Review: Diablo 3

It has been 11 years since Lord of Destruction, the last entry in the Diablo series, was released. Now that Diablo 3 is finally available for all of us mere mortals, the question that looms above the incredible cloud of hype is, “does it live up to its namesake?”

The answer is more complicated than I would like it to be.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
ESRB Rating: M
Released: May 15, 2012
Platforms: PC/Mac

Ordinarily I would start this review by talking about the first thing one might normally encounter in the game, the character creation and all of the available class options, but this has not been an ordinary launch. In fact, it has been one of the most frustrating poorly-executed launches in recent memory. With a torrent of traffic slamming Blizzard’s servers, especially in the early stages of the game’s launch, players around the globe were locked out of the game with a parade of error messages.

Once this issue subsided and players were finally able to enter the world of Sanctuary en masse, the servers proved to be unstable. They crashed intermittently, realms were taken offline without warning numerous times, and the lag was atrocious.

By now, the servers have stabilized to the point where they are no longer crashing and locking players out of the game, but a fraction of the lag persists.

Like vanilla Diablo 2, the third game in the series places five distinct character classes on the table, each with their own resource system. It’s worth noting that, functionally, one class’ resource system varies in only very small ways from the others. The Wizard’s arcane power is quite similar to the Witch Doctor’s mana and the Demon Hunter’s dual resource system, and the Monk’s spirit is quite similar to the Barbarian’s fury.

These traits are not what make the classes diverse, though. Indeed, the classes of Diablo 2 all shared the same resource mechanic. What sets each of them apart, what makes them flexible and fun, are their abilities. After having played each class, I’ve been hard pressed to find many abilities or runes that aren’t fun, or useful in some way, though some are more situational than others.

The lack of traditional skill trees was, admittedly, something I was worried about. At first glance, it appears entirely inflexible, almost as if to discourage customization. One culprit for why this impression exists is a certain game setting, elective mode, being toggled off by default. What elective mode does is it allows the player to use his 6 hotbar slots in any way he or she sees fit; mixing and matching abilities from different categories. For instance, with elective mode off I cannot use both Meteor and Energy Twister because they are both force spells and I only have one spot available for force spells. With elective mode on, however, I can mix and match as I see fit.

That aside, this new skill system has not only turned out better than I expected, it’s the mechanical highlight of the game. Dare I say it, it outshines the skill system that came before it. Each class has about 12 passive abilities, 25 active abilities, and each active ability has 5 runes tied to it. At any given time, a player can utilize 3 of their 12 passives, 6 of their 25 actives, and each of those 6 chosen actives can have 1 rune modifying it. Runes often drastically change the properties of an ability. For instance, the Wizard can summon a 3-headed hydra to rapidly dish out a small amount of damage with each hit. Its associated runes can give it arcane area-of-effect damage, increase its damage output per hit, slow enemies with cold damage, or create pools of poison beneath stationary enemies.

By not locking you into a set build, the game opens wonderful vistas of experimentation up to the player. With this system, Diablo 3 also bypasses the need for a respec system. Abilities can be swapped out on the fly, and play styles can change at a moment’s notice. One might decide to try out a completely different build on a whim without being punished or inconvenienced for wanting to experiment. This incredible diversity in builds also lightens the tedium of repetition that is a chief complaint surrounding this type of loot-grinding dungeon crawler. At the end of the day, it’s still going to amount to an RSI-inducing amount of clicking, but you can at least take comfort in knowing that you’re playing in a way that fits your preferences.

Though I am supremely impressed by this system and the amount of customization it allows, the later difficulties put a bit of a damper on that customization. That isn’t to say there isn’t a relatively huge pool of options available for the game’s final tiers of difficulty, but those options shrink as the game gets harder. Most builds don’t become entirely obsolete, but survival becomes paramount, and most enemies on Inferno will one-shot you without certain essential skills.

In fact, the difficulty curve is puzzling. The game’s starting difficulty level, normal, is a walk in the park as is to be expected. Players seeking a modicum of challenge will have to finish the game once to get to nightmare mode which is where you start to encounter difficult groups of special enemies with a combination of nasty abilities designed to ruin your day. Some of these enemies can lock you in place while getting in your face and leaving a blazing trail of fire at their feet. Still, nightmare presents a fairly manageable challenge that you can easily overwhelm by carefully out-gearing the enemies. Once you reach Hell and Inferno, standard enemies can nearly one-shot you, and unique packs of monsters gain even more life-threatening abilities.

The challenge is not unwelcome, though the disparity in difficulty between settings is jarring. Barbarians also seem to have the short end of the stick on Inferno difficulty where their enormous health pools are no boon against enemies that one shot them indiscriminately, and they lack the ability to kite as effectively as ranged classes.

As with the skill system, I had some initial concerns regarding how the game would feel being played with others this time around. Socializing with 2.0’s hamstrung chat proved to be a chore in the empty chat channels of Starcraft 2, but the WoW-like chat pane of Diablo 3 seems to be slightly more abuzz with chatter.

The removal of lobbies and reduction of game sizes from 8 players down to 4 was also a cause for concern. While the lack of lobbies is still a pet peeve for me, the player-count trimming has produced no noticeable negative impact.

In all other regards, the multiplayer has done nothing but improve since the days of Diablo 2. Enemy health and damage scaling feels just right, and the matchmaking system ensures that there is usually a companion aside from the game’s pathetically weak AI followers. Players are no longer in a bitter race to click the fastest and beat their fellow cooperative chums to a shiny new item. Each player gets their own loot drop from a fallen enemy.

Most of the time that loot is junk; junk that cannot be sold for a price that makes it worth the time and inventory space of picking up. It is usually better to salvage eligible items for crafting materials than to sell them to vendors. Crafting from the blacksmith is akin to gambling in Diablo 2 except more of an investment. The jeweler, with his ability to combine your lower quality stat-modifying gems into higher quality ones and his ability to salvage gems from socketed items, proves to be a far more valuable craftsman most of the time. Still, the blacksmith has the unique ability to craft exceptionally rare legendary and set items.

Of course, you still have to get the plans for those set pieces and legendary items, and those plans may be more rare than the equipment they lead to. Which isn’t surprising given that drop rates for legendaries, which replace Diablo 2’s uniques as the highest item-quality in the game, are staggeringly rare, especially in comparison to Diablo 2. Not that makes a huge difference given how poor the game’s itemization is. Blues and well-statted rares are far more common than legendaries, and many of them are far better than a perfect legendary item is anyway.

Another problem afflicting the game’s itemization is that, unlike skill customization, there just isn’t enough thought or meaningful choices that go into choosing how to gear one’s character. This is because everything scales with weapon damage to an obscene degree, making a 2-handed maul the more appealing choice for a spell-caster than a wand. It is also because there aren’t enough useful stat modifiers in the game. Each class scales with weapon damage, and after that the only major decisions left to make on gear comes down to whether or not it has vitality, sockets, and the primary attribute (strength, dexterity, or intelligence) that scales with each class’ damage output. As a sorceress in Diablo 2 I might choose between The Oculus being my weapon, because it will increase my overall spell damage, or I might choose Death’s Fathom because it increases just my cold damage to a greater degree, or I might choose the Wizard Spike because I need the increased casting rate to reach a certain casting speed breakpoint (note: Diablo 2 used a series of breakpoints to determine how many frames of animation it took to cast a spell. Any number between those break points made no difference in casting speed. For instance, the two fastest sorceress BPs were at 105 faster cast rate and 200; any amount of FCR between 106-199 made no difference). In gearing my Diablo 3 wizard, every piece of equipment is either a clear upgrade, or a clear downgrade, with no thought of trade-offs because items sport so few stats, and even fewer that make a significant impact.

I would be lying through my teeth if I said these itemization failings overshadowed the fun I had while building my character and unleashing devastation, but it does demonstrate a way in which the series has taken great strides forward and subsequently leapt backward.

Favoring gameplay over story, the four acts of the game are something of a mixed bag. Given that players will be completing the campaign over and over again, the fact that the game is full of action, hidden dungeons, newly introduced event side-quests, environments that are diverse and beautiful in a grim way, and rampageous fun is appreciated, and in this case it would certainly be better to have a fun game than one with a well written story, but that’s something of a false dichotomy – such a tradeoff was unnecessary.

For starters, loose ends from Diablo 2 and its expansion have not been addressed. At the end of Lord of Destruction, the archangel, Tyrael, destroys the sacred Worldstone. The consequences of his actions remain unclear. Not only does the game not address loose ends, it creates even more by the time the credits roll and leaves a trail of plotholes and retcons in its wake. One character, the character who brings Diablo back into the world, disappears at the end of act 3 and nobody seems to care at all. This character is never addressed again. The game also employs a number of hackneyed twists straight from the book of M. Night Shyamalan.

Furthermore, Diablo’s latest incarnation, resembling the alien queen from Aliens, possesses the souls of all 7 of the series‘ ‘Lords of Hell’ – the primary antagonists over the course of the series. He is given these souls by a plot device introduced in act 2, the ‘Black Soulstone.’ This item is used to imprison the two Lords of Hell who have not been dealt with up until this point in the series. Despite the fact that none of the remaining five big baddies have ever interacted with this plot device before dying in previous games, the Black Soulstone somehow contains their souls. Two of them were previously killed in a way that is, in Diablo 2, stressed to the player as being the only way to permanently vanquish them, including Diablo himself. Nobody expects Diablo not to come back in a game titled after him, but he could have been written back into the game in a way more elegant than this.

I would also like to add that Belial, the Lord of Lies, is terrible at his job.

There’s no getting around it, this review is getting long in the tooth, but that is the consequence of reviewing a game that is absolutely packed with things worthy of praise and things worthy of censure. Before closing out, there are still a number of less prominent details I want to address briefly (I promise) in this paragraph. The identification and town portal system have both been greatly revamped for player convenience and no longer require a tome of scrolls taking up inventory space to do. The game of Inventory Tetris has been greatly simplified now that items take up a maximum of 2 spaces vertically in the inventory. Your stash can now be upgraded to hold a far greater number of goods than in Diablo 2, and those goods, along with all of your gold and your blacksmith and jeweler’s levels are shared across all characters on your account, except for cross-server characters and Hardcore (perma-death mode) characters. Gold is still plentiful, but the gold sinks available will keep a gold-based economy reasonable for some time to come. The auction house works exceptionally well by filtering a large number of options, but very broad searches are a bit of a hassle. Given that the auction-house controls the in-game economy, bartering for items with other items is far less common now. Diablo 3 has not learned from Torchlight‘s system that allows you to send your pet/companion back to town to sell junk for you. Finally, it is simple to load up the final quest of an act and travel, via waypoint, right to the boss’ doorstep for farming runs, but champion mobs and unique packs of enemies yield far better loot than bosses in this game, and a stacking buff granted by killing these packs of enemies makes the prospect of clearing an act, rather than repetitiously farming bosses, more enticing.

While it’s easy to ignore these glaring issues while wrapped up in the truly fun gameplay, the poor itemization, the lack of PvP, the wonky difficulty curve, the sloppily penned story, and the problematic launch are no less issues, and they undermine an otherwise remarkable game and tarnish what would be an experience otherwise filled with far more positives than negatives. Still, it’s worth repeating that the game is fun, and that’s why it can be so easy to get caught up in things and ignore the aforementioned flaws.

What the game does right may not absolve it of what it does wrong, but that cuts both ways.

So, does it live up to its predecessor? It pains me to say that it does not. It improves on Diablo 2’s design in some ways, but fails in others. It is worth the money for its compelling fun-factor alone, but despite the fact that I will enjoy it for some time to come, I would be remiss not to also point out how much potential was squandered here.

6.5 / 10

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