11 years in the making, Diablo III is the latest installment in a series that defined mutliplayer Role-Playing Games. Because gamers have waited so long for a sequel, and plenty are still happy with Diablo II, expectations are higher than for any other game that will be released this year.
It is fair to argue that Blizzard’s latest game doesn’t make any impactful changes to the genre, has a terrible story, and leaves some players out in the cold with its online requirement. But RPGs are Blizzard Software’s wheelhouse. Diablo created the Action RPG genre, and World of Warcraft’s dominance over online RPG players is only now starting to slow down, eight years and four expansion packs later. Their expertise oozes out of (almost) every inch of the user interface and player experience.
With an action RPG, you are ultimately paying for a set of exciting combat encounters, and a rewarding sense of progression for your character. Diablo III has that in spades, and will clearly be the high-bar of Online Action RPGs for the next few years, despite a few head-scratching design decisions.
One of the strengths of the Diablo series is how it takes a normally difficult to approach genre like a Role Playing Game, and makes it simpler. Some gamers give Diablo flack for being too simple because, “you just click on everything.” To me, that’s like saying a racing game is boring because you “just hold the accelerator pedal down.”
As a monk, a damage-dealing class focused in martial arts, I can just hold down the mouse button and enemies in front of me will disappear. It’s not the most efficient way of dispatching evil, but it works. On the other hand, I can pull a group of enemies toward me, blind them, and eviscerate them in a vortex of fists before quickly drinking a health potion and dashing to the next target.
Discovering combat tricks like that is made easy by the new streamlined skill system. Where previous Diablo games and other Action RPGs have you muck about with statistics and go down predefined skill trees, Diablo III‘s default setting breaks each interface “slot” into its own progression. There is one slot for each mouse button, four slots for keys on the keyboard, and three passive ability slots.
Each unique combat maneuver you can learn also has about a half dozen permutations that come in the form of the “rune” system. As an example, the Monk has a left mouse button move that focuses on a single target and pounds them with multiple punches in quick succession. With runes, I can choose between increasing the number of punches performed, increasing the damage of the punches, or increasing the chance that the punches will stun my enemies. All of these abilities can be switched around and customized at any time, with no cost to the player other than waiting a few seconds for the skill to be ready.
Purists will forever cry foul, but this re-imagining of the skill system ultimately serves the design goals of a faster-paced RPG like Diablo III. Rather than struggling to see the benefit between having 26 or 27 dexterity, each level the player gains rewards them with two or three unique variations on a move to try out. This makes it easier for the player to get to know their playing style. For folks who need to see a screen full of numbers to feel like they are playing a “true” RPG, a pop-up menu from the inventory screen breaks down your statistics into more categories than I can count. There is also an “elective mode” hidden in the settings menu that allows you to break out of Blizzard’s predefined progression and put skills wherever you want. This will become a must for high-level players, but I would stick with Blizzard’s suggestions for your first run through the game. There is already plenty there to wrap your head around.
Diablo III is rewarding enough when played solo, but the co-operative multiplayer is where the meat of the game is at. The friends list is accessible right from the main menu. In a single glance you can tell where your friends are in the story, what difficulty they are playing on, and how many slots are open in their party. Joining their game is a mouse click and a two second wait away. After you join your friend’s game, enemy monsters increase in difficulty automatically, and you can warp straight to where your friend is, even if they are in the middle of fighting dozens of hellspawn.
Such a clear focus on multiplayer gameplay is a double-edged sword, however. If you want to play the game by yourself, it can feel like you are fighting the game’s design to play your way. In Diablo III, your game activity is constantly visible to everyone in your friends list. While you can turn off auto-join so friends can’t wantonly drop into your game without permission, players wanting a more solitary experience will still get bombarded by invites and messages from their friends.
Diablo III is also clearly designed for players to get hooked on the combat mechanics, rather than enjoy the story (which ends up feeling like a Saturday morning cartoon about demons, at best). The game doesn’t keep track of which quest you are playing solo when you leave to join a friend’s game, and doesn’t ask if you would mind skipping through hours of the story to play with them. Blizzard’s servers are very good about keeping track of all of the items and experience you have earned, but physical checkpointing is pretty abysmal. Every time I played with a few friends, I had to repeat a few sections of the game to get back to where I was in “my” story.
The fact is, Diablo III doesn’t have a single player mode. There is no version of the game world that feels uniquely your own. Like playing a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG solo, Diablo III, by design, is a multiplayer game that you can choose to play by yourself. There are many other games in the Action RPG space that will satisfy your single player cravings if you are dead set on playing by yourself. But if even one of your friends is playing Diablo III, jump in. It is the most fun co-operative gaming experience I have had in a long time.
Blizzard has remained committed to executing a thoroughly designed, unified art direction rather than wowing with polygon counts. The story in Diablo III is broken down into four acts, with each hosting their own color palette that is vibrant enough to be interesting, but still preserves the grim and brambly look associated with hellspawn roaming the earth. Diablo III also uses the isometric viewpoint in interesting ways to give a sense of epic scale to the environment. Rather than a series of one dark and dank dungeon after another, Diablo III jumps around between a variety of settings, and ultimately feels less restrictive than other titles in this genre. A camp on a cliffside overlooking a large city, and a keep under siege by demons, are just two highlights from the campaign.
What really kicks the visual presentation up a notch is the integration of physics in the game world. That sentence probably sounds like it was written in 2002, but hear me out. It is already incredibly satisfying to walk into a room and mow down 30 demons in a few seconds, but it is even more awesome to see how the room was torn apart during a battle, and to see the bodies and limbs of your enemies sail through the air. One problem I have always had with these kind of Action RPGs is that the locked camera and miniature look of all the characters make it seem more like you are playing with action figures in a diorama than acting out these battles yourself. Diablo III‘s use of scale and thorough integration of physics makes the world feel more believable and less like a LEGO play-set.
But there’s no way around it, Diablo III does look dated compared to other contemporary games. The character models in particular have a lot of jagged edges, though I guess this was done to keep the frame rate reasonable. On the plus side, Diablo III should run well on any full-size laptop or desktop computer, PC or Mac, made within the last three or four years.
This is the part where Blizzard really nailed it. Diablo III is ridiculously fun. Why, you ask? Simple: The game is always moving.
The world is completely seamless. There are no loading screens between areas, and even clicking on a doorway to descend into a dungeon only incurs a half-second pause before the game pops you into the new area. Warping back to town takes about 2 seconds with, again, no loading screen.
I don’t just mean that the game always moves in a physical way either. In Diablo III you are always improving something. Experience is gained by killing monsters and completing quests, of course, but you also gain experience by destroying obstacles in an area, triggering traps, or listening to tidbits about the lore of the Diablo universe. Every time I tried to stop playing Diablo III, something around the corner begged me to play the game some more, and so it was until I finished the game in four or five sittings.
With the exception of a few open desert areas in act two, there is no wasted time in Diablo III. Every second of gameplay sees you improving something, or doing something cool.
With Diablo III, Blizzard has taken everything that was great about Diablo II and polished it to a fine sheen. Such a uniform design vision comes at the risk of alienating a few players, however. If you want to enjoy a game by yourself and watch a gripping narrative unfold, Diablo III won’t do much for you. Through both design and execution, it is clear that the story was not Blizzard’s primary focus in making this game.
I can also understand if talks of server problems and online flakiness are scaring you away, though I played through 90% of the game without any network issues.
The bottom line is, if you want to play an action-RPG that is easy to get into, rewards skillful play in higher difficulty levels, and lets you easily play with your friends, Diablo III is a game that you absolutely cannot miss. But its narrow design makes it a game that I can’t recommend without caveat for those who prefer single player experiences.