Diablo 3. Since coming out a week ago, it has generated countless articles singing its praises, chastising its flaws, and calling it everything from the greatest title ever to the biggest disappointment of the century.
You’d think unpacking such a game – separating the gameplay from the manufactured, overblown outrage – would be difficult. You’d think it would require a lot of effort, a lot of digging in deep.
You’d think – or, well, expect – that such a review would be a challenge.
Yet, it actually isn’t.
It’s just fun. Really, you can stop here – you don’t have to go any further. This game is fun. Diablo 3 is perhaps one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences you’ll have this year. If isometric RPGs are your thing, then this is your holy grail. Shit, even if they aren’t, even if this genre is sort of new to you, it’ll still probably be fun.
It’ll be really fun.
Diablo 3 starts 20 years after the events of Diablo 2, throwing the player into an apocalyptic battle against the armies of Hell. Much like any RPG, you pick your class – Barbarian, Witch Doctor, Wizard, Demon Hunter, or Monk – and go to town. Every class is unique in style and form, with each one designed to play either solo or with friends depending on how you gear and spec your character.
The gameplay revolves around clicking… and that’s all there is to it.
While a few skills are mapped to the keyboard, you’re only given six at a time, meaning that there’s no need to memorize a billion abilities in order to do well in combat. This makes the game simple. While that might sound irritatingly boring to some, it actually makes for a wonderful time. Diablo 3 keys in on the same maxim that defines every popular game in history: easy to learn, hard to master.
While most of your keys will be bound to damage dealing abilities, a select few will be tied to survivability skills. Often, these buttons will have to be pressed relatively quickly if you’re trying to avoid death. In one part of the game for example, explosive demons will toss their lives at you. They travel in groups of three or more – yet it only takes a single one hitting you to melt your flesh straight out of existence. If you’re quick, you’ll be able to activate an ability before they have the chance to kill you – and if you’re smart, you’ll use one of your abilities to dispatch them before they ever become a threat.
Mind you, that’s just one type of enemy. You’re going to have to deal with hundreds of ‘em as you make your way through Diablo 3. While some will be nothing but cannon fodder that can be melted with whatever skill you have straddled to your left mouse button, many others will require much more finesse.
Though for the most part Diablo 3 isn’t about trying to figure out the perfect pattern or strategy for picking off one or two enemies, it’s about using your biggest, most obnoxiously destructive abilities to obliterate legions of demons.
This is something the game lets you know constantly – and vividly. Not only are you treated to a beautiful symphony of clashes, explosions, and spurts every time your finger slaps down on your mouse, the game also rewards you with some of the smoothest, best looking, and most artistic visuals you’ll likely see this year.
No, this isn’t Frostbite 2, but it isn’t trying to be. As is the case with most Blizzard games, artistic style takes precedence over technical might. Fortunately for Blizzard, they have the best artists in the business, and it shows. Everything is gorgeous in Diablo 3. The terrain. The background in the distance. The armor you’ll loot off the corpses of demons. The demons. Their corpses. Bugs that squash under your greaves.
There isn’t a single piece of art in the entire game that doesn’t feel inspired. Everything, absolutely everything, feels as if it was lovingly crafted by a team that lived and breathed this world. Even the armor – something that is usually exaggerated and over the top in Blizzard games – fits the world perfectly. You can mix and match sets of gear and your character will still look awesome. Toss in the ability to dye everything you wear, and there’s never a moment where you won’t be hitting Z to get a closer look at the chunk of badass that is your character.
That is, of course, if you can take your eyes of the gorgeous world around you.
A world which is randomly generated, meaning that for a game that breathes repetition, it tends to feel anything but. Everything from the overworld, to the dungeons, to the monsters themselves – they’re all tossed about your screen with a set of dice. Want to see something new? Just do it again.
That isn’t just a tiny feature, though, it’s a key part of how the game presents itself – in fact, it’s pretty indicative of the theory that drives the whole game. As everything is random, emphasis is placed on reacting to problems rather than memorizing strategy, putting it in a different category from most RPGs of the modern era. This also tends to put the focus more on the fight to the boss than the boss itself, which is pretty fantastic for gameplay, although it does clash with the story’s pacing. More on that later, though.
The random aspect also highlights how the game looks at difficulty. Diablo 3 isn’t mastered by memorizing pathways or by sneaking to bosses. In fact, if you’re speed running Diablo 3 by skipping enemies as if they were trash in an MMORPG, you’re entirely missing the point. The bosses might be a challenge, but getting to them is the real test. Not to mention clearing every dungeon you come across, even if they are sometimes filled with explosive-freezing-teleporting-I-give-up demons that will make you etch pentagrams into your skull out of frustration.
Seriously though, the rare “mini-boss” elite mobs that are scattered throughout the level are the real studded platter you’ll be slamming your face into – not necessarily the end bosses themselves. And as you up the difficulty, that’s a trend that’ll continue. Sure, the bosses are what numbers-focused people will be paying attention to, but anyone who actually enjoys the game? You’ll find ‘em crawling the dungeons – not the boss rooms. As it should be.
This also brings me to the rune system. In prior Diablo games (and in every other similar title on the market) progressing your character was done via a talent system which involved allocating points into numerous “trees.” While the system offered up a lot of customizability on the surface, it actually really just narrowed things down into The Right Way and The Wrong Way. The Right Way was found via Google. The Wrong Waywas literally anything else. The system also made you plan your character out far in advance and penalized you for trying new things. Want to try a new build or skill? Too bad. You’re screwed.
So the system sucked. In Diablo 3, it has been replaced with the rune system. The rune system, while seeming much simpler on the surface, actually gives you a lot more choice in how your character will play. And if you want to switch abilities? Bring up a pane on your UI, click through your abilities, and wham. There you go. You don’t have to travel to town. You don’t have to make a new character. You don’t have to pay any obnoxious fine for trying to have fun – you just do whatever the hell you please.
Oh, and all of those skills? They can be customized even further with runes that are unlocked as you level. The result is a progression system that is a lot more linear, yet way freer. This makes the game a lot more adaptable not just to your general play style, but to your current situation as well. If you’re fighting a horde of demons by your lonesome you can kit out your character just for that. Did a friend just join your game? You can switch your skills to combo it up with them. No penalty. No waste of time.
Really, that’s the one thing that’s blatantly obvious throughout Diablo 3: much of the game has been streamlined (or completely revamped) in the name of fun. Just as they updated StarCraft 2 and World of Warcraft, Blizzard has etched away at some awful (but nostalgia heavy, for some) gameplay elements, replacing them with things that are addictively fun. While that might piss off some fans, the net benefits outweigh any negatives by a mile. The follower system, crafting – even minor things like how the stash system works and how gold is just magnetized to your feet – everything has just been made more user friendly and fun.
This doesn’t mean that all the changes are golden, however.
As was mentioned earlier, the story doesn’t always line up nicely with the gameplay. In order to make the gameplay more storyline oriented, Blizzard has put a lot of effort into building up the suspense and tension right before you step into a boss room. Unfortunately, however, the bosses are sort of a pushover. Sure, the journey to them is hard, but the big baddies? Not so much. Really, you end up more excited about the loot that’s dropping off the bosses than anything else. Sure, on Hell difficulty the bosses start to become a challenge, but by that point you’re probably not paying attention to the story at all, making the pacing completely moot.
It certainly doesn’t help that the story is pretty predictable. While that’s to be expected in a Blizzard game, the typical Metzen-tropes are out in full force here. Corruption, corruption, corruption. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just note that you’ll likely see every “twist” from thirteen miles away. Of course, this isn’t to say that the dialogue isn’t witty – or that Blizzard’s sense of humor is completely missing from the game. There’s a few notable parts, and at the very least the game’s Hollywood-quality – actually, scratch that – better than Hollywood cutscenes will dislocate your jaw.
Blizzard also deserves some praise for not making every other quest a pop-culture reference. As that’s sort of become another Blizzard trope, it was refreshing to see them show some restraint. So kudos to that.
Unfortunately, however, the story isn’t the game’s only annoying hiccup. As Diablo 3 requires you to be connected to Battle.Net constantly and the gameplay itself is taking place on Blizzard’s servers miles away from your computer, lag is an occasional problem. With that said, Diablo 3’s lag compensation is top-notch, and past the very first day of play I haven’t noticed a single problem.
Of course, you’ll notice that I’m just saying it’s “annoying” – not game-breaking or (as a few publications have put it) the death of PC gaming. Now, while I love hyperbole as much as the next game journalist, Battle.Net simply isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s kind of great. The features that it provides far outweigh a few minor blips of inconvenience. Ubisoft DRM this isn’t. And besides, this is Blizzard we’re talking about here – if you’re worried about them pulling the plug on their servers, you should be aware that you can still play Diablo. As in, the first game in the series that came out 16 years ago.
While gamers will be gamersand a few of my colleagues will eagerly feed them in order to drive Diablo 3 fueled SEO, the plain reality is this: in six months the biggest Diablo 3 controversy will be arguments over when the inevitable expansion is coming out.
None of the issues presented by the inclusion of Battle.Net are really worth talking about. Diablo 3, after all, is a multiplayer game designed to be played with friends. If you’re really worried about not having an online connection this probably isn’t the game for you.
Outside of the flimsy storyline and minor Battle.Net inconveniences Diablo 3 is an incredibly fun game. Is this what we’ve waited 12 years for? Yes. Yes it is – and then some. Without a doubt, Diablo 3 is a title everyone will be playing not just in a year, or even a few years, but a decade from now. In an era of annual releases and rehashes, Diablo 3 is a destined classic.
It’d be a sin not to pick it up.
Diablo III was released on May 15th, 2012 for the PC and Mac.