(PC Review) Diablo III

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
Win XP/Vista/7 or Mac OS X 10.6.8, 10.7.x; Pentium D 2.8 GHz or AMD equiv./Intel Core 2 Duo for Mac; Nvidia GeForce 7800 GT/ATI Radeon X1950 Pro, Nvidia GeForce 8600M GT/ATI Radeon HD 2600 for Mac; 1 GB RAM (XP) / 1.5 GB (Vista/7) / 2GB RAM for Mac; 12 GB free hard drive space; Broadband Internet connection

In every conceivable sense of the word, Diablo III is a beast. No matter what your gaming preferences, it seems all but impossible to ignore this behemoth—in terms of its size, in terms of its ambition, but more importantly, in terms of fan expectations.  After all, franchise legacy has been building to critical mass since its predecessor was released nigh on a decade ago, something that has remained eminently playable to this day thanks in no small part to continuous and remarkable support from Blizzard. With longevity and ridiculous replayability as part of its pedigree, Diablo III’s arrival is less of a release than it is an official, honest-to-goodness, capital-e Event, a landmark in the annals of gaming history.

Taking place some 20 years after the giant question-mark-inducing closure of its predecessor, Diablo III picks up once again in the land of Sanctuary, with wizened sage Deckard Cain once again taking center stage. A mysterious flaming ball comes screaming through the skies, smashing violently through the storied Tristram Cathedral—just one of many callbacks that this game makes to the very first Diablo title—and swallowing up Deckard in a move that also triggers the re-appearance of endless amounts of undead fiends and monsters, all but demanding a mandatory Heroic Rescue and subsequent investigation/destruction of Many Things Occult and Horrific by the player. The somewhat pat and obvious plotting, despite its own predictability, somehow nevertheless manages to be thoroughly entertaining and engaging, likely due in no small part to the regular and subtle (and not-so-subtle) references made to previous games. In the early going, the tone vacillates between B-movie-style storytelling and hinting at great horrors; as the Acts roll forward, the action and plot kick fully into “sweet screaming monkeys, that’s heinous” mode, keeping more in tune with the themes long-time fans have come to expect.  It also doesn’t hurt that the game also feels like somewhat of a love letter to the previous two Diablo titles: bosses, dialogue, and key characters are revived en masse throughout the game, which is a satisfying reward for players who’ve worked their way through the entire franchise.

Of course, the series hasn’t lasted this long as a result of its story: as the game that defined the hack-‘n’-slash clickfest, Diablo would mean nothing if it couldn’t sustain the idea of click-click-clicking the left mouse button for endless amounts of hours. So let’s get this out of the way right off the top: on that level (and indeed on many others), Diablo III is wildly successful. There are no cobwebs apparent anywhere on the game’s bones, even if it is more of an incremental upgrade rather than a dramatic one. As an experience, Diablo III is quite a lot like Diablo II, with skill trees, stats, and so on all calling back constantly to that earlier game. Regardless of which of the game’s five classes you play, you’re still going to spend an awful lot of time bashing away at your mouse and mashing between various skills and your health and mana potions. There are still special named bosses that offer special loot, there are still obscene quantities of addiction-inducing loot of various rarities, and there are still plentiful reasons to run through certain Acts again and again as you farm for bonuses, experience, gems, and so on. Every second, minute, and hour of it all is every bit as habit-forming as Diablo II, and that’s as high of praise as any game could really hope for.

What is important to note, however, is that Diablo III takes that core experience and does its best to sand off all the rough edges. If you spent any amount of time with the previous title, you know that crafting your character—any character, regardless of class—wasn’t so much about experimentation and creativity as it was a hard, cold, unforgiving science. Every level increase; every stat point spent into dexterity, intelligence, strength; every choice on every skill tree had to be carefully and specifically chosen dozens of levels in advance, lest you wind up with a character that was, for all intents and purposes, broken. Failure to balance the right points into the right spots at the right times would leave your character wildly and horribly underequipped to handle the rigors of the higher difficulty levels, and in some cases, even regular-difficulty bosses. It was a brilliant game with an unforgiving progression system that demanded one either painfully, gradually perfect or research their talent investment strategy almost from the earliest moments of starting their first game. This was, arguably, one of its greatest flaws, something that only worsened as patches and expansions added greater levels of complexity and skill interdependence.

All of that vanishes with Diablo III. Aside from its wonderful visual update, the game’s most significant changes come as it takes the pandering to the “hardcore” and punts the entire skill system out the window. Instead, Blizzard has opted to open the entire character development system with an eye towards player-friendliness:  for instance, optimal attribute point-spending is now done automatically, absolving the player of having to remember which spending formula is best for their chosen class. Similarly, skills are unlocked automatically as you progress, all but annihilating the concept of a full-on tree. Instead, key strategic choices instead are made as you decide which of your unlocked skills go into specific slot types—might, defensive, active use, etc. —as well as the runes associated with each skill. Yes, it’s true that the rune system has been radically revamped as well, with the Horadric Cube nowhere in sight. Runes, too, are little more than skill modifiers, with only one capable of being active at any point in time.

All of this taken together is something that’s unquestionably simplified, and it’s difficult not to feel in the first 10-20 levels that this simplification may be overdone, as each level introduces but one or two unlocks, some of which seem utterly useless at the time. Taken beyond the 20-level range, however, the possibilities for individualized strategy unfurl gradually, and you’re eventually given the sense of how much the process really allows you to understand each skill and tweak as you slowly develop and modify your own unique strategies. It’s difficult to overemphasize the profound difference this set of changes has on the overall gaming experience, as players are given full reign to experiment with the tools available to them, mixing and matching in order to find a system that ultimately matches their own play style. This is something that, ideally, will change drastically as the game progresses, and it’s unspeakably satisfying to be able to pore over your available talents and look at what might best work for you without having to worry about whether making those changes will ruin your game utterly. Some truly terrific skill-rune-equipment combos are up for grabs here, and the game is now designed in such a way as to allow you to find some that work for you without rapping you over the knuckles by negating hours upon hours of play.

It sounds utterly ridiculous to even say the following sentence, but it’s a testament to its importance as a gameplay element in previous games that it bears mentioning that the potion system in Diablo III is also completely different. Rather than insta-heal, insta-refresh, potions are now akin to what you’d expect in other titles that have emerged post-Diablo in that your health gain is gradual and, more importantly, there’s now a time limit until you can use another. This sounds like a simple change, but it is something that fundamentally changes the experience since you can no longer madly mash the number keys associated with your belt’s potion slots—indeed, there aren’t any such slots. You’re now forced to be much more cautious and strategic about your skill use, which particularly emphasizes the importance of balancing your offensive and defensive choices, and this is ultimately a much more productive gaming choice to have to make.

These changes are also accompanied by a big shift to the gem and armor upgrade systems. Since the Horadric Cube is gone, bumping up your prodigious piles of stuff is handled through two separate characters who join you on your journey and follow from that point on, even through replays on higher difficulty levels. Three gems of the same grade are required to create a single gem of a higher type (though Blizzard has hinted at a patch that will reduce this to two), which can be inserted into equipment and weapons with the requisite slots to produce specific bonuses. Thankfully, gems seem to be considerably more common this time out, and can even be removed from their slots without destroying either. Similarly, equipment and weapons can be crafted by a traveling blacksmith, who requires not only cash but resources earned from breaking down even your standard magical loot.  Both these types can be upgraded through investment of straight-up cash, which provide you with incentives to actually save your cash as you punch through the game. They also allow players to keep up with regular upgrades for equipment they haven’t been lucky enough to find, though that seems somewhat unrealistic given the overwhelming amount of stuff that erupts from even the smallest monster.

Any review of a Diablo game should, by law, be required to at least mention in passing the various classes that are available, especially in light of the brilliant additions that Diablo II: Lord of Destruction made to the core game. This time around, players can choose from among five classes, which include the stock melee-focused Barbarian, close-combat-speedier Monk, the fabled glass-cannon Wizard, the eclectic Witch Doctor, and the ranged-weapon Demon Hunter. Aside from the Barbarian, each of these could be described as mix-and-match variants of Diablo II classes: the Witch Hunter is like a Necromancer minus the severe corpse requirement, while the Demon Hunter is mix between the Assassin—a personal favorite—and the Amazon. While there is certainly room for the addition of other classes, one can’t help but assume that these will come later in the form of the all but inevitable expansion packs. Still, this isn’t to demean any of the satisfaction derived from those offered by the stock game, as they’re all thoroughly unique to play, and each jammed with their own range of play styles that make for a different experience. In other words, the full range of skills available within one class makes each strongly replayable; with five classes, the game has a powerful level of staying power.

What is decidedly less impressive, however, is the game’s highly controversial always-online requirement. Without a persistent Internet connection, players are flat out of luck to even fire up the game, and while some would wonder who lacks such a connection these days—how are you reading this review, exactly?—it’s worth noting the intrusion that the resulting lag really represents. While the game is quite impressive in its ability to accommodate older systems with few visual sacrifices, the online component can make you forget all of that as even a hint of lag will see animation stutters and déjà-vu three-second time rewinds. With more severe lag, the game becomes rather unplayable, especially as heavier monster mobs lay waste to your suddenly slow-reacting hero. While it’s an immense relief that death is no longer the brutal kick in the teeth it once was, as it instead erodes your equipment durability rather than robbing you of items and money, this needless death and slowness are still frustrating in the extreme.

It’s also worth taking a look at the reason for this online requirement, which is the new auction system. Anyone who’s taken a stab at Blizzard’s World of Warcraft knows what to expect here as searchable and modifiable queries for equipment, crafting recipes, and gems can be found from items posted up by enterprising players the world over. While players can choose to ask for simple in-game gold for their items, Blizzard is also offering players the ability to ask for real, honest-to-Baal cash for their goods, from which Blizzard takes their cut. It’s an interesting concept that raises all sorts of questions about how companies can monetize the player experience without sacrificing the integrity of the core gameplay, and despite the egregious and arguably unacceptable demand of online persistence, Blizzard more or less skirts the issue. The cash auction house is fully and completely optional, and anyone looking for a more casual experience is free to ignore its existence in favor of the in-game version, which is surprisingly easy to use for basic profit. Whether the online requirement is something that will stand the test of time is another story, especially given its omnipresent inconvenience.

The anticipation surrounding Diablo III is so intense as to be practically impossible to satisfy, and yet its insanely impressive technical and design decisions accomplish exactly that. Whether it’s fantastic smaller touches, such as in-game lore delivered through discovered documents, or larger elements, such as a revamped equipment upgrade system, Diablo III manages to satisfy on almost every level. Its new approach to skills and attributes cracks the game wide open for every type of player instead of strictly cold calculating skill scientists, which does wonders for bolstering the game’s long-term appeal—something that’s already staggering. There are severe niggles, of course, particular with regards to the game’s online-only requirement which brings with it a raft of issues, but the game itself is so expertly tailored with the long view in mind, with a sense of offering years upon years of play, that you can’t help but overlook its few flaws. Diablo III is undoubtedly a monster, one that lands upon the scene with such force that you’re reminded why you’ve enjoyed its copycats, and why you loved the genre in the first place. The king of the clickfest is back; long live Diablo III.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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