Just Try to Put It Down
I played Diablo III for nearly sixty hours over the course of five days – such was my addiction. I knew I had a family thing on Saturday, and that would be a day for me to back away from the game, cool off, and re-evaluate it so I could write a fair and balanced review.
My first waking action on Sunday morning was to turn on my PC and start up Diablo III. It’s going to be difficult to make this balanced.
The visual impact of Diablo III will immediately grab your attention. Straight away you’re thrust into a dark and depressed world, shown from an isometric perspective, with nothing but death and undeath to accompany you. The first area you are treated to is New Tristram, set in a winding, ramshackle town built on the outskirts of damned Old Tristram, which had been destroyed by demons earlier in the Diablo trilogy. New Tristram is regulary being attacked by zombies and skeletons, and thus begins your first task. What’s truly amazing is that Blizzard has taken something that has been overdone, and made it tense, scary and imaginative again. The undead they use are terrifying; some die only to return as half-corpses, some spew lesser undead from their guts, some explode on death and let forth imps or deadly eel-like creatures.
And the theme of imaginative foes continues throughout: the sand levels of Act 2, the creatures of the hells throughout Acts 3 and 4, and the numerous demon overlords that serve as the game’s many boss characters, all feel unique and deadly. Each new foe brings something else to fear, and as you cycle up the difficulties, those foes become even more dangerous, with extra abilities, chaining power between groups, and a terrifying level of intelligence. Mobs even avoid area-of-effect damage, stay out of melée range to punish you from distance, and close in when you use close-combat weapons.
What’s fantastic is that every time you’re introduced to something new, a voiceover of Diablo lore becomes available to listen to. It just heightens the level of immersion. Filled with witty remarks and humorous characters, these tidbits of information make you realise how much intricacy has been sprinkled into the game, and fill you in on any background you may have missed if you never got to enjoy Diablo or Diablo II. That’s not to say that the game is aimed at newcomers, though! While it caters brilliantly to players stepping into Sanctuary for the first time, it also has plenty for players who have already spent many years with the franchise, with the return of key characters and a fleshing-out of a familiar world.
The game bathes you in epic moments as you play. One such moment sees you facing a certain famous “lesser lord of Hell”, who shall remain nameless – in combat, and fans of the series will be excited by his return. The concept of fighting him alone was a daunting one, but I stepped forward, killed his minions, and dropped his health to half. Then he had a sort of “screw this” moment, where he must have decided he’d stop going easy on me and just kill me. Which he did. There had been a point where I was thinking, “If this lord of Hell can make it rain fiery meteors on the city of Caldeum, why is he having such a hard time killing me?” He then transformed into a creature that took up most of my screen, and proceeded to cause earthquakes and make the floor explode around (and underneath) me, killing me pretty much instantly. Damn… I started again. I got to that stage. I got a hit on him with my Cluster Arrow attack that typically does loads of damage. His health bar barely moved, and he squashed me in one hit. Damn again… Many times I tried to defeat the beast, and each time I met with death. Then a friend of mine appeared online, and was just about to attempt the same boss himself, so he dropped into my game and helped me out. We destroyed him the first try, and it turns out that his combat-orientated healer Monk was the perfect help for my fully-offensive nuke-happy Demon Hunter.
The lesson here, kids, is that co-op pays off. It’s also remarkably easy to do. Whilst you have the option to turn off Quick Join, it’s quite fun to have it on. That way, any time a friend comes online, they can drop into your game as easily as they would load their own, replacing your follower and upping the difficulty accordingly. It’s a lot of fun playing with friends, and the loot system scales nicely to allow lots of loot for both players, so there really isn’t a downside to teaming up with people from your Friends list.
The Great Class Divide
The classes definitely do mix very well, and each has a unique playstyle achieved through its own combination of skills. The Demon Hunter has a variety of skills that allow it to move around rapidly, whilst also causing long-range area-of-effect damage and snaring foes, but has very few real ways to heal without using potions. Usefully, you’ll very rarely need to heal as a Demon Hunter, because between snaring stuff and killing it there won’t be much around to cause you pain. The Monk plays totally differently, by absorbing damage and healing fluently, whilst throwing out slick martial arts moves in close combat. A totally different playstyle.
The way the differences are achieved is not through hundreds of different skills. Blizzard has chosen to give a few core skills – up to twenty-three for the Wizard and Demon Hunter. It then supplements these by allowing you to choose runes that give additional effects or alter existing ones. One Demon Hunter skill allows you to set Spike Traps (up to three) that explode when an enemy stumbles onto them. The runes for the trap can allow you to either change the damage type, set all three traps at the same time, or instead change the trap completely into a “sticky” trap, which you attach to a foe so that when they die they deal heavy area-of-effect damage to all nearby foes. This allows you to create synergy between your skills without warping the key concept of the class. A favourite (basic) tactic of mine involves placing the Sticky Trap on a weak foe, kiting it into a group of larger foes, then casting the Cluster Arrow on it, dealing 200% weapon damage to nearby foes, then a further 100%, followed by the Sticky Trap exploding and dealing 275% to a large radius, all in quick succession, typically destroying anything that dares to even give me a funny look. A highly effective nuclear explosion.
All the more impressive is that each spell looks totally unique. You know if you accidentally cast Elemental Arrow rather than Cluster Arrow because Cluster Arrow looks like a meteor just collided with your enemy, whereas Elemental Arrow looks like a direct shot, accurate and blazing. When you apply the Chain Gang rune to Entangling Shot, you notice the difference because it feels like there’s a different weight to the shot (you’ll have to trust me on this one) and the effect around the arrow you shoot becomes an ethereal, black smoke.
All that is well and good, but what you really want to know about is the loot. After all, that’s what made past Diablo games so powerfully unending. The loot system in Diablo III is so endless it astounds me. There are so many combinations of abilities on weapons and armour that you find yourself hunting for the very best that you can find. And you will find it. And then in an hour’s time you’ll find one that’s just that little bit better. Between levels 20 and 30 my stats went up nicely. My armour, on the other hand, nearly tripled, and the stat bonuses went from three magical properties to six magical properties. Suddenly, my damage output was topping 500, when only ten levels before it was just under 200.
That’s just the power of the stuff you find; how about the quantity? Each creature you kill will almost certainly drop something. Shiny silver foes (hardened versions of their less shiny, less silver counterparts) will drop five or more items. Shiny gold mini-boss foes will drop double that. The uber-bosses that you will fight throughout the story, all of which are demons or lesser evils (or a prime evil), will drop a fountain of white, blue and gold items, as well as gold pickups and crafting materials. Since there are monsters galore, you’ll find yourself using the town portal (a portal that instantly transports you back to the main town so you can merch stuff and take a breather) regularly to sell off your wares and break magical items down to use for crafting. The ease of returning to town and then getting back into the action ensures that you never have to leave loot behind, and you always get the best of what you want. With so much loot dropping, you also find better items than what you already have in your thirteen equippable slots all the time, meaning your character is always swapping out and becoming more powerful, even without levelling up.
The loot that you don’t want can also be converted into loot that you do want, through Diablo III’s handy crafting system. Salvaging magic items (blue or gold) at the blacksmith yields crafting materials that vary with the level of the item salvaged. As these add up you can use them to craft new items from the item recipes that are available. You can also level up your blacksmith, Haedrig Eamon, to learn new crafting recipes. There are so many levels that it would take one player a very long time to reach the maximum, and it gives near-endless upgradability, especially in combination with the gem maker Covetous Shen, who can also be upgraded, but gives you the ability to make gems that allow you to upgrade items that have free slots. I opted to fill most of mine with emeralds for the dexterity bonus (at first Radiant Emeralds, but there are so many tiers, each with an increasing cost, that I found myself working towards those quite earnestly). Through these two NPCs, you can add many extra levels of playability and customisation to your character’s equipment that you’ll never find yourself thinking “I wish I could get a hold of XYZ” for long.
All this craftable and findable gear can also be assigned to your followers, of which there are three, and of whom you can only bring one with you (though you can switch whenever you feel like it). Each one brings a host of skills to cover your own weaknesses. The Templar is a perfect match for the Demon Hunter as he tanks the mobs and keeps damage off you, whilst healing you if he can get to you in time. The Enchantress gives knockback and area-of-effect buffs, as well as minor damage, which benefits most classes. The Scoundrel brings damage and snares, and fulfills the same role as the Demon Hunter would, so is of great use to melée players. The followers level up like the player does, can be given skills and weapons to improve their effectiveness, and have their abilities tailored to suit your own needs.
Lots o’ Stuff
What I hope I’ve managed to get across so far is that there’s a lot of stuff in this game. Lots of loot, lots of customisation, lots of skills, lots of unique ways of blowing up lots of enemies. This really doesn’t count for much though if the game ends quickly. When you first play through, you’ll likely complete the campaign in 20-30 hours, depending on your competency with the Diablo series, and depending on whether you like to discover everything (like me – I really loved finding the characters’ various journals littered around the dungeons) or you like to get through the levels quickly to experience the next part of the story.
Once you complete the campaign, you’ll unlock one difficulty level higher. In this difficulty, you keep everything you’ve found in your last playthrough, you keep your level, your skills, your followers, and all your upgrades to Haedrig Eamon and Covetous Shen, but you begin the story anew, with much more difficult foes, all of whom are at a higher level and will destroy you far more easily. You may think that this is a cop-out by Blizzard, an artificial way of making the game longer without actually adding content, but I promise you this: by the time you’ve finished your first campaign, you’ll want to play again. Playing again gives you the chance to unlock more levels, more skill runes, but more importantly gives you much much more collectable loot to enjoy.
In all the time I played through Normal difficulty, I had amassed one Radiant Emerald and a few nice items, as well as roughly 100,000 gold. By the time I had killed the Skeleton King at the end of Act 1 on the next playthrough, I had a further 150,000 gold, and many more high-quality gems, giving me huge stat boosts. The more you play, the more the game rewards you with vast power. Each level up seems to increase your abilities massively as you discover more items to fuel your stats and better weapons to raise your damage per second, but each level also sees you fighting significantly harder foes. Crowd control becomes a useful talent as more enemies attempt to mob and surround you, hoping to be the one to take you down.
Keeping It Fresh
What definitely helps keep the experience fresh on your second (and third, and fourth) outing is that the dungeons and not-key-to-the-story maps all change. So when you find yourself on a hunt through Old Tristram Cathedral for the Skeleton King Leoric the second time, you’ll quickly realise that nothing is in the same place as it was last time. It feels like you haven’t played the game before, like the area is totally new to you (which it is, of course). It’s a really nice touch from Blizzard, and means you can keep playing through all the way to level 60 without feeling like it’s at all repetitive, and if you roll a new character to try a new class out, well, then there’s no repetition there, either.
If you do decide to roll a new class (which I did), you’ll appreciate the fact that Blizzard lets you share your stash across all of your characters, so items you find at level 20 as a Monk that suit a level 10 Witch Doctor will be well worth saving. You also keep all the progress you have made upgrading Eamon/Shen, meaning you don’t have to pump tonnes of cash into them again (it gets expensive – by the time you need Blacksmith’s Pages, it’s 10,000-15,000 gold per upgrade, and that’s after at least fifteen previous upgrades at 5,000-7,000 apiece).
The Auction House is also a nice bit to consider both while you’re playing for the first time, and after. You can shift gold items that have good stats but that you have no need for quite easily, and the system seems to work brilliantly, allowing you to buy items quickly and at their cheapest price, and allowing you to choose to allow people to bid on items or buy them right away (or both!). It has pretty much every feature you could need, with filters and searches, and info readily available on all potential purchases. What remains to be seen is what will happen to it once its real money counterpart goes live at the end of May. Whether that will cause the Auction House to become a ghost house remains to be seen, but I think it’s likely players will still want to trade things off for in-game wealth, rather than be tempted by meagre sums of real money.
The Bad Bits
Truthfully, if you’ve got this far and you haven’t started playing Diablo III yet, I’m impressed with your ability to resist. So, what’s not to like?
Well, for a game with this much polish, the left-click to move, left-click to shoot system seems a little polish-less. It definitely makes it easy to cast your skills with fluidity and panache, but when all you want to do is dodge a certain demon overlord’s floor-exploding attacks, it gets annoying that you accidentally target him (he’s a big target). This is especially true if you’re using ranged attacks, as you’ll stop right where you are, and launch shots at your foe, while he stands there and laughs at you, and you die quickly. It can definitely be frustrating to find that the only reason you’re dying repeatedly is because the control system is letting you down. This definitely isn’t enough to even mildly dampen the fantastic experience that this game provides, and I write this bad bit only for completeness and balance of review.
The Final Verdict
Barring an unbelievably botched release that I totally wasn’t expecting (which meant many fans were unable to log on to the game’s servers at its midnight launch, and for another four hours on the weekend), Diablo III, thus far, ranks as a serious contender for Game of the Year 2012. It is everything a sequel to the genre-defining Diablo II needed to be: it is spectacularly beautiful, fully immersive, and unbelievably addictive. It gives you so much to play with, and so much to play, that it is potentially endless. I find myself writing this, desperate for Blizzard to announce the expansion pack, knowing that I will buy it the second it becomes available. Diablo III’s release was marred by silly Blizzard getting their figures wrong. But that was Blizzard, not Diablo. Diablo III is utterly perfect, and you will love every little moment you spend in its world.