So this isn’t an easy review to write! Diablo 3 was one of the most eagerly awaited games of all time and when it finally arrived, it was met with excitement, anger, disappointment, joy, bewilderment, mirth and mockery and a hundred other emotions and opinions all at once. Depending on who you ask its either the worst launch of all time or a relatively smooth birth with a few minor blips that were to be expected. Is it the ultimate version of Diablo, leveraging everything good about MMORPG’s and modern games into the framework of what was already a brilliant game, or is it a cynical, money grabbing bastardisation of the once great franchise that eradicates all that was pure and good about Diablo? Is it the ultimate fan service, or ultimate fan betrayal? Are Blizzard a company doing what they do best and making a huge mark on the games industry, or are they panicking due to lost revenue and losing touch with the gamers who have supported them for so long? Finally and most importantly, is Diablo 3 any good? Can a review answer all of these questions, or even any of them?
Well lets try.
Lets address Mr Humple-dump, the room elephant first though. My experience of the Diablo 3 launch was…. painful. As I reported here I experienced every one of the issues that has plagued Diablo 3 since launch (except one: I wasn’t one of the people who’s account was hacked). Still, every other issue from the dreaded error 37 to server lag and disappearing inventory items have plagued me throughout Diablo 3’s troubled launch. I’ve been kicked to desktop and even had my machine blue screen, which I didn’t think was possible these days. Its fair to say that some of these issues may not have even been Diablo’s fault, but if ever there was a reviewer who experienced every aspect of the games technical issues, its me.
Its easy for those who found the games launch to be smooth and trouble free to minimise the scope of Blizzards failure throughout this period. For many these issues simply didn’t exist. For me though, I was unable to play the game for the first two days of launch. Following that, I was still subject to randomly being dropped out of a game with no explanation. Many may say to me, “What did you expect? No games like this are launched without issue”. To them my response has and will always be the same: this game should have had a reduced functionality offline mode, like Starcraft 2’s. It was merely Blizzards desperate desire to foist the real money auction house in order to prop up WOW’s failing subscriber numbers and their fear of losing any revenue to pirates that brought about Diablo 3’s always-online approach. In much the same way as Apple can be criticized for exerting too much control on how people use their devices, so too has Blizzard become greedy, arrogant and prescriptive in telling gamers exactly how they should play a game they have paid for. No mods, no playing without an internet connection and a play experience dependant on the whims of those running the servers is too high a price for the small returns given to gamers. Its undoubtedly a good business move by Blizzard as the auction house guarantees revenue for them with almost no overheads or work involved, but if gamers continue to bite down on big shit sandwiches like this then things are only going to get worse.
So with the rant out the way, how does Diablo 3 hold up as a game? Well on the whole quite well. From the opening animations to the character creation screen the experience is slick. In fact, slick is an insufficient phrase to use here. The whole thing is heavily designed; over designed maybe. The art and cut scenes look gorgeous, but there’s an over-production to them. From the intro to the game itself, there’s a real lack of personality evident throughout.
That being said, Diablo 3 is nothing if not immediate. There’s no gentle build up or scene setting or lengthy tutorial, you just start killing things and you never stop. The opening moments of the game leave you in no doubt what Diablo has and always will be about: clicking on things till they die. In this respect the game couldn’t really start any better. While some similar games struggle with clumsy exposition or badly designed tutorials, Blizzard simply open the game up to you and slowly layer on features in such a well judged manner you will barely notice them. From basic combat to allocating skills, purchasing equipment, crafting gems or trading items with friends, everything is so well implemented you almost don’t need instructions. All the years of refining and simplifying something as complex as WOW has made Blizzard a master of user interfaces and user-experience focused design. In fact in some ways Diablo 3 resembles a pared back WOW, stripping away the open world aspect but leaving many of the other cosmetic trappings of an MMO in place.
Despite this Diablo 3 is not an MMO. You won’t be joining large teams of human players, exploring and traversing a huge open world or engaging your friends in arena combat. Rather Diablo 3 will see you fight wave after after wave of enemies, build and customise your own character and trade weapons and equipment looking for that elusive perfect build that will let you take on the higher difficulty levels.
You have five characters to choose from at the beginning of the game. No doubt more will come in expansion packs in the future, but for the moment the five characters (which all come in male and female varieties) offer pleasingly different playing styles. Character customisation is limited though. With different audio recorded for each of the ten possible combinations, playing as each of the classes feels distinct enough to make you want to try them all out. This is something I strongly encourage. I should have experimented more early on. Settling on a female Monk, I quickly found her Russian voice actor to be unfathomably dull. All of the characters lack personality, but some choices are much worse than others. I also wrongly assumed that as I progressed through the game I would have a lot of say in how my characters appearance, but in truth loot has little visual impact on your character with most players of the same class looking basically the same.
The gameplay for each of the characters can be far more satisfying for some than others too. I started to feel the pangs of class envy early on in the game when I teamed up with a Wizard. While my flaming kicks and whirlwind punches lacked visual impact, my low level wizard friend was creating pyrotechnics I could only gasp at in humble awe. My second character was a wizard and I must confess, remains far more engaging to play even though my Monk is so far ahead in levels. My wizard also plays in the hardcore mode which introduces perma-death and is the only way to make the low difficulty levels interesting, but more on the games lack of challenge later.
Clever gameplay mechanics exist for most of the classes. Although it becomes redundant later in the game, the Barbarian’s leap move where he jumps into the middle of a group of enemies both looks and feels great. When the wizard shoots out a directional spell too, aiming it with your mouse (or even just spinning around) feels incredibly engaging. It wasn’t until the later levels with my little Monk that I began to unlock skills that were anywhere near as much fun, so make sure to try every class before settling on the one that suits you best.
While the story of the game is cod fantasy nonsense, the design of enemies and the visuals of the game are good throughout, but never great. Character design is a little bland for the major enemies as well as for the player characters, and there are no NPC’s that you will care about at all within the game. Its telling that the game doesn’t seem to be aiming for a particularly dramatic tone, while its light hearted its never charming or funny. While there was wit and humour in something like Torchlight, Diablo 3 feels like it has had all of the humour designed out of the final product. WOW is famous for some great, irreverent quest lines, but most of the dialogue and story elements in Diablo 3 feel like place holder text. This wouldn’t be so bad if there was a more dark or serious tone throughout, but it really is thoroughly generic stuff. In particular, if you were one of those people who followed the story from the previous games you will probably feel Blizzard’s ambivalence to narrative more strongly than the rest of us. Most people I have seen play the game quickly click past dialogue, and it feels like Blizzard was resigned to this from the start.
One pleasing aspect of the game is its scalability. I played on what is by no means a cutting edge PC and I never once felt like I was missing out on. The performance is silky smooth and the amount of effects the game throws around, particularly when the screen fills with enemies, is effortlessly impressive. While some areas do get extremely repetitive, there are set-piece moments when the game engine can really surprise you and some of the boss encounters take place in epic arenas that break up the monotony of the random dungeons.
The aforementioned random dungeons and constant combat combine with an extremely shallow difficulty curve to make Diablo 3 a strangely somnolent experience. Throughout the game the pacing is languid beyond belief. I often found myself playing in a gawping, drooling daze, half awake and half asleep. I don’t even mean this in a purely negative way. No game has ever lulled me into the same low state of brain activity while simultaneously managing to avoid being boring. Diablo 3 is perhaps the most perfect game I have ever experienced when it comes to keeping you playing. At least for the first twenty or so hours there simply seems like no reason to stop. Everything is so well laid out, the combat is so visually stimulating yet undemanding and the process of acquiring items and selling them is so soothing that you drift through the game like you are swimming inside a cloud. Its a curious state to be in, and is testament to the games meticulousness that no little annoyances or irritations ever disturb you. There’s a workmanship evident throughout the game that only exists in the most expensive and well produced games. Its like a perfectly crafted piece of wooden furniture made by a master workman; you can run your hands all over the smooth edges without ever getting a splinter.
Most of the issues you might experience come when you venture away from playing a simple single-player session. Joining another players campaign may seem like a good idea, but unless you are a similar level you will either be a burden on your frustrated friend or a Superman-like character that will need to protect them like they were a baby with an auto-immune disease. Worse, joining someone else’s campaign can eradicate much of your own progress. You might be able to skip ahead in the story by joining them, but the chances are that if you skip too far ahead you won’t be able to fight the enemies who will be too tough. Going back to an earlier part of the game, you will need to start at one of the pre-defined sections rather than simply resuming where you left off, possibly losing as much as an hours progress.
Even despite these issues, playing with a party is far more fun than playing alone. For some reason it seems to alleviate the soporophic state I mentioned above, perhaps because you have someone to chat to as you play. At times the games visual excesses can be hard to follow with one player though, so with several on the screen things can get a bit insane.
One commendation I have heard the game receive over and over is the ease with which another player can join in your game. In some instances this has been used to argue that Diablo 3 is in fact an MMO. To me this is nonsense. I’ve played uncounted numbers of PC and console games where players could drop in and out just as easily as in Diablo 3. I would argue that even joining a game in Diablo 2 through typing in an IP address is less troublesome than logging into Blizzards server to join a friend in Diablo 3. I’ve heard it used as one of the main selling points of the game, but to me it functions no better or worse than Steam or any number of others systems. When Blizzard redefines base functionality we have all come to expect in modern titles as some kind of revolutionary feature that justifies their always online servers you can’t help but feel like the Emperor’s feeling a cold summer breeze on his naked body.
Trading items between your friends has been highlighted as a revolutionary feature but in truth this seldom helps anyone. If you give items to players who are much lower level than you then they won’t be able to use them because of the level cap. Also, far more useful equipment is available in the auction house. Through a simple search I was able to buy equipment that I had no rights owning. Over time the market will find some kind of equilibrium, but at the moment insanely powerful items make crafting items, buying things from merchants or trading with friends completely redundant. Still, there’s a certain thrill to finding bargains and trying to sell your own left over nicknack’s and the auction house interface is basic but easy to use.
You will very quickly have a truly insane number of these nicknacks to sell too. Diablo 3 throws jeweled trinkets at you like a footballer trying to woo a page 3 model. After a while I only picked up blue items or better, and I strongly recommend doing the same to save yourself time and inventory space. As you progress there comes a point where opening chest or smashing weapon racks is completely pointless as they are littered with useless tat. If Diablo 3 was the antiques roadshow, there would be only one happy pensioner with an antique vase in every four hundred thousand.
Perhaps the best way to critique Diablo 3’s minute to minute gameplay is to mention how I play the game right now. Thoroughly bored by the enemies I face, I have acquired a unique set of skills (like Liam Neeson) and I use them to move through the game as quickly as I can. I use a combination of a whirlwind style power and a spin move that pulls enemies towards me in combination with a mantra that recovers my health as I spend spirit. I run through a whole dungeon until so many enemies are onscreen that my computer begins to overheat. I can do this because my character heals faster than anyone can hurt him. Once there are an unmanageable number of enemies around me, I activate my power and suck them all in towards me. My whirlwind power then shreds them like newspaper. Using this technique in combination with my spinny kick thing, I can kill 45 enemies with one attack. This may initially sound fun (and it was at first), but it has quickly become dull beyond belief. I have now been doing this for the last two hours of the game, waiting for the moment when enemies become too powerful for it to work. This has not yet happened, and as a result I am basically running through the game letting enemies dies as I brush past them. Worst of all, when I face enemies with obvious animation patterns that require me to dodge and move (and you know, think) I don’t need to. Even the biggest guys can’t do enough damage to hurt me so I sit in one spot and pound away as they scratch pathetically at me, scraping away a tiny sliver of my recharging health. Ridiculous.
Two criticisms will be levelled at me right now. One is, “If you don’t want to be so over powered then why don’t you use poorer equipment”. The second is, “the real game doesn’t start till Inferno and Hell mode”. My response to both would be that I want to finish the game as quick as possible so that I can unlock the higher difficulties. I am sure that as the difficulty level goes up the game becomes more engaging, but by then I will have seen all that the game has to offer. Having waded through 20 hours of painfully easy combat does not make me want to play the whole thing over again. To force you to play like this from the start is a major turn off, its very difficult to recommend a game that only comes into its own after twenty hours of gameplay.
Perhaps this all sounds hugely negative, and in truth my experience has been more positive than it sounds. While Act 2 of the game had some of the dullest environments and dungeons and least involving story moments, everything after that picks up the pace and is far more fun. While loot is far more involving than it should be the character and skill system is peerless. The variety in this system comes from the fact that each skill can be customised with runes which completely change their effects. Do you want your spin kick to set enemies on fire, or to fire off a whirlwind? Either choice will look great in game and be effective. This system seems to be where Blizzard has put the most thought (other than how to commodify virtual items for real money). David Sirlin describes the genius of this system far better than me so check this out.
Its great when a massive game comes along and all your friends play together. You can all talk about it and play together and have a shared experience. When the game comes with a strong community focus like in Diablo 3, this experience gets even better. The sad thing for me though is that the underlying game that Blizzard has crafted has not been prioritised as highly as everything that surrounds it. When financial concerns override creative ones then the result is you create something that is content and not art. With a focus on an auction house no one wants, a scant, lowest common denominator storyline and a difficulty curve that keeps you in a coma-like state, Diablo 3 could have been so much more. Its a good game, and definitely worth trying, but it has been engineered to keep you playing for as long as possible, not to entertain you. When I had finished with Diablo 3 I started playing something else and I had the strangest feeling. “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel weird”?”. Then I realised what was happening. I was starting to think. My brain was coming back online. Games can challenge us, they can engage and excite us. Diablo 3 is gaming carbs; it fills you up and keeps you satisfied, but that’s all.
When Medal of Honour was the biggest FPS on the market, a small number of the original team left to create a little known game. It was called Call of Duty. When DOTA was the biggest thing in online gaming, a team of the original developers left to create a little known game. It was called League of Legends. The Diablo 1 and 2 guys are working on Torchlight 2 right now. I’m just saying…..
7 spinning kicks of death out of 10