I want to say that Diablo III is polished to a mirror sheen, but that wouldn’t exactly be accurate. If anything, it’s more like a mirror ball: a series of perfectly interlinked facets, all of which are polished to a mirror sheen. And, like a mirror ball, the general effect is dazzling.
I also want to say that Diablo III isn’t what I was expecting. That, at least, is rather more accurate.
For me, Diablo as a series was fundamentally about the loot and experience treadmill: click on enemies until they explode in aesthetically pleasing fountains of gore and gold, scoop up the loot, compare it to what I’m currently wearing, repeat until I level up. Repeat this forever.
Superficially, Diablo III works that way. You pick your class from a cast of five, and are immediately cast into the game’s oh-so-dark-and-gothic world, where you click on enemies until they explode in aesthetically… well, you get the idea. But really, rather than being a game that you play in order to get better equipment and a higher level character, Diablo III is a game about three things: skills, builds, and raw power.
Gone are the options to pump the stats of your choice at level up. Gone are the talent trees that let you grow your character towards the abilities you wanted, one point at a time. Instead, every level up gives you pre-set statistic boosts and a pre-set selection of abilities and modifier runes. You can have six abilities equipped at any given time, each of which can be modified with a single rune.
This probably sounds like it vastly narrows the amount of choice you have in terms of the way you build your character. In reality, it does exactly the opposite, because Blizzard eschewed the usual punishments for changing the way you’ve built your character. To change your abilities and runes, you just click onto the skills window, select new ones, and suffer a massive cooldown period of, ooh, 10 seconds.
The upshot is that you can tinker with your class however you like, whenever you like. Want a well-rounded Wizard? A Disintegrate beam, with Electrocute against groups and Diamond Skin for survivability, will see you right – and you’ve still got three slots to play with. Add Frost Nova, Wave of Force, and Teleport, and you can teleport into a group of enemies, freeze them in place, and then use Wave of Force for some area-of-effect damage. Use runes, and you can tweak this further; lower the cooldown of Frost Nova, say, or have the death of frozen enemies trigger more Frost Novas. And impressively, player skill feels just as important as build or stats. Executing these attacks properly isn’t easy.
Every class is different to every other class. The Barbarian has a melee focus and screen-shaking ranged attacks. The Demon Hunter has rapid-fire crossbows and acrobatics. The Witch Doctor controls the battlefield through the use of animals and summons… like Firebats. (Which fires bats. That are on fire. I can’t wait for PETA to hear about this.) Factor in multiple classes playing together through multiplayer, and even more options open up.
The other upshot of this is that getting stuck on a boss doesn’t mean wandering around, getting more experience and looking for better equipment. It’s just another opportunity to think about your class and how to use it to best whatever challenge you’re facing. That’s right: in Diablo III, even death plays positively into the central tenet of carefully building and tweaking your class, and this becomes even more important when you start playing the merciless harder difficulties.
Not that this would mean much if the classes themselves weren’t fun to play, but they really, really are. It’s testament to Blizzard’s usual level of polish that pretty much everything else is as finely honed as the classes themselves, and a lot of what makes Diablo III so enjoyable is the presentation. If you use Wave of Force, the resulting blast looks, sounds, and feels right – and so too do the enemies hit by it.
That’s what I meant when I mentioned “raw power” above. It’s something that’s almost impossible to define or qualify properly, but Diablo III just feels good. The first time my Wizard killed an enemy with Arcane Orb – the magical explosion sending the corpse plunging off the narrow rock bridge into the abyss below – I smiled. The first time my Demon Hunter slowed an enemy with caltrops, then backflipped to safety while firing two crossbows, I grinned. And the first time I used one of the ridiculously powerful abilities you unlock at level 30, I actually cackled at the swathes of destruction I caused. (In my defence, you’d also cackle if you started firing huge death beams capable of cutting down an entire horde of foes while destroying most of the cosmetic scenery with one swing of the mouse. In the game, at least.)
Unsurprisingly, the rest of the presentation is also up to Blizzard’s impeccably high standards. The game’s not a graphical powerhouse, so it’ll run nicely on most systems, but the sterling art direction more than makes up for it. The gloomy forests and fields of the first act give way to the second act’s scorching desert, and the difference between the two is like night and day. Not just because one’s set at night and the other’s set in the day, but also because the little touches that make these areas feel distinct and alive are all present and correct. Some of the little set pieces – particularly in the game’s third act, which I shan’t spoil – are astounding. In fact, the scope and scale of the third act is surprisingly breathtaking, particularly for a top-down action-RPG.
About the only tertiary element I can really fault is the writing. The story is unbelievably generic, possessing about as many twists as a 2×4 board – to the extent that if anyone is surprised by anything that happens, I can only assume they’ve never actually read or seen any other works of fantasy – and is led almost entirely by unexplainable magical MacGuffins. As for the writing itself… well, plenty of the story’s more important characters are blithering idiots. And while I grew fond of my arrogant Wizard, the Demon Hunter has lines like “If I ever felt fear, it has been consumed by my hatred,” which I’m pretty sure was lifted from a piece of Devil May Cry fan-fiction written by a 12-year old.
So no, the writing isn’t exactly sparkling, but then playing Diablo for the story is missing the point entirely.
Then there’s this paragraph, which I really hoped I wouldn’t have to write. If Diablo III is a rich, beautiful, multi-layered chocolate gateau, then its online-only system is turd-flavoured icing. I’m sure there are benefits to it. I’m sure things will settle down. But when I repeatedly have problems playing a game in single-player – a game retailing slightly higher than most other PC games – then it’s maybe a sign that the system isn’t ideal. I’ve had to restart dungeons because the game lost connection (which, amusingly, had nothing to do with my connection). I’ve had severe lag issues when playing in single-player. And… well, this review would’ve been with you a day or two sooner, except for the regular occurrence of not actually being able to play single-player because of server maintenance, or too many connections, or a host of other reasons. It’s a divisive issue and there are plenty of arguments both for and against it, but if your online-only system regularly prevents people from playing single-player – a mode which many people will exclusively play – when it could be easily avoided, then the system is perhaps unnecessary from a consumer standpoint. In short: if you have an unstable connection, good luck. You’re going to need plenty of it.
But that’s a dark note to end on, and Diablo III deserves better. (It also deserves better than an enjoyment-impinging online-only system, but… oh, there I go again.) Instead I’ll leave you with this thought: most of the time, I try not to swear too much in reviews. As such, understand how emphatic I’m being when I say that Diablo III is fucking fantastic. It’s not what I expected – indeed, I doubt it’s what many familiar with the previous games expected – but it’s a wonderful, playable, and utterly replayable iteration on a familiar formula. It more than makes up for a lack of story twists with some truly novel twists in its nuts and bolts, and while tweaking your equipment isn’t the be all and end all it once was, tweaking your build has proven to be far more rewarding. As with most things from Blizzard, Diablo III is a masterclass of game design and polish, and I suspect it’s going to eat the lives of many, many gamers for some time to come.