TWO WEEKS after Diablo III was released, I’d completed the game on Nightmare and was midway through Act III on Hardcore when my gaming PC suffered a catastrophic meltdown. I was forced to shelve the game for a month, but after returning last week and successfully completing my Hardcore run, I was reminded what I like so much about the game: it’s simple, addictive and continually satisfying. A vocal minority will probably never tire of slamming it, but Diablo III deserves to go down as one of the better games of recent years.
I Like To Hit Things With A Stick
On the surface, Diablo III isn’t particularly complex. You pick one of five character classes and beat the crap out of a zillion demons en route to a showdown with the Lord of Terror. Your choice of class is a matter of taste: do you want to whack things (Barbarian), punch and kick them in the face (Monk), shoot them with arrows (Demon Hunter), or blast them with magic (Wizard)? I’ve dabbled with all five classes, but by far I’ve spent the majority of my time with the Barbarian (I’m just a simple caveman, sue me) and that’s been more than enjoyable enough for me.
I was surprised at how Diablo III‘s story grew on me. I tend to ignore the unbearably hokey lore in most fantasy games, but D3 does a decent job of connecting the dots as you progress. You start the game investigating a “fallen star” that’s crashed into a nearby cathedral and unleashed all manner of demons, but as the true nature of things are revealed, your job becomes clear. The game is split across four acts, each with its own themes and color schemes, and the various locales and palettes keep the constant demoncide from getting monotonous. (It’s also worth mentioning that many of the cinematics you unlock, especially later in the game, are nothing short of spectacular.)
Maybe the most interesting thing about Diablo III is how the game never really “ends.” Dungeons and enemies are randomly generated, giving the game a hefty amount of replay value. Normal is practically a training mode that ensures you’ll see the entire game at least once; after you finish Act IV, the credits roll and you’re bounced back to the start at the next difficulty setting, and for a lot of people, this is where the true Diablo III experience begins.
At the Nightmare and Hell settings, Diablo III becomes a different game for two key reasons. First, enemies don’t simply have more health and do more damage; they combine multiple abilities, which means you actually have to start paying attention to tactics. You also continue to get new abilities all the way to the level cap of 60, so if you complete Normal around 30, there’s still plenty of stuff to unlock. You could argue that yes, you’re basically replaying the same content, but once you finish Normal, Diablo III becomes less of a casual-friendly cakewalk and more of a game.
For the ultimate challenge, Diablo III supports a Hardcore mode, where death is permanent and your character is retired forever. At this setting, even Normal becomes a tense affair when elites show up, and you can’t help but get nervous before every boss fight. As mentioned above, I just completed Hardcore Normal with a level 33 Barbarian (she’s 37 now), which by far feels like my biggest achievement in the game. Do I have the guts to face the Skeleton King on Nightmare and risk losing that character forever? It’s a fascinating question I haven’t answered yet.
The Online Conundrum
Naturally, Diablo III supports online multiplayer, integrated with Blizzard’s Battle.net service and friends list. Up to four players can steamroll demons together, jumping in and out of their friends’ games at any time, with the difficulty scaling to match the number of players. It’s awesome fun, and if nothing else, it provides a nice change of pace after you’ve beaten the game on multiple difficulty levels.
Diablo III also has a fascinating feature in its Auction House, where you can sell loot to other players or buy gear that other people have listed. If you choose to take advantage of the AH, it can make the game a ton easier: once you’re in your 20s and 30s, enemies tend to drop gear way below your level, so the AH offers an easy way to get far superior gear, at prices so low at times that it almost feels like cheating. (In addition to buying gear with in-game gold, there’s a separate AH that uses real-world money, but doesn’t appear to be used by many players.)
To facilitate these features, Diablo III has one controversial requirement: mandatory online connectivity. Even if you just want to play solo, you still need to be online and logged into Battle.net at all times. The week the game was released, the servers melted down for several days, prompting a a massive outcry from people who felt this was a lousy way for Blizzard to prevent piracy and cheating. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having an offline mode for when I’m traveling with my laptop, and there are still times the game has issues connecting, so the complaint isn’t without some merit.
But what upset me far more was the hypocrisy of the complainers, failing to acknowledge that they’re as much to blame as anyone. If you pre-order months in advance or purchase a game on launch day without looking at a single review, how are you anything other than a sucker begging to be ripped off? Millions of copies of Diablo III were sold within weeks of release, sending one message loud and clear: “do whatever you want, here’s our money.” If you don’t like what a company is doing, try voting with your wallet; otherwise, all you’re doing is empowering these companies to do whatever they want, and if you’re going to be a lemming about it, I don’t want to hear you whine afterwards.
The Final Word
In fifteen years of reviewing, I’ve come to understand one important thing about great games: they’re fun even at their most simplistic. Good first-person shooters are satisfying even when it’s just you and one enemy in an empty room. Angry Birds became a phenomenon because it was as much a cool physics toy as a game. And Diablo III succeeds largely because the simple act of beating the crap out of demons never gets old. Everything after that is just gravy.
And that’s really Blizzard’s schtick. They don’t reinvent the wheel; they take simple gameplay, polish it like crazy, and use it as a foundation to build massive, awesome games. Yeah, I’d like a fifth act and an offline mode, but that doesn’t make Diablo III any less of a blast. Sluggo’s Score: A-