There is something special that happens the first time you start up a Blizzard game. Maybe it’s because, outside of World of Warcraft expansion sets, they release a new title so rarely, or perhaps it’s simply because they have a reputation for quality that is unmatched by anyone in the industry.
So you can imagine the excitement when, back in 2008, Blizzard announced it was going to make a new Diablo game. This followed the surprising announcement the previous year of a sequel to their 1998 RTS classic, Starcraft.
It’s important to remember that a Blizzard game doesn’t have the lifecycle of the typical video game release. They support their games for many years after the launch. The original Starcraft still receives updates, fourteen years after launch, and Diablo II can still be played online, twelve years on. Compare that to relatively recent games that have their servers taken down just a couple of years after release. Longevity is built into the cover price of a Blizzard game.
So as Diablo 3 loaded and I made my first mouse clicks, I already knew I was playing something special, something that I would come back to for many years ahead. The visuals, even in this starting area, are typical Blizzard. Detailed down to individual leaves on the ground, with a carefully chosen palette that’s deliberately designed not to get in the way of the action.
They could have chosen to give the game a free-moving camera. The original games used the isometric view out of necessity: they existed at a time when 3D graphics weren’t a ubiquitous feature of most PCs. Now, in an age where even mobile phones have more processing power than was needed to run Diablo II, Blizzard have chosen to maintain the view because it’s integral to the Diablo experience.
Similarly, Blizzard have chosen to keep the “click things until they die” control scheme. They could have gone with a WASD setup, or even Xbox controller support (and third-party tools allow just such a thing to happen), but they know that people who play Diablo prefer to play it by clicking the mouse to move and kill things. They’ve beefed it up, however, thanks to changes in the way skills work, and also in the way each class’ resource system operates.
These things show that Diablo III is a reconstruction of the earlier titles. A modernisation that both recalls and updates the older games to meet modern expectations. The super-streamlined skill system, the removal of the illusory choices in stat point allocations, and the fact that each class has its own resource system show that Blizzard is moving the entire genre forward, without alienating the people who have put so much time and effort into the previous games.
One thing I really love about Diablo III is that each of the game’s five classes feel different and unique to play. The Barbarian is the most traditional, and the one that will be most familiar to Diablo II players. It’s a simple warrior-type, with a resource called Fury that builds within combat, and then degrades outside of it. Then there’s the Monk class, which, despite also being a melee damage dealer, offers up healing and damage-taking abilities that make it feel more like a mixture of the Paladin and Rogue classes from World of Warcraft.
Despite both classes being melee damagers, Monks and Barbarians feel completely different to each other, thanks to the way their resources build and deplete in combat. The same is true of the other three classes as well. Demon Hunters use a split resource system, with Hatred fuelling their offensive abilities, while the slower-regenerating Discipline fuels more defensive abilities such as a combat vault and caltrops. They are weak up close, but can deliver the goods when standing far enough away.
Wizards and Witch Doctors are the two classes that are most similar to each other. They both use a fast-regenerating resource (called Mana for Witch Doctors and Arcane Power for Wizards), but the way they spend that resource is different. Witch Doctors can do things like throw jars of spiders into the crowd (I’m not even kidding, this is an actual thing they do), or shoot bats that are on fire from their hands. Wizards, on the other hand, shoot elemental rays of frost or lightning or fire. It’s possible with the right gear and skill setup, to create a Wizard that is viable in melee combat.
Another interesting aspect of Diablo III, and something that might surprise, say, a World of Warcraft player that is used to heavy restrictions on what gear their class can equip, is that there are only a small number of gear restrictions for each class. Monks can’t equip two-handed swords, for example, but they can equip basically anything else, including shields. In fact, even Wizards and Witch Doctors can equip shields if they so desire. There are some items that are restricted to specific classes (fist weapons are Monk-only, for example) but these are less common, and nothing says you have to stick to them. Hell, I had a Crossbow-wielding Wizard for some time due to the stats the crossbow gave her.
This couples with the skill system to add even more flexibility and customisation to a character. There’s very few things that won’t work well (at least, not until the later difficulty levels) for somebody out there. In groups, having more than one of the same class doesn’t mean they will play anything alike, and its fun to watch, say, one Monk pull out huge amounts of healing while another relies heavily on area-of-effect damage dealing.
This would all be pointless if there was nothing interesting to do in the game. But this is a Blizzard game, and they don’t do boring content. The areas and dungeons of Diablo III are nothing short of spectacular to look at. If you’ve only seen screenshots of the beta, you might be forgiven for thinking that red and brown and some darker blues are the colour palette for the entire game. But after you down the first minor boss of the game (which is where the beta ended), the world opens up, and you get to see some fantastic scenery. From high stone bridges, a vast desert, busy city streets and snow-bound battlefields to dark caves, vast torture chambers and the hellish interior of a shattered mountain, every location in Diablo III is stunning to look at.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise, of course. Blizzard are, after all, artists, and the art for their games is the best in the industry. Diablo III looks this good because they don’t know how to do it otherwise. Hell, eight years on, World of Warcraft still looks great thanks to their clever artistic choices early on in the game’s development. By avoiding detailed and realistic visuals, Blizzard’s games have a timeless look that helps with their longevity. The only reason Diablo II looks dated is because nobody has a monitor that’s of low enough resolution to make it look anything less than a pixelated mess. 3D art won’t have that problem, so Diablo III will look just as good in twelve years as it does today.
I probably shouldn’t have to go into the music too much. Russell Brower has been making fantastic music for Blizzard games since The Burning Crusade, so you know you’re in good hands here. While his music is completely optional for much of the game, it’s worth having a play through with it turned up at least once. Some of the music for the previous titles (namely the Tristram theme) have been recreated here, and it sounds great.
All this brilliance might make Diablo III a near-perfect game. There is, however, an elephant in the dungeon crawler. If you don’t have an internet connection, you absolutely cannot play Diablo III. Even the single-player mode requires an online connection. If the servers are down or under extreme load, like they were at launch, then you won’t be able to play at all. The good news is that, Blizzard being Blizzard, the online functionality of Diablo III is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. As long as people keep playing it, it will be there to play. So that’s not a concern.
What is a concern with this setup, however, is the intermittency and reliability of people’s internet connections. The fact is that Australian players are going to have to put up with a few hundred milliseconds of latency even when playing solo. This can be frustrating, as any WoW player knows: the time between firing off that saving heal or attack and it actually landing can be enough for the enemy to drop the killing blow. On more than one occasion, I’ve died despite hitting my healing potion in time to live, due to latency. In a game that requires split-second timing to survive, this is problematic.
While it’s easy to get angry on the internet at the decision to make Diablo III all-online all the time, the issue is a lot more complex than that. Firstly, Diablo II is riddled with hacks and exploits that players have been using to duplicate items and easily gain things that should be difficult to get. Requiring an internet connection to play the game resolves a vast majority of this kind of issue, as every item that drops is verified by the server.
This is important for the big reason behind the move: The auction house. Diablo III allows, for the first time in the history of the series, players to trade items between each other on an online auction house system. WoW players will already know how this works, but there’s a few differences in the Diablo III world.
First and foremost, there’s no such thing as ‘soulbound’ items in Diablo III. In WoW, a soulbound item is one that cannot be traded to other players. This was implemented originally to keep WoW’s economy from being flooded with high-value items and quest reward items. Because Diablo III isn’t a persistent world, there’s no need for this restriction. The added bonus for players here is that it’s entirely possible to simply sell an item on the auction house once you receive an upgrade to it.
More importantly, (and here we come to the core of the always online requirement), there is (or will be, when Blizzard enable it) an Auction House that uses real money to purchase in-game items. This is a bold step for Blizzard, who’s campaign against real money transfers in WoW are well-documented. Diablo III makes a good testbed for this system, however, as there’s less need for the strict item requirements that WoW has.
Officially sanctioning such a thing effectively strangles any kind of illicit item trade (of the kind that plagues WoW) at birth. It’s hard not to think of this as a test for a similar system in World of Warcraft (or Project Titan, an as-yet unannounced MMO not related to any existing Blizzard franchise) at some point in the future. It will also be how Blizzard makes money on Diablo III once sales die down. As there’s no online subscription fee, taking a small cut of the real money auctions is how the company intends to keep the game profitable.
I have no doubt that this is the primary reasoning behind the online requirement for Diablo III. And, to be quite honest, as much as the pain of launch week has shown up the inherent flaws in this system, I don’t believe that, in the long run, the system will hurt the game at all. Blizzard are Blizzard, and they have built their reputation on getting things right quickly. Is it problematic now? Yes. Will there be issues with it in the future? Most likely. Will most players care in a year’s time? No. It’ll just be part of the way this game is played.
In the end, Diablo III is going to be remembered as a bona fide classic. Blizzard excel at making very good games, and Diablo III is absolutely a very good game. I’ve avoided talking about the story so as not to spoil it, but I will say that it mostly exists to hang the rest of the game around. The CGI cutscenes are well-directed, and the characters are as engaging as they need to be. Really, though, nobody is playing this game for the plot. Diablo III is, like any game of this kind, all about the clicking and the looting and the being awesome. Quests give you goals and targets to get through, but they very deliberately avoid getting in the way of slaughtering horde after horde of demons.
Finally, a word about difficulty levels. For this review, I played the game through on both Normal and Nightmare difficulty. Normal actually felt a bit underwhelming, and I was really wondering if I was playing a game as good as I was hoping it would be. However, ramping up to Nightmare revealed the true nature of Diablo III, and the overall experience is vastly more satisfying. Finishing it has only made me want to go through Hell difficulty even more. There’s a final difficulty level beyond Hell, too. Called Inferno, it’s designed for level 60 characters only (60 being the maximum level in Diablo III), and offers a way of keeping max level characters coming back time and again.
All of this ensures that Diablo III is set to become another Blizzard juggernaut. There will be pretenders and challengers to its crown, but they will have to do a lot more to come close to what Blizzard have done here. This is, controversy aside, a completely brilliant game, and I simply cannot recommend it enough.