This is going to be complicated.
The problem is, Diablo 3 is very much a Blizzard game. Back in the day this wouldn’t have been an issue. Back in the day “Blizzard game” meant you were going to be in for an experience of unalloyed awesome no matter what the game actually was. Unfortunately Blizzard today is a very different company to what it was a decade ago, and so the term “Blizzard game” — while still guaranteeing top-notch mechanical design — now also carries with it unpleasant connotations of truly awful writing and metagame elements that are either pointless or actively detrimental to the good work done with the gameplay. So while Diablo 3 is undoubtedly a very, very good game, it is unnecessarily handicapped by a huge number of flaws that could have been avoided so easily. I actually find Diablo 3 somewhat depressing in a way, because the thought that someone could take the excellent concept of Diablo and say “I know what this needs: more cutscenes!” is rather indicative of the way mainstream game development is heading these days.
You are one of five heroes – Barbarian, Monk, Witch Doctor, Wizard and Demon Hunter – on a quest to stop a sudden undead infestation by punching said undead right in the face and/or blasting them with magical incendiaries. When you punch a zombie’s head off there is a chance that loot will fountain out of the corpse under high pressure; you then (if it’s better than what you’ve currently got) equip this loot to improve your zombie-punching abilities. Every so often your hero will light up like a Christmas tree to indicate they have levelled up, which gives them access to more varied methods of zombie-punching. This is the basic structural framework that underpins all Diablo games, and the good news is that Diablo 3 pulls it off just as well as – arguably better than, in fact – its predecessors. Rumours that the auto-levelling up and being handed the same skills everyone else gets would dumb down the game are completely unfounded; the skill system is streamlined, building on Blizzard’s eight years of experience with WoW, but it is not shallow.
An example. On my Wizard, I have four hotkey skill slots (1-4) and a skill for each mouse button. Left mouse button is either a chain lightning area attack (for groups) or magic missile (for bosses). Key 1 is bound to Frost Nova, an area-of-effect attack that centres on my character and freezes everything in place for a couple of seconds, allowing me time to get away. Key 2 is where Force Pulse lives, which is similar to Frost Nova except instead of freezing it’s a “GO AWAY” knockback attack. These two skills are activated whenever I see a big group, or whenever my Wizard gets in trouble and needs to escape. 3 activates Hydras, a kind of magical turret that auto-shoots everything around and which I use to soften up/mop up really large groups. 4 sounds boring, but is actually key to the whole build: Diamond Skin gives a limited and temporary damage absorption ability to the Wizard, but I have it runed so that it also reduces the cost of casting spells while it’s active. And this makes the right mouse button ability, Disintegrate, downright obscene. It’s a thermic lance for monsters; a double beam of magic power that cuts through groups and bosses alike as though they weren’t even there which – thanks to Diamond Skin – can be kept up for about 10-12 seconds, and this is enough to reduce anything that isn’t a boss or a named elite monster to a smoking pile of ash on the dungeon floor. On Normal, anyway.
The synergy between Diamond Skin and Disintegrate is representative of the way the skills interact with each other; on its own a particular skill might not be that great, but it’s often the case that if you combine it with another skill it becomes much more powerful. There’s about 15 primary skills for each character, each of which can have a single rune attached to it which specialises the skill further. My Frost Nova can be runed to do more damage, release additional Frost Novas in a chain reaction or create a slowing area of effect rather than a snap freeze, while the double beam of Disintegrate is also the result of an applied rune. Passive skills complicate things even further; these confer some inherent bonus to your character like increased armour or more frequent critical hits, and many of them also synergise well with the active skills. Despite everyone having access to the same skills the way people evolve their characters over time will be different; I’m reasonably sure my Wizard is built completely differently to Josh’s Wizard despite us being roughly the same level. By opening up the range of skills available rather than limiting you to one of a few branches of a skill tree Blizzard have vastly increased the amount of tinkering and experimentation that’s possible, which is the most important thing.
There is one thing I don’t like about the skill system, however, and that’s the glacially slow rate at which your options open up as you progress through the early levels of the game. Those hotkey slots I mentioned earlier? Those are all locked at the start of the game; you – absurdly – have to unlock them one at a time as you level up, meaning you have very little you can do at the start of the game beyond “click on bad guy”. Taking control over skill unlocks out of the player’s hands also means that if you want a certain skill you can’t beeline to it through a skill tree; instead you just have to wait until you get to the level it unlocks at, and considering some of the good ones don’t unlock until levels 25-30 or so this can take a very long time. With most of my characters I wasn’t really having fun with the game until level 15 or so, when I could do three or four things in combat that weren’t throwing purple balls at people.
Still, getting that far only takes an hour or two, and while it’s crap that the game doesn’t do much to grab you from the outset once you’re there Diablo 3 is an awful lot of fun. The mesmerising effect of increasingly better loot drops is present and correct, and the monster punching part is admirably visceral with particularly powerful abilities hurling dozens of baddie corpses across the screen. The game even encourages homicidal rampages by giving you an experience bonus for killing a large number of monsters in one hit, or chaining together kills in an orgy of mass slaughter. The randomised levels and dungeons have also made a welcome return, and this time they’re leavened with a variety of special one-off encounters that have a chance to spawn on a particular runthrough; for example, I went through the start of Act I for the sixth time last night and I found a mini-event that I hadn’t seen before. This ensures that there is something genuinely new to see each time you play, and that’s before taking into account the little extras like the Golden Axe treasure goblins.
So the gameplay is mostly great, except… I kept getting the disconcerting feeling that Normal mode was too easy. Groups of 30+ baddies were dispatched in seconds. Bosses were often killed before they’d had a chance to finish delivering their opening monologue. I think I died exactly once on Normal difficulty to an end of Act boss’s special attack that took me by surprise. This is exacerbated by the auction house, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but I got the distinct impression that Normal mode basically functions as a ten hour long tutorial, and that the real game starts when you finish it for the first time and unlock Nightmare mode. Quite frankly if it wasn’t Diablo I probably would have given it up long before I got to Act III, which is the first part of the game that is even remotely tricky. Nightmare mode plays like the game Diablo should be, where small, isolated groups of enemies are easy prey but champion monsters have to be treated with care and you need to make sure you don’t get cut off and surrounded by a horde. The loot is much better, too, and I’m rather puzzled as to why Blizzard took the decision to lock this off from me until I’d invested ten hours beating the game on Braindead difficulty.
Or rather, I would be puzzled if everything else in the game that wasn’t the punching didn’t belie a complete contempt for the intelligence of the people playing it. The plot is… god, I don’t even have the words to describe how bad the plot is. It’s entirely possible that Diablo 3’s plot is, pound for pound, the single worst videogame plot it’s been my misfortune to encounter, which is astonishing when you consider that it’s Blizzard making this game. They’re possibly the second or third richest developer in the world! Are you telling me they couldn’t afford to hire professional writers rather than getting Chris Metzen to vomit out yet another story that would be rejected by fanfiction writers as being too clichéd and Mary-Sueish? The Chosen One trope rears its ugly head for the umpteenth time in a videogame, the baddies are all completely ineffectual yet continually call you up on the batphone to taunt you like you’re not systematically slaughtering their entire army, everyone else in the game has the mental level of a teenager – the Supreme Commander of Heaven in particular acts like an angsty fourteen year-old – and worst of all this unending barrage of crap is constantly forced down your throat via cutscenes. Diablo 2 did not have cutscenes (aside from the excellent pre-rendered ones that served as a coda to each Act, which is the natural place to put them), and for good reason: they would have gotten in the way of the punching. Here, though, if you want to fight a boss, you have to wait while the game loads a cutscene and then press Escape, and then click “OK! I really want to skip the cutscene!” It got to the point where I actually stooped to hunting through the game options in the hope that there was a button that would turn the awful, awful story off and just let me punch skeletons. There wasn’t.
So Diablo 3 is no longer about the punching and the loot; instead, it’s now riddled with this horrible story-cancer that the game thrusts in your face at every opportunity. It’s all very well to say that this is a Diablo game and that I should just ignore the plot, but that’s the thing: I literally can’t. It’s so obnoxious that it becomes one of a number of things which are actively detrimental to the experience of playing the game, with the other major culprits being the auction house and the requirement to always be signed in to Battle.net even if you just want to dick around in single player for a bit.
The Battle.net thing is simple enough to understand. When you’re signed in, it’s great. It’s fine. The interface is very slick, joining your friends is as simple as pushing a single button and while there are occasional lag issues I have to say I’ve never died as a result of one. I have no beef with Battle.net itself, but insisting that I always play the game via Battle.net is completely insane, and if you want to know why you need look no further than yesterday afternoon. The EU server for Diablo 3 fell over at about 2pm, meaning nobody in Europe could play the game until Blizzard got it back up again just after 7pm. This was a Sunday afternoon, remember; it’s difficult to think of a more inconvenient time for the game to be unavailable, and yet it still happened. Apparently this is the future, though; the benefits always-online connectivity brings to a game are deemed to outweigh not being able to physically play the damn thing whenever the server goes up the spout.
The auction house is a little more uncertain because we’re only a week in and that’s not really enough time to see how it’ll impact the overall gameplay experience in the long-term, but the way I see it there are two problems with the auction house. The first is that – up to level 30, at least – it’s very very easy to find an excellent item for your class for just a few thousand gold, meaning that a couple of minutes’ browsing will ensure your character is just about as good as it can be. This takes the fun out of killing a boss and watching rare loot fountain out of his corpse because you know it’ll probably be worse than the stuff you can find on the auction house. Which brings me to the second problem: I have a sneaking suspicion in-game loot has been gimped to encourage players to use the auction house. Certainly I noticed most of the stuff I picked up was 5-10 levels below the level I was currently at, and I never picked up an item that had a higher level in over forty hours of play. Either way the auction house is just downright better, which I think strikes at the very heart of what Diablo is about. I said a couple of paragraphs ago that Diablo is supposed to be about punching monsters and getting better loot, but the auction house removes the fun of the loot part leaving you with just the monster punching – and while this is an admirably well-judged element of the game, it’s one that starts to visibly stagger under the weight of the rest of the bullshit you have to deal with when you play it.
Like I said, then, it’s complicated. I’ve spent a sickening amount of time playing Diablo 3 over the last week. I have enjoyed nearly all of it. Diablo 3’s flaw isn’t that it’s a bad game, because it most definitely is not. Rather it’s that, as excellent as it is, it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been had Blizzard been a little more focused in their development goals rather than adding in all this extraneous stuff and changing the basic gameplay to compensate. It’s probably one of the best games I’ll play this year, but I’ll always associate it with a vague sense of disappointment that this is the direction Blizzard took it in rather than sticking to what they do best and delivering the premier monster-punching experience of the next decade. It remains to be seen whether it’ll have the insane longevity of its predecessor (which people are still playing 12 years on) but my gut feeling says no. Diablo 3 is a great game. It isn’t a classic.