Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 has released, and the gates of Hell have once more opened upon an unsuspecting world!

Well… okay, more than a few of us were expecting it. It’s been over a decade since Diablo 2, and that Deckard Cain guy won’t shut up about it. We’ve all been waiting for it. Some of us were even fortunate enough to participate in the beta in the months prior to release. I think I’ve killed the Skeleton King Leoric about three dozen times or more across all of my beta characters. At the end, I was farming rare drops off him by rolling a new character over and over again just for that purpose. It’s the only way to farm bosses since Blizzard has nerfed the rare drop rate of bosses after your first kill with a specific character. I’ve tried my hand at the economy using both the gold and real money auction house. I dabbled in crafting. I used every skill on every class and experimented with every rune available. I experienced everything the beta had to offer.

You wouldn’t think the first part of the game would hold any surprises for me, but you’d be wrong. The real surprise was when I finally logged into the game and created my first character, and it still somehow managed to feel new.

Maybe it’s the fact that the difficulty has been scaled up slightly even on normal mode. I’ve noticed that I’m not cutting through enemies in quite the same way as I did pre-launch. My barbarian is still a big ball of carnage, but what used to die in two hits now takes three or four. Unlike in beta, I’ve actually had to use health potions a few times early on. Clusters of enemies still produce kill streaks that make me chuckle menacingly, but they hit a bit harder than before. When facing the Black King, I had to stick and move a bit rather than just going toe to toe. It wasn’t rough going by any stretch, but the slight increase in difficulty on normal mode was noticeable and appreciated. The real question for me was, what dangers would I find later in the game?

BEYOND THE BLACK KING

The answer, which is probably obvious to fans of the genre, is that I found the much the same experience I did at the start of the game all the way through to its end. An ever increasing number and complexity of creatures sought my death in new and more diabolical ways, and when I slaughtered them wholesale they dropped better and better loot. That’s what normal mode is all about.

Love the Barbarian so far, but will he be just as effective on higher difficulties?

The way most veteran players look at it, normal mode may as well be called story mode. The entire play through was fun, no doubt about it, but I never felt I was in any real danger of dying until the very end of the game. My Barbarian rolled through enemies as easily as Ash in Army of Darkness. There was no finesse to it, and I was fine with that. I just found the biggest group of enemies I could and went at them head on until they exploded into a shower of gold and items.

In between the carnage, Diablo 3 does have an interesting story that weaves everything together. While I’m not a huge lore guru, I certainly had no trouble understanding the history of the series and how things led up to where they are now. The game features several interesting characters who have stories of their own, and whose fate I actually cared about. Even the Lords of Hell were more than just generic villains, and they differed enough in their personalities that it was easy to see how they went about planning the downfall of mankind in unique ways. Overall, I found the narrative of the game to be far better than I had anticipated. Blizzard could have taken shortcuts here, but they didn’t. It’s a shame that more developers don’t put more emphasis on making their stories more than just a threadbare excuse to tie action sequences together, even if the story isn’t the game’s central focus. I’m looking at YOU every Call of Duty game ever made.

Another thing I am a fan of is how is the customization options available to my class. I hear that this situation is only temporary (more on that later), but for now it is extremely enjoyable to chat with my  friends who rolled a Barbarian and see how differently we’re playing them. Right now, I’m opting for what I call my Wolverine build. I’m primarily dual wielding, and I make heavy use of the Frenzy ability that increases my attack speed the longer I’m in combat. I put the rune system to good use, finding ways to heal myself while using devastating offensive abilities. I also focus on weapons that give me health every time I hit with them and which further boost my attack speed. To add to this, my preferred armor features passive health regeneration, a great deal of strength and a boost to the amount of healing that health globes provide. I may not hit as hard as some of the other bruisers out there, but it is amazing to see how much punishment I can take considering how quickly I can refill my health meter. It may not be optimal, and I’m not expert on the game, but I can’t argue with the amount of fun I’m having.

Because of that, it was easy at first to overlook Diablo 3’s shortcomings, but there are a handful worth mentioning.

ONLINE ONLY

First and foremost, it’s no secret to anyone that the game’s launch last week didn’t go smoothly. Blizzard’s decision to make the game require an active online connection, even for single player, has turned off a lot of people to the franchise. While it didn’t stop me from buying and playing the game, the fact that I can’t just boot it up on my laptop on the go without first having to make sure I have Wi-Fi available is a black mark. As it stands, I don’t even know if I’ll bother installing it on anything other than my home desktop.

The other problem with this model is that you can’t expect players to be happy about the requirement for an active online connection if you, as the game developer, cannot provide them with an active online connection. Server issues led to downtime during the first few days of the game’s launch, and it frustrated a hell of a lot of people who bought the game just for the single player experience. While things have smoothed out a bit in the days following, Blizzard hasn’t won themselves any fans. Perhaps it will pay dividends in the long term, but that remains to be seen.

Speaking of the single player experience…

DIABLO 3 SEGREGATES YOUR FRIENDS LIST

The experiences my friends and I have had thus far with Diablo 3 has very much been an isolated, single player experience that is briefly interrupted by temporary multiplayer. The reason for this is that each of you plays the game in different ways at different times and with different levels of dedication. Unless you intentionally make a blood pact to only play specific characters together, you’ll find it difficult to share the game with your friends. Of my entire friends list, only a handful seem to have characters within a 10 level spread of my own. This may slow down a bit in a week or so when we’re all knee deep in Hell mode and not progressing as quickly individually, but then again it may not.

While it is a vastly different game, I keep comparing this experience to Guild Wars 2 and how the sidekicking system present in that game will scale down the stats of a higher level player when he enters a lower level zone. I really wish something like that was implemented here, even if it was just an optional check box in a menu somewhere. I’d love to take my mid-30s Barbarian and help out my girlfriend on her level 12 Demon Hunter without it turning into s scenario where I murder minions by the hundreds and she just sits back and collects loot. At that point the game is just a glorified escort quest instead of a shared, mutually challenging experience. The other problem with this is that because I’m so much higher level than she is, I’ll actually reduce her experience gain. In that way I’m actually hurting her experience (literally) instead of helping it.

REAL MONEY AUCTION HOUSE. REAL MONEY CONCERNS.

While the real money auction house isn’t even in the game yet, it is coming soon and is already a cause for serious concern. Not only does Blizzard have to deal with the dreaded “Pay To Win” label that many are sticking Diablo 3 with, but any security breaches that compromise player accounts could potentially result in the loss of real world currency. Even though the game has only been out for a week, and despite Blizzard stating that its decision to enforce a persistent online connection was for our own security, many Diablo 3 accounts have already been hacked. Unless this gets resolved extremely quickly, it could end up turning a lot of people off from the game. This is especially problematic for Blizzard considering this is an issue unique to Diablo 3 that will not be a concern in competing titles like Torchlight 2 and Path of Exile. Any while we’re on the subject…

WHAT GOOD IS THE AUCTION HOUSE ANYWAY?

Players are limited to 10 auctions at a time, but the game throws loot at you like a rigged slot machine. Most of it doesn’t vendor for much, and the rest you can disenchant into crafting components. Anything left over you can place on the auction house, but you have to be extremely selective in your listings. As it stands, prices for goods are all over the map as players blindly post without any real sense of item value. This should resolve itself over time as the player economy matures, but at the moment it’s a crap shoot. The only real usefulness I’ve gained from the auction house thus far is for hunting down very specific gear qualities for Nightmare mode and beyond that fit my play style. Maybe that is the whole point of it. I probably wouldn’t be as sour about the feature if it maxed out at 100 auctions instead of only 10, and I really hope the auction limit is increased in the future. In the short term however, I’ll barely utilize it.

HIGHER DIFFICULTY. LESS OPTIONS OR MORE?

Congratulations! You’ve defeated the game on normal mode! Grab your loot and get ready for Nightmare, Hell and Inferno modes.

Each of these modes requires you to beat the game on the previous difficulty level in order to unlock it. Each is progressively more deadly with enemies who are tougher and smarter, and who drop greater rewards. In an ideal game setting, you could defeat these modes still playing your character in the same manner as you did in normal mode, only with greater skill. But is this really the case with Diablo 3?

To its credit, Diablo 3 offers an almost hidden feature called Elective Mode. Turning this option on means your ability choices are no longer constrained by their category. In the case of my Barbarian, this means I can run without a Defensive skill at all, and instead use that slot for another offensive ability. At the start of Nightmare mode, that is exactly what I am doing. I’ve opted to swap my Defensive skill for the chance to use an additional Secondary skill. In this case, it is the Rend ability. I’ve also chosen to double up on my Tactics, using both Battle Rage and War Cry for the buffs they give and because I have an ability that makes each of these shouts heal me over time. I won’t sit here and claim it is an optimal build, but it’s certainly fun to play, and I appreciate having options like this available.

How long will I be able to get away with it? How long can I really play my character the way I want to? From the accounts I’m hearing from other Barbarians who are way ahead of me, then answer is not for very long. In Hell mode (and Inferno mode after) greater and greater emphasis is placed on Defensive skills since the Barbarian is forced into melee range with creatures that can kill him in the blink of an eye. Gone are the days of being a cyclonic juggernaut of rage fueled destruction. Now you’re hiding behind a shield and running away until your Defensive abilities come off cooldown. I understand the practicality of it. You shouldn’t be able to always stand toe to toe and trade blows with dozens of demons, but it would be nice to have options other than turtle, nuke and kite. If the game really boils down to just that over and over again for my Barbarian, then I won’t be playing him long term. I’ll be forced to reroll a ranged class that allows me to adapt my play style at higher levels and not totally reverse it. There is a big difference between those two, and only one of them is fun.

THE JUDGEMENT

Diablo 3 was well worth the wait, but it isn’t perfect and it isn’t for everyone. Learning skills as you go and implementation of the rune system aren’t popular features with some Diablo purists, but I love them. I still find there is an acceptable level of customization to be found in the game without getting bogged down with old mechanics. The same can be said for the lack of town portal scrolls. Diablo 3 gives you the ability to port to a safe place at will. Some will call that catering to casuals. I think of it as removing an artificial and useless “feature” that got in the way of how I played other Diablo titles.

I’ve found the cinematics, art style, voice work and sound effects all to be superior. It may not be as dark and consistently foreboding a color palette as some where hoping for, but it is certainly nice to look at.

Blizzard knows how to troll their detractors. I’ll give them that much. To anyone who complained the colors were too bright in D3, this secret level is just for you!

While I wish it was easier to make Diablo 3 into a multiplayer experience, I’m hopeful that in the weeks and months to come this will be less of an issue. For now, I’m mostly content taking on the game in single player while chatting with my friends individually.

I already feel like I’ve got my money’s worth out of the game, but then again, I only payed for a downloaded standard edition. If I had fallen for Blizzard’s Annual Pass “deal” for WoW and the price of this game was a full, contractually obligated year of propping up their stale MMO’s subscription numbers, then I’d probably be ticked off. Thankfully that isn’t the case.

If you’re a fan of the dungeon crawler genre, and you aren’t turned off by the online requirement, real money auction house or the emphasis on the single player experience, then I’d absolutely suggest picking it up.