Like many of the one-sided NPCs that appear within Blizzard’s third summer-vacation‑to‑Hell, it sure feels as if there’s something special lurking beneath Diablo III—once you get behind all the odd trappings and poor design decisions, that is. If you’re new to the series, the game goes something like this: See evil, click on evil, kill evil. Repeat 100,000 times. That’s Diablo.
If this isn’t a tease of Diablo III’s expansion, we’ll eat our rare Wizard hats.
Diablo III beautifies this formula by combining artistic flair with rote gameplay. Spell effects and weapons glow or boom with real pizzazz, and the environments—though not as gritty as in the original Diablo—are themed with more eye candy and interaction than ever before. That includes everything from the gross, blood-spurting torture instruments that you can shatter in the Halls of Agony, to the giant chained demons “looking” up at you in the background of the Tower of the Damned, to the epic human-on-demon fighting you see on the ground (and eventually participate in) while fighting atop Bastion’s Keep.
While the game still features a bit of the genre’s “evil stands around and waits for us to kill it” motif, Blizzard’s done a great job of incorporating more surprise into Hell’s troop deployments. Baddies scale walls, “Demonic Hell Bearers” surge over walls, Dune-like sandworms pop through the ground to say hello, and demons fly with bullet-like speed up into Heaven itself (and then start swinging). Blizzard’s creative use of the environment adds more depth and realism than anything you’ve ever seen in the Diablo series to date; we smile each time we get to cut a chandelier cord and wonk a skeleton in the noggin’.
A special kudos to Blizzard for making Diablo III the most challenging of the Diablo games. There are plenty of times when a seemingly normal situation turns into a “mash all the buttons” encounter of deadly proportions. This is not a game where you’ll be able to clean up every trash mob until the boss without breaking a sweat. Painful, randomized affixes added to the game’s elite mobs can ruin your day, but so can the normal baddies if you’re not thinking strategically about how you might fight them. Gamers will grow a great hatred in their hearts for the (damned) Sand Wasps of Act II: truly, Blizzard’s most insidious creation and the grand masons of many a hardcore character’s tombstone.
However, one of the big issues plaguing Diablo III is that the game’s difficulty doesn’t scale all that well—at least, not in the correct way. The game’s boss encounters are inconsistent, ranging from painfully simple encounters to semi-strategic fights that exemplify World of Warcraft’s first rule: Don’t stand in the glowing stuff. That’s all well and good, but it’s not all that innovative. Even when done well, Blizzard’s treatment of its major bad guys (and gals) still doesn’t feel all that creative compared to the fight mechanics of Diablo’s MMO cousin. Diablo III needs more depth.
Diablo III's dialogue is so gripping you wish you could roll a pair of earplugs.
Across the game’s four difficulty levels, Blizzard generally makes Diablo III harder by increasing enemy hit points and damage, not by forcing the player to outthink mobs or bosses. The actual mechanics of the final Diablo fight are identical on the game’s hardest difficulty and its easiest: It’ll just take you a lot longer on “Inferno,” hurt a lot more, and you’ll be frustrated as all heck when you’re unfairly one-shotted by the game’s many mobs along the way.
“But wait,” you say, “Diablo III’s skill system means you can pick the perfect combination of six spells on-the-fly to manage any battle!”
True. But Blizzard’s approach doesn’t expand your ability to customize your character; it limits it. A specific range of spells and gear gives a player enough survivability to perform the ultimate exploit on the game’s highest difficulty: kiting super-charged bad guys around in a circle and killing them slowly over time. That’s not using a range of spells or creative character builds strategically to dodge, reflect, resist, or otherwise participate in what we’d call “active combat.” It’s a passive and downright boring technique players have to use against enemies who can obliterate them with a single hit.
Blizzard has transformed its difficulty settings into gear checks, not engaging challenges that can be surpassed by a mastery of technique. Harder difficulties should make monsters smarter and showcase new and exciting boss mechanics players haven’t seen before. Don’t just give each demon a Golden Gun.
“Shut up and gear up,” some might retort. Well, Blizzard’s made that surprisingly easy with Diablo III’s new in-game auction house, which does a great disservice to the entire premise of the Diablo series. Part of the joy of Diablo II’s end game came from going on countless “boss runs” to acquire better gear. If you were unlucky, however, you had to take the unwanted gear you picked up and trade it away to your peers for better loot.
The early demonic bird gets the hapless defender.
In contrast, Diablo III’s auction house hurts the game’s replay value. Why bother running levels over and over to hunt for new gear when you can just take all the gold you picked up and buy the perfect item you’re looking for? There’s no need to use the game’s “Jeweler” crafting NPC when you can spend less gold to buy better gems from players; same for the Blacksmith NPC. Why create items with random stats when you can buy exactly what you want from the millions of players selling? And don’t get me started on Diablo III’s general itemization. At the time of this review, blues (magic weapons, easily found) can offer better stats for your end-game character than Blizzard’s super-unique Legendary items. Huh?
You can’t take much solace in Diablo III’s woeful story. The Diablo series isn’t exactly War and Peace, but the plot elements within Diablo III’s acts feel more like short vignettes than a truly connected through line. It’s hard to feel much of an emotional connection from the game’s laughably poor dialogue and dreadful story arcs, and the obviousness of Diablo’s “intricate” plot is as transparent as an archangel’s energy wing tentacle-things. As for why Blizzard made The Butcher the end boss of Act One—a throwaway homage to its first game that has no connection to the plot whatsoever—has us scratching our heads.
Oh, had one a nickel for every time a demon or angel calls you “Nephalem” while shaking its head in disapproval…
The silly decisions continue. It makes no sense why Hell’s greatest planner whines more than schemes; why an arch-mage whose entire storyline centers on his immortality turns into one of the easiest boss fights in the game (some invulnerability); and why Diablo itself somehow feels the need to taunt you like a playground bully every time you kill one of his friends. The “Lord of Terror” was a lot creepier when he threatened you with death the first (and last) time you saw him in previous titles. Pouty Diablo is a joke.
If we sound mad, we’re not. The core mechanics of Diablo III truly are fun. You will enjoy leveling up, swapping skills left and right, and shooting demons with reckless abandon. The game is pretty on the eyes (especially those jaw-dropping cutscenes), fairly interactive, and much faster-paced and friend-focused than Diablo II. But the hard truths remain: For a game that sat in development for so long, Blizzard’s tunnel vision seems to have significantly affected its ability to transform a pretty good romp into Hell into a legendary sequel. It’s a shame, too; what gamer wants to wait 10 more years for a better Diablo IV?
Addictive gameplay, beautiful graphics, and challenging scenarios will keep you thinkin’ and clickin’ for a while.
Poor plot decisions