I’m doing something a little different today. Because Diablo III seems to be re-released endlessly since its summer of 2012 debut (both for PC and for console), I figured I would do what I like to call an “Iterative Review”. There are, in my mind, three distinct phases of Diablo III which I will label as such:
The Real Money Auction House Edition
Reaper of Souls (the PC and console version are so similar that it’s difficult to say much different except for control preference)
Each one contains some interesting interactions as to how and why a company can change a game from something relatively awful (the first version) to something immensely enjoyable and satisfying (Reaper of Souls). Yes, it takes Blizzard a ton of time to polish their games to a razor sheen, but man do they do it well. I’m almost surprised at how much I am enjoying current Diablo III versus the vanilla Real Money Auction House version. Why not review them all separately, then?
To begin: Diablo III’s initial incarnation reminds me of a striking verse which I’m sure many of you know in the Bible:
13 No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Just about everyone cites Luke 16 at some point or another, especially in reference to the alluring power of wealth. Like it or not, we (most readers of this blog, I suspect, live in the first world or a capitalist society) live in a society where things are equated to dollar amounts. How much is X worth? That goes both for regular day-to-day products and works of artistic genius alike. Every produced thing, whether physical or intellectual, comes down to a dollar sign. Video games fall into this same category – they must balance the quality of the game design to the money they will make. Production costs can sometimes ruin a game, and so can poor design, but time is money and things need to be shipped on time.
But sometimes, even a company with a long track record of taking their time to create the best deal for the consumer’s entertainment can falter. No one really disputes Blizzard’s early track record of quality games, especially the WarCraft/StarCraft/Diablo triumviruate. They are revered and held close to the heart by many gamers who played them in their youth or even competitively. The game quality came first, and the money just turned into a major bonus to improve the games. The love of the works and the fans came first. But money, and the possibility of it, can change a lot of things; Diablo III exists as the perfectly casualty of this problem.
Diablo III is what the Convoluted Genre Naming Committee deems the “action role-playing” game. As best we can tell, Diablo’s first iteration literally invented the style, and everyone (even Blizzard) cribbed from it ever since. The action consists of, well, actions performed by mouse clicks (usually violent in nature), while the role-playing tells you exactly what doing said actions provide: loot. Yes, there’s a story, but the story sits in the background in light of the endless pursuit of new weapons and armor for your chosen character. Using an array of abilities, you wander around a randomly generated environment via mouse clicks, click on this (or hover over them) to attack them, and then hopefully pick up something to sell or use. Certainly there’s a lot more nuances than this, but it boils down the RPG combat model to its utter basics and emerges as a strong, mechanics focused game.
The dark fantasy aesthetics weren’t the primary focus, and the story as it is comes in grand expository dialogue – we could chalk that up to technological limitations, but it’s not like the story improved substantially with the third game (Except for budget – yay budget! Except budget does not make you a better writer, but a lazy one!) but they work well enough to augment the wonderful things going on underneath the presentation. The whole “Hell” theme just lets Blizzard North craft a variety of interesting, varied, and pretty wild-looking enemy types based around the medieval notions of demonology. From a purely Christian cultural standpoint, one could call it bizarrely satisfying to kick the literal crap out of demons – spiritual warfare in physical form, perhaps.
Diablo II truly refined the formula with multiplayer and a giant world to explore with diverse enemies and locations. The same basics applied everywhere, but crowd control and pinpointing enemies became massively important. Boss enemies required specific strategies where your class choice and build (all permanent choices, stat distribution and skill points alike) made all the difference – dashing let you run and dodge enemies, while mouse clicks let you precisely control which enemy you needed to defeat. Holding enough recovery potions in your inventory while also having enough to pick up good loot (limited inventory space!) meant you needed to micromanage too. Diablo II isn’t without its problems, but it’s incredibly solid.
The loot, on the other hand, feels like a giant reward for hard work, and the loot always came in just the right amounts to make things worthwhile. You could play on higher difficulties for better loot and bigger challenges, or maybe even try an entirely new character build – the possibilities, if you enjoy the feedback lo0p, are almost endless in their variety and possible challenges. Bosses always presented a unique wall to progress, and many of them required some unique techniques based on your build – that caused its own cadre of endless replays for the Hardcore. Since every map generates randomly, that further adds to the surprise and excitement.
While Diablo II forced specific choices and investment, Diablo III prefers experimentation instead. The sequel lets you pick from six skills at a time, each of which lets you choose from a variety of abilities. I imagine they did this to balance the power of resource-using abilities versus regular attacks versus cooldowns, and this streamlines your character development process. Even potions end up simplified, as all potions but health potions disappear and health potions also gaining a 30 second use restriction. Theoretically, you need skill and well-chosen gear to survive instead of potion spam and resource management – a change, but not necessarily an awful one.
Yes, you don’t need to make permanent decisions or make multiple characters; then again, the difficulty curve magnifies as a result, allowing them to assume familiarity with your whole toolset going into Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno. Or, at least, that seemed to be Blizzard’s assumption going into the design. Bosses demonstrate a World of WarCraft-like sensibility for “not standing on things on the floor” rather than specific ability sets and if you die you can also try again with new abilities and a 10% equipment durability loss (also a WoW thing, unsurprisingly). Crowd control becomes quite important as enemies attack in greater numbers, and you’ll need a keen eye to discern what’s happening among all the satisfying visual noise.
The core actions of Diablo feel incredibly satisfying, as the sounds, graphical embellishments, and enemy reaction add up to something akin to God of War’s visceral combat loops. Honestly, the simple act of hitting stuff with whatever ability never gets old, and so you become better and better at the system just through the sheer attraction of the basic mechanics. Or, at the very least, that’s how I felt. But whereas God of War frustrated me out of my mind, Diablo III felt like a worthwhile exercise of empty pleasure augmented by loot.
But there’s a bigger problem with Diablo III, and it’s right inside the title above!
Proceed to Part 2