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Diablo III Review

By Jeff Buckland, 5/21/2012

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In the eleven years since Diablo II's expansion was released, we've seen almost countless knockoffs, some of which had legitimacy through the developers' past work, others by simply creating a great game. But we all knew that Diablo III would eventually come, and it's been a very long wait since the game was announced years ago. The final product can't possibly live up to every gamer's dream, and Blizzard did make some controversial decisions leading to this point, but they've still done a fantastic job putting a slick, sexy, and very smooth game that is now the pinnacle of clicky-click action-RPGs.

The premise is pretty simple. Diablo was stuff back into whatever hellhole he came from - again - twenty years ago in Diablo II, his brothers Baal and Mephisto have been destroyed, but the archangel Tyrael, the only one left trying to defend the human realm from either heaven or hell, is missing. Now, lesser evils Belial and Azmodan are trying to stir up another war, with the human race standing in the middle. The five character classes available to players - Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor - take Deckard Cain and his niece, Leah, on a new desperate adventure to once again stop the evil powers that be from wrecking the planet.

First, let's talk about some core things that Blizzard changed. The biggest one is that Diablo III can only be played over the internet, so that means no single player mode, no mods, and no direct LAN play (which, admittedly, is a rarity at best in today's multiplayer PC games). Internet naysayers usually mention "always-on DRM" as the basis of their criticism, but it's important to point out that the game isn't just doing license checking when online: you're actually getting served up the game's monsters and events like you would an MMORPG. This allows Blizzard to put interesting dynamic events into the game and integrate things like the auction house and functionality for everyone all the time, and while I can sympathize for those who want to reserve the option to play alone, Diablo fans should not skip out on this game on that basis alone. As we transition from games as a product to games as a service - something that AAA developers are inevitably moving to, no matter how many petitions and boycotts go on - the best we can really do is reward those companies who give us unique things that we couldn't have gotten when all games were just products. And, simply put, I think Blizzard is accomplishing that. Launch-week woes aside, these games are meant to be played on the scope of years, and three days after release, Blizzard's servers are now looking to be handling the demand just fine.

Those aren't the only changes, though. There is an auction house currently running using in-game gold as the currency, and it's got an improved version of World of Warcraft's auction house interface that allows you to search for all the usual stuff plus specific magic effects and the like, which is something I've been wanting in WoW for years. But next week, Blizzard will be rolling out real-money auction houses where players can sell gold or items for real money, and the developers will be taking a small cut of the cash. (Contrary to some beliefs, Blizzard has announced that unlike free-to-play MMOs, they're not selling this stuff themselves; all items will come from other players.)

There's a four-player limit in D3's online games, down from eight in the predecessor, but I feel like the four player limit is very appropriate for the amount of action and on-screen chaos that goes on. While it's frustrating for those few LAN party organizers to have to break up people into groups of four, that's about the only scenario where I'm really seeing some real tragedy there. On top of this, Diablo III also has a lower number of active skills for use inside each class and there isn't a traditional skill tree here, but it's important to mention that skills have many modifiers (known as runes) that you can attach to your selected skills. Some of these runes tweak an ability, but other runes change the spell's functionality altogether, turning offense into defense and vice versa. This gives the game the depth people were looking for, but it is just arranged in a way that will be initially unfamiliar to series veterans.

Diablo III does look pretty amazing overall, and it's so close to the look of its concept art that you'll sometimes feel like you're walking around in a painting. The concept art is often used directly as 2D backgrounds off in the distance , and it fits the look of the foreground and action perfectly. On top of this, much of Diablo III is in motion at all times as you explore and fight, making the isometric perspective, something that is rarely used nowadays, actually feel new and exciting all over again. You'll see weather, impressive night effects, bugs and snakes crawling through the deserts, grass that sways as you walk over it, and some exaggerated, ridiculously fun ragdoll physics that are active on everything, from spells to world objects and monster corpses. There are plenty of beautiful special effects all over the screen, and what impresses me the most is that Diablo III runs at 60 frames per second on nearly any gaming machine made in the last five years (or more, in some cases). Hell, it will run at low detail on a large range of relatively weak laptops - even those with the last couple of generations of Intel's integrated graphics processors, which can barely run any recent top-shelf game.

There are a few cracks in the brilliantly-polished shine of Diablo III, however. The first is that item design is strange, where all non-magical weapons are worth next to nothing at a vendor, making them basically not worth picking up once you've got some gear. On top of this, the base damage on a weapon controls the damage of all abilities on every character, and there are very few restrictions on weapons so you'll see Wizards with two-handed swords just because the game says their Arcane Orb does more damage with that weapon equipped. Specialized weapons like the Demon Hunter's hand crossbows aren't really advantageous over any plain old bow, so it becomes less about specialized gear and more about a relative very few stats you're looking for on any one item. The high-end weapon game is also kind of poorly balanced, where some of the most rare legendaries can be worse than plain "magic" weapons. Basically, Blizzard needs to look at itemization in an upcoming patch and start making those legendary items worth it, but retroactively nerfing existing items is probably not the best of ideas, either. Maybe make Hell and Inferno difficulties harder if they want to change the difficulty curve.

My next issue is that Diablo III's villains are incredibly one-dimensional, constantly in denial of their losses. Unlike with games like World of Warcraft where we've got years' worth of backstory, these bad guys will magically appear in a vision to talk trash every time you foil their plans, and they're very sure that the next obstacle they set in your way will definitely turn you into a corpse for them to dine on. This happens repeatedly and often, and it makes the game's villains, who are supposed to be imposing and serious, kind of silly and useless. The narrative isn't exactly amazing either, and while it can pretty easily be skipped if you just want to mash through and get back to killing stuff and grabbing loot, there's no getting around the point that Diablo III has a lot of superfluous story going around. I get that they wanted to flesh out the world a bit more, but maybe a fast-paced action game where we're constantly furiously clicking isn't really the right venue for trying to deliver a big story with piles of much mediocre voice acting, useless backstory, and go-nowhere plot points.

On top of this, it's clear that Blizzard was trying to channel a hell of a lot of D2 into this game, as you'll visit many of the 2000 classic's locations, sometimes even a few in the exact same order. I don't think it's necessarily lazy all-around, as the new visuals redraw the world in some wonderful detail. But from a thematic perspective, the team seems to be sticking with very familiar territory here. I guess I can see why, considering how many people feel like Diablo II is a true classic PC game. Maybe they were trying to strike a particular balance between the fresh and the familiar, but they seem to have landed a little too far on the side of the familiar for me.

Diablo II and its expansion pack have had a strong following, solid sales, and plenty of players online for more than a decade, so inevitably the question will come up: can Diablo III possibly have as much longevity? Even though D3 is based on much more sound technology than D2 (which was built on an engine that was already pretty iffy when the game was launched in 2000), I'm not entirely sure that Blizzard can bottle that lightning again and keep it flickering for over a decade like they did last time. With all of that said, Diablo III does seem like it's got the gameplay chops to last for years to come. It might be stunted just a little bit, since there's no mod support and the game's dependence on an online infrastructure means that any modding that doesn't involve Blizzard lawsuits is going to have to be officially supported by them, possibly in a future expansion pack or patch. After all, mods are kind of working out nicely for Starcraft II, so I urge Blizzard to think about it for the future.

With key changes to its art style, technology, gameplay, skills, and classes, Diablo III has revitalized the isometric action-RPG and made this classic genre fresh and cool all over again. It's not all sunshine and unicorns, as the game is lacking in a few areas, but it's still going to go down as another Blizzard classic. This latest creation of theirs is living up to nearly all of the mountains of hype piled on it, and after playing it for many hours across more than a couple of character classes, I'm happy to say that the final product definitely does live up to the name Diablo. The downtime and server errors are mostly gone now, and I think a majority of gamers will forget about these early troubles and spend years enjoying yet another fantastic effort from Blizzard.

Disclaimer: This review is based on a digital PC copy provided by Blizzard Entertainment.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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