Standing in the shadows
I hardly know where to start. Diablo II was the first game that truly engrossed me - for five or six years of my life it bordered on being an addiction. Could the sequel ever live up to the expectations I, and many others like me, would heap upon it? Probably not. And yet, much like anticipation for the yearly showcase that is E3, one can’t help but hope that one’s wildest expectations will be fulfilled, even if we really should know better by now.
Things start off well enough. Act I is superb. The art style, though it does not possess the haunting atmosphere of the original Diablo that many would have wanted, is nonetheless a fantastic fit for the game. The move towards a more colourful, fantasy-style universe began in Diablo II;Diablo III merely continues the trend, and does so impressively. The spell effects are beautiful, the pouring rain and puddles of standing water are a treat for the eyes, and the variety of settings, enemies and environments is impressive. The CGI cinematics are absolutely sumptuous; the music is, of course, superb (this being one of Blizzard’s big three franchises you’d expect no less), and there’s some fantastic voice acting on display.
Act II, for the most part, continues to impress. The change of setting freshens things up (though Diablo II veterans could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu). But, gradually, things start to head downhill from this point on. Act III, and especially Act IV, disappoint quite spectacularly. The boss battles (with the exception of the final Act I boss) are all shockingly bad, and before each one the action is paused to give way to a short snippet of in-game cut scene. Not only are these scenes unattractive to look at, to say the least, they’re also utterly pointless. They convey nothing that couldn’t otherwise be conveyed via dialogue spoken during gameplay (like in, say, Diablo II…), and, even when skipped, serve only to halt all of the action. Why they weren’t left on the cutting room floor is beyond me. In a game that’s supposedly designed for multiple playthroughs, their inclusion is unforgivable. The art direction takes a hit in the second half of the game as well, and only one environment across the whole of Acts III and IV stands out in my mind; the rest feel like drab filler. It’s almost as if Blizzard ran out of ideas halfway through, or development for the second half of the game was handed over to another team entirely. Perplexing.
One thing that Diablo III doesn’t lack, however, is the ability to completely hook you in. The gameplay is like Diablo II on steroids. The inclusion of health orbs and automatic gold pick-up is wholly vindicated, allowing you to dispatch a horde of monsters, quickly and conveniently heal, gobble up any gold and loot, and move straight on to the next battle. There’s hardly any down time, and when you’re in a party of four players working well together you won’t be able to tear yourself away from your PC. It’s easy to get carried away and find you’ve completed the game on normal (which takes a good 20 hours the first time through) in just a couple of days.
The already-compulsive gameplay is, of course, underpinned by the franchise’s staple of loot-hunting. This is an area where a plethora of minor changes have vastly improved the experience over the game’s predecessors. You no longer need to buy or find identification scrolls to reveal an item’s magical properties; you have an unlimited town portal ability; crafting items and gems automatically stack to take up less room; you can quickly compare the item you’re viewing against what you’re already wearing; you have a universal stash and gold collection – the list goes on and on. Finding, collecting, and trading loot is intuitive and, most importantly of all for fans, highly streamlined.
That brings me on to the auction house, which is a godsend for anyone who loved trading in Diablo II. You can view every single item on any of your characters from the auction house, and – so long as it’s in good condition – pick it up and put it up for auction. Transactions are automatic and hassle-free, the only downside being the ’Blizzard tax’ on all successful auctions, but it’s easy enough to price this into your starting and buy-out prices. Conversely, if you’re buying, you can draw on the gold from your universal stash to place bids on anything you like. Searching for items can take a bit of getting used to, and hopefully this is an area that improves in subsequent patches, but for the time being it’s adequate.
End-game content is an area that many fans will consider key to whether or not Diablo III is ultimately a worthy sequel. It’s difficult, so soon after launch, to make a judgement call on this aspect of the title. On the one hand, as I described in the paragraph above, if you’re interested in trading loot and acquiring wealth (in-game or otherwise) then the signs are good. If your interests lie in character building and customisation you may end up being a little disappointed, however. There are no skill trees in Diablo III, nor do you distribute any skill or attribute points. All skills unlock for all characters automatically, and their power is determined by runes (which, again, unlock automatically), and your items. I’ve read a lot of arguments in support of the new skill system – that it actually gives you more options, and is far more convenient – but I can’t help but feel it’s lacking.
The feeling of building a character from scratch, playing through the game, levelling it from 1 to 90+, and meticulously assigning attributes and skill points based on a very tailored build is almost wholly gone for me. The level cap is only 60, and can be hit within a week (compared to weeks, or months, in Diablo II, depending on which patch you’re playing with). And since every single character of each individual class is identical and has access to all of the skills and runes at any time, once you’ve hit level 60 with each of the five different character classes there’s little point in creating a new character at all. The character classes do, at least, have very different play styles from one another, so it is worth completing five times, and the new user interface is better designed to work with multiple skill combat, but it does seem that the game that was supposedly designed with end-game content in mind (Diablo III) is trumped by a game that’s 12 years older and wasn’t (Diablo II), which is a bit baffling.
Battle.net 2.0 also makes the game feel less community-focused. For all their faults, and for all the unsavoury characters you met in them, the chat room lobbies in Diablo II at least gave a sense of community, and allowed you to show off your characters and even meet new friends. The removal of proper chat lobbies and the ability to create custom games is lamentable. That said, the new public game system is fantastic, allowing you to match up with other players who are at the exact same point in the story as yourself; it works flawlessly.
The game’s launch has been a bit of a disaster. The presence of online-only single player made for a rough launch, thanks to the proliferation of errors and sever lag (which, to Blizzard’s credit, seems to have been fixed pretty quickly). And the announcement that PvP won’t be included until an undisclosed later date has, understandably, not gone down well.
Is this the sequel I’ve always wanted as a long-time Diablo II fan? No, it isn’t. But I’m not overwrought with disappointment; there’s a lot of good in Diablo III - a lot of noteworthy improvements - but there are also some huge stumbling blocks, a few backwards steps, and a number of self-inflicted wounds on the part of Blizzard. Whether these problems prove to be insurmountable or not only time will tell, and in a way Diablo III is a game which needs to be reviewed both now, whilst it’s selling to a whole new generation of gamers, and also a few months down the line, when bugs have been ironed out, missing content added in, and Blizzard have (or have not, as the case may prove to be) addressed the community’s most pressing gripes. Diablo III is great, much as StarCraft II was when it released back in 2010, but neither, ultimately, have managed to live up to the legacy of their predecessors.
This review is based on a digital copy of Diablo III, provided by the publisher.