Diablo III (PC)

If this game wasn’t so good I’d give it a 37

Diablo 3 is the latest game from the powerhouse that is Blizzard. After dominating both the MMO market and the RTS market, they’ve returned to claim their throne at the head of whatever Diablo could be considered to be. Adventure? RPG? Isometric Kleptomaniac Simulator?

[Disclaimer] This is a relatively early review. After the success of our TERA look we feel there is some value to looking at a game as soon as we feel we have played enough to form a valid opinion. At the moment I have two characters up to Act 2, and have played each character. I’ve also played a mixture of solo, 2, 3, and 4 player games. We have not finished the game, or reached the maximum level. If you wish, consider this a review of our experiences after ten hours of playing. As always, if our experience dramatically changes, we will post a new review.

For those unaware, Diablo is an impressively simple game. You choose a character, and then work your way through an extensive campaign taking place over a number of locations and through a number of partly-randomised dungeons. You click and use hotkeys to cast abilities as you burn, slash and shoot your way through hordes of hell’s minions, and they drop all manner of loot for you to use, sell, or break down into craftable materials. You level up, you go on to fight more challenging demons and bosses, and then you do it all again on a harder difficulty, with up to three friends or random strangers.

This simplicity might be the greatest strength of Diablo III. The formula has worked since the first battle against Diablo and rather than desperately trying to change up the formula, Blizzard have modernised and refined it. The basic game is addictive and not too difficult. On the ‘normal’ difficulty setting most players will be able to get to the end with very few problems. If you add extra players (by opening the game to the public or sometime people on your friends list populated from other Blizzard game will just drop in) the monsters get tougher, but it never gets overwhelming. Once you’ve finished the game on normal you can have a go at a harder difficulty with all the new abilities and items you’ve grabbed on your first playthrough, or you can start again with a new character, able to share items and gold from your strongest hero. If you’re after more of a challenge there is a deep stat system and customisable skill system, but it never really gets in the way if you want to ignore it. Unlike World of Warcraft, you’ll never need to look up strategies or work hard on rotations and talent trees if you don’t want to. If you don’t have time to work on theorycrafting you might struggle with the hardest difficulties, but you’ll still get to see all the content that the game has to offer.

 

Hardcore players have not been ignored, the ‘Inferno’ mode will prove a challenge and there’s enough depth to keep the theorycrafters occupied. The bonus of random loot also promises an ongoing quest to maximise your stats, but it doesn’t feel like work in the way that most MMOs tend to. Because the multiplayer is co-operative there’s not even a feeling that you have to be any good to take part. While in Starcraft 2 a player who doesn’t understand build-orders will be decimated within minutes, you can easily tag along with a more experienced group in Diablo 3 and have a whale of a time.

Over the past few days we’ve dipped in an out of games, staying on for more extended periods in the evenings. The nature of the story is such that in can be digested in bite-size morsels and it’s subtle enough to be forgettable. It’s not bad by any means but it’s clearly just a backdrop for the gameplay. There’s memorable characters and the bosses are sometimes built up to provide a sense of menace, but you’re not going to be discussing motivations and plot twists with your co-workers the next morning.

Blizzard have received a lot of flak for the game’s ‘always online’ system. When you start it up you must log in. You can play single-player, but you’ll always be connected to a server. This has some obvious downsides, such as the launch-day server issues, occasional lag, and the fact that anyone on your friends list can seemingly drop in without so much as knocking. On the other hand, it means your progress is constantly saved. If you lose connection or die, you might be taken back to the last (regular) checkpoint, but you’ll keep every last bit of gold and experience you had before you met your end. You can even re-connect on a different PC in a different country and everything will be just as you’ve left it. The system is having teething problems with achievements and the aforementioned server hiccups, but when it works it’s the natural next step in the world of cloud saving. Being able to constantly chat to your friends and see their progress is also a great addition, and if you get lonely in the underworld you can just click a couple of buttons to invite or join a friend.

The visuals are functional and polished, but not breathtaking. Some of the vistas in Act II are impressive, but there’s no way to move the camera and there’s often so much going on nothing is very clear. We’ve avoided using more than one in-game screenshot here because frankly the game needs to be viewed in motion. Spell effects and swarms of monsters play off each other beautifully and the carnage that breaks out every twenty seconds or so is consistently engaging. The locations are varied beyond the three environments of the first game, but still feel comfortably familiar with dungeons and deserts, caves and cathedrals, all rendered in Blizzard’s distinctive gothic style. The upside of the vaguely-average visuals is that it’ll almost definitely run on your PC. Low requirements means a broader audience and even if you’re playing with everything on low you won’t really be missing out. Sound is similarly atmospheric rather than mind-blowing. Turn the sound up to get a feel for the world you’re exploring by all means, but I doubt you’ll be rushing out to find a soundtrack CD.

The setting of the game is a source of constant amusement, and while there is a lot of humour inherent in the dark fantasy setting, I’m not sure all of it is intentional. The number of ‘defiled’ crypts you come across makes you wonder if the local residents just prefer it that way. Names of items are randomised and the potential for hilarity is high. If you play by yourself I’m sure you could take it all very seriously and be drawn into the morbid, broody world. If however you’re in a group, every slightly rude stave and beast will have you in tears of laughter. This isn’t a bad thing, and in a genre where many titles take themselves entirely too seriously it’s nice to have some light-hearted moments. From the beginning of the game you’re faced with carts of corpses and broken, grieving families. If it wasn’t for the levity dotted around it’d be hard to make it through.

The game has done away with a lot of the petty annoyances that plagued past titles in the series and many other adventure games on the market. You don’t need to rely on a cooldown or limited scrolls in order to teleport out of the dungeons in order to sell things, you have a quick, always reliable spell that gets you out fairly quickly. There’s no running back to your corpse after death, you simply respawn at a checkpoint or can be resurrected by anyone else with only a small hit to the durability of your items. Crafting is simple and available early on, items can be shared between characters quickly and easily. If you want more powerful weapons there’s a player-run auction house that builds on Blizzard’s experience with World of Warcraft, and will even allow you to use real-world money in the future. I can’t see how this could be a negative thing, if you don’t want to pay any more, don’t use it, and if you do find something spectacular that you can’t use, have a go at selling it and maybe earn a few pennies in the process, or maybe even a few pounds.

Thankfully, Blizzard have eschewed the usual fantasy tropes and all but one of the classes has something novel about it. There’s your usual wizard with death-rays and a few spells stolen from Warcraft. The first time a high-level wizard joined my game he simply turned into a being of energy, span around, and decimated everything within a twenty foot radius. Blizzard have said they want you to feel overpowered and it really shows. It’s a relief to escape from the crippling balance that adversarial multiplayer games suffer so much from in recent years. While it’s easy to understand why COD wants all of the weapons to be feasible and Capcom can’t Iron-Man vaporise Ryu, it’s a lot more fun to be a wizard who can drop a meteor onto a shambling corpse with a single click. The traditional warrior is replaced with a beefy barbarian, who may lack real defensive abilities but has a number of ways to use weapons to transmute critters into bloody chunks. The typical rogue is switched with a demon hunter, who feels the most underpowered so far compared to other classes, but just looks so damn awesome with two crossbows and a rapid fire ability. Rounding out the roster is a hyperactive monk who prances around the battlefield dropping bells and flying kicks, and last but not least, the spectacular Witch Doctor. Doctor Voodoo can summon spiders, frogs, dogs, zombies, and even a stream of burning bats. He (or she) must manage an intelligence giving buff, and lacks decent escape skills, but the seer insanity of his abilities makes it all worthwhile. The first time you frog a bandit to death you’ll never want to play anything else.

Above all else, Blizzard has kept Diablo fun. They’ve wisely avoided complications and unnecessary tasks and statistic that would get in the way of your entertainment. Fans may argue that Diablo III is dumbed down, but really it’s refined and expanded in a way that makes it so much more accessible and user-friendly than any other similar game I can think of. If you can find someone with a retail copy they’ll have a free trial code that lets you try out the game up to the end of the first major quest (and up to level 13) give it a shot and see if it’s for you. Blizzard have hit every note but the game is still somewhat of an acquired taste; as long as you can get on with the fantasy setting and isometric frenzy of clicking, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

Update: As we often do, we have continued to play Diablo 3 and track its progress over the last few months. The above review was based on initial impressions shortly after launch. The game has changed since then, partly due to the ‘Real Money Auction House’. While the original game is still a lot of fun, the end-game is incredibly uninteresting. What is the purpose in searching for loot when you can just buy the most powerful weapons with the hideous amounts of gold you get, or even real money? I completely lost interest in the game after finishing it once through and this has now been reflected in the score.

Verdict: 8/10

+ It’s almost non-stop fun
+ It’ll almost definitely run on your PC/Mac
+ Playing with friends is a breeze
+ Classes are original and interesting
+ Progress is addictive
– Lag even in single-player
– Can be repetitive
– Endgame is partially ruined due to auctions

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