Review: Diablo III
Twelve years is an awfully long wait for a game, but hardcore PC gamers will tell you there’s no substitute for the feeling that the Diablo franchise provides. The cycle by which Blizzard Entertainment’s loot-based series operates is so concentrated, so irrevocable, that even over a decade later, fans of Diablo II have yet to find an adequate replacement. Enter, Diablo III, the much-anticipated sequel to one of the greatest games of all time. No pressure. Unless, of course, you happened to be an engineer at Blizzard, then I have to imagine those first 48 hours were just a tad bit scary. A combination of server issues and “always online” digital rights management (DRM) led to the now-infamous “error 37” meme. That’s a debate for another day, but rest assured, the Diablo III servers are now functioning. But what about the game itself? A 12-year development period and a thoroughbred pedigree make for some mighty-big shoes to fill. Does Diablo’s signature loot-lust live on in the latest entry, or has this decades-old formula worn out its welcome?
If you were expecting the latter, you might need some coffee and a cold shower. This is Diablo we’re talking about, the proverbial Babe Ruth of PC gaming. This is the franchise that struck gold with its endless cycle of leveling and loot. Once you get on that virtual treadmill, there’s damn-near nothing that comes close to that perpetual feeling of ambition and satisfaction that it provides. Diablo III does a phenomenal job of making every level, every piece of colored loot feel like a momentous occasion - until the next one, of course.
As far as combat is concerned, Diablo III does a good job of connecting simple mouse clicks with the on-screen actions of your virtual dude or dudette. That’s no small feat for a game with an isometric perspective. There are five classes to choose from: Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Witch Doctor and Wizard, with Barbarian being the lone holdover from Diablo II. All classes are available in both sexes, a first for the series. Each class has several skills divided into different categories and tiers. Each of the skills has multiple Runes - passive buffs that alter skill effects - which add an extra layer of complexity. Character progression can be a bit tedious at first, but the combat really ramps up once you start unlocking more advanced abilities. The Demon Hunter’s combination of Caltrops, Entangling Shot and Grenades, for example, almost make you feel sorry for the legions of demons you mow down just out of arm’s reach.
Other than a slow start, Diablo III’s only real shortcoming is its checkpoint system. Multi-stage boss battles, in particular, suffer from the lackluster checkpointing Diablo implements (Yes, Lord Belial, I’m looking at you). However, these instances are infrequent enough that they don’t hinder gameplay, for the most part. In addition, Diablo III lacks any kind of option to manually save. Much like its predecessors, character progress in Diablo III is handled by a discreet autosave system. It’s not really a con, per se, but for a platform whose mantra is, “Save early, save often,” I would have liked some kind of option to save manually.
Being an “always online” game, Blizzard’s Battle.net handles all aspects of Diablo III. While it is an effective way to battle piracy, latency does occasionally rear its ugly head, even in single player. In addition, Diablo III features an auction house, where players can buy and sell loot for either cash or in-game currency. Blizzard does take a cut of all transactions, but the auction house should provide a safer setting for aspiring entrepreneurs and lazy loot lusters than, say, Ebay. It should be noted that Hardcore characters are confined to gold-based auctions, so don’t worry about accidentally laying down cold hard cash for permadeath character equipment.
If you have a buddy or three, you can take Diablo III even more online than it already was - if that’s even possible - for some cooperative action. Battle.net uses its own friend infastructure, so any chums you have on Starcraft II or World of Warcraft will already populate your Diablo friends list. This is where Blizzard’s “always online” structure works well. If you’re playing single player and want to get some friends in to help out, you can simply invite them, no sweat. For those looking to take on the world, you’ll be sorry to hear that competitive multiplayer isn’t included in the initial game. However, it will be made available for free later this year.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Diablo III’s story up to this point. That’s because narrative is completely irrelevant to your enjoyment of Diablo. Demons are bad and drop loot when they die, so you hit them with pointy stuff until they get sleepy. It’s not rocket science and it’s not the Iliad. If you’re looking for a sprawling universe and deep characterization, go pick up Mass Effect. Deckard Cain returns in all his raspy, old fogey glory, but that’s the extent to which you need concern yourself with Diablo III’s narrative.
Graphically, Diablo III isn’t exactly a stone-cold stunner, though it’s no lightweight either. While the game does boast a more realistic art style than something like Torchlight, it is a fairly accessible game from a hardware standpoint. Rather than push machines to their limit like most PC-focused titles, Diablo III uses beautiful lighting and its isometric perspective to get the most out of an otherwise so-so engine. The trade-off is that just about anyone with a modern gaming rig should have no trouble coaxing 60 fps out of Diablo III, even with graphical settings set to “high.” For more frugal gamers out there, Diablo III is entirely playable on most laptops and lower-end machines, albeit with a few graphical conceits.
On paper, games like Diablo III shouldn’t exist. Twelve years in development with gameplay mechanics that remain largely unchanged, controversial DRM and graphics that don’t exactly push PC hardware to the limit would completely sink a lot of other franchises (See Duke Nuke’em Forever). And that’s not even taking a complete launch day server overload into account. Yet, not only does Diablo III exist, but it thrives, thanks in large part to its core loot-and-level mechanic. However skeptical you may be going in, once you get a taste of Diablo III’s devilish mixture of satisfying combat and unparalleled character progression, you’ll soon find yourself chasing the carrot on the stick for hours on end and loving every minute of it.