However, in doing so, much of the ambiance and creepy atmosphere, just like the visuals, has been abandoned. Sound effects are generally a bit better - melee attacks feel meaty and powerful, enemies have distinct voices and cries, and so on. It's all good stuff, though some of the spell effects do sound a bit weak in comparison to the Diablo II versions, most notably Meteor.  As mentioned earlier, voice acting is competent and plentiful, but due to poor direction often comes across poorly.

Where I think Diablo III drops the ball most is in its user interface. Most notably, the game starts out with "elective mode" and "advanced tooltips" disabled, which means that it's impossible to map skills to the mouse buttons and number keys exactly how you want them from the beginning, and detailed information is obscured as well. Many smaller issues abound as well. There's no way to view a record of previous quests in-game, only from the character selection/management screen. Some text can be vague (is it 10% current item durability lost on death, or maximum?). The skills menu is cumbersome to navigate and it's impossible to get a good overview of all of the ones you have available. The game also doesn't explain how to identify rare and legendary items anywhere other than a load screen tip (right-click). The user interface is definitely usable and looks good (unlike some big-name RPGs released lately), but these oversights, like other parts of the game, suggest a lack of polish I simply don't expect from Blizzard.
Always Online

A lot has been said of Diablo III's requirement that players maintain a constant Internet connection. Put simply, you must always stay connected, you must log in to play the game, your game progress must be saved on Blizzard's own servers, and any interruption in service, either from your own Internet provider or on Blizzard's end, renders the game unplayable. This has been a hugely contentious matter for gamers over the last few years, but it's a debate that I'm not too interested in getting into here, simply because I don't think it's the place of this review to go into detail about the ethical merits of different DRM schemes.

However, it becomes my business to bring up the DRM when it becomes a problem to gameplay - and for Diablo III, right from the start, it has been. As soon as the game was released, even players who wanted to enjoy "single-player" discovered that Diablo III was unplayable for the better part of about three days. In addition to the downtime and frequent server crashes and disconnections, lag is a constant companion for many players; living in Canada, I never have a ping lower than 300 msec, for instance, and it's apparently much worse for players outside of North America. Worst of all, gamers wanted to jump in and enjoy the long-awaited follow-up to a beloved game series; instead they were unable to play the game they paid money for, because of problems with a service many of them never wanted. The biggest flaws of online-only DRM became a reality for Diablo III right out of the gate.

All of this has made it very apparent that Diablo III cannot in good faith be called a single-player game. Even if you play it solo, you will be subject to the exact same issues that online players are. There is no offline option, no LAN option, no support for modifications, and no guarantee the game will work. It resembles an MMO like World of Warcraft more than anything else, and the DRM problem is significant enough that I think it was highly disingenuous of Blizzard to sell the game as anything other than a fully online experience.

There are some upsides to the online infrastructure. Multiplayer is made quick and easy via an easily-accessible friends list, and there are a few features that make online play convenient, like the ability to teleport to anyone else from town. There are also dozens upon dozens of achievements to collect... in fact, Diablo III probably has more than any other game I've seen, and they range from the utterly simple (teleport to a friend in multiplayer) to absurdly difficult (beat a boss on the highest difficulty without being hurt in a certain way). The Auction House is great for finding the gear you need, too, but I suspect that it will drive too much of players' success on higher difficulty levels, and when combined with the optional ability to use real currency to outright buy items, it veers dangerously close to pay-to-win, a business model I am no fan of.

However, for as many online features as Blizzard can add, none of them will convince players to hop on the online-only bandwagon - nor will it make up for your deaths due to lag, or your lost game progress due to disconnects, or the times you won't be able to play due to server maintenance. I hope that, in the future, developers and publishers will think very long and hard about going ahead with this type of DRM, because Diablo III is living proof of its worst qualities.  As a gamer, it's a trend I simply don't want to be a part of.

Conclusion

After spending a week's time and close to thirty hours with Diablo III, as well as two complete play-throughs, I simply can't recommend it whole-heartedly. As I've stressed, it looks fantastic, it feels fast, frantic and fun to play, and it's got Blizzard's trademarks all over it... but coupled with all the downsides, from online-only DRM to changes to the game mechanics, the end result is an enjoyable, but shallower experience that simply doesn't live up to the legacy of the series, or make the ten-year wait worthwhile. Moreover, it's impossible not to ask questions about what Blizzard's game represents for the future of RPGs, DRM and PC gaming in general, and I'm concerned about many of the answers Diablo III offers.

Right now, the hack and slash genre is seeing a sudden explosion of interest, with Grim Dawn, Path of Exile and Torchlight II all providing much cheaper and, frankly, more fun alternatives - Path of Exile delivering a more traditional, grimy aesthetic, and Torchlight II sporting more depth in its character and skill systems. Diablo III is certainly good, there's no question, and it might remain unmatched in terms of pedigree, but that's the problem - Blizzard's good can no longer be called good enough, and Diablo III can no longer claim to be the definitive king of the hack-and-slash genre either. Perhaps Hell truly has frozen over.
 
 

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