Whenever I think of the Diablo series, I think about Diablo II. I was a fan of the first game, and the second came out when I had just lost both girlfriend and job, leaving me with loads of free time. I played multiple times with several characters on different difficulties, always on the search for better equipment and weapons. As the Diablo III launch approached, almost a decade after the Diablo II expansion, I wondered if older me, now with a wife, family and significantly less free time, would have the same attraction to the newest entry in the series. The short answer is yes; Diablo III is everything that Diablo II was, in a prettier, more dynamic, more accessible game. It’s not perfect, but it’s damn close.
The game takes place 20 years after the events of Diablo II, and begins when you choose your character and embark on a journey to find a star that has fallen from the sky. Your travels take you to New Tristram, where you meet Leah, whose uncle Deckard Cain disappeared when the star fell. Your search for Cain and the fallen star will quickly evolve into a battle against the minions of hell. Your quest to fight the darkness will lead you across faraway lands, and into confrontations with the evil trying to overrun the world.
Diablo III, like the games before it, is an isometric action RPG. There are five character classes in the game, each with a different approach to combat. The Barbarian and Monk are primarily melee fighters, while the Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter and Wizard opt for more ranged attacks. In previous games mana fueled special attacks for all characters; now each has a unique resource, which renews differently. The Barbarian’s Fury and Monk’s Spirit are generated by attacks, while the Witch Doctor’s Mana, Wizard’s Arcane Power and Demon Hunter’s Hatred/Discipline are naturally regenerating, albeit at different rates.
The main difference between Diablo III and previous games in the series can be summed up in one word: simplification. There are no attribute or skill points to assign here; both are handled automatically as you level up. Each new level unlocks as many as four new attacks, skills or runes. Attacks assign to the left and right mouse buttons and skills are divided into four categories, mapped to the 1-4 keys. Each category has one skill active at a time, and each skill can have one effect altering rune active at a time. Skills and runes can be swapped easily, but not particularly quickly, so using multiple skills in the same category during a fight is not a viable option. Passive skill slots are unlocked at levels 10, 20 and 30, allowing you to equip as many as three of the ones you have unlocked.
The net effect of this simplification is that players can spend more time playing the game and less deciding how to build their character. Skills only have one level, and their effects are determined by your base item stats. This means that while you can’t dump tons of points into a particular skill to make it really powerful, all skills scale with your character, and you can change the way you play the game with just a few mouse clicks. It may not appeal to the hardcore who want to build a truly unique character, but it allows players to experiment with different builds with no consequences, and without the fear of building a character that’s not viable later in the game.
Diablo games have always been largely about the hunt for better equipment, and that has been simplified as well. Weapons prominently display their damage per second, and comparing a new item with what you have in that slot highlights the positive/negative effects in three key categories: life, damage and defense. These numbers make it much easier to compare two different types of items, or items that each offer several different stat effects. It works well as a guide, but it’s not perfect. In one instance, a bonus I had from a passive skill was not included into the comparative calculation, so equipping a weapon that looked better in all three categories actually lowered my damage.
Loot hunters will appreciate the blacksmith, who can salvage magical and rare items that you find into elements that he can use to craft new items for you. The base stats of the item being crafted are set, but the magical properties are random, meaning that you can craft the same item multiple times until you get what you’re looking for. Spending money to train the blacksmith gains access to better recipes, including some for rare items. I was surprised at how many great items I was able to craft. It’s a nice alternative to selling unwanted gear that you find, while still feeling like you’re getting something from them.
The theme of lowered consequences is not limited to skills. Dying in past entries cost you gold and equipment and stripped you of your items, forcing you to go out and find your corpse to retrieve them. A death on normal difficulty now takes you back to your last checkpoint with no loss other than a 10% decrease in the durability of your items, which are cheaply repaired. The death of a follower does not incur a resurrection cost like in the past; simply wait a minute or so and they will respawn on the battlefield, healed up and ready to go. Monsters will drop health globes that heal instantly as you walk over them, and the effects of standard health potions are instant as well, although that is balanced with a cooldown effect that prevents you from using another too quickly. Gems placed in socketed items can be easily removed, leaving both the item and the gem intact, so there is no need to wait until you find the perfect gem before placing it.
Much has been made of the game’s requirement of a constant online connection, especially in light of the problems that occurred within the first few days of launch. Since then, the game has run fine, and honestly I forgot about the online requirement pretty quickly. Co-op is fun, and enemies gain strength as you add human players to your game. When playing with others, each person gets their own experience, gold and items when monsters are killed or chests are opened, meaning that there is no competition or fear that one player will grab all the good stuff.
The online requirement is partly for DRM purposes, but also because Blizzard will be rolling out auction houses, where players can buy equipment from others using either in-game gold or real currency. The online requirement ensures that players can’t use character editors or other means to duplicate items (as was a problem in the first two games), and will preserve the economy. It’s a necessary and logical step, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow that a loss of internet connection may mean losing quest progress and new items, so that Blizzard can make extra money taking a percentage of auction house sales.
Diablo III is a joy to play. Combat feels much more satisfying than in past games, especially when my Barbarian’s massive swing sliced off an enemy’s head or sent them flying into a nearby lake. In addition to the ability to try all of the different skills, the game adds several elements to the standard gameplay. Events are optional side quests that will reward you with equipment, gold and XP, and there is an achievement system. You can get XP bonuses from actions like slaughtering multiple enemies with a single blow, or taking advantage of environmental kills like dropping a chandelier on a group of monsters. Quests have a nice variety and waypoints are more common, keeping the action moving along nicely.
The game looks as good as it plays, and minions of hell look great as they climb out of cracks in the ground or jump from high ledges to attack you. Certain parts, like a huge demon scaling the walls of a castle to spew enemies at you, as battle rages in the background, really make you appreciate the game’s visuals. Monsters are varied and well designed, and bosses are huge and imposing. Environments are detailed and expansive, and really set the tone for the different areas of the game. The cinematics look incredible, and are among the best I’ve ever seen.
The music is classic Diablo, with some selections almost identical to previous games. Character voices are well done and distinctive, and there is a lot of dialog between your character and follower throughout the game, some of it surprisingly funny. Conversations repeat occasionally, but not so much that it gets annoying. The combat effects are solid as well; swords and other weapons make satisfying sounds as they cleave demon flesh. Additional lore from Deckard Cain or other characters is available for those who want to know as much about the universe as possible.
Simply put, Diablo III is a ton of fun. With five character classes, three unlockable difficulty levels and the Blizzard statement that 70% of the loot isn’t available in Normal, there is tons of replay value. Anything bad I could say about the game is, in the end, a minor complaint, and none of it got in the way of my enjoyment. It lives up to the series pedigree and is the best game of its kind. If you like this style of game you should absolutely be playing it, and if you’re new to the genre it’s a great place to start.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.