Blizzard is, by far, the master of psychological warfare using video games. The fine folks there have drilled into our soft and tasty head meats over countless hours in Starcraft, Warcraft, WoW and the previous incarnations of the Diablo series. Diablo III is the wisdom of all that time spent burrowing into our pleasure centers like so many restless tapeworms distilled to its purest form. Short of actually cracking open our skulls and hooking electrodes up to the proper places, this is the closest we have to push button = pleasure.
The downside is, of course, that we also never want to leave the confines of Sanctuary for the relentless cruelties of the real world. Even now, we feel the itch to close this document and lovingly cradle my mouse as we blast, chop, slice, crush, burn, and otherwise kill our way through slavering hordes of demons and nastier things (like spiders). But, alas, the real world does call and we must answer or have things like evictions, repossessions, and starvation rear their ugly heads. Itís much easier to take a break from the killing to avoid those particular beasties.
So, itís been 12 years (well, technically 20 in-game) and whatís changed with Diablo? Very little really. Sure, there are new character classes, an auction house, a seemingly endless list of semi-meaningless achievements, and a Lord of Terror who has a snappy new sense of style, but the game at its heart is still the same. You move and attack with the mouse, have some hotkeys for flashy special abilities, and generally stomp all over randomly generated maps, killing randomly generated monsters to loot randomly generated treasure. Despite this, there have been a host of tweaks to the system that you all used to know and love, and which do a lot to alter the feel of Diablo.
Tweakiní out the kinks
What you will notice as soon as you start leveling is that gone are the skill points and stat points. Leveling up now just adds a set grouping of stats, and as you go new skills become unlocked. Weíre not going to try and break down how the skill progression works too far, simply because itíll involve x number of skills having y number of mods plus 3 passive slots that have z number of options. This will start looking less like a review and more like a math class, and while we know some of you theory crafters out there will be totally down with that, not everyone is a budding PhD. Suffice it to say, there is a host of different customizations you can put together for fun and slaughter, and not all of them are opened up right away.
The downside is that Blizzard has locked you down to five keys and two mouse buttons. So all of those interesting abilities you have are limited to six options, plus your potion button. Not only that, even if you can map your abilities to different keys, you still can only have six active abilities, which, when you have to flip your skill load out to kill certain groups of enemies, is just not enough. You can re-spec on the fly, so if a group of nasty ďraresĒ gets you down you can take a second and throw a different set of abilities together to crack that nut. Even more interesting, some of the mods can significantly alter how powers work. For instance, the monk has a skill where they drop a giant bell on the target and then smack it to generate a straight line attack, but one of the modifications for it instead generates a burst of energy centered on the monk that shoots in all directions. Sure, there are some that just increase damage or lower resource costs too, but the former mean that youíve got a much deeper toolkit than it seems.
Aside from all the character bits, a lot of the basic functions from Diablo have also changed. There are no more scrolls to identify magic items or portal to town. Now you can just do it with the click of a button, which makes things mighty convenient, but changes the flavor of the game. Donít think you can avoid looking for random dropped pieces of paper though, because by the time you hit Nightmare difficulty you need to find blacksmithing or jewel crafting pages. See, theyíve ditched the Horadric Cube (where that thing is now? sitting in a box in some old adventurerís attic?), and now you have a crazy Asian stereotype to make gems for you and a less interesting Scottish one to make magic items. Itís not quite crafting as an MMO player would know it, but it is there, and the Auction House makes them almost entirely unnecessary.
Whyís that you ask? Well, look at it this way. One of us is a level 60 putzing around with friends and has more high level gems than he knows what to do with. So, he slaps some on the auction house for cheap and just collects gold because, why not? Meanwhile, crafting those high-level gems takes three gems of the lower level, plus those randomly dropped pages, plus about 2000 gold. If the same gems are being sold on the auction house for less, why would anyone bother crafting them? The same goes for blacksmithing, except this is even worse. The materials you need for blacksmithing are obtained from breaking magic items, and what you make ends up having random magical properties. So you can break a bunch of items and then keep trying to make something until you get the magic buffs you want or you can just sell everything and go buy exactly what you want from the auction house. It renders the crafting system somewhat moot.
There are more alterations. The hirelings are now a supporting cast with dialogue and some minor character development, there are traps or other environmental hazards you can use against the enemy, but otherwise itís much like stepping back into Diablo II.
While there have been a lot of minor alterations to the game, Diablo III still plays and feels a lot like Diablo II, even down to the same areas of the games playing in much the same ways. In fact, you revisit three Diablo II locations, with some new bits. Itís great for continuity, but it also leaves Diablo III feeling a little all too familiar. The basic interface is unchanged. You click on the ground to move, you click on enemies to attack them. It works, but gamers have been spending the past several years married to the WASD cluster and mouse look. Diablo controls just seem old, and thereís no real development of the play style. Yes, the classes do all play a little more idiosyncratically than before, but it still feels like weíre playing a game from 2000 rather than 2012.
Not only did Blizzard not really improve on the interface, they actually took a step backwards in terms of game design. Diablo II had massive replayability partially because every time you played it was new. The maps were completely random with the exception of some boss rooms, so you never really knew where everything was. With Diablo III there are now random elements to fairly static maps. Some dungeons are more randomized, but, for the most part, everything is in the same place with the same paths to it. While thatís nice if you want to speed run through the game, it makes replaying the game feel less new, which makes us less likely to continue playing for hours and hours and hours, mostly because weíve seen this stuff before, we know where it is, and we may get just a tad bored running the exact same content over and over and over and over for a little trinket?
Plus, even when we get that trinket, itís most likely not going to have the stat buffs we need on it, so weíre just going to sell it and then run the dungeon again. Fortunately, the real genius of Diablo comes out in multiplayer - but weíll get to that in a second because, for all the beautiful things theyíve done with multiplayer, there is one big downside to the evolution of Battle.net since Diablo II came out. That is, now you must play online on Blizzard servers all the time, no exceptions. So, even if youíre playing by yourself, you can still have issues with lag, disconnections, or loss of service when their tech goes down. So far, we havenít seen too many technical issues, but almost every cooperative game weíve been has suffered from some amount of lag. Weíve hit nasty patches of it, even when running around in single-player.
Diablo II veterans know that what really kept people playing was the ability to join together in co-op games and go toe to toe with nastier baddies and get better loot. Diablo III has made some significant upgrades to your ability to join games, and find or add friends online. Instead of having to search for LAN connections or try to collect people at your level, now youíve got a simple friends list, jump into a public game or set up your single player version as a public game. Either way, itís simple as choosing to join. The interesting thing is that anyone on your friends list can hop into your game at any time, no questions asked. The only limit is you can only have four people in a game at any one time. Impressively, Blizzard also solved the loot sharing problem by giving each player their own loot. We say impressive because of the massive amount of randomization that has to involve across four different individuals simultaneously. Even better, when you drop a piece of gear everyone can then see it and pick it up. There is a trade capability as well, but the drop function is a nice touch.
The other great improvement is the addition of banners. You can create your own from a selection of shapes, patterns, sigils, accents and colors (all except the colors have unlockables for in game achievements) and that then gets plunked down right next to the waypoint in town. While this is a great personal customization for the game, itís functional, too, in that you can click on it to port to wherever your friend(s) are at any time, without slogging through a lot of cleared map space to catch up. Customization isnít limited to a banner either. At least one vendor in every act has dyes you can apply to your armor so you can look different from every other blue-robed wizard out there.
Whatís bad about multiplayer is the chat interface. Itís clunky and doesnít really distinguish well between party chat and whispers, so sorting what your friend whoís not in game with you said from the folks who just killed that rare elite is a little tougher than necessary. Mistells are also virtually inevitable because of the less than optimal chat system. By this point, most people are probably using some form of Vent server to talk rather than just typing, but even that will be awkward because of the default location of the hotkeys.
And again and again and again and againÖ
As mentioned above Diablo III assumes repetition. Youíre not going to be satisfied with just killing everything once. Once youíve plowed through Normal mode, you unlock Nightmare, which then unlocks Hell which unlocks Inferno, and there is always the infamous Hardcore mode as well (that last one scares me; donít make me do it).
Unlike a lot of games, harder modes donít just mean that the enemies hit harder. They do, but the nasty part is that there are more rare enemies, they add more abilities to the mix, and they stack abilities. So, now instead of just running into, say, Jailers (that lock you in place), you run into Mortar Jailers or Illusionist Fire Chains. It can get insane, and thatís just the first step up in difficulty, from Normal to Nightmare. So, aside from that constant junkie itch to delve just one more time into the depths, there is plenty of challenge to keep you in front of the PC.
If that wasnít enough, you can now also jump freely across quests if youíve already done them or even if not if you jump into a friendís game. Whenever you load up the character you want to play (you can have 10 total, which is enough for two of each class) you can choose the quest you are currently on or any previous quest you have completed. Plus, youíre free to jump into a friendís game no matter where they are in the game, so long as youíre both on the same difficulty setting and your friend allows others to join their game. Jumping in will automatically put you on their quest, but even better, when you come back to your solo game, you can choose to plunk yourself right back where you were. So, thereís a lot of freedom to repeat specific content or just go wherever you want rather than being stuck in a linear progression.
Nice as all this is, it still doesnít take long to feel like youíre just grinding mobs out, even on the harder difficulty levels. Things have been livened up a bit by adding different events that you can find and different dungeons to crawl through, but like any repetitive dungeon crawl, you eventually might just get bored. We all know hack-and-slash never was good at holding attention, though; itís just simpler than loading up something that makes you think.
You got your WoW in my Diablo.
Donít get us wrong; Diablo is a fine-looking game. Graphically, the game is incredible, especially its highly detailed maps, with enemies that shatter, splinter, erupt, corrode, or otherwise drip and drool their way across the screen. The new physics make for truly impressive explosions when you rip apart your foes. Blizzardís attention to graphical detail is commendable: running through soot, for instance, has your hero leaving black footprints for a few seconds. And, the backgrounds are breathtaking. Gorgeous hillsides and waterfalls complete with misting effects - and thatís just for starters. The end of Act III and all of Act IV are stunning. We would go into the effects and scenery, but we wouldnít want to give anything away. Just pay attention in the Towers of Sin (yes, you go down them instead of up - donít ask questions).
Some of us who have played the Diablo games since the beginning, however, miss the gritty, dark horror look of the original Diablo of 1996. Diablo II first introduced a bit of color to the series by taking the player to new desert and rainforest settings outside of Tristramís demon-ridden bowels, and Diablo III does much of the same. We may not be of the rainbow-hating contingent of Diablo fans, but the look of the art has taken a turn for the cartoonish with this latest game that just seems more Warcraftís style than Diabloís. While weíre fans of Warcraftís more garish, exaggerated look, we also miss the creepy, desaturated colors and harsher, grimmer art style that made the original Diablo such a refreshing contrast from Blizzardís other masterpieces.
Overall, Diablo III may be a little bit less than we expected it to be, but that didnít deter us from thoroughly enjoying our romps through Sanctuary. Iím also not going to hit any spoilers, but the plot is probably the most transparent thing Iíve seen in a while. Also, itís not really that cohesive or even interesting: they just string together some events that maybe make sense - but no one really cares. After all, Diablo was never really a page-turner; it was all about the action. So, calling Blizzard to task on this is sort of like criticizing Michael Bay for not having quality dialogue, but itís still true.
Another promising thought is that, if Diablo II is any indication, Blizzard may be releasing much more content and updates to the game before this incarnation runs its course. For all we know, most of the minor gripes weíve discussed above will be completely wiped out in the next few months. So, thatís about it: Diabloís a great-looking game, plays much like the previous incarnations, and is worth the trip to see what itís all about. Youíll enjoy the slaughter and might find a few shinies on the way.