It took almost eleven years after Lord of Destruction, but Diablo III finally released, and it was met with immediate controversy. Always-online requirements; a rough first couple of days for the servers; a real money auction house (that, at the time of this review, still isn't live yet).
We're now a little over a week after launch, and most of the problems appear to have been smoothed out. My buddies and I each have at least forty hours of game time on our main characters, and we're still going strong. Fundamentally, Diablo III has a number of flaws; some of them are minor, and some of them are fairly obvious. There are certainly valid complaints to be made about the game. In the face of its flaws, though, Diablo III is a tremendous amount of fun.
It's been a long time since I've been awake until 3 AM every night playing games, and, even with its problems, I suspect my friends and I will be playing Diablo III for quite a while.
Diablo III (PC, Mac)
If you're coming to Diablo III as a newbie to the series or the genre, the premise is simple. Pick some skills, fight huge waves of monsters, blow the crap out of everything, get loot, and repeat -- against stronger monsters. That's the pure core of the game, and I think one of the reasons why the franchise has been so well received. It's straightforward, satisfying, and most importantly, fun.
For everyone with some experience with previous Diablo games, the big question is, "How does Diablo III compare to Diablo II?" The answer is that it definitely feels like a Diablo game, but how it stacks up to its predecessor will really depend on how you remember your Diablo II experience, what your expectations are for this game, and what parts of the Diablo franchise most interest you.
The actual combat of Diablo III is where the game really shines. Mowing down hordes of enemies is as satisfying as ever, and every class has a number of viable, gratifying ways to do so (unless you're on Inferno difficulty). Unique monsters and champion packs have interesting new modifiers that make combat much more dynamic and exciting. Far more so than in Diablo II, you'll find that you need to be aware of your surroundings to survive on any difficulty beyond Normal.
You may find some really difficult monsters, and you may need to coordinate with the rest of your party and adjust your skill builds, but the frustration of running into one of Diablo II's lightning-immune/frost-immune champion packs as a Frost Orb/Chain Lightning sorceress is gone. It's replaced with new frustrations (jailer/desecrator/invulnerable minions?), but I've yet to run into a monster pack that I literally can't touch. On the whole, I consider Diablo III's combat to be a clear, positive evolution from what was in the previous games.
By far the weakest part of Diablo III is the story, and this is mainly a problem because, unlike the previous games, Diablo III is constantly throwing narrative in your face. Diablo has never had a particularly strong story, but in previous games the story generally took a back seat. In Diablo II you would occasionally get some lore through a quest, or would watch a cutscene at the end of an act, but for the most part you could move through the entire game without engaging with the lore or narrative.
Diablo III decided this was a problem, so the game is filled with cutscenes, story quests, and conversations. These cutscenes and conversations are skippable, but that doesn't prevent their appearance from being annoying, especially when you're in the middle of vendoring or crafting and are dragged into a cutscene because a party member triggered the next step in your quest. That said, the fully animated cutscenes are absolutely stunning, and I think Blizzard's cinematics team is legitimately the best in the industry. With the exception of Jennifer Hale as Leah and a few of the playable characters, the voice acting generally ranges from substandard to straight-up cringe-worthy. (Emperor Hakan is probably the most egregious offender.) After your first play-through, you'll find yourself skipping everything story-related, every time -- there's simply no reason or incentive to go back and listen to them again, and if you want to watch one of the awesome cutscenes, you can do it straight from the main menu without being annoying to your group members.
The user interface also suffers from a number of problems, most noticeably that the screen simply feels cluttered for a Diablo game. Given that you will spend most of your time frantically clicking around the screen, it's all too easy to accidentally click on a party member portrait and bring up a window, or to accidentally click on an achievement notification that just popped up on your screen; on later difficulty levels, this can mean death. Having to scroll through six separate pages of skills while swapping builds gets annoying, since they can all easily fit on a single page. It can be difficult to see when certain skills like Arcane Dynamo, which allow you a damage burst once the skill has triggered five times, are active, because most of your buff icons are small and placed very low on your window and they force you to look away from the action to check their status. Some buffs, like Magic Weapon, don't even have icons at all, leaving you to either guess when it's almost up, or just make refreshing it a regular, constant habit.
One positive addition to the UI has been the social features. They're easily turned off if they bother you, but I've been finding that I like them. You can easily quick-join your friends' games straight from the character select menu, they can quickly join yours, and you can all view each other's progress as you work your way through the game's hundreds of achievements. One of the exciting parts about unlocking achievements in Diablo isn't just the accomplishment, but also knowing that it's going to trigger conversation with a bunch of my friends who want to congratulate me on what I just did, or ask me how I did it. That said, the in-game chat leaves something to be desired, and Diablo II fans will likely lament the loss of private chat channels and the tragic removal of the chat gem.
The gold Auction House (all references to the Auction House are to the gold Auction House; the Real Money Auction House was not live at the time of this writing) can be clunky and awkward to use -- you'll find yourself swapping tabs constantly when trying to sell things, and when buying items it seems odd that you can't sort by low bids or time remaining. Having a limit of ten items to sell at a time with no way to cancel auctions is also extremely frustrating, given the amount of loot that drops in the game. Additionally, the Auction House has been having a number of problems lately -- searches sometimes don't work, bids occasionally don't go through, or items will sometimes return an error when you attempt to list them. These are sporadic problems, but nonetheless annoyances, and I think they're a cause for concern for when the Real Money Auction House does go live. These issues certainly don't ruin the game by any means, though; they just serve as annoyances and distractions.
Probably the biggest fundamental change from Diablo II to Diablo III is the revamp of the skill system. Skill points and attribute points are entirely gone -- skills, and runes that modify those skills, unlock in a set order as you level up. On the whole, I prefer the new system. I like being able to experiment with different builds on the fly, and I like not having a ruined character because I invested in the wrong skill or put too many points into the wrong attribute. So far, at least on Hell difficulty, my friends and I have found totally different, viable builds on the same classes that we're all enjoying playing -- my wizard is using a Living Lightning/Arcane Orb build that revolves around stun procs and Arcane Dynamo, while my buddy is mostly focused on Magic Missile and Disintegrate. I simply don't have the time anymore to run a brand-new character through 20 hours of leveling to try one new skill.
In Diablo II, the alternative to grinding it out was just to get instantly rushed to a high level by sitting in on Baal/Cow Level runs, and I think this new system elegantly avoids that problem. That said, it is a little disappointing to lose out on those fun one-point utility skills that many builds in Diablo II had. Essentially, those who really enjoy carefully mapping out a character and making difficult, permanent decisions on how to build them (assuming you're not just following a guide) will likely find Diablo III's advancement system disappointing. If you like being able to try new skills and abilities on the fly, or want the ability to modify your character in response to specific situations, the new system should appeal to you.
The way loot is handled in Diablo III also is a bit of a departure from Diablo II. On the surface it appears the same, but many character stats have been condensed (which affects what kinds of things are showing up on loot), good item drops are significantly rarer than in previous games, and legendaries and set items are currently just not that powerful. Some people may be put off by how the stats have been condensed -- damage and health are paramount, and people are generally just looking for items that boost their primary stat (which increases damage), their damage, and their health pool, and nothing else.
This is essentially how itemization worked in Diablo II as well, except it was more obscured, and Lord of Destruction added a lot of variety with items and runewords that gave you other class' skills or offered unique abilities (these were almost always secondary to +skills or magic find, though). It wasn't readily apparent how, say, a plus to a skill or an increased attack speed affected your damage output, so items with those properties felt different. In Diablo III, all the calculations are done for you -- it's immediately apparent that your 10% attack speed increase will add 300 to your damage. Transparency has trade-offs, and here, having a solid sense of how items affect your character without being hidden behind complex calculations comes at the cost of feeling a sense of homogenization among items -- everything generally comes down to an increase in damage dealt, a decrease in damage taken, or your health pool, and it's right there in your face. Making gear decisions at this point (and, again, we're only a week since launch, so it's possible that builds will be discovered that stray from the stack damage/vitality formula, like the just-nerfed Wizard No-Vitality Force Armor build) seems to revolve mostly around balancing your total damage output against your health pool, with almost everything else being a complete afterthought.
I've taken my wizard to right before the level cap, but I've yet to see a set or legendary item drop, although I have found a number of rares that ended up being a significant upgrade from what I'm carrying. Generally speaking, I don't find the item scarcity to be a bad thing -- the game has only been out a week, and I'm under no delusion that I should be rolling in powerful items already. (In fact, I'd be disappointed if I already had acquired the top-tier items.) I'm personally willing to deal with the scarcity if it means that the game isn't distilled down to running the same boss over and over again as fast as possible because I know they have the highest chance to drop uniques or set items.
The scarcity can, however, make you feel like you're not making much progress. Almost all of the items that drop for you will be functionally worthless -- unsellable on both the Auction Houses, and unusable by you simply because the stats are bad. If you're particularly unlucky with drops, you can conceivably move through entire acts without finding any substantial upgrades for your current items outside the Auction House.
It seems clear that the scarcity serves to drive people to Blizzard's Auction House. Clearly, no one is being forced to use it -- and I'm currently leveling a Barbarian who is avoiding the Auction House entirely and is still enjoyable to play -- but those who don't will likely run into problems on Hell and Inferno difficulty, unless they've been extremely lucky or spent significant time grinding for gear.
For many people, including myself, playing the Auction House is something of a metagame unto itself. I personally don't mind the Auction House at all, and I'm not bothered by the fact that a lot of my gear upgrades have come from it (and they've been mostly paid for by items that I sold there). I do mind, however, the restrictions Blizzard has placed on it. Currently, you can only list a maximum of ten items, and there's no way to cancel any item you've placed unless it's a commodity. It can be really frustrating to have a great item you know you can sell, and have to wait a full two days to put it up because you've run out of auction slots.
Diablo III is something of an enigma. Virtually all of my friends who have been playing it agree -- there are definitely things that could be improved. No one agrees on exactly what those improvements should be, and we're unsure if this feeling is simply a result of us misremembering fundamental aspects of what Diablo II was actually like. It just feels like Lord of Destruction added so much to the Diablo experience, with jewels, runes, charms, synergies, etc., that it's a bit of a surprise to see so much of that missing here. That's not to say the current system is bad, because I really don't think it is -- it's just different.
What we all do agree on is that, while we all have things we'd like to see changed in future patches or expansions, Diablo III is fucking fun. Period. I honestly haven't had as much fun gaming in years as I've had this last week, jumping onto Skype with three of my friends and blowing demons away while we talk until the early hours of the morning. Soloing the game is fun, and I sometimes enjoy playing alone because I find it almost hypnotically relaxing, but Diablo really shines when you're playing with a group of buddies.
Even if it's not a perfect game, there's something special about Diablo, and it's something that keeps people playing beyond just a basic addiction to loot. That I've already sunk over 40 hours into the game in just over a week and I'm not even close to being bored of it yet is a testament to the magic of Diablo, and something that can't be ignored.
At the end of the day, fun is what gaming should be about, and Diablo III delivers.
THE VERDICT - Diablo III
Reviewed by Jonathan Ross