Diablo 3, just like 2010’s StarCraft 2, is the product of a studio that has settled into a conservative middle-age, one that has perhaps become hostage to a fan base that is suspicious of innovation. One might wonder what Blizzard Entertainment might achieve with more adventurous game design, if only you weren’t too immersed in Diablo 3 to think about it.
The game follows pretty much the same template as Diablo 2 and every action role-playing game since. Explore wildernesses and dungeons and slaughter the armies of infernal beasties that get in your way. Earn experience for kills and loot the bodies of the dead for equipment to make your character more powerful. Rinse and repeat until you meet the big demon in the last dungeon, and kill him too.
Blizzard, however, has a mastery of this recipe that few other developers can compete with. The presentation carries that inimitable polish that we have come to expect from Blizzard, with attractive artwork, lavish CGI cinematics and superlative music. Under the shiny exterior, Blizzard has carefully tweaked the mechanics to near-perfection.
I have not encountered an action-RPG quite as addictive as Diablo 3 since Diablo 2 kept me up late at night and got me out bed early in the mornings. No other developer has quite mastered the careful drip-feeding of formidable new monsters, skills and equipment to the player in the way that Blizzard has. Diablo 3 is infernally clever in the way it starves your addiction while feeding your interest.
Diablo 3 introduces a new skills system that initially drew a lot of flak from the Blizzard faithful, but which most players now seem to have embraced enthusiastically. Rather than picking skills and attributes as you level up a character, the game assigns them to you based on the class you are playing.
No longer can you choose to invest points in dexterity, intelligence, vitality or strength yourself. The game takes that decision for you. And no longer can you choose which skill to develop as you level up. All characters follow the same skills development path.
That means all characters of the same class will have the same set of skills and attributes at the same level. But the way one player plays his level-30 witch doctor might be very different to the way another does. By level 60, each character class will have access to around 25 skills. The effects of each of these can be modified with a handful of runes that are also unlocked by levelling up.
You can have six skills accessible through hot keys at any time, with some of them interacting in interesting ways. With the all the permutations of skills and runes at your disposal, your options start to become deep and broad once you hit level 20 (and overwhelming by the time you get to level 40 or 50).
For anyone who likes to tinker with gameplay mechanics, it is pleasingly flexible. The only drawback is that it takes a while to start unlocking enough skills to feel like you have real choices in the way you play.
The five character classes represent typical RPG archetypes: there’s a wizard, a spellcaster who is fragile in close combat but powerful at range; a heavy melee fighter in the form of the barbarian; the monk, a light and fast martial arts fighter; the demon hunter, a cunning ranged fighter specialising in bows and traps; and the witch doctor, who uses curses and summoned creatures against his enemies.
They’re all well balanced and fun to play, with some devastating abilities at the higher levels. Blizzard offers male and female models for all character classes now, but you can’t customise the look of your characters as extensively as you can in most newer RPGs. Blizzard has also streamlined some of the chores around inventory management, collecting gold, returning to town to sell loot and so on. This takes a little of the grind out of the game.
One of the more controversial aspects of Diablo 3 is that it can only be played when connected to Blizzard’s Battle.net online gaming service, even if you are playing a single-player game. Your characters and save games are stored on Blizzard’s servers and you need to be permanently connected to the Internet to access them.
It feels consumer unfriendly, even for an industry that often treats its customers quite shabbily. Part of the reason for the always-online requirement is the pet hate of every PC gamer – digital rights management. But in addition to fighting piracy, Blizzard needs complete control over the game because it plans to launch an auction house where people can sell loot they find in the dungeons for real-world hard currency.
Blizzard aims to make money by taking a slice of every transaction — an innovative way of funding the sort of big infrastructure a massive online game like Diablo 3 depends on. You can be sure that scammers and gold-farming operations are licking their lips about the opportunities this will present.
It’s hardly surprising that the network infrastructure crashed on Tuesday when the game launched, leaving perhaps hundreds of thousands of irate gamers unable to play. Blizzard sorted out the authentication issues that initially prevented players from logging in to Battle.net within a day or two.
Yet that doesn’t mean the problems are completely resolved. Many players are still reporting network disconnections and lag, issues that most of us really don’t want to deal with in a single-player game. The only times I died on my normal difficulty play-through were because of lag. Hopefully Blizzard fixes these problems before more players starting tackling the higher difficulty levels and the hardcore mode.
Diablo 3 won’t give your graphics card much of a workout, but the classy art direction and careful attention to detail elevate the visuals above those of the average hack ‘n slash title.
Some of the voice acting is little too enthusiastic, but the Wagnerian score is outstanding.
The traditional Diablo mechanics have been tweaked to near-perfection, but the always-on network requirement is a nuisance.
The first playthrough will take you a good 25 or 30 hours if you’re thorough in your dungeon exploration. With four difficulty levels and five character classes, there are plenty of reasons to revisit the game.
Launch network glitches and a lack of innovation aside, Diablo 3 is damn good at what it does. Will be worthy of another point if and when the network issues are improved.
That said, there’s a lot to like about the implementation of Battle.net in Diablo 3, one of the features of the game that feels truly progressive and contemporary. It makes it easy to track what your Diablo 3 friends are up to and to join up with others for co-op monster-bashing. It also gives the game the sort of community vibe as one finds on Xbox Live.
For better and worse, social and multiplayer features are taking over most big budget games, and Diablo 3 is no exception. The game feels balanced for cooperative rather than solo play, so you are missing out if you’re not taking some friends into the dungeons with you.
The difficulty feels more balanced and the loot drops are better in co-op sessions than single-player. Each of the five classes has a set of specialised skills and abilities that interlock nicely, adding new layers of tactics to the game. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Diablo 3 is available for Windows PC and Mac