My friends and I wasted many, many hours on both Diablo and its sequel over the years. We picked up cheap copies of the original game when we were in our first year of university and quickly figured out how to take advantage of our free phone calls between rooms to network our computers and play multiplayer. Later, we found ourselves enjoying the sequel a great deal — though I must confess, despite enjoying it a great deal, I only ever beat it once.
Fast forward a large number of years and we come to Diablo III. Does it still have the magic of its predecessors?
Simple answer? Yes.
Oh, you want a little more than that? All right.
First up, let’s address the Big Issue that people have been ranting and raving about: the supposed “DRM” that requires a persistent Internet connection. If you spend any time actually playing Diablo III, you’ll likely come to the same surprising realisation that I have, and that is this:
Diablo III is an MMO.
It’s not an MMO in the same way that its stablemate World of Warcraft is — there’s no open world and you don’t randomly bump into other players wandering around — but it is a game designed to be played online, and it is a game where hundreds, thousands, millions of people all log in at the same time and are able to communicate and play with one another. There is a persistent chat interface allowing conversation with both friends and strangers even if you’re not in the same game session with them, a persistent friends list (albeit one that isn’t cross-region, annoyingly) and the ability to sneak a peek at your friends’ equipment, achievements and other data. There is an auction house, allowing you to make some money (currently only in-game currency — the controversial “real money auction house” is due to launch later in the month) from those awesome items that your current characters can’t use. Your characters are saved “in the cloud”, allowing you to log in on any computer and pick up where you left off.
Most notably, there is the ability to immediately, instantly and seamlessly drop in and out of players’ games. Friends who are playing are shown on the main menu, and joining their game is a simple case of clicking their name. Joining a public game (or opening your own session up to the public) is just as straightforward. The only thing that would make it easier to play with friends would be Steamworks compatibility, but this is Blizzard; that ain’t going to happen.
Yes, you can play the game solo, but you can still chat to people while doing so. You can lock people out from auto-joining your game so you may only play solo if you want to, but you’re still soloing online like any other MMO. You have the option to invite people or open your session up at any time without having to come out of your game or make a character specifically to play online with.
In short, the “always-online” thing is actually a key part of the game’s design, and in execution really rather cool. While it may be frustrating to not be able to play “single player” offline, and the early server issues were a pain in the arse for a day (a single day, maybe two at a push — the game is running perfectly now) the fact that the game is, in fact, clearly an MMO makes it clear why this is the case. The entire game’s infrastructure is designed around playing online.
But let’s leave that aside for the moment, as it’s a concept you’ll either be on board with or you won’t. What about the actual game itself?
Diablo III has undergone some significant changes from its predecessors. Gone is Diablo I and II’s progression system, which allowed you to distribute stat points on every level up as you pleased, replaced with predefined stat increases. Gone is the “skill tree” system from Diablo II, which allowed you to “build” a character to your own specifications (or create a completely unworkable mess), replaced with a system where you unlock skills at predefined level boundaries and can only equip a limited number at once.
It takes some adjusting to, but Diablo III’s way of doing things is streamlined and efficient without taking away the element of player choice. Everyone always levelled up their stats the same way in Diablo and its sequel anyway, and despite the illusion of complete freedom of choice that the skill trees offered, it was all too easy to create an underpowered character that wasn’t particularly good at anything. What Diablo III lets you do is customise your character to work the way you want it to in any given situation, and then tweak it at any time. What you can’t do, however, is hot-swap skills while you’re in the middle of combat. You have to make some choices as to what skills you’re going to use before wading into the fray, and reevaluate your decisions after various demon hordes have stopped having their wicked way with you.
The presentation is good, though not stellar. The in-game visuals work well but seem to have surprisingly demanding system specifications for their quality. In-engine cutscenes are a bit crap and look like something out of a game made in the late ’90s. The special effects are great, however, with some wonderful physical modelling on bodies and objects around the game’s environments, and spell effects are appropriately ridiculous, particularly when you’re playing with several people all flinging pyrotechnics around the screen.
Sound design — always a strong point in Blizzard titles — is great, with some excellent voice actors and quality background music. Plus someone on the Diablo team has finally got wise to the fact that boss battles are infinitely more exciting with some boss music rather than the understated ambient rumbling of the previous games.
As with the rest of the series, it’s the gameplay where Diablo III shines. There’s a decent narrative running throughout the game, but the Diablo series has always been far more about killing thousands of monsters and stealing their stuff rather than paying much attention to the (surprisingly deep, if a bit po-faced) lore. And in that department it delivers in spades. Combat is straightforward, addictive and fun — particularly with friends. There is a huge variety of loot to collect, equip, sell, disenchant and craft. And a well-implemented achievement system actually makes you want to achievement whore because going after the challenges in question is so fun and satisfying.
I get the impression Diablo III is going to grow and change over time, too. We already know that a player-vs-player competitive element is coming, as is the real money auction house. But what then? Expansion packs? Content updates? New character classes? There are a ton of possibilities that Blizzard could incorporate into the game, and they could even use the patch process as a means of incorporating features which some are a little disappointed at the current lack of — things like voice chat. (Personally, I can take or leave voice chat — I suffer from telephobia when talking to people on the Internet almost as much as when I’m using the phone — but I accept that a lot of people expect it nowadays.)
In short, the future looks very bright for Blizzard’s latest title, and if the amount of support Diablo II got — even once World of Warcraft arrived on the scene — is anything to go by, then players can likely look forward to a game that will last them for years.