Prelude: He sat waiting. Time had fallen through him as water trickles over the waterfall. How long had it been? Five years, ten years, twelve years? He could not remember. All that plagued his mind were memories. Memories of gold. Memories of monsters. Memories of loot. So much loot. Perhaps age had thawed the addiction somewhat, but something inside him still cried out for more. Yet, as he stared off into the Blizzard of time, nothing substantial arose. Rumours, tales and outright lies would often hurtle across the land, like mendacious wildfire, but still these were just rumours. Rumours would not sate the addiction. Then, one mysterious day, he lifted his weary head to stare into the penetrating light of his monitor to see a miracle. Instantly, without forethought or reason, he threw his card details at the screen; what is money in the face of deliverance? The day he had waited so long for had arrived. Downloading: Done. Installing: Done. Unnecessary of hassle of creating online IDs: Done. Login... A small box pops up, almost winking at him in gleeful mockery. Error 36. ERROR 36...
To begin this review, we are going to step aside from all the ‘quirks’ of the Diablo III login process, though the sting in the tail is sure to return later, and just reflect on the very fact that Diablo III is actually actual. Here are some things to ponder over from the year 2000, when Diablo II was released: groovy saxophonist Bill Clinton was still, just about, President; Osama Bin Laden was just a small thorn in the CIA’s side; Coldplay were playing in pubs, on the verge of meteoric fame; the idea of the London 2012 Olympics had not even been suggested to the government; Apple were yet to enter the mp3 player market; the human genome was only just being unravelled and Concorde still flew (though tragically). I guess the rather obtuse point being made here is that things change. Actually, a lot changes in twelve years. Which is why, when I finally got down to playing Diablo III, I got a small shock. In the frosted world of Blizzard, change is a word best left frozen under the ice.
It was predictable I suppose if you consider Blizzard’s other recent releases. Starcraft 2 simply restructured the foundations of its predecessor and World of Warcraft still lumbers along, like a unyielding ancient behemoth, refusing to evolve. Blizzard make incredibly addictive and successful games, and in today’s gaming landscape, where success is survival, changing a winning formula is suicide. And so it is, Diablo III is a lot like Diablo II. If you found yourself feverishly addicted to Diablo II, unable to escape its thrall, then you can assume the whole life destructive position once again. Yet, if you failed to grasp the initial premise of predecessors, then you will most likely not find anything here to drag you into the abyss. I guess I could sign out at this point, but that would most likely leave a whole host of people upset. Continue onwards for the deconstruction.
Diablo III is a hack and slash epic. A term formerly known as a 'Diablo clone' but, in the sixteen years since the original, similar games have risen in such number and stature that they demanded their own genre. Controlling your single character with the mouse you click on the ground to move and on enemies to attack, and then combining this with various skills assigned to number keys you slaughter your foes. Defeating opponents and completing quests fills your experience bar and as this overflows, like holy wine from the Grail, you are rewarded with further skills used to further smite your enemies. Throw in the constant enticing possibility of that perfect piece of loot being dropped and that familiar unadulterated addictive loop is formed.
It keeps you wrapped and trapped in an almost zen-like lock, a precise, unbreakable, grip of a true master. Everything is designed to keep you enticed, from the way the inventory floats unobtrusively on the screen, easily evoked and dispatched with a single keypress, to the way useless loot labels disappear as they hit the ground. From the way much of the scenery explodes in joyful resignation to your power, to the linear character progression that never stands in the way of continuing your quest. That being said, while it may streamline the experience, arguments could certainly be made that the levelling is almost too linear. Each level unlocks a new power, or rune that provides a boost to a skill, or a general boon for the character, but there is never an element of clinical or agonising decisiveness to it. Effectively for each of the five classes (Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Witch Doctor and Wizard) any player at the same level has access to an identical skill set and the only separating factor is their equipment. It is perhaps a degree of preference, and it ensures that a character can never be neutered by poor choices, but some players will mourn the loss of individuality and complexity when spending time weighing up the benefits of adding points to each of the traditional RPG attributes.
Thankfully the various classes all play quite differently, making for even more potential hours of intense gaming. The Barbarian and the Monk, while both primarily melee classes, have very distinct skill sets - the thick headed Barbarian relying on brute devastation and the Monk on speed and agility. Similarly the ranged Demon Hunter, Witch Doctor and Wizard are separated by wide ranging traits with the Witch Doctor summoning all manner of demonic creatures (bizarrely similar his enemies) and the Wizard unleashes raw arcane magic to extinguish foes. Each class also uses a unique form of power (usually referred to as a Mana bar in the hack and slash genre), and these powers are all filled in a different manner (the temptation for the awful pun there was agonising). The Barbarian for example gains rage through dishing out and taking damage, so must enter the foray before he can use his various skills, whereas the Wizard’s arcane spirit fills over time making for a more thoughtful approach. It may not be much, but this small form of originality adds a fair amount of much needed depth to the action.
Playing multiplayer has always been the beating heart of the hack and slash genre and Diablo III, with its always online servers, emphasises this to full capacity. Once a player has tracked down their friends on BattleNet a helpful icon keeps you informed of their online status. With one click it is enticingly easy to join, with no limitations on levels or progression. Monsters gain strength as more players join, ensuring that the gameplay remains interesting. The absolute feverish best action occurs when the maximum four players are fighting for survival, the screen filling with more vicious monsters baying for blood, and more impressive loot flying from their dispatched corpses. Still, if a gamer happens to lack BattleNet friends, the world of multiplayer is still open with public games that are joined with a single click from the opening menu.
The randomised dungeons from previous iterations also make a welcome return. It makes running through the same areas far more interesting as one can never be certain what lies around the next corner. Furthermore, since the game relies on you repeating the same quests, be it with a new class or on higher difficulties, it ensures that the sharp bladed action does not dull with the wear of replaying. The randomness does come at a small cost however as building block layouts can be repetitive and unpredictable to such an extent that exits can appear awkwardly close to entrances and corridors can branch off into pointless oblivion. It is thankfully nothing game breaking, and some may say it adds to the character of the game, but it does present as a rather odd feature to newcomers. This confusion comes to a head when after each new log-on the entire previously discovered map fades into darkness and the world flips its jigsaw puzzle pieces around awaiting rediscovery, a fact that is simply never explained.
Learning curves and difficulty spikes have notoriously been the bane of RPGs since their inception. Balancing progression of the character with the power of the surrounding foes is a very precise mechanic and almost without exception the games suffer from tedious lulls and then abrupt frenetic moments which all too often result in death. Diablo III takes a very long time to get going. Even the most novice of players will cruise along the smooth flat road, virtually unchallenged, for the first five to ten hours (a length of time that could be used to complete many other games) and it is not until the second act that events become even slightly taxing. Since the original difficulty level is set in stone there is little one can do but venture onwards. It is understandable, as with previous releases, Diablo III is meant to be played for eighty rather than eight hours. On this grand scale a puny five hour session is a mere flurry, and if the difficulty spiked too early then there would be no room for the other insane difficulty levels. And insane they are. There are three steps of difficulty (Nightmare, Hell and Inferno) to unlock and complete, and on the hardest even the initial zombies are vicious death mongering adversaries. One must have the perfect skill set and equipment to even survive, let alone conquer. A mention also needs to be given to the Hardcore mode which effectively strips your character of their immortality. The usual risk free loss of life is replaced with irreversible death, leaving you sobbing for a hero whom you may have invested many hours creating. It is an interesting addition and certainly adds to the intensity and fear of battles. There is one huge problem here however: one foolish click, a dying mouse, or worse, a moment of lag out can punish you so severely it may diminish your desire to ever start again.
There is a plot in Diablo III, much as there was in its predecessors. It is something to do with Fallen Angels, Prime Evils and the end of the world, but in all honesty I would struggle to extrapolate any further than that. While there are some exceptional CGI cutscenes displaying fantastic epic battles, they end up seeming slightly out of place compared to the in game narration. In much the same way as the character progression, all character conversations are linearly constructed, with no choice in response. The voice acting is pleasant enough, but with barely animated models supposedly in terror over the coming apocalypse, the resultant dialogue is instantly forgettable if not entirely skippable. Many would argue that any intricate plot devices would get in the way of the action, but in a world where games can create emotional hurricanes just as powerful as other art forms, Diablo III ends up seeming like a ancient relative refusing to accept the changing world around him.
Gushes of praises will not be sung about the presentation either. At best one can call it functional. Recent hack and slashers such as Dungeon Siege 3 or even Sacred 2 are at least as impressive. The user interface is generic for the genre, even if it is a genre and format that was defined by its direct ancestors. Most of the smaller monsters merge into very similar models and while the larger ones do instill a small sense of awe, they still lack the vicious punch that should be flung when diabolical monsters career towards you. The scenery as well sometimes breaks away into impressive vistas that are a joy to observe, but often the background becomes a murky blur of whatever area you are travelling within (be it forests, cities or dungeons). Perhaps the strangest part of the move to 3D is that it has barely any function. The camera remains at that familiar fixed isometric angle with absolutely no user control, narcissists cannot zoom down to view the sheen of their new shining armour and tacticians cannot swing around to get a better angle on the battle. Admittedly the engine ensures that no visuals are ever missed by hiding any scenery elements that get in the player’s way, but it has to be asked why Blizzard have gone to the lengths of creating a 3D engine and then strapped everyone to the same fixed floating camera? Still, one bonus of the less than demanding graphics is that it can run reasonably on lower end specification machines and laptops, meaning an avid player can take their addiction with them wherever they travel (assuming they have that all important internet connection...)
...assuming they have that all important internet connection... so far this review has been based on simple given assumptions, such as being able to play the game in the first place. Time to face up to the Portuguese Man-O-War sized sting in the tail. First the facts. Diablo III, despite being essentially a single player game with multiplayer elements, requires a constant internet connection to BattleNet to play. Without an internet connection you cannot play the game, furthermore losing a connection during a game results in being thrown out, with the potential to have lost gold, equipment and experience gathered in the moments before being kicked. While Blizzard claim that it is not a case of DRM, but to ensure that the game is played fairly with no modified equipment being sold nefariously in the auction house (at present only in-game money, though real money purchases are promised soon). However it certainly works exceptionally well as DRM. One imagines pirating a game where all information, including profiles and saves, are saved on a centralised server is a much more laborious task. In of itself the DRM is not a huge issue, indeed anything that disrupts piracy and boosts the gaming economy should be encouraged, the issue here is when such restrictive DRM punishes the genuine gamer. And Blizzard have punished gamers so severely that it is hard not to picture us as puny imps being slaughtered under a mighty corporate sword.
My personal experience has been just as harrowing as the swarms of angry voices that infest the forums of the web. In two weeks of trying to play the game more than half my log-on attempts failed, usually resulting in frustrating error messages about the servers being busy or down for maintenance. It even occurred on my very first load, which leaves a rather confused bitter taste behind. For a game as high profile as this, these failures are simply unacceptable. Often the solution is to switch to a different server (there are three: Americas, Europe and Asia), but this results in often uncontrollable lag as well as frustrating dissatisfaction of having characters and friend lists split across worlds, with no means of interaction at all. Other completely bizarre occurrences worth mentioning are the fact that despite every boxed copy being bundled with two trial licences for you to entice your friends with, these trial licences can not play with anyone who owns the full game. The result is a completely illogical discussion explaining how ‘good’ the game can be played as a team, but being unable to demonstrate it. More than anything that irrational statement sums up how completely Blizzard have failed with the server side aspect of the game.
All in all, this reads like a rather sorrowful tale. A game with as much heritage and pedigree as Diablo III should have been jostling for game of the year, but instead it languishes under piles of uninspired choices and horrendous server issues. Yet, despite all of this, something keeps drawing me back. There is a reason for this: Blizzard, in stripping back everything that stands in the way of pure gameplay, have created the perfect distilled essence of addictive action. Diablo III is unquestionably the most refined hack-and-slash 'Diablo clone’ ever created and perhaps the absolute pinnacle of the genre. The dearth of original ideas, the inconsequential plot, the laughably narrow character customisation, the distinctly average presentation and the awful server issues all slide away when that perfect moment of action hits you. And when that happens, Diablo has taken you.
And that should be the real conclusion here.
Angels, Demons and monstrous piles of loot finally return...