(PlayStation 3) Diablo III

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

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Console gamers have had to wait a long time to return to the world of Diablo. The series hasn’t appeared on a non-PC system since its debut was released on the original PlayStation back in 1998. However, despite the absence of the action-RPG’s standard-bearer, the genre continued to make a name for itself with a string of fantastic releases from other established series such as Baldur’s Gate and EverQuest. Interestingly, the console controller’s lack of keys and its reputation as being better for less-involved, faster-paced games saw developers alter their traditional role-playing titles towards a more action-oriented design; this resulted in many of the best Diablo-like releases never making it to its platform of origin. But after years of planning his comeback, the Lord of Destruction has finally returned to consoles, and in Diablo III, he finds a most warm welcome.

As the newest arrival to Sanctuary, players face a land that is riddled with monsters and the living dead. The local authorities are powerless to stop the monstrous onslaught, and it’s up to the player, as a Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Magician, Monk, or Witch Doctor, to put an end to the malevolent forces behind the recent attacks. They will not be alone in their quest, however, as a few remain to stand against the evil armies. Among them is a stranger who fell from the heavens, a powerful warrior that will guide and assist the player, as well as a magician, a paladin, and a scoundrel, and all will offer their services as sidekicks in the battles ahead. Alongside these AI-controlled allies, players set out on a four-act quest that will have them facing off against the oldest of evils in a battle for Heaven itself. The hordes are many, the action is fast, and the carnage is glorious.

Even though the studio hasn’t released a console game in over a decade, not to mention the cancellation of StarCraft: Ghost in the interim, Blizzard wastes no time in demonstrating their capabilities with the port of Diablo III. Everything from character creation to difficulty customization to control of the myriad skills and abilities is simple and seamless. Players start by creating a character from a handful of options: class, gender, and name. After that, they can select one of five difficulty levels for the initial main difficulty level that is unlocked for play. These overarching difficulty levels are available to select in succession, which will throttle the overambitious and force them to become acquainted with the controls, classes, and gameplay before they can take on a tougher challenge. After completing the game, players can take the same character with which they defeated Diablo and then select the newly unlocked difficulty level and continue on with their character remaining at the level they were at the time the credits rolled. Those wanting to truly test their mettle early on don’t have to beat the game but only reach level 10, at which point they are able to select a Hardcore character, which restricts the player to a single life. This is a fantastic system that might feel stymieing to long-time players coming from the computer version, but given the changes made for the console release, it does a wonderful job of introducing players to the more hands-on mechanics while providing a secondary level of difficulty to ensure that there is still a challenge. That said, the game can be easy on the default setting for those with experience, so series fans will want to take advantage of the layered difficutly and choose a tougher setting.

The main addition that older players will need to adjust to is the new Evade feature. Now, players can roll out of the way of attacks by using the right analog stick. Stat checks are still used in determining when some hits land, in particular when an attack is blocked, but this increased degree of control gives the game a much more tactile, immersive feel.  This can make combat slightly more difficult for ranged characters, but a lock-on button helps to alleviate some of the troubles. There are numerous other changes as well, but they are designed to provide greater convenience. For example, there is no online requirement, loot drops have been adjusted to be less frequent but more worthwhile, and the menus have been streamlined to allow for quick access and comparison of gear through the use of radial menus, the smart use of iconography to indicate basic changes, and an optional comparison window providing greater detail. A new quick menu has also been added, which allows items to be selected by using the direction pad while on the battlefield, though it only gives the minimum information—icons indicate whether health, attack, and armor are increased or decreased—without any of the possible enhancement properties, though comes in handy whenever an item is obviously superior or for quick testing.

That focus on convenience is prominent throughout the game. Single-player sessions can be started from any unlocked quest in any unlocked act, at any unlocked checkpoint, and from any unlocked difficulty level from the main menu. Multiplayer sessions can also be joined at any time at any act, the current act or the current quest in one of three modes—Monster Slaying, Brawling, Key Warden—in LAN, private, or public sessions for however long players want. Even the controversial decision to streamline the player’s abilities is malleable. Unlike previous entries, Diablo III follows a set path of unlocks that open new passive and active skills and skill upgrades. Not all abilities will be unlocked on the first playthrough, and the main campaign will end just as the characters are unleashing some of their more impressive attacks, so it becomes very tempting to immediately start a new game. However, for players who prefer more direct control, a manual system can be used for greater customization, although careful attention will need to be paid to ensure that a character is balanced enough to stand up to the more chaotic encounters.

Although there is one area in which I would have liked to have seen the console version follow the PC, and that is with a numerical countdown for skills. Amidst all of the gameplay and control options, the only indicator for when an ability’s cooldown time has expired is when its associated icon turns from grey back to color, which can be very difficult to spot and leads to some unfortunate situations whenever a desperately needed spell isn’t available despite the icon seeming to indicate otherwise.

Diablo III could have also benefited from continuing and advancing some features from both its genre predecessors and its direct antecedents. The biggest step back from older console action-RPGs is the confinement of local co-op to a single screen, meaning item swapping and menu wading, which is frequent, will hold up the game for everyone. And from the first two Diablo titles, the biggest change is the atmosphere. The cutscenes, voice acting, character models, and effects are standard Blizzard quality, but they lack a certain grimness that gave the others a slightly gothic feel. The levels all follow traditional themes—swamp, desert, etc.—but they feel less exciting, less exotic, and less inviting this time around. The occasional artifacting during cutscenes, and slowdown during the more over-the-top encounters, are easily overlooked, but the lack of any sort of dread or trepidation on the part of the enemies and their environs is not. The game can look absolutely stunning when using some of the later abilities, but that old hint of horror is sorely missed.

The console version of Diablo III was worth the wait. Aside from a shift to a blander, less gothic atmosphere, a cluttered co-op experience, and a few menu quibbles, there is little to complain about and a lot to enjoy: highly customizable play sessions, offline play, local co-op, jump-in and jump-out online multiplayer, a new evade feature, a great character roster, responsive controls, and wonderfully destructive skills. The console version is more hands-on than its PC counterpart, and the greater emphasis on action goes a long way. In all, Blizzard has done an outstanding job with Diablo III.

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

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