Sitting down to write this review, I very much wanted to just write “Diablo III is great,” score it a five out of five and go back to playing it. Ultimately that review would serve to deliver how I truly feel while playing the game, it is great and I want to keep playing it. But it would also be applying a huge blindfold to the issues that Diablo III has. Issues that, when looked at individually, might seem like minor nuisances, like a lone mosquito bite on the back of your neck. However when looked at as a whole, they morph Diablo III into something that is less than stellar and considering the anticipation the game has garnered and developer Blizzard’s usual quality of excellence, that deserves to be explored.
Diablo II is a beloved game and with Diablo III, Blizzard was in the impossible position of having to fulfill the expectations set after a decade of fans deifying the last entry in the series and clamoring for its sequel. However this is not a position that Blizzard is unfamiliar to, as they successfully followed up their beloved real-time-strategy game, Starcraft, two years ago, a decade later as well. Much like they did with Starcraft II, Blizzard set out not only to deliver an exceptional sequel to a much loved game but to also change gaming. And much like with Starcraft II, Diablo III delivers on some of its promises while leaving a lot to be desired from some of its other ones.
By now most everyone knows of the woes Diablo III suffered at its launch and debates on the merits of always-on digital rights management (DRM) have been hotly debated all across the internet. Regardless of which side of the fence one may fall, there is little denying that because of Blizzard’s decision to utilize and always-on DRM system, which includes account authentication and some server side processing, amongst other things, it had a grossly negative impact on the ability of millions of people to launch the game on day one. I myself was unable to connect nearly 20 hours after the initial launch and had to wait until day two to actually get my first taste of the game. A sad fact of playing games in 2012 is that many times online features for games just are not ready for prime time, come prime time, so while it is not acceptable in any way, shape or form, it is generally expected.
The problem with Diablo III’s launch though is that, while online multiplayer can be a big part of the overall experience, the game is ostensibly a single player affair and this always-on DRM prevented people from utilizing the product that they had purchased. Blizzard has seemingly gotten things under control and log-in failures are becoming less and less frequent but the potential for a repeat performance of launch day still and always will exist.
Botched launch aside though, Blizzard’s choice to keep many things server side poses another set of issues, none of which are particularly welcome. The biggest of these issues is that there now exists the potential for lag, in a single player experience. During the 20+ hours I spent with the game for review, I noticed lag multiple times in my single player, private playthrough. Lag ranging from what appeared to be a slight hiccup in gameplay to fairly noticeable freezes that actually resulted in what I deemed unfair deaths. Regardless of if the lag is resulting from my personal online connection or Blizzard’s server side connection, this is 100% unacceptable.
Less annoying is the issue of map creation and retention. One of the hallmarks of the Diablo series has always been the randomly generated levels, it gave each playthrough a unique feel and everyone that played was able to have their own experience. Diablo III maintains this feature but Blizzard’s decision to keep save assets server side has resulted in maps being randomly generated every time one logs in. So despite clearing out an area map during a play session, logging off “loses” the progress and resets the area. This is hugely discouraging for map clearers like myself because the map is only ever cleared during the current play session. It is minor to be sure but disappointing nonetheless.
And then there is the issue of the auction house. Sold as a place where players would be able to post their hard earned loot for either in game currency or real money, neither has worked out as planned. The in-game currency house has been buggy, losing transactions, not recording entries and scrubbing items. While the real money auction house, Blizzard’s prime reasoning for the always-on DRM, has yet to make an appearance because of issues with the in-game currency one. Reports of account hacking in relation to the auction house are also troubling although I have fortunately not been troubled by that issue.
As disappointing, and troubling, as some of the issues can be though, dealing with them and getting to the true core of the game delivers something special. In terms of presentation and gameplay delivery, Blizzard has no equal. From the opening animated cutscene onwards Diablo III comes through on all its promises. The gameplay is just as one would expect, a lightning fast click-fest with a ton of loot. That description though sells it mighty short. Diablo III offers a deeply satisfying skill system that when utilized properly adds a strategic element that is often missing from action-roleplaying games of this sort.
Detractors of Diablo-style games always say that there is nothing more driving the game than killing enemies and getting the next piece of loot and maybe that is true for games before Diablo III but Blizzard has changed that. They have refined the gameplay loop from Diablo II and amazingly have offered an even more addictive experience that rewards players consistently for everything they do in the game. Exploration is now just as key to the game as enemy extermination. Sure, the loot is still fantastic but the new leveling system offers just as much to look forward to as the next piece of armor.
The much maligned leveling system certainly takes some getting used to but in practice it is near perfect. While Blizzard certainly streamlined aspects of the old skill system, their new unlock system functions fundamentally better. Sure I found myself wishing that I could determine the distribution of my character’s skill points but ultimately it matters little as the level progression is tailored to each individual class with absolute precision. Players that are potentially worried about losing customization options via this new progression system need not worry, true customization comes in the selection of active and passive skills and there are plenty for each different character class and with five classes to master, Diablo III offers plenty of content.
For me though, the biggest upgrade comes in the form of the narrative. People have longed joked that Diablo’s story was just an excuse to slay demons and collect fat loot, with Diablo III that is no longer the case. Blizzard has stuffed a ton of narrative into the game, the core story is interesting and engaging for all of its near 25 hours of execution, but it is the side content that really shines and gives the world of Sanctuary a fleshed out feeling. Optional conversations give a deeper understanding to the underlying events and characters. Books and lore scattered throughout the world offer more than just loot to search for and give insight into the goings on of the world and the enemies set before the player. It is Blizzard’s best attempt at narrative to date and when coupled with their best-in-class animated cutscenes, Diablo III offers a complete package.
As a reviewer, Diablo III was one of the hardest games I have ever had to work on. As a game, I do not want to stop playing it and will certainly be playing it for months, possibly years, down the line and that is what every developer wants to hear about their game. However while Diablo III is the game that many of us waited a decade for it also has those small, yet nagging, issues that prevent it from being the best product it could be. I still have a lot of faith in Blizzard but they have a lot to learn from this release. Hopefully the mistakes they made with Diablo III will result in better overall products from them in the future but right now, with the state the game is in, even as great as I find it, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the game without reservations.
- Gameplay loop is more addictive than ever.
- Skill system is incredibly deep and offers tons of customization.
- Narrative and lore are the best they have ever been.
- Presentation is second to none.
- Always-on DRM poses problems for players looking to solo their adventure.
- Lag in single player games.
- Auction house is buggy and potentially unsafe for use.
4 / 5