Diablo 3 is less of what D2 was, and more of what it wasn't.
It's been twelve years since Diablo 2's release. The innumerable success of Diablo 2 meant that demand would soon follow for a third game in the series. Naturally, expectations were high, and Blizzard had all this time to craft and deliver a game that would not only meet those expectations, but exceed them on all cylinders in today's gaming climate. Diablo 3, in a sense, can be regarded as a successful failure. Following a horrendous launch, the game managed to sell nearly three million copies. But huge profit margins don't necessarily mean the people who invested in the game actually enjoyed it. That said, as someone who spent a great deal of time on Diablo 3 since its launch, I was left underwhelmed. It's not a bad game by any stretch, but its lofty ambitions do little to mask the glaring problems and disappointments that plague as much the framework itself as the demonic hordes running loose in the world of Sanctuary.
The story transpires two decades after Diablo 2's expansion set "Lord of Destruction". Although Diablo's been defeated for the second time and his brother Baal soundly reduced to cropdust, a major event that occurred in the LoD expansion resulted in the destruction of Mount Arreat, and Sanctuary has not been the same since. In fact, things aren't any better than they were when Diablo terrorized the land. Evil lingers, far worse than ever before, and there are rumors of two remaining Demon Lords---Azmodan, the Lord of Sin and Belial, the Lord of Lies---who are both plotting against one another to seize the Black Soulstone and determine which of them will become a Prime Evil. And when a meteor falls from the heavens and slams into the infamous monastery in the ruins of Tristram, it becomes increasingly clear to a wary populace that the End of Days draws ever closer. Or so it seems. Five adventurers from various origins have come to the town of New Tristram to investigate the meteor and confront the mysterious destiny that links all of them together, so that they may defeat Azmodan and Belial and, ultimately, bring to bear Sanctuary's salvation.
Diablo 3 places a deeper emphasis on story development and Diablo world lore, introducing several new characters including Leah (the adopted niece of Deckard Cain) and returning favorites Deckard Cain and the Archangel of Justice, Tyrael, in mortal form. In addition, you will confront new enemies such as Azmodan, a brilliant strategist who openly reveals his battle plans and dooms himself to his own stupidity, and Belial, a master of deceit, deception and bad breath. The storytelling is hit-and-miss; voiceovers are well delivered, the focus on the lore and history of the Diablo world is intriguing, but the spoken dialogue is particularly cheesy. To be fair, Diablo 2 kept its backstories, histories and lore accounts in their thick instruction manuals, so having it all come alive in Diablo 3 is a nice touch indeed.
Drawing the necessary sources from previous Diablo games, Diablo 3 retains much of the familiar aesthetics. You'll choose from five different classes -- including the Demon Hunter, an amplified version of Diablo 2's Amazon, who in spite of her weak physical frame can dish out both offensive long range attacks and defensive abilities. The Barbarian returns from Diablo 3 and is more of a tank than he ever was, and the Wizard is basically another amplified Diablo 2 class (the Sorceress) with a wide array of destructive magic spells. The Witch Doctor relies heavily on curses and poisons to aggravate mobs in addition to minions that do his dirty work. And the Monk emphasizes pure melee strikes and accumulation of Spirit to fuel powerful attacks immediately with little to no cooldown periods. Each class is unique in and of themselves with various statistic builds, abilities and perks. The absence of familiar Diablo 2 characters like the Necromancer, the Druid and the Assassin is indeed disappointing, but the new classes do make up for it in some way, holding their own in both combat and in overall appeal. You also have the aid of NPCs, known as Followers, that will aid you in combat during single-player sessions -- ranging from a mouthy Templar, a snarky Scoundrel and a demure Enchantress. Like the Hirelings of Diablo 2, they can be fashioned with items to aid in their own survivability and effectiveness in combat, and even possess unique abilities like healing, buffs and attacks. Oftentimes, Followers are as dumb as a doornail and usually act as fodder when things get heated, but for the most part, they come through in a pinch and become a necessary component in your travels.
Throughout the game's four Acts, you'll explore an isometric 3D world filled with dungeons, blood-stained fields, caverns and fortresses, killing monsters and gathering loot like a hyperactive kid hoarding candy from a burst Pinata. All of it can be quite fun--whether alone or with some buddies in tow--and it's always a joy to watch your foes get tossed around and mangled like hapless rag dolls whenever you destroy them. The graphics are quite remarkable and the music is pretty good, but they both compromise the brooding, uncertain atmosphere of past games by making it all look as if it were borrowed from World of Warcraft. Per usual, you'll gain access to higher difficulty modes---including an all-new, incredibly difficult Inferno mode---and the much-maligned Hardcore game option where you will permanently lose your character if you die. Most everything you remember from Diablo and Diablo 2 have, more or less, made the transition here in Diablo 3, heralding many of the familiar staples that contributed to the success of the franchise.
Diablo 2 achieved the rare task of balancing solid gameplay and variable difficulty that wasn't stupidly easy yet wasn't stupidly cheap and frustrating. Yet, Diablo 3 seems to have trouble with the scales. It doesn't know when to take it easy on you or when to hit you with everything it's got. For one, stat growth and skill progression are automatically determined with each level you gain for your character, removing any real sense of customization that Diablo 2 offered. Although you are able to change your skills and abilities at will once you've learned them, you must deal with cooldowns every so often and that quickly gets irritating. Furthermore, finding gear in Diablo 3 becomes a mind-boggling affair. You often run into items that do not belong to your particular class, are logically non-sensical (i.e. a Barbarian plate with Intellect?) or are restricted by level rather than the necessities, forcing you to sell what you do not need at a vendor for a pathetic sell rate that would make a beggar chuckle. This tends to happen more often than it should. Alternatively, there is a crafting option available where you may create your own armor, gems and weapons, but the items you build in the forge are utterly useless to your cause, and the whole damned thing isn't worth the trouble or the investment.
The always-online DRM portion of Diablo 3, where an internet connection and Battlenet account are required to play, has become a source of great disdain for good reason. Although Blizzard insists the move is to discourage piracy, cheating and opportunistic gold sellers, their intentions are a double-edged Bastard Sword. As with any online game, servers are far from perfect, and when it mucks up on a bad day, both the multiplayer AND the single-player portions are adversely affected. Disrupting a multiplayer session is fairly common, but I don't know of anybody that wants to have their single player experience cut by "server maintenance" -- it just doesn't make any sense. And should you desire to play with others, finding game sessions through Battlenet can also be frustrating. The lack of lobbies and viable search options shoehorns the player into completely random multiplayer sessions that quickly become a game of Russian Roulette; you have absolutely no idea who you'll be playing with. Conversely, unless you have your "open invite" feature turned off, expect unwanted guests cropping up in your session whether you want them to be there or not. It's all pretty confusing and perplexing, and is easily solved if you put potential friends in your Battlenet queue---at least you'll know who they are and when they're logged on. Making matters worse, multiplayer sessions only allow four people at a time, severely limiting its appeal and accessibility.
Another point of contention is the newly-added Auction House, a place where players can post the loot they find to turn a profit or easily find the gear they need for the challenges ahead. This is fine for people who don't want to waste time playing through difficult acts to find the gear they know they might never find as they can simply use a search engine, pay the gold, and move on with life. In particular, there is an option where you can use real money to sell and purchase digital items; the so-called "pay-to-win" approach that's also used in Magic the Gathering Online (buying digital cards with real money) Decent profits, sans Blizzard taking 10%, can be made if you play your cards right, but success depends wholly on your knowledge of the in-game market when weighed with the scope of demand. And when you decide to use cash to buy digital items, you do so at your own risk. To me, when compared to Diablo 2, the Auction House is a money-bleeding cop-out that can become costly to a desperate consumer looking for a way to barely survive Inferno mode---all while Blizzard nabs a percentage of every item sold. As such, the thrill of finding legendary gear in the field and the fervent joy of adventuring have been marginalized by trivial convenience and corporate profiteering. That said, Diablo 3's game design, particularly Inferno mode, seems deliberate in facilitating the use of the Auction House, where all it takes is a credit card to nab that legendary piece of equipment as opposed to investing your gaming skills. Adding insult to injury, there's no end-game content other than replaying the whole thing all over again in higher difficulty modes, and PvP has even yet to be announced -- despite the fact that PvP already exists in Diablo 2 and was one of its greater highlights.
A recent patch to the game introduced the Paragon Level system, which takes effect the moment your character reaches the level cap of 60---thus indirectly "raising" the cap itself by 100 additional levels. This was done to bring Diablo 3's leveling system closer to that of Diablo 2's and encourage the replay factor in its rudimentary form. Unfortunately, Paragon leveling only serves to force players to log in more hours of tedious grinding of the same old Acts, the same old mobs and the same old Dungeons-- with paltry, meager rewards to show for it. Paragon experience accumulates very slowly in the initial outset, even when you're fighting for your life in Inferno level, and grows even slower as you rise up in Paragon levels. The higher level you have, the supposedly greater drops you get from elite mobs and the stronger you get (provided you have the gear). Even your character portrait evolves (the outer frame, at least) for every 10 levels you gain. But the effects of Paragon leveling aren't noticeably apparent in the beginning and, with a 100 levels to conquer, that is discouraging. Given the complaints leveled by gamers about crummy drops from elite mobs and even crummier drops from end-level bosses in Inferno level, Paragon leveling becomes a tedious chore in and of itself, nearly bordering along the line of being an utter waste of time and effort.
Diablo 2 was designed purely for hardcore gamers, and the franchise itself is inundated on that reputation. Its complex system, brooding atmosphere and masochistic nature may have scared off some, but for others, it was a welcome opportunity to challenge the seemingly impossible, draw on their decision-making skills in developing characters, learn from their mistakes, and gain a sense of real accomplishment. Diablo 3, however, is more concerned with drawing in a broader audience of people who have either never touched Diablo 2 in their lives or have been enamored with other dungeon crawlers like Torchlight and DotA. While that may be all well and good for non-fans and newcomers, it compromises what made the Diablo games so memorable among the faithful and removes its own unique distinction. As such, Diablo 3 becomes an empty snail's shell of a casual color-- no different from every other dungeon crawler on the market today -- and ends up a blight on its storied legacy.