Review: Diablo III

Diablo3

While many gaming sites rushed to put up Diablo III reviews within the first week or two of release, I wanted to take a bit of a different slant when it came to reviewing the latest epic from Blizzard.  As fortune would have it, I was spared the initial launch day blues that many players experienced when the game went live and suffered through a period of server delays and poor performance, preventing even solo gamers from partaking in what could easily be considered the biggest single player PC game of the year.  Of course, the game is more than just a single player experience and thus is subject to all manner of potential online difficulties.

The question that has been troubling me since I was deep into the third act of the game (albeit on Normal), is how do you review a game that in turn is mind-numbingly simple, yet also has some of the most compelling gameplay? I’ve heard others say that the story is nothing new, the general gameplay is the same as before and the only real things worth talking about are the inclusion of the Auction House and the fact that an online connection is required even if the game is only ever going to be played solo.

As I had indicated in my beta preview a while back, I have not played Diablo II.  I played through the original game but skipped the second game.  Having skipped D2, I see the story as fresh and new (or at least relatively deep and well constructed when compared to the original) and I was genuinely interested in hearing all of the background chatter, narrated lore I discovered along the way and the back stories of the main characters involved with the central plot.  At least they were interesting on my first playthrough, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

The story unfolds as the character chosen by the player (in my case I focused on the Barbarian) makes a pilgrimage to where a huge, bright star has fallen from the sky.  The star falls near the town of New Tristram and as the game opens, players discover that all manner of ghastly undead have risen and have begun to overtake the town.  Unraveling the mystery of the fallen star leads the player’s character to discover deep secrets which lead to new areas, and as with any dungeon crawl game quests are doled out to prompt investigation, exploration and the discovery of artifacts to help defeat the forces of evil.  D3 is divided into four Acts and each Act culminates with boss battles against enemies from the previous titles. While some could find this a bit lazy, the boss battles are completely new experiences and are epic in scope and are likely to remind old and new gamers to the franchise just how iconic the enemies are.

Along the journey, gamers meet up with three new companions that act as both a narrative force to keep the story moving as well as complementary fighting classes depending on the gamer’s character and play style.  The Templar is similar to a tank in that his main attributes are strength and vitality (similar to the hulking brute of the Barbarian).  The Scoundrel’s main attribute is dexterity, which puts him more or less in the class of the Demon Hunter as he would appear more adept in dealing damage while at a distance. The third companion is the Enchantress, who is most similar to the Wizard class and tends to provide some serious magical damage from afar.  Each companion has his or her own tale that is woven nicely into the main story, and I found myself looking forward to completing new sections of the game so that I could pause from the action for a bit to talk to each of the two companions I didn’t take with me and learn more of their stories.  The level of humor and humanity found in each companion is one of D3‘s best attributes.  Each companion has strengths and weaknesses that add depth to the game at moments when I was least expecting it.  At least it feels that way the first time around.

One of the big changes to the Diablo style of play is the fact that any character class can be changed on the fly simply by switching out which skills and spells have been learned.  As level progression is made, spells and their subsequent rune modifiers are unlocked.  Being able to switch up spells, their rune modifiers and passive traits is one of the greatest subtle changes to the franchise.  Playing World of Warcraft a few years ago, I would deliberate which new talent I could unlock any time I leveled a character.  One talent was great for one style of play, while another talent was great for the complete opposite style of play, yet neither talent was available to simply swap between once one was selected. This more traditional skill selection would dictate how you played a character for hours, weeks, or even months at a time until either a patch nerfed all skills and the skill tree was reset, or you would give up and roll a new character.  Blizzard smartly allows players the option to have all skills available, and after a few clicks a new style of play can be ready and active.  Through my numerous solo runs of D3, as I leveled up, I would change out my skills to those that best suited the area in which I was.  Had this game come out two or three years ago, it is likely that I would not have had the luxury to pick a skill, play with it for a while to see if it helped in a particular situation and then change it if necessary.  This subtle game mechanic has huge lasting benefits through the duration of any player’s time spent with the game.

Once the final battle has been completed the game splashes a “congratulations” message on screen and then immediately starts the game over on the next level of difficulty.  Initially I felt that the game was a bit miserly in the immediate return to the beginning of the game.  It felt like just a few hours before I was facing the same areas, but as the game clearly states, the next difficulty of the game is just that, more difficult. While Normal almost feels like a cakewalk throughout the initial adventure, starting over on Nightmare introduces just enough additional challenge that strategy begins to really become a component of how to approach each swarm of enemies, especially if there is an Elite enemy mixed in with the rest of the mob.  Elite enemies offer an ever growing challenge to the game as they have special abilities that enhance their attack.  In Normal, one special ability is applied to an Elite, in Nightmare, two are applied, but in Hell and Inferno, three, four and sometimes five specials are stacked.  It is with these Elites and their stacked special abilities that both the true fun and frustration within the game is revealed.

For one, Elites drop better loot.  Better loot allows for easier killing, which causes more loot and gold to be collected.  This is the addictive premise and overall draw for many gamers to keep returning to the game.  But at the higher difficulties (Inferno specifically), the Elites become nothing more than frustrating barriers to adventuring further through the game.  What adds to the frustration a bit is the fact that each time you leave the game and come back, the world has respawned and areas that were previously exposed through exploration are once again hidden.  To get around a perpetually respawning world, Blizzard added checkpoints throughout the game. Checkpoints allow progression and stopping points for folks who tend to spend marathon sessions within the game.  While the checkpoints are a nice feature, at times they feel spread too far apart.  Roaming through the Stinging Winds or the Desolate Sands in Act 2 can take a fair amount of time, and if a checkpoint isn’t reached before needing to leave the game, then all the roaming needs to be repeated upon return.

As long as a gamer’s state of mind is simply focused on facing and defeating the same group of foe time and time again, not reaching a checkpoint isn’t a complete deal breaker.  Seeing the same map and environment over and over again can be a bit boring at times, however.  This brings me to one of the points that makes D3 fairly exciting and enjoyable to play, and play, and play again.  No matter what the landscape looks like, the random placement of enemies, their abilities, and the loot that is dropped is what keeps me coming back for more.  Or at least partially.  While I’ve mentioned that the difficulty increases each time the Prime Evil, mister big daddy Diablo himself is defeated, there is nothing truly new revealed on additional playthroughs.  Instead Blizzard has added random mini-dungeons and events that switch out each time a new game session is started.  To keep track of each event and mini-dungeon discovered and cleared, D3 includes Achievements to entice gamers to keep playing once the story has been finished.

The built-in Achievements are both a blessing and a detriment to the game, in my opinion.  While mini-dungeons will spawn at different times each time an area is loaded, I routinely found myself discovering the same ones again and again.  Being able to refer to the Achievement list at any point in the game is nice, but after playing through one area multiple times just to get a new mini-dungeon to load breaks the intended spirit and the random design inherent to the overall game.  I’m certainly a proponent of games having achievements or challenges or trophies as they can enhance a game’s potential replay value and offer new ways to play a game. At this point in my time with D3, though, the game has become less interesting from a story and mechanical gameplay point of view and now feels like a grind simply to earn one or two more achievements.

Blizzard has even commented that they realize that the end game of D3 hasn’t lived up to what hardcore fans expected.  Part of this could be the blame of having the Auction House as a method for giving players what they want. Meaning, I’ve hit a wall in Act One on Inferno difficulty; however, one fairly straightforward way for me to be able to move forward within the game is to buy better gear from the Auction House.  The problem with doing that is the gear I could afford from the Auction House would only be slightly better than what I could find if I were to continue playing the game and pick up a loot drop from any number of enemies.  So do I spend more gold (or even more devious–real money) for items that are likely to become obsolete in short order as I make my way further into Inferno? No thanks!

The game is a lot of fun when playing with a group of two or three additional friends, but sadly I look at the folks listed on my Social list and at this point I have only one or two that are still playing the game.  Playing with additional real people ramps up the difficulty, but it has been my experience that even with the increased difficulty, the varied play styles and different skills from other classes offer a fantastic dynamic that can be chaotic, but typically doesn’t feel so overly difficult that no one wants to play in a party.  In fact, playing with a group offers the chance for better loot to drop from the Elites that spawn, so the game almost encourages co-op play using the same “carrot on a stick” lure that better gear is just around the corner.

Diablo III is a solid single player experience and has some of the most seamless drop-in, drop-out co-op in current online gaming.  The compelling nature of leveling up and learning new skills and attacks is deceptively deep and very intuitive.  While the initial playthrough offers a fairly rich and interesting story, playing on the higher difficulties, I found myself skipping pretty much every event and cutscene because there simply wasn’t anything new to see.  But skipping through the various events was so that I could get right back into the dungeon crawl action.  Having five unique character classes offers gamers plenty of replay value and the ability to have friends join without any hassle is icing on the cake.  (I was also quite impressed by how well optimized the engine is; the game looks amazing even on my aging five-year-old gaming rig!) While I admit that there are some issues of repetition and a lack of a truly rewarding end game payoff, Blizzard has created an incredibly robust and addictive game that has the promise of more to come.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Deep character class-based skill system that can be swapped out at any time
+ Seamless online drop-in co-op
+ Randomized dungeons and increased difficulties make the familiar seem fresh again
+ Compelling companion stories

Cons:
- Always online even for single player
- Purchasing items from the auction house can offer overpowering gear making the game seem too easy
- Area respawns upon reloading a game can be frustrating for folks with OCD tendencies
- Not much reward for completing the story multiple times over

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: 5/15/2012
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-4
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.