Two weeks ago, I thought it was impossible.
I thought you couldn't take an intense game that requires quick response time, precision mouse clicks, and a full keyboard and successfully turn it into a console game with a controller. I thought you couldn't take an interface and design that was made for a computer monitor that sits a foot away from your face and make it work on a TV that's ten feet away. I thought you couldn't take a game designed from the ground up for a PC audience to be played on a PC and somehow make it a more fun, focused, and rewarding experience on a console.
Blizzard proved me wrong with Diablo III.
If you're not familiar with the Diablo series, it revolutionized the hack-and-slash action RPG genre, putting the player in control of heroes of various types clashing against the demonic forces of Hell. Although the first game in the series did come to the original PlayStation, it's primarily been a PC affair. There are plenty of folks still playing Diablo II over 10 years after its release, right up until the third installment came out on PC last summer.
Continuing in the tradition of the series so far, Diablo III lets you choose one of several character classes with various strengths and weaknesses to fight your way through mobs of enemies, leveling up your character to gain new abilities, and picking up dozens of increasingly powerful items and artifacts to help you on your quest. The game tells a vaguely Biblical story about angels, demons, and Nephalem — the half-breed children of the two races. Some of the story may be confusing to players who haven't experienced the first two games, but there's plenty of lore to be found and read that should fill in the backstory sufficiently.
The real draw of hack-and-slash action RPG games like Diablo has always been the loot, and that's no different with this installment. There's still tons of new stuff to find from slain enemies and treasure chests, always working to make your character bigger and badder. In fact, the console version of the game is arguably better in that regard than its PC big brother. Blizzard has tweaked the loot system to ensure that more weapons, armor, and accouterments drop that work best for the character you're currently using. This "smart loot" system means you won't pick up as much junk that doesn't benefit you, and you'll find many more "Legendary" items, reinforcing the game's loot-lust feedback loop. In addition, the PC's eBay-like Auction House is nowhere to be found on consoles, making each piece of loot you find meaningful instead of just being a throwaway item that you'll sell to buy something better later.
It's clear that a lot of care went into the translation of Diablo III from a mouse-and-keyboard driven experience to a controller-focused one. There's more here than just mapping keys to controller buttons. The game has been rebalanced, altering some skills completely for the new audience and input method, and the changes work very well. Much of the game's combat revolves around a rotation of abilities — for instance, stun a group of enemies, drop a wide area attack to take out the weak ones, then focus on the heavy hitters with direct attacks. Lather, rinse, repeat. The controls are smooth and responsive enough that this all feels natural, and you'll never have a problem pulling off your combos. The waves of enemies might seem overwhelming at first, but as you level up your character and get into a groove with your abilities, it becomes challenging and very satisfying... especially when that rare sword or bow drops afterwards.
Blizzard's typical polished presentation is represented in full force here, providing impressive sound and visuals. Backgrounds maintain the lush painterly style that makes characters and enemies pop, and the soundtrack is epic or creepy in just the right places. Playing through the game's first act dungeons with my headphones on, I constantly had to turn my head to make sure that thumps or creaks weren't coming from inside my own house. The game's HUD and menus have also seen a facelift for the console version, with a completely overhauled inventory system that uses radial menus to access your arsenal.
As you would expect, Blizzard also translated the online multiplayer to consoles, allowing you to slay even more dangerous monsters with buddies or strangers from across the world, but there's also a new local cooperative mode that works very well and fits with the ethos of multiplayer Diablo. Your character's progression and items all carry over into multiplayer, and the only real issue here is the way loot is handled in couch co-op. It will take a little inventory management to make sure everyone gets the best items for their character, but overall it's a minor inconvenience to the joy of slaying baddies with your friends.
If it hasn't been clear thus far, it's nearly impossible to talk about this console version without bringing up the original PC version or the earlier games in the series. It is, in fact, this burdensome legacy that presents Diablo III's greatest challenge. Despite Blizzard's hard work to create a brand-new way to play on consoles, this is by no means a simple or "casual" game. There are dozens of systems at play here, all working together like some infernal machine fed by your attention span. Most elements of these gameplay systems happen behind the scenes, safely hidden from your view. But to get the most out of your experience with Diablo III, you're going to want to learn about some of them, and the game doesn't make that an easy task.
I'm not a fan of repetitive hand-holding tutorials, but there's far too much assumed knowledge here, and the most help you'll get is an occasional tooltip that pop up the first time you encounter a new gameplay element. This is particularly troublesome for a console version of the game, as full-bred ARPGs don't come to these platforms often. It's unfair to assume that gamers know how to play an ARPG like they would a modern military FPS with yearly installments, and that's not even considering all the specific minutiae of the Diablo series. If you want to play Diablo III on anything more than a surface level, get ready to embrace the idea of consulting guides or fan sites whenever something stumps you.
If you're willing to put a little outside time and effort into learning how the game works, Diablo III can be an intensely rewarding experience. This console version of the game is a faithful representation of the PC version that came before, and the changes and improvements actually make it more focused and satisfying to play by yourself or with friends. I've played dozens of hours of the game on PC, and after playing this version, I don't think I'm going back to the keyboard and mouse anytime soon.