Published by: Blizzard Entertainment
Developed by: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: US: May 15, 2012
Also Available On: Macintosh
Twelve years is a long time to wait for a game, but the Diablo faithful have had to do just that since developer Blizzard released Diablo II in 2000. Since then people have leveled and looted for years and gradually mastered its gameplay systems. Blizzard too has learned a lot over the last decade, and has wisely applied these lessons to the design of Diablo III. At its most basic level, Diablo III is still largely the same game, but with flexible skill systems that encourage you to constantly reshape your hero into whatever you need them to be. In the end, Diablo’s classic, loot-driven formula where you pick from a few pre-determined classes and level them up proves to be incredibly addictive the third time around.
Some people love Diablo III for its story, and the third’s narrative is stronger than its predecessor, but still filled with clichés and predictable twists. But that doesn’t really matter all that much, because the story merely serves as a way to tie together the various dungeons and quests in your hunt for gear. Quality voice acting and some truly incredible cut-scenes between Acts help flesh out the universe, but past the first playthrough it’s not really anything worth paying attention to.
Even when the story failed to grab me, the loot system kept me hooked. Bringing your axe down for a killing blow or blasting an enemy with a skill that rips the flesh from their bones is empowering, but the eruption of gold and treasure that spews into the air induces a rush of jubilation. Picking through the gore that was my enemies so I can pluck out the gold and choice items is like panning for precious metals. No matter how many times it happens I still click on the treasure as fast as I can, quickly opening up my inventory to see if I’ve hit the mother lode or a dud. Some items have their stats revealed the second you mouse over them, but when a yellow item drops and you have to wait to identify it there’s a moment where you feel like you’re waiting for lottery numbers to be announced. It results in instances of elation and frustration, but with the bad times come the moments where I’m enveloped in a sense of joy, where the hours I’ve spent wading through monsters for the umpteenth time feel more than worth it. No other game besides Diablo III has engaged my hunger – my need – to get loot in the same way. I dream about it at night (seriously), and dwell upon it while I write this sentence.
Even when the randomly generated magic items have stats you don’t need they have a lot of value, even more so than before due to Diablo III’s revamped economy. Non-magic items are all but worthless, so when it comes to unwanted magic items you have to choose between selling them to a vendor for much-needed gold, auctioning them or breaking them down into parts for crafting at the blacksmith. Gold is dropped in random amounts from monsters, but, unlike previous Diablo titles, it’s used in more meaningful ways, and far more scarce. Not only can you use it to purchase items from other players, but it’s also used to level up your blacksmith and jeweler, purchase additional space in your stash, and repair your equipment. In fact, gold feels so useful that even when I run through a dungeon and get no usable items, I still feel like it was time well spent since I earned gold.
If wealth isn’t an issue, it’s best to take your unneeded items to the blacksmith. The blacksmith breaks down magic items into component parts, which in turn can be used (along with gold) to craft new weapons and armor. It creates agonizing moments where you could sell an item for short term gain in gold, or take a chance and break it into parts to create something new. If you pay the gold and work towards upgrading your smith, crafted items become really useful. While not quite as exciting as finding loot off a monster, each crafted item’s randomized stats ensure little moments of elation. The jeweler rounds out the crafting system, but the gems he fashions have predictable stats, taking away all the mystery of what you’ll get. Still, the jeweler provides the same meta-benefit as the smith, giving you another venue to feel like you’re making progress since their leveled-up status carries over into other characters and difficulty settings.
If you’re not selling it to a merchant or using it for smithing, your magic items should go to the auction house. Here you can enter a virtual market powered by the community (though currently only for gold transactions, because the real money auction house has yet to be implemented despite appearing as a bullet point on the back of the box), selling items either straight from your stash or directly off of one of your characters. People flush with cash can also use it to pick up items for their hero instead of hunting for them, quickly searching for specific armor slots or weapon types with a series of drop down menus. It’s nice to have a system integrated directly into the game, though it’d be better if you could access it from within the game world, rather than the main menu. What’s genuinely awful, though, is that Blizzard has set a seemingly arbitrary 10 item auction limit, leaving me in a situation where I’m perpetually waiting for something to sell so I can move the next item out of my stash. It’s incredibly annoying.
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the pursuit of treasure, talking about the benefits of my next imaginary drop and how awesome my character will look that I lose sight of how fun it is to acquire it to begin with. Diablo III’s combat holds up over the lengthy campaign because of its randomly generated dungeons and monsters. One second you’re exploring a narrow cave passage densely packed with tiny demons, the next you’re deftly dodging and luring gigantic titans into vast open deserts. Play the same section of the game again and you might face the giant enemies in the tight space, while the swarms of enemies come at you from all over the desert. Or maybe another time you’ll face something altogether unexpected, such as a special enemy with abilities you haven’t seen before. Each time you play certain areas tied to the story might be laid out in the same way, but levels -- and the enemies that populate them -- are largely unpredictable. Never knowing what to expect keeps you on your toes, with your doom potentially hiding behind every breakable door. It just adds to the sense of adventure, and makes you feel like an empowered and emboldened hero if you manage to take down all your foes.
But your hero would hardly be heroic without his wide array of abilities, which are doled out at just the right increments, and not connected to any permanent choices. Every time your character gains an additional level in his journey to the cap of 60 he either obtains a new power, a rune that augments an already unlocked power, or a passive ability. Every time you level it feels significant, and, because there’s no penalty for switching out one power or rune for another, experimentation happens naturally in order to adapt. If I’m fighting waves of weaker enemies I’ll use an ability set that does damage over wide areas, while moments where I’m facing a boss or an another large enemy encourages me to quickly swap these for skills suited to taking on a single target.
Runes are an especially great way to handle skill augmentation, too, because skills you get early on that may seem useless can suddenly become amazing later in the game. For instance my witch doctor has a skill that summons frogs, but with runes I can summon one great frog that consumes an enemy whole, or make it rain frogs from the sky and poison enemies over time. With five runes per skill, my witch doctor feels super versatile, able to adapt to take on most anything Diablo III sends his way. One second he’s a life-leeching summoner with a legion of undead followers to tank for him, the next he’s a high-damage dealing caster with great support skills to help my teammates. With so many skills and versions of them it could get intimidating, but runes are introduced very slowly, and over multiple playthroughs. It’s a really smart way to handle an otherwise intense learning curve, and to make combat so engrossing that its repetitiveness goes largely unnoticed.
As big of a fan of approachability as I am, a little more explanation of some of Diablo III's deeper features would be appreciated. Namely, it should very clearly and deliberately point out the inclusion of Advanced Tool tips and Elective Mode. The former details how your skills work in more detail (such as how your weapon's damage might affect a skill, for instance), while the latter allows you to completely customize which skills go on which of your six buttons. If you don't enable Elective Mode you're locked into a few skill options per key, which is great for people who are learning the ropes, but something anyone will want to change after a few hours. The days where big-budget titles could be made for “l33t” gamers are over, and while I applaud Blizzard's efforts to make Diablo III a game most anyone can play regardless of previous experience with the franchise, they do need to let more advanced players in on these features without having to hunt for them.
For the experienced player, one time through the campaign of Diablo III just isn't enough. With randomly-generated areas and monsters, as well as a range of difficulties to play on, there are always more battles and loot waiting. While the first time you battle your way through Act I you might find one chest, and fight a pack of champion monsters just before it, the next time you might find three gargantuan demons – you just never know until you try. The entrancing allure of the unknown -- that you might stumble upon something unexpected – fills me every time I start a game. Add to that additional difficulty levels, where monsters gain powers you've never seen, and in combinations that make them genuinely threatening to your hero who moments before seemed superpowered, and it becomes an experience where excitement is around every corner, and adventure (or death) is just waiting for you to find it. At IGN we praise many games for their replayability, but Diablo III, with its continuous class progression across multiple difficulties, as well as its randomly generated dungeons loot and monsters, really stands in a class of its own.
Even on harder difficulty levels you can play the entire campaign alone, but Diablo III makes it easy to play around with friends or total strangers. Because it's always online, you can quickly bring up your Battle.net friends list, joining another's game or inviting up to three others. It's simple, intuitive and very, very fast. Then once you're together you can teleport to one another from town, slaying monsters who become tougher with each player that joins the game. Multiplayer isn't always conducive to getting the most out of the narrative (players who skip the story skip it for everyone, and you can't bring AI controlled companions in multiplayer), but can result in epic moments where everyone excitedly links the loot they just got, brokering deals or just giving it freely in order to make the party stronger. Killing a boss alone is gratifying, but doing it with others results in tall tales and all kinds of unpredictable hilarity. The good times don’t become hampered by people stealing loot from one another, either, as Blizzard has wisely made it so the only loot you see is your own. If you want to share items you can drop it from your inventory or trade it. There’s no fighting about who gets what; instead everyone just focuses on enjoying the battles and reaping their rewards. An integrated voice client would have made things even more convenient, but regardless it's still great always feeling connected to your circle of friends, sharing links to your loot whether or not you're in the same game, or just killing time chatting.
Twelve years. Twelve long years of waiting and fans are finally playing Diablo III, and, if my recent marathon sessions are any indication, they will be for the foreseeable future. So many systems from previous Diablo titles have been improved, making for an approachable, rewarding and deeply satisfying treasure hunting game. It's addictive on a level few games can match, so much so that it's easy to largely overlook its flaws. Sure, if you want you could really nitpick Diablo III’s design, but ultimately any minor grievances seem so trivial when compared to the enjoyment I had and will continue to have with Diablo III for years to come.