Posted by Eric Schwarz at 9:07 am on 05.22.2012 (1 year ago)
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.
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.