This, this was a tough one. A lot has been said about the launch of Diablo 3, some bad, some good. A lot of discussion about error number this and error number that, lack of proper offline play, and a busted auction house. While these are perfectly valid concerns to have with the launch of a game, how much do they affect me, the person who is reviewing this game and my overall opinion as a result? Truth be told I was expecting this to be my popcorn game of the summer, one I could just switch off my brain and totally enjoy even with all the crap that Blizzard managed to shovel in my face as a consumer. But now that I spend my time critically analyzing it, I see a lot of great things, and a lot of not so great things that really had me questioning if the twelve year wait was worth it. As a Diablo fan I'm torn between telling you, dear reader, that this is the game you've been waiting for, but that it is also one of Blizzard's weakest efforts in quite a while, which really isn't saying much. But let's see if I can try to keep the lynch mob away from my door, shall we?
Diablo 3, do we need much explaining of the story? Well sure let's do that for the sake of coverage. Pick up arms as one of five classes that is hell bent on stopping the forces of darkness. Find Deckard Cain and the falling star that shook the land. And from there it's a nonstop battle against Belial, Azmodan, and the Prime Evil itself in a quest that will shake the very heavens. I'm being vague for the purpose of avoiding spoilers and I already feel like I gave away too much. But it's a pretty good story that ties in well with the previous games. It's nice and succinct but leaves itself open to possible post-game content that could be totally awesome. The first run through of the game will take roughly between twelve to fifteen hours depending on how much exploration you do, and it's a very linear path throughout. But that first playthrough kind of serves more as a tutorial for things to come in subsequent playthroughs. For while there is a good story here, the meat and potatoes of the game is in the dungeon raiding trying to find that sweet, sweet loot.
The gameplay is really the same old dungeon crawling that gamers have come to love with Diablo, Torchlight, and other games in the genre. Comb a dungeon for enemies and treasure, and then take it back to a vendor for some better stuff. In this case things are a little bit different this time around. In Diablo 3 there is plenty of stuff to find, and a lot of it really is junk, so rather than pawn it off to a random NPC for piddly change, there is the option to reduce stuff to base components that can then be traded to a blacksmith for a better item. And with random properties being generated with each attempt to craft something that hook of 'just one more shot' at crafting becomes a new type of addiction. Sure it's great when you find a nice item in a dungeon, but is it all the more satisfying when you trade in those hard earned materials to generate the most bad-ass weapon or piece of armor you've ever seen.
There's also legendary gear out there, making the hunt for rare items all the more addicting and time consuming. It's really easy to lose track of time in the midst of dungeon runs while looking for some epic drops, which I think is really the hallmark of a great game. I find myself looking at the in-game clock not to see what time it is, but to see how much longer I can go before I need to get ready for work, go to sleep, meet up with people. People complain about a loss in social life with a game like Diablo, but I've found it easier than ever to just jump in and jump out of a friend's game. And Blizzard has made that infinitely easier by having players on at all times with simple drop-in drop-out multiplayer. In addition to that, everyone playing gets drops, albeit different items, so it's much less of a scramble to kill the rare mobs and bounce from a game. So long as players are present in the game, they can receive items, which may account for why there is so much trash in the game. It is literally pointless to pick up anything white after the first chapter in the game. The monetary gain from these items is nonexistent which leaves a lot of items on the ground and can drive some players nuts. I had to retrain myself a bit to treat this more like an MMO in that I don't want common drops because they'll just take up space in my inventory that could be better filled with gems or rings or materials.
Outside of the kill and loot gameplay there hasn't been any major re-factoring in how the game is played. Each class feels distinctly different, from the keep away tactics of a demon hunter (which I rolled through the main campaign, and hated the end of the game for it), to the rough and tumble monk, it's easy to find a class and just stick with it and find plenty of different styles of play for that character class. I found myself playing an avoid build of the demon hunter, doing indirect damage through traps and sentry guns and pets. A high damage output build will be viable later on in the game and will be necessary for higher difficulties, but for the time being I stick to having plenty of Hatred and Discipline, renewable energies that powered my skills and traps. This build actually caused me a lot of trouble late in the game on normal difficulty, putting me up against a final boss that I didn't do a single shot of direct damage to. Perhaps I built my character wrong, but I was able to eke out an eventual win, and it was satisfying to say the least. Leveling up comes fast and furious in Diablo 3, and in turn will unlock a lot of the abilities for each character quickly. There is a wealth of abilities for each character and makes each build feel a bit unique. There isn't any pressure to place points in to the character's stats any more which is kind of a weak way to go about leveling up. This places a lot more emphasis on the gear that players pick up and in turn drives their auction house model, making items with higher stat values more desirable, and as the difficulty ramps up, these items will drop like mad.
As the game progresses, players can unlock followers who will aid the player in their quest. These people are quite helpful but at the same time nowhere near as useful as the pets in Torchlight. They don't have inventory, but they function as an additional party member while playing solo games and can carry weapons and a small amount of trinkets. Once another player drops in to the game, they take their leave, causing a headache in certain scenarios. I had a game closed so that only friends could join, and one did so right at the start of a boss fight. This didn't bring them in to the boss instance, but it still made the enemies stronger, and took my companion away from me. Needless to say, I was killed off swiftly by the stronger mobs that this boss summoned. The companion is a welcome addition to the world of Diablo 3, I just hope Blizzard makes them more useful in the future. Even though I was selective about the items I picked up during the course of the game I still found myself returning to town quite frequently. I must say how happy I am that the town portal is now a skill and is no longer relegated to an item that needs to be carried. The same goes for the identify scrolls, those are gone now, and with a simple right click, the player can identify an item themselves, saving a great deal of time and hassle from going back to town.
Visually this game looks great. I've seen a lot of complaints online about how the game looks and honestly I just don't see the problem here. It is very obvious that the art style of World of Warcraft has influenced this game in some way, but I don't see how else this game could have visually progressed and still look good. The game still retains a gothic look to it, and covers a very large variety of landscapes, from sewers to deserts, oases to catacombs, crypts to well, I'll just stop before I spoil anything, but it all looks great, even on some of the lower settings this game looks good. I've played Diablo 3 between a Macbook Pro and a fairly beefy desktop PC (Core i7 [first gen], 6GB RAM, 7200RPM HDD, and GTX570) and the difference between the two has mostly been frame-rate, and effects related. The game dipped below 30 FPS on the Macbook Pro on lower settings, while constantly remaining in the high 90's with the desktop on higher settings. Load times were short and drops in frame-rate would occur when action got intense or a ton of things exploded on screen at once.
Diablo 3's soundtrack does a great job of retaining the feel of previous games. It's ambient, knows when to keep things tense in battle, and generally fits the game perfectly. The voice acting is solid for the most part, with a character here or there that's a little too heavy on the accent. The only downside is that your companion likes to shoot the breeze, a lot, and this means a lot of repeated lines over the course of an adventure. The same can be said for the player character, who always has a quip at the ready when demolishing a ton of enemies in one fell swoop or upon leveling up.
For all of the things it seems like Diablo 3 gets right, it's hard to find a lot of faults. Unfortunately these faults are more the result of how Blizzard wants to do business with its customers. And while I recognize that it is their prerogative to do as they see fit, it has still left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth regarding how I enjoy this game. First of all, the lack of any offline gameplay. Players are required to always be online when playing Diablo 3. This makes it a pain for anyone on the go, because without access to an internet, there is no game to play. People are paying money for a game that is required to always be on, yet in the first week we have seen takedown after takedown of the server to fix some sort of issue plaguing the game. Do I have things I can be doing outside of the game? Absolutely, but when I want to dedicate my free time to roaming some dungeons, having the game offline just drives me to go play some other game, and when Blizzard wants people to play their game, but can't, they've effectively shot themselves in the foot. I get that this is meant to be a means to stop piracy and protect the game from duplicators that ran rampant in previous games, but the onus is on Blizzard, not the people who bought the game to enjoy. They should have had other measures in place so that people can enjoy the game, whenever it is convenient to the buyer, not to Blizzard. A second point I want to make about this requirement to always be online, it harms the gameplay itself. Nothing is more annoying than having the server make an authoritative call on where I am going to be in the game. If I roll away from a pack of enemies closing in on me, I expect to get the hell out of the way, not be snapped back in to place. I couldn't count the number of times I died because of this. I run a fairly fast connection at home and encountered this numerous times, and against boss fights, it is the most infuriating thing that this game can do.
Beyond that, there have been random bugs and what I could only assume were questionable design decisions. I've had loot disappear from a dungeon after returning through a town portal, and I've had questionable AI calls by the companions, but nothing truly game breaking. As I write this review, the auction-house is in a semi-working state, which is slightly better than it was at launch, but I would have rather Blizzard just waited until all was ready rather than let people who paid for the game be beta testers for the service. They had the auction house available during the beta, but I can only assume that releasing the game to the masses showed them that their servers weren't ready for the load the users would bring.
And through it all, Diablo 3 is a great game. It retains the aspects of past games that worked great and it improves upon a lot of things, streamlines the experience and makes it all work in the face of some business decisions that gamers will unfortunately have to simply deal with. Hopefully in time Blizzard can patch the game to allow for a proper offline experience. In the meantime, pick up games with friends is really the best way to enjoy Diablo 3, raid those dungeons, find that loot, get those cheevos, it's all in good fun. Blizzard may not have reinvented the wheel with this one, but they made one that will last however many years we'll have to wait for the next Diablo game, or until Torchlight 2 comes out, only the gameplay will tell.