The Good: Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, here I come! Addictive Diablo formula remains strong. The Bad: But, like Starcraft 2, Blizzard has taken the safe route, changing very little. The Ugly: Always online DRM. No way to play without an Internet connection.
I will readily admit to being in awe of the guys at Blizzard who are responsible for creating game balance and tension. Somehow they just know how gamers think. They know what it takes to get us to want to search that next area, complete that next quest, get that next item, even though we’ve been playing far too long already. They know the balance between too easy and too hard, they know how to avoid redundancy, tell a story without bogging down the action, create what is essentially a treadmill game, by which I mean on that has you performing the same task two million times, that in no way feels like a treadmill. Somehow, they just know. So in Diablo III when you’re going to down a hallway in a dungeon, that hallway is just the right length. There is tension created between the last battle you fought and the next one to come, but while they don’t hold that tension too long, neither is the next battle too soon either, so I don’t feel like I’m wading through endless faceless, pointless monsters. There are big boss battles and mini boss battles, and just when you’ve been wandering around in a dungeon killing beastie X, thinking to yourself that maybe it’s time to see a new beast, it somehow magically is, and beastie Y shows up. And it is almost never the monster you expect. I’m looking for giant spiders, and what I get is some kind of manticore. I’m expecting a zombie, but get electric bats. Clever. Torchlight was good, but somehow, in many subtle ways, Diablo III is just a hair better.
The key, I think, to Diablo’s addictiveness lies in the extremely fine gradations of character improvement that occur. Your character gets markedly better when you level up, but the next level can be pretty far away from a gameplay perspective. What’s going to drive me all the way over there? Well, the story drives part of that, the desire to solve the next quest, but Diablo has more draw than that. On the way to that next level, that next quest, you can also find some nifty piece of equipment laying in a dungeon somewhere, some new sword or new shield, some magic ring or enchanted helm. Each piece makes you incrementally more powerful, allows you to deal and absorb more damage, makes you just a little better. In a micro sense, the game becomes tiny bite-sized improvements. If I kill that next monster, maybe I’ll get a better item than the one I have now. Maybe I’ll get a little gold, and use that to buy something better when I get back to town. Those tiny victories propel you down the action, draw you to play just another couple of minutes until hours have just sort of melted away. I realize this formula is far from unique to Diablo III (Torchlight did it, as did Dungeon Siege, and about a million others), but somehow Diablo III gets the balance perfect.
For those of you who have no point of reference, I should probably back up for a moment and give a description of what Diablo is. Diablo is a third person isometric RPG dungeon crawl, heavy on the mouse clicking. You click to move your character to a particular place, click to attack a monster, click to open a chest, click to talk to NPCs, click to pick up treasure, click to open a door. Compared to games like Skyrim, Diablo is more action than RPG. Your character gains levels, but the number of choices you make at level up are much narrower, and the skill trees have fewer branches. You start with a base career – barbarian, demon hunter, monk, etc. The career determines what spells and skills you’ll have to select from as your character advances. The characters are all voiced differently and use different weapons. It is fun to try them all out, but they all go through the same single player game, so while the individual dungeons are generated differently every time you play, they are still more or less filled with the same stuff. I’m personally dubious as to the replay value. The previous Diablo games did the dungeon generation thing too, and I found once or twice through the dungeons was plenty for me. Who cares if the walls move around a little?
Notice that in that previous paragraph I didn’t once mention that I was reviewing Diablo III? I didn’t have to. Diablo III is very similar parts 1 & 2. Similar careers, similar spells, weapons and armor. Even the user interface looks much the same with the two big globes at the bottom of the screen holding your health and mana (though they call mana “spirit” this time). Between the globes are your skills and hot keys. When a monster dies, whatever it was carrying falls to the ground, and little labels tell you what each thing is, the color letting you know if it is ordinary or magic or rare. Hitting “I” opens the inventory, where you place weapons in your hands, and armor on your body and rings on your fingers. I’m tempted to install Diablo II so I can take a screen shot and hold them up side by side – my suspicion is that they would look the same allowing for graphical improvements over the years. And I must confess a certain disappointment, as I had with Starcraft 2, that Blizzard has remained so close to the original formula without change. I like to see new features. Maybe they’ll be a hit; maybe they’ll be a bust, but Blizzard had years to play with this formula, and they’ve added nothing in all that time? Well, not nothing – the game now features a real-world auction gallery where players can sell and trade items either for game gold or real money (with Blizzard of course taking a cut of the action), and you can pick up NPC sidekicks to dungeon roam with you, but that’s little stuff. If companies like Blizzard, who have multiple billion-dollar series in their locker room, can’t afford some risky innovation, who can?
Multiplayer is (coop for now, but supposed to add PvP later), as I’m sure you might have guessed, exclusively through Battlenet. I expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of LAN support in Starcraft 2, and here it is again. Diablo III also requires always-online connection to play (like SC2), even the single player game. On the one hand, I appreciate their desire to keep the servers pure, reduce cheating and harmonize the gaming experience, and try and curtail piracy. On the other, their wishes to reduce piracy and griefers to me don’t translate into such onerous DRM. I’ve got a vacation house in the wilds of Northern NH that has no Internet, and no option for Internet service, so I can’t play it at all up there? That doesn’t seem right. I know people who aren’t buying Diablo III because of the DRM, and are waiting for Torchlight 2. Were my reviewer’s copy not free, I might well not buy it either. And if you’re so inclined, and you do buy a copy, take a gander at the EULA when you install Diablo III. It is, frankly, a document that could only come from the bastard spawn of a lawyer and the Marquis De Sade, and all by itself is sufficient evidence of the decline of western civilization. It makes such ludicrous claims, I always wonder if such things would hold up in court were someone to push it. Probably – courts are run by politicians who are owned by corporations. Blah blah blah. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Blizzard has clearly spent a long time polishing Diablo III. The music is great. The plot is interesting, and touches upon familiar things from the previous games. Conversations with NPCs impart real information without becoming a drag. The graphics are simply wonderful. They’ve even gone to great lengths to minimize the load times, though I think that is hampered by the always-online requirement, as things like dungeon entrance times and fast travel speeds are very variable. Little touches abound like clear on-screen cues for actions and quests, and a rolling dialog list unobtrusively tucked in the corner of the screen in case you miss a few words. In the upper right hand corner is an actual clock that tells my current time. Sure, not a big technological leap, but I now know when it is 11PM and I have to stop playing so I can get up for work the next day, as opposed to looking at my watch occasionally and taking myself out of the game or finding that my first indication of time passing is the light of dawn in the window. I want to play for only half an hour, and I can easily do so. My wife loves that feature.
So, Diablo III, a very good game. It doesn’t break new ground, but covers old, action-y, RPG-ish, addictive clickfest ground very nicely. And in conclusion no man may be made to testify against his wife. The end.
This review is based on a retail copy of Diablo III for the PC provided by Blizzard Entertainment.