For all its means, Blizzard is a company that still prefers the subtle. It works behind the scenes, tweaking this and that, making sure that all the moving parts are working just right. And before you know it, you’ve been playing the developer’s games for five years. Diablo III fits right into that template, as does StarCraft II, which is now almost two years old and still going strong. It plays much as it did a decade ago with its randomly-generated dungeons and point-and-click combat, the majority of the changes being under the hood. But as the game goes on and the changes pile up, it becomes apparent that, yes, Diablo III has changed a great deal in the past decade. And yes, it’s still a great dungeon crawler.
The story picks up with one of five classes, each of which straddles the line between basic template and full-fledged character. Characters like the Demon Hunter are technically nameless archetypes, but their backstories are fleshed out through narrated cut-scenes, and through random dialogue. One of our favorite moments comes in Act II, when a powerful sorcerer tempts our character with the promise of power.
“With your bloodline, you could be a god, you know,” he taunts.
Blizzard doesn’t go much further than that in developing the characters, but it doesn’t really need to. Imagination is more than enough to take things from there. In general, the developer is very good about not beating players over the head with its carefully crafted universe. Even the medieval audio logs sprinkled throughout each dungeon manage not to jar too heavily, adding additional colour to the point-and-click bloodletting.
As for the story itself, it’s clear that Blizzard intends for Diablo III to be a grand finale of sorts for the trilogy. Old locations return, there are constant references to the battles of previous games, and the stakes feel higher than usual. The scope of Diablo III is greater even than that of the second game, which moved the story out of the tiny village of Tristram and into the world at large. The story is full of set-piece battles, each more grandiose than the last, which only serve to hammer home the point that, yes, this is the end. One of the best moments in the game comes amid a massive battle between human and demon, followed by a (seemingly) suicidal charge through enemy lines. It’s here that Blizzard’s sense of the cinematic and the pure, fast-paced action comes together to become something special.
But as mentioned earlier, Blizzard deals best in the subtle, and there’s never any doubt where the focus of Diablo III lies. Even after the final battle is completed and the credits roll, your warrior is still there, ready for the next difficulty level. As such, the balance between the classes, the skills, and the loot get the bulk of Blizzard’s attention, which is for the best.
We can already see the debates starting to brew over whether the Barbarian is overpowered, or the Demon Hunter is underpowered, and that may indeed be an issue on Hardcore – the infamous difficulty mode in which characters can die permanently. But on normal mode at least, all of the classes are perfectly viable, and the challenge is well-balanced and engaging. Everything clicks at around level 20, which is to say that it’s the point where the player starts to welcome crowds of monsters, safe in the knowledge that they have the tools to wipe them out wholesale. But at the same time, death is always just around the corner for the complacent or the foolhardy, especially when facing Heralds of Pestilence and their powerful poison attacks.
The well-balanced difficulty is aided in part by the overhauled skill system, which provides a great deal of flexibility in putting together a build. Every character class has dozens of active and passive skills that are unlocked throughout the game, and every one one of those skills has multiple runes that can change the very nature of the ability. It may not seem like much, but after unlocking all four active skills and all three passive skills, plus a whole of runes, the build possibilities became mind-boggling. We didn’t settle on a final build until the very last dungeon, constantly experimenting with this skill and that rune until settling on what felt like a good combination. Even now, we’re not entirely convinced that there isn’t still a better loadout for us to find, which is the best possible reason to keep playing.
The other, rather nefarious, way that Blizzard keeps players hooked is through the achievements. Naturally, achievements aren’t exactly new, but they do have a unique psychological effect in Diablo III that takes its cues from modern console gaming. Whenever players log in, they are quickly inundated with notifications that their dungeon-crawling friends have reached level 20, defeated a demon lord, or completed one of the random events. It encourages a constant back-and-forth of oneupmanship between players, and adds further compulsion to an already addictive gaming experience. But it also adds to Diablo III’s overarching online infrastructure, which effectively turns Diablo into a single-player MMORPG that’s only a half-step removed from World Of WarCraft. The benefits of such a setup for Blizzard are obvious. It limits cheating (a huge issue since the beginning of Diablo), cuts down on piracy, and makes it that much easier to integrate the online matchmaking and the new auction house.
However, the limitations of the online-only platform have become pretty clear since launch. It has resulted in moments in which every enemy on the screen has simply frozen, then abruptly sped up, as if caught in a time warp. We’ve lost progress (and yes, gear) to blips in the server connection. And most galling of all, we’ve had intense boss fights interrupted by Blizzard taking the servers offline for maintenance. There are times when everything has gelled nicely – as when we opened up our game to the public and got a nice pick-up group together for the final boss battle – and there are times when we have had to restrain ourselves so we don’t throw our Diablo III disc out the window.
Indeed, as long as we’re complaining, we’re also disappointed that Blizzard is continuing the age-old PC tradition of promising a feature, then patching it in later. Both the ‘real money’ auction house and player-versus-player combat are much-hyped features that missed the game’s launch. It feels strange to be playing such a finely-tuned machine of an RPG, but to know that certain parts are missing from under the hood.
Over the next few years though, we expect that the difficult launch and the missing features will be seen as mere growing pains – and yes, we do think that a lot of people will still be playing Diablo III in a few years. Maybe not as many as StarCraft II or World Of WarCraft – hardcore Diablo players are a fairly specialised breed – but enough to warrant the occasional additional content drop. After all, Diablo III isn’t really finished until you’ve hit level 60 and kitted out your character in all epic loot, which is a quest that goes well beyond the scope of the initial playthrough.
It’s moot to comment upon whether it lived up to the long-building hype, as expectations will vary even more widely than usual between the casual consumer and the hardcore fan. However, the close attention to detail given to capturing the look and feel of the first two Diablo games – even down to using the original sound effects – should tell you all you need to know about Blizzard’s approach to the rest of the game.