16 years, that’s how long its been since the first release of Diablo yet I can still remember some of the moments with it fondly. I can remember the first time I wandered down to that level and physically leaping out of my seat when the butcher first growled “Aaaahhhhh fresh meat!” when I dared enter his lair. I spent many hours attempting to get further and further into the dungeons and only after pairing up with people I had never met before online was I able to progress further and ultimately defeat Diablo. My time with its sequel released 4 years later was a much more social affair with many LANs dedicated to pushing our characters through the 99 levels that it offered to us. Today I find myself back in that same world again, playing through a world that’s been with me almost all of my gamer life. One that I’ve become very fond of.
Diablo 3 takes place 20 years after the events of Diablo 2. Deckard Cain and his niece, Leah, are investigating an old prophecy that’s foreboding a great conflict between man and the terrors of hell. During his investigation a star falls from the sky towards Deckard and his niece and destroys much of the cathedral leaving only a hole into which Deckard falls. You, known only as The Nephalem, have come to investigate the falling star and arrive at the town of New Tristram to find it under siege from the undead. So begins your long journey, one that draws many parallels to the past releases.
There’s something to be said about Blizzard’s approach to the visual and auditory nature of all of their games. They’re never on the cutting edge of graphics (which I was very thankful for as half of my time with the game was spent on an almost 2 year old MacBook Pro) but they never feel as dated as other games who attempt the same style do. Their heavy use of stylization, clever lighting effects and heavy use of perspective makes the low poly graphics feel like they’re a lot more detailed than they actually are. This also means that in heavy battle situations even those with modest computers won’t be playing through a slideshow, something that has always worked in Blizzard’s favor.
Like all their games the accompanying music, foley and cinematic cut scenes help to elevate the Diablo experience further. Blizzard really are no slouch when it comes to making cut scenes that are tear-inducingly beautiful and the ones in Diablo are no exception to this rule. Russell Brower, the man behind nearly all of the music in Blizzard games of the past decade, has done a fantastic job with Diablo 3’s music which aptly sets the mood for the entire game (bar one level, but I’ll get to that later). The voice acting is also done well although I felt the dialogue was a bit of a let down in some parts but that’s no fault of the voice actors.
Combat takes wild swings from being a breeze where you feel like an unstoppable killing machine to the disastrous lows where you spend 10 minutes and many deaths trying to beat a single enemy or elite pack. Granted for the vast majority of the game (everything up to Act III/IV hell for me) you probably won’t struggle bar getting a pack/elite with a rather nasty combination. Even then it’s usually a quick change of skills and a repair away from being a walk in the park again. Failing that all you’ll need to do is take a quick trip to the auction house to be able to elevate yourself out of the current rut you’re in, so long as you’ve got the requisite cash of course.
The itemization in Diablo 3 seems to work well in the beginning with upgrades dropping left, right and center. However as you progress through the levels you’ll notice that upgrades start to come further in between, leaving you wondering what the deal is. For the most part its because up until Inferno difficulty most items that drop will be below your level and thus won’t be much of an upgrade. The auction house goes a long way to mitigate this, as does the fact that there are no soulbound items, but that also means you’re somewhat reliant on it should you want to progress at a reasonable rate. Granted this isn’t that bad since semi-decent upgrades can be had for a pittance if you’re willing to search and wait but it is starkly different to the way it was in the previous installments in the Diablo series.
The gem system is back but instead of relying on the Horadric cube to do all your combining and upgrading of gems you instead have your very own artisan that can do the upgrades for you (for a fee, of course). To get better gems you have to pay to train him and as you progress further you’ll need to seek out additional items in order to upgrade him and the gems he creates for you. Gems are also infinitely resusable which is a welcome change as now you can spend quite a lot on crafting good gems and not have to ditch them when you get a gear upgrade (or delay that upgrade because of the gems). This also means that the secondary market for gems is somewhat non-existent as all you need is a friend who’s run Inferno once or twice to come into your game and shower you gems they don’t need but are godly to you.
The crafting system starts off as being a wonderful alternative gear path allowing you to convert unwanted items into crafting materials that can then be used to craft items. All of the items are random however meaning that there’s a very high chance that you’ll create a piece of equipment that you’ll have no use for (which can then be turned back into mats again, if you so desire). Since the investment cost at the lower levels is, funnily enough, low you can quite easily create multiple items and usually get a hit that’s an upgrade. Additionally you can also train the blacksmith to create items that are a higher level than what you can current use, giving you something to look forward to as you level. I did exactly this all the way up to level 30 or so, and that’s when crafting started to fall apart.
The investment cost at higher levels starts to consume all of your available gold should you chose to keep pursuing it. Additionally the material requirements start to ramp up as well meaning that you can craft fewer and fewer items the further you progress. This means that chance starts to play a much bigger factor in whether crafting is worth it or not and in my experience it stats to lose its luster very quickly after level 30 or so. The base idea of the crafting system is sound what it needs is some finessing to make it less prone to rolls of the dice when the investment required for crafting each item is so high. If you’re an action house wunderkid this might not be so much of a problem, but not everyone who plays this game is.
The talent system has been streamlined extensively, taking heavy cues from the improvements that had been made in the upcoming World Of Warcraft Mists of Panderia expansion. Instead of the typical talent tree with 3 different play styles segmented neatly by the different tabs they dwell on Diablo 3 instead goes for an ability based system, allowing you to pick and choose the abilities you want to use and then augment them in specific ways. This streamlined approach appears at first glance appears to be a vast simplification of the traditional RPG system, one that had the potential to remove a lot of the diversity from the game. The actual result is far from that with Blizzard reporting that the most common build is only used by approximately 0.7% of players. Even with my extensive amount of play time in this game I’m still finding myself experimenting with different skills to see if they’ll give me an edge in damage or survivability, something that I had only thought would be possible with traditional talent systems.
Many of the set pieces feel like they are done either for the fans or in spite of them. Much of the game feels a lot like its predecessor with the progression through levels (town/rural -> desert -> keep -> heaven/hell) being eerily similar. Thankfully the environments feel fresh and distinct from their counterparts in Diablo 2 so it doesn’t feel like they’re just 3D renderings of the former 2D sprite based environments. The rainbow unicorn level (I.E. the not “cow level”) is one that was obviously done in reaction to fan’s bellyaching around Diablo 3 being too colourful when compared to its predecessor. This is the one place where the music is just plain wrong but that’s just part of the whole experience of this particular level.
The story of Diablo 3 is definitely above the level I’ve come to expect from most AAA games that only have it as a side note to the main game of multiplayer but somewhat lacking in what I’ve come to expect from Blizzard. The Diablo world, and its current incarnation, is not short of lore and back story for nearly every main character and NPC that you come across. However, and this may be because of the character class I played or not, I never really felt any empathy for the characters apart from Deckard Cain (the only one who I can remember being in past Diablo games). I also never really felt any driving motivation for my character either, mostly because of the way he interacted with the main protagonists.
Whilst a lot of the NPCs would show fear and doubt my character never showed a lick of hesitation when it came to talking down to prime evils or even supposed members of high society. After a while it started to sound more like bravado than anything else which was only compounded by the fact that many of the other characters acted somewhat irrationally towards him (like Azmodan saying at every turn that I would fail, even after I had completely decimated his army). The other classes might have been better but this combined with the lack of empathy for any of the characters meant that I didn’t really care that much for the story. I don’t hate it, I’m just indifferent to it.
So it’s at this point in the review where I look back at the game and ask myself “well, was it fun?”. The beginning stages of Diablo are very enjoyable especially as you get your first rare drop or you completely kit yourself out in blues for the first time. It gets a whole lot better with friends too as the multiplayer experience has been streamlined and integrated perfectly. Still I couldn’t help that feeling I had in the back of my mind, one that I used to get when I was playing World of Warcraft at max level. Sometimes I feel compelled just to do things for the sake of doing them and towards the end as I was approaching 60 I started to wonder why I was doing it. Granted this was at the end of a probable 20 hour binge over the course of the last 4 days, so I was probably just burnt out on playing.
Diablo 3 feels like a game that was made for the fans. The settings and the gameplay instantly dredge up that nostalgia feeling whilst keeping the experience fresh and exciting. Whilst I don’t believe there’s nothing in this game for those who haven’t played before their experience won’t be the same as that of long time fans of the series. I’m not sure if I’ll roll another character but I’ll definitely be joining my friends when we set out to conquer Inferno mode.
Diablo 3 is available on PC right now for $89.99. Game was played through the Normal, Nightmare and Hell difficulties with the Monk class reaching level 60 with around 32 hours of total play time.
I’m a really, really big fan of nearly every Blizzard game that’s come out over the past 2 decades. Their dedication to releasing games when they’re done, whilst irritating to the extreme sometimes, means that they consistently deliver highly polished titles. They’re also extremely dedicated to their fans being deeply involved in the communities that surround their games, taking their suggestions and criticisms and using them to improve their games. I’ve gladly parted with many of my hard earned dollars for the privilege of enjoying their games, and I’ve gladly planned to part with a whole lot more in the coming months.
The next title that’s gearing up to part me with a good chunk of change is Diablo III, the next instalment in the Diablo series that I’ve been playing ever since its original release. The game play videos have captivated me and the continuation of the story that’s been on hiatus for over 11 years was more than enough to sell me on it long ago. I’m also very interested in some of the latest developments like the real money auction house which will allow players to sell in game items for cold hard cash. Sure it might look like a game breaking money grab but I’ve got every confidence that Blizzard knows what they’re doing and the actual impact on the every day game play will be minimal.
What does give me the shits however, is the price that we all have to pay as part of it.
Diablo 1 and 2 were, as many Blizzard games were, long time favourites because of their awesome multi-player experience, in particular the LAN play. Of course back in those days where Internet connections were no where near as good as they are today LAN play was critical, but today it’s much less of an issue. However there are still occasions where you might be without an Internet connection and still want to play the games you purchased, say when you’re moving to a new house or travelling. StarCraft II skirted around this requirement by allowing you to login as a guest when offline, which is an ok solution but a far cry from what it used to be. As it turns out Diablo III won’t even be offering any kind of offline play at all, requiring players to be constantly connected to the Internet:
Executive vice president of game design Rob Pardo notes that the wealth of improvements and features Diablo 3 brings to Battle.net necessitate the always-online requirement. Specific additions that he refers to include:
While Pardo recognizes that people sometimes want or need to play offline (such as internet outages, or playing on a laptop during an airplane flight), he notes that the increased security, plus benefits like the above, outweigh those other concerns. “I want to play Diablo 3 on my laptop in a plane, but, well, there are other games to play for times like that.”
Now this isn’t the first time a game developer has implemented an always online DRM system. Ubisoft implemented such a system with Assassin’s Creed II and the results weren’t pretty, with the game instantly booting you out the second it couldn’t communicate with Ubisoft’s DRM servers. This meant that issues on either the customer’s or Ubisoft’s end could trigger a swift boot out, losing all your progress since the last auto-save point (which could be quite a bit of game time). Initially Ubisoft had planned to roll this out to all their games but has since taken a more lax approach with the only other title to receive such restrictive DRM being Driver: San Francisco.
Blizzard, for what it’s worth, has to put this kind of DRM into the game should they wish to implement features like the real money auction house. Honestly though I thought they had this problem all sorted with the Open/Closed Battle.net system¹ they had in Diablo 2 which worked quite well. The same system could have been integrated into Diablo 3 without too much hassle, making sure that the real money auction house wasn’t a hotbed for exploiters. Sadly this seems to be a trend for many larger game publishers and there are no signs of them changing their behaviour any time soon.
As someone who’s lived with patchy Internet for many years I can attest to how irritating it can be if a game drops you out the second you lose your connection. I understand why it happens in online game modes but for a game that will (hopefully) have a great single player as its predecessors did my Internet connection shouldn’t have to matter at all. I gladly made the trade off back in Diablo 2 to play on the Open Battle.net because my connection was tenuous at the best of times and I’d gladly do the same with Diablo III should I be given the option (and find myself without Internet). Blizzard seems committed to this always online idea however, so I’m not hopeful that it will change.
Now usually I’d just vote with my wallet in this case, either buying another version of the game that didn’t require an Internet connection (like a console version) or just abstaining from it altogether. Problem here is that I don’t want to miss this release from Blizzard yet I don’t want to encourage them to continue down this restrictive DRM path. In the end I’ll probably end up buying it anyway but I’m not going to be as happy with it as I would’ve been otherwise.
DRM only hurts your honest customers and whilst I’m sure that Blizzard won’t suffer because of the DRM in Diablo III it’s definitely not doing them any favours. It’s worse than Ubisoft’s case as Blizzard has managed to work around these problems before, as recently as their latest release. It won’t take the crackers long to get passed it either thereby negating a good chunk of the benefits that Blizzard is spruiking. Hopefully they’ll provide some sort of compromise like that did for StarCraft II, but with the release date coming up fast I wouldn’t be holding your breath for it.
¹For the uninitiated the “open” Battle.net let you use characters that had been created offline. It was very well known that these characters could be hacked, items duplicated and game mechanics exploited when not tethered to Blizzard’s servers. The closed Battle.net kept all characters on their servers, ensuring that hacked items and characters wouldn’t be persistent in the game.