The Devil Went Down to Tristram: Diablo III Review
It’s taken me a long time and a lot of internal debate to finally come to terms with my feelings about Diablo III. Being a self-admitted former Blizzard fanboy and taking into account my continued adoration of Diablo and Diablo II, I was more than champing at the bit when I got an early access beta key at this year’s GDC. I had purposely avoided reading or talking about Diablo III because I wanted to experience it with a fresh perspective, untainted by foreknowledge and opinion.
Getting invited to GDC was a boon, and receiving a beta key was too good an opportunity to pass up. As soon as I was back home, despite Mass Effect 3 waiting for me, I immediately began downloading the Diablo III beta client.
I had strong feelings after playing the beta -- most of them negative. I wanted to rail and rage against this bland and uninspired addition to the Diablo franchise. But I figured, “Hey, it’s a test; this isn’t the whole game. It needs some polish, and they’ve got two months. Maybe it’ll get better at release.”
So now it’s been released. Hell, it’s been out for a little more than two weeks. I’ve had tons of time to invest, and what’s the payoff?
I like it. But I don’t love it. I think Diablo II was far better in every conceivable way. I even enjoyed the original Diablo more, if only because I felt the setting and plot were more tightly wound, and the design work was thought more out. That said, I like it.
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The problem with reviewing Diablo III is that only one word comes to mind when attempting to describe Diablo III: “lazy.” It's well polished, but when you break it down into its base parts, you realize you’re basically playing a really large expansion pack to Diablo II.
The only unique class introduced is the Monk, which isn’t really unique. The Monk was originally introduced in the Sierra-produced expansion to the original Diablo, called Hellfire. That said, Hellfire is considered non-canonical in the Diablo storyline, so it’s getting a pass on this specific point.
The rest of the classes are revised versions of Diablo or Diablo II classes: the Wizard is a rehashed Sorceress; the Witch Doctor is a boring version of the Necromancer; the Demon Hunter is a brooding, emo version of the Rogue; and … Barbarian? Really? That’s what Blizzard is bringing to the table?
Following this, the environments: Act I, wooded area around Tristram; Act II, desert kingdom. Seeing a pattern thus far? Sadly, Blizzard skipped out on including a jungle area (my favorite part of Diablo II), and Act III is the Siege of Mt. Arreat the crater that used to be Mt. Arreat by Baal Azmodan. Act IV is where things start finally taking a turn for the new and unexpected, which (being the finale) makes a startling degree of sense. It also happens to be the shortest act in the game, so pack in that wonder where you can.
I guess the lazy point really hits home when, playing Act I, I realized that I had already killed these bosses before. Dozens of times. Two games and 15 years ago. The Skeleton King and The Butcher were unique bosses in the original Diablo. And I killed them. I killed them so many times. And while Blizzard (very lazily) has Deckard Cain explain that there’s more than one Butcher (despite the fact that you only see and fight one in the entirety of Diablo III), it's not much of an excuse. Maybe it’s an homage to the original characters, but homages don’t usually get central roles in storylines -- that’s why they’re called homages.
The second biggest complaint I have is the dumbing down of gameplay. The biggest example of this is the lack of customization among characters. Attribute points are now automatically allocated based on your class, and skills are unlocked based on level rather than by skill points amassed and spent. This means that your level 15 wizard and my level 15 wizard are going to play exactly the same way and have access to the exact same skills which will do the exact same amount of damage. The only difference between our skills are what runes we choose to put onto each skill, which augment the effect these skills have. But runes are also unlocked based on level, so it becomes merely a matter of time before strategy guides detail making the most effective character per class by level. The only difference between characters of the same class becomes equipment, with socketed items, gems, and runes making small changes. Blizzard has claimed this will actually offer more character variety than Diablo II -- which makes zero sense, given that socketed items and gems were also options in Diablo II. Currently, whoever has the best equipment will win.
Win what, though? PVP isn’t available yet, nor is there any sort of timetable on when it will be. Blizzard has promised it in “a future patch.”
Magic items no longer need to be identified, removing the need for Deckard Cain or scrolls of identify, even with rare magic items, which you can identify for free by just clicking and waiting about five seconds. So why bother having the attributes hidden at all?
Development on Diablo III began in 2001. With no truly new classes, one sort-of-new environment, a half-functioning auction house (the real-money auction house Blizzard was touting hasn’t been implemented yet and keeps getting delayed), no PVP, no character customization and a first act comprised of monsters from the original Diablo, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask this question:
What the fuck has Blizzard been doing with this title for the last 11 years?
And yet I say it again: I like Diablo III.
The Diablo franchise isn’t difficult to play. It’s not even really difficult to master – point, click, hack, and slash. That’s what made these games fun: nobody had to be a tactical genius; there were no right or wrong choices; and there wasn’t a balancing act among party members' skills and levels -- just a multitude of demons and fast-paced, high-tension gameplay. You could have fun playing by yourself, and you could have a blast playing with friends. I’m happy to report that, at its base, Diablo III still has this, which might be its biggest saving grace.
If nothing else, the nostalgia factor is delightful. It’s all the classic carnage and frustration of holding off five dozen monsters single-handedly and watching as their corpses go barreling through the air when you bring down that massive killing blow.
After watching them wreck the Warcraft universe with constant retconning and pandering, it was refreshing to see Blizzard’s writers hadn’t forgotten how to tell a story. Even though they were following a formula comprised of previous incarnations, the execution of Diablo III’s plot was top-notch. Blizzard’s cinematic sequences were as beautifully rendered as ever, and it was refreshing to see that each different character class had a unique narrative. It was enough to keep me invested all the way to the end, despite my nitpicking and complaints.
The bottom line: Diablo III is far from perfect. It’s got myriad questionable design decisions and logical fallacies keeping it from the greatness of its predecessors. But, that said, all games ultimately boil down to one question: “Is it fun?” And the answer is yes. All my curmudgeonly grousing is merely that -- empty words. When all is said and done, I’m still playing Diablo III. Maybe that’s enough.