Ah, fresh meat. No, wait...
When Blizzard held the 2008 fan convention in Paris, I stood up early each day to gorge myself on the daily-shifting artwork that heralded some grand revelation or announcement that was soon-to-come. I frothed over these teasers, engaging in active study – even going so far as to maintain active threads that served as a condensed source of speculation, debates, and upvoted opinions by prominent members of the relevant online gaming communities. StarCraft 2 was at that point already a year in the (official) making, so what else could be there? World of Warcraft is always in constant development, so that seemed unlikely.
It left only, as we now know it, Diablo 3, where we saw the first glimpses of the screenshots, videos of the Barbarian cleaving his way through endless hordes of zombies and ghouls that ascended from the cavernous depths below in a then-fine looking 3D-engine. Everything was exciting: The Witch Doctor was a welcome mutation of the Necromancer, the first of the videos featured epic boss fights, and Michael Gough's return was promised, voicing Deckard Cain as we've come to love him.
The fundamental gameplay was unchanged, we were told, left 'wisely untouched,' and aside from some debacle surrounding the game's less-than-gothic style and its shoddy story, Diablo fans worldwide had erupted in fanfare, all basking in the best moments of the Diablo franchise.
Where did it all go wrong?
Allow me to get this cleared out of the way: Diablo 3 has a good concept and solid mechanics. It's a decent game, in those regards, but there are other factors at play -- especially in a $60 purchase, a full three-times the price of the impending Torchlight 2.
The game plays well. Blizzard is renowned for the quasi-saying "it'll be done when it's done" and for better or worse, Diablo 3 received its fair share of work from the Blizzard studio department. At its core, the combat is fluid, the controls are intuitive, for the most part, and its pick-up-and-play spirit remains mostly intact. The Diablo franchise has always been very simple to grasp, and the third game in the series is no different.
It's also immensely satisfying to watch at times. Barring some jerky animations, beholding your character as he or she plows through an endless horde of monsters, blood splattering in every seeming direction, bodies scattering chaotically, all makes for a very visually-pleasing experience. It's so simple and so fun when you just look at it, that it's easy to overlook some of the game's more detrimental aspects. And there are many.
Given that this is the third game in a series, I'm almost left wondering whether or not Blizzard strayed so much from some integral part of the roguecraft/Diablo recipie that Diablo 3 cannot be called an Action RPG.
I've 'spent' thousands of words arguing semantics with enthusiasts over whether or not the two original games could be labeled with the "RPG"-sticky, always in its defense, but I'll unfortunately no longer be doing that. Diablo 3 is not an Action RPG. It has largely ostracized all RPG elements; there is no theorycrafting, no statistics that matter, no customization. You are not once met with a choice – not moral, not ethical (you never were in the original games either, but hear me out) and most relevantly, not which path to go. Not once do you have to make any choice that has any consequence to what you want to do. Your character isn't your own, because in truth, your character is – apart from the armor and weapons that you piece together and hoard in the good old Diablo spirit – nearly identical to all other characters of your class. If you play a Demon Hunter, it is no different from any other Demon Hunter players out there.
The entire game is templated.
In an attempt to be selective about what "counts" as fun in Diablo 3, Blizzard has taken away player choice. When gaining a level, players unlock the skill appropriate to his or her character automatically and that character's attributes rise. No hand-picking stats; you don't need to favor a defensive trait to endure enemy strikes and sacrifice picking the cool-looking Leap skill, like you would have to in Diablo 2 -- no customization, no sacrifice.
There are no RPG elements left in the game. Just make sure your armor and weapon(s) have enough Vitality and Intelligence/Dexterity/Strength and that will largely remain the only factor that gauges your overall effectiveness in battle.
What class you pick is largely the only factor worth taking into account. All classes are capable of burning through enemies; they're all "damage dealers," for sure, though in varying and shifting ways.
How you set up your skills is what determines how you approach battle – I predominantly played as a Wizard, wherein I alternated between going guns-out, wreaking havoc upon my enemies with large, area-consuming spells that left my own character physically vulnerable, a glass cannon in the flesh, and using various shielding spells that soak up damage. Each skill and spell is unlocked automatically between level 1 and 30, but each of these have Runes associated with them that you unlock independently -- a sort of pseudo, feigned customization to appease players. Runes alter the nature of the spell, often removing one drawback to a spell or replacing it with another to suit one situation more appropriately. It could be as simple as a Frost Nova having a shorter cooldown timer, or a shield spell heightening your defense efficiency at the expense of Arcane Power (equivalent to Mana or Energy). Lastly, characters have three Passive Spells chosen at levels 10, 20 and 30, which can have a large say in how theoretical character builds play out.
Noteworthy enough, the lack of customization may have been laughably irrelevant in 2000, but in 2012, the lack of it is glaring. Diablo has marketed itself as both a mainstream game and a game that appeals to the hardcore audience, but it cannot simultaneously be both, and falls short in both aspects. By adding more skills than the original Diablo, we see a shift toward mainstream play -- but not in such a dramatic way that competitive players will give the game a second glance, and enough for hardcore Diablo fans to be offended. It's floating in Limbo.
Though each class can be played as both genders, seeing the same armors and weapons hoisted to characters of the same class is lackluster and de-personalized. The cringe-worthy lack of texture work to the characters' armor and bodies is one thing, but save being able to dye your armor, you're going to look like a replica of someone else. There's no way to get into a character, and while that'd be completely acceptable if Diablo 3 owned up to this approach, the simple fact is that it didn't: The game was marketed as a semi-complex, strategically-advanced, dark-and-gritty game -- it is none of these. The grit is lost in the aesthetics, the strategy is lost in templated skills, and the complexities are watered-down.
Not that even that will matter much, because unless you're dedicated enough to get to the later difficulties (the game's plot consists of four acts), Hell or Inferno, the game is ridiculously easy. Normal – the first of the four difficulties, followed by Nightmare, Hell, and lastly, Inferno – is basically the entire game plot-wise, and having played through the three difficulties completely, Normal is one really, exceedingly long, teeth-grinding tutorial.
In mainstream games, though, accessibility means everything to those who fund most commercial ventures.
Diablo 3 feels like a chore: it seemed like I had to invest a good many hours going through the game before Blizzard deemed me able to take on an actual encounter -- a boss fight or battle or something that encouraged quick-thinking and skill usage. It wasn't until Hell, after I had put in over thirty hours of the game, that I had to respond more critically to my character's surroundings and the game's atmosphere.
Grind until you get to the fun.
Though I often feel as if I'm in the minority in this, the original two games had their fair-but-sensible portion of story, plot, and background lore that made the endless waves of demons and undead make sense, and gave you a vaguely-unifying and compelling reason to hew them down, one after the other. The story was rewarding, and finishing each Act was accompanied by a fully-rendered CGI cinematic that Blizzard also handles very, very well.
All this is contained in the third game, to be sure, but revealing the underlying layers of Diablo 3's plot-and-story presentation -- while on the surface, appearing quite good -- unveils a load of rubbish and gibberish that don't really add up or make much sense, and it frustrates me, as it frustrates Editor-in-Chief Steve Burke in his mock video.
I'll try not to accidentally drop spoilers, but I'll give you a brief summary of what I'm talking about. Following the destruction of the Worldstone by Diablo 2's Tyrael at the end of the Lord of Destruction expansion, things have been seemingly-peaceful in the world of Sanctuary. The unknown band of heroes that rallied together and opposed the Prime Evils -- Mephisto, Diablo and Baal -- have been defeated and their souls contained, and subsequently destroyed in the Soulstones, but for some inexplicable reason, the night is still dark and the wilds are still grim and somehow imposing. Evil still lurks, and 20 years later, Deckard Cain (who refuses to die of old age or Tristram's constant pitfalls) wants someone to stay a while and listen to him, because he believes evil is making its return.
Unfortunately enough, just as he spews this to his adopted daughter Leah, a ball wreathed in fire, which for some reason all the characters in the game are so intent on calling a star, sends Deckard Cain deep below a monastery.
You enter as the cunning and grim-worn Demon Hunter, the sinister Witch Doctor, the arrogant and impetuous Wizard, the stout and grave Barbarian, or the austere-minded, cold Monk, and you come to Tristram – the very same town that was burned to the ground in the previous game. Now you must work to find Deckard Cain, again, save the town, again, and later the world of Sanctuary... again. Though I could always excuse its ridiculousness in the past, it's difficicult to do so a third time. Diablo has become lazy, as has its developers.
Reaffirming the notion that I won't spoil anything, our staff writers were all able to see each plot "twist" coming for miles -- the twists felt more inspired by meme-filled, switcharoo-themed comment threads than proper blow-your-mind moments. This was not helped with Blizzard being so stubborn on scripting all the cinematics with the game engine that now, in 2012, is showing itself to be rusty and unimpressive. The dialogue was stilted and rushed, and it doesn't speak well for a game that's been in development for so long.
The dark, gothic elements found in the plot, story, and the essence of the preceding two games are washed out in Diablo 3 -- like butter spread out over too much bread -- and the diamterically-opposing aesthetics of Diablo 3 only further this. The theme and subjects have very little in the ways of adhesive to tie them all together. Diablo 1 was about psychological horrors and how susceptible human emotions could be at the prey of malevolent, omnipotent forces; the second game played on themes similar to these in a more grandiose manner -- then there's Diablo 3. Diablo 3 focuses more on characters and stale betrayal. A bloated load of betrayal and machinations, too; often to the point where you see it coming and the surprise is largely spoiled by the time it arrives.
That being said, Blizzard has definitely fleshed out the world of Sanctuary for us in the third game (perhaps too much, causing some of this thin-spreading). The places players now see and visit, both now and in the earlier two games, are no longer placeholders to set the scene; they have a culture and identity, to some extent. A step in the right direction of storytelling, sure, but the books containing snippets of lore that are found throughout the game world – with a complimentary experience gain bonus accompanying them – are the only useful application of lore -- the rest is all largely meaningless and ridiculous.
This also concerns some lingering question the game prompts: What part of my gaming library shall I put this game into? The RPGs? Adventure? Take one example: in Diablo 3, assuming that solo play, player characters are able to enlist the aid of three archetypical companions that can be outfitted with selected gear and specific skills (ironically enough, we have to pick between two individual skills for the companion, a feature associated with RPGs, but you don't have to do that with your own character).
Besides aiding in battle, each of the three companions provides input on the field, often to shout that a signature monster – a stronger and sturdy monster, a "mini-boss" - is headed this-a-way, or otherwise make some relevant remark to keep the mood light and practical (conflicting with the game's desire to be dark-and-gritty). These companions also provide some interesting characterization when engaging in dialogue.
This is where Diablo 3 gets itself confused. The dialogue is short, automated, and scripted, though interesting enough. It provides a semblance of variety into an otherwise simple game, fair enough. Besides offering a change of pace, it doesn't do much else... so what is there to it? Maybe Diablo 3 is an action-adventure game? Or, wait, you had to pick between two skills for these companions, but is that enough to call it an RPG? Action-adventure with RPG elements, maybe?
Labels are labels, but important nonetheless.
Though the two are often associated with one another, an RPG isn't necessarily about a plot or story, it's about choices, the metagame, and roleplayability. Diablo 3 has the former, but it's arguable whether or not it has much more than that.
One aspect that, in all likelihood, will provide some buffer to Diablo 3's longevity is its crafting mechanic.
Unlike its predecessor, where monsters dropped an endless amount of irredeemable and useless gear to clog up your inventory so that you could more or less amass gold that you didn't actually require, Diablo 3 has uses for gold beyond items. Spending gold on upgrading your Blacksmithing and Jewelcrafting services being one of those. The former allows crafting of better armors and weapons – you can't see their stats until you've spent the money on it, so there's a risk-versus-reward factor at play -- and the latter, Jewelcrafting, allowing the combination of magical stones for powerful attributes. These can then be socketed into various pieces of armor, making them more powerful.
Though it is easy to acquire at first, the higher you reach in the hierarchy of powerful stones, the more it costs you. It gets into the area where I had to spend vast amounts of my preciously accumulated money to create truly powerful stones.
But is this just a bloated mechanic? A distraction?
It's simple and relatively straightforward; the system was a distraction - yes - but a very welcome distraction from the rest of the game's flaws. It's always nice to feel like hard-earned gold matters.
One of the more controversial aspects of Diablo 3 has been its cheating countermeasures, leading to some drastic mechanics that will certainly affect how you access playing the game. You have to be online at all times to play Diablo 3, even if you intend to strictly play the game for yourself without ever banding together with others. The internet at large has adequately gone into detail as to the drawbacks of that, the most predominant argument against it being that not everyone has access to internet at all times, and game owners should be able to peruse at their leisure. The other side effect, of course, is Diablo 3's unplayable nature in the event of a Blizzard server outage, maintenance, or other tasks (all of which happened numerous times in the first 24 hours of D3's launch). Further still, when Blizzard inevitably shuts down its D3 servers (don't pretend it won't happen eventually - no company lives forever), we'll be locked out, no matter how nostalgic we feel in 15 years.
It does have advantages though, granted, they are incomparable to the downsides. You're always online, and though it may sound ephemeral, it makes what you do more "real." The Achievement system adopted from Xbox Live and World of Warcraft is here, and your feats and accomplishments are broadcasted to your friends list automatically. The always-online feature also makes cloud-able characters, making for more portable play (not that save files have ever been a challenge to move). The game can crash, the client can boot, your computer can shut off and it won't matter, because all your progress is saved indefinitely, until something happens to the Blizzard servers. It's a backup quality money can't buy conventionally.
Adding to this, Battle.net provides a complete 'Auction House,' where items found in travels can be listed for sale. Though the system handling the operations is rudimentary at best, it works fairly well and provides an easy arena to engage in some economics.
The most convincing argument for the always-online policy of Blizzard is that it not only impedes hackers and scammers from operating with their schemes, it also makes linking up with friends relatively effortless. Depending upon how many players are in the game, each individual has a banner that can be interacted with; doing so instantly teleports the interactor to the owner of the banner, wherever he or she may be.
On a summarizing note, it should be reiterated that Diablo 3 is a good, decent game from some perspectives. Going into extensive lengths on how much simple fun can actually be had just blasting through enemies is just stating the obvious, and it doesn't give any material to read with actual substance. The music sets the mood of the game well, and despite inconsistencies, the story to the game is somewhat digestable. Other games may work better for fans of the original Diablo, like the upcoming Torchlight 2, the indie Din's Curse (great for traditionalists), and the upcoming Path of Exile.
I can't help but lament the fact that, save Hell and Inferno offering a modest challenge, there is very little that I think will have people flocking to this game sixteen months from now. Or twelve months from now... Longetivity may certainly have been what Blizzard had in mind when they set out to design D3, but there isn't much to show for it. Resoudingly so, the game's Achievement system is filled with a plethora of arbitrary challenges to pursue to give something to do, such as dying all armor pink and killing all the end-Act bosses with it, or finishing a boss fight without getting struck once – arbitrary and arguably substanceless goals.
The game's balance seems to hold it together; no class seems overly "better" over the others, though some have it easier than others depending upon the situation – as it should be, naturally. It will be interesting to see how it fares against the PVP+Arena patch Blizzard are due to feature, where you can face off against other players in combat instead of being forced to journey as a team together.
Though the game has its overt merits, Diablo 3 will not withstand the test of time like its two predecessors, and I also think the reasons for that are so deeply rooted in the fundamental design of this game that there's no magic fix, no single thing that needs to be alterered to give it a long-lasting appeal.
But what the hell, right? It plays like a Diablo game should, however lacking, so it will certainly provide its ample share of fun for some of us mouse-clickers.
Maybe wait for a price reduction. $20 for TL2 is certainly competitive pricing.
And if not, just wait for the console port. It's bound to come.
Note: This review was based upon roughly 70 hours of gameplay, with some 56 of those being spent on one max-level (60) character. Every class was played to varying extents. The game was played on Hell and Inferno difficulties to a great degree.
- Baard "Aeterne" Spein