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Page 6 of 6Always 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.
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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