Relative Diablo 3, A Review from a Former Diablo 2 Addict
I'm not sure that I really want to admit this, but I played way too much Diablo 2. Maybe not the normal kind of too much Diablo 2 either--hundreds of hours, mat/pat every class, major class guide writing, MF javazon /players 8 pindleskin stat running type of too much Diablo 2. One day, I literally stopped playing, pulled out the disk, put it away, and never put it back in, completely tired of the formula. I have followed basically no coverage of Diablo 3 since it was announced.
So it was with some trepidation and a completely lack of expectation that I started the client download for D3, and it turns out that, to my great surprise and pleasure, Diablo 3 is a modern game. I was prepared to gnash my teeth for awhile in that tasteless, demonic, over-chewed gum or choke down the dry, overcooked chicken and clickfest sandwich, but the experience has been happily fresh and fun.
Diablo 3 also stands as a good example of a franchise updated to further differentiate reasonable difficulty and effort from tedium. Now, I understand that I say this only a few days in, and I'm only a bit through Nightmare, a far cry from the authority with which I could speak on Diablo 2, but having run through the campaign on one character and tinkered about with the other classes, there are a number of decisions that stand out as progressive and fun for everyone beyond whatever the end game proves to provide.
I'll start talking about the systems.
First, the character building system is incredibly improved over the first. Taking what were originally permanent decisions in terms of your spec and character attributes and turning them into an auto level-up and a loadout that can be changed at any point in time is a master stroke of playability.
Say what you wish about player agency in character building and the value of permanent decisions, but the tinkering that was involved in advanced D2 play was involved around min/maxing a relatively small set of fixed skills from the second you created a character. Instead of feeling anxiety pains whenever you see new patch notes arrive, you can be confident that you're not going to be building an unoptimized character. Divorcing metagame spec decisions from repeated testing grinds opens up experimentation and diversity for all players.
I seriously commend the devs (with a gentle cuff afterwards for the lack of anything to inform you of elective mode after you finish normal) for this system. I'm sure that I have changed my spec at least every level to feel it out. And going from absolutely no flexibility to getting people to explore different portions of the toolkit is a major win. That's an entirely different version of success from D2, where, unless you're some kind of Diablo savant, your first character would fail, period, at high levels because of your poor decisions that seemed really cool at the time, sort of like that jumping dolphin tattoo. Poor Joan and her lack of sleep.
Further, the relative transparency of the combat systems is greatly improved at first blush. Calculations exposed in tooltips based on weapon damage are an awesome start, and the ease with which effects can be viewed and calculated or at least intuited from the character sheet is a tremendous improvement. Anything that causes the end of frame-related breakpoint IAS calculations is good news to me, and remember finisher kick damage calculations? Whirlwind hit calcs? Yuck.
Somehow, though my pre-D3 apathy, the news that they had cut the beta version of charms filtered into my consciousness, and I breathed a sigh of relief for whomever would end up playing this game. Along with that wonderful piece of inventory management news, there are a litany of little changes that they've made to make the game so much less tedious to play. No town portal scrolls/tomes or identification of magics, easy self-identification of rares with a right-click. I got that rare little giddy feeling of overpoweredness like I was able to do something completely broken when I saw the Town Portal button. I kid you not. Also, shared gold, shared stash, shared upgrades, walk over gold to pick it up, etc...
Speaking of, the crafting systems seem promising and interesting, but is something that I can't really speak on until far later. No more inventory jockeying to get the gems into the Horadric cube with those damn +skills charms packing the space. Yessssss.
Another small change that, at low levels, already affects the tactical play is the use of health globes. Instead of brute forcing through stacks of potions, you're now a bit more likely to have to retreat and really use your entire toolbox to make sure that you're not just going to eat it. It's a little less indestructible-feeling, but it's a really interesting change. Watching some of the Method inferno clears really shows this--the health globes combined with the party rez option cause a pretty neat set of small changes that will greatly change high-end play.
But how about the story?
Wait, Diablo has a story? It does. It always has, but this time, it's for reals, and it's deeply infused through the whole thing. But the story is not only good for what it says, it's also good for how it's acted and how it breaks up the action.
I really like the character voice acting. The characters all seem unique with clearly different motivations, and I really love the character portraits. I know that seems like a tiny thing, but the care with which those portraits appropriately convey the spirit that's read into the characters' lines is astonishing to me. The quality of the metric ton of spoken dialogue extends to the bestiary. It's nothing new in terms of idea, but some strong creative work has always gone into D3's monster descriptions, and surfacing that along with more flavorful lore to be ingested by more of the gaming populace to enjoy is a great decision.
All in all, the world really just seems richer this time around. The event set pieces fit into dungeons well, and seem, by and large, well-constructed, providing a slightly different tactical challenge. Along with this, the story winds you through more and different environments more quickly than did the past Diablo games. There were very few times where I felt the same slog through the same areas, and I feel like I'm primed to be very sensitive to that particular fault as I have seriously disliked Diablo clones that I've picked up since that original fated day for that very reason.
Real Money Stuff
The proof is in the pudding, but I commend Blizzard for making the decision to both make obscene amounts of money and completely cut out the dangerous black market that existed for D2 items and gold. Assuming that gold sinks appropriately cut the money supply to avoid insane inflation and that the RMAH ends up being safe and effective, putting a really unfortunate set of dodgy systems to bed with official infrastructure is great, even if the protection systems have potentially been the cause of some server capacity blips in the immediate early-going, which, for the record, I think are excusable for a launch of this magnitude.
Fun! New and Old!
From my apathy-related media blackout, the biggest surprise I received when firing up this game was in a little package of physics. Tearing through enemies and watching their exploding corpses careen away from my cluster arrow brings a smile to my face, and I giggle with glee every time that my Barb launches an enemy, skyrim-giant style, with her Hammer of the Ancients, and this time, the crits flash an actual number! Running fallen angels into an exploding hell-mine is still sweet, and you still get the same rush kiting three boss packs around the only two rooms that you've cleared so far on this floor.
The soul of Diablo is fully invested in Diablo 3, and the fat has been cut. I'll never be able to play this game like I played Diablo 2, probably to the benefit of my health and personal well-being, but it's more than a worthy successor, and I can't help but glow about it.