Day 1: The Past
The whirr of wings and a lifetime of training had me hitting the floor before my brain had even reacted consciously. A good thing, too, with the sound of splintering wood informing me that the metal canister shot from Sanctuary had just impacted the wall behind me.
After dusting myself off and throwing a pail of water on the red-hot metal to cool it off, I picked out a simple communiqué scrawled in red ink.
“Here’s the key. Review Diablo’s return.”
Ah. So the demons had returned. After more than a decade of smoldering in silence the hotly anticipated third-person click-a-thon from Blizzard was back. Well, time to dust my bone-studded armor, wave my wand and… what? Necromancers are not a class this time around? Oh, but we have witch doctors now? Who look like funny old men speaking Jamaican? Sure, yeah, I think I have a shrunken head lying in the storehouse somewhere…
Day 2: The Sins of the Ever-ready
Much had changed as I settled my pack on my shoulders and began this long journey. Diablo was always ostensibly a single-player game. And yet this time around, it is clear that Blizzard have done everything in their power to turn it into an online title as much as possible. Depending on where you fall, this is good or bad. Let’s get the bugbear out of the closet and deal with it first: Yes, this is DRM thinly disguised as “connectivity”. Yes, this even applies to single-player, requiring you to have a solid Internet connection speed in order to log in and play by yourself. This DRM comes in the form of Battle.Net, similar to Blizzard’s last hack at it with Starcraft 2. More than once over the past few days since launch, servers have come down during prime Asian peak hours for maintenance, although we expect that to pass eventually.
What this DRM does endeavor to do, however, is to turn your Diablo experience into something akin to a MMO. For starters, the friends list is always visible, and always shows how many other friends you have playing online right now. A click brings up the list, showing where they are roughly in each part of the game, how many players are in their party, and so forth. Blizzard’s done everything it can to make it exceedingly easy to jump into friends games and party up. Interestingly, that friends list also hooks players up to those playing Starcraft and World of Warcaft. I tried messaging a friend who was listed as playing WoW, and hilariously enough, had the auto-reply from WoW’s popular add-on Deadly Boss Mods ping me back.
Ah, wait. Messaging? Well, yes. The other half of “connectivity” that Battle.net is selling is an old MMO staple, the chat. Nestled in the lower left corner of the screen, this scrolling box lets you join chat channels, privately message friends, link items for others to compare and more. It’s all done seamlessly and any MMO player will feel right at home.
The final – and perhaps the most controversial – part of Battle.net’s connectivity lies in the auction house. Accessed through the main menu, players can stump up any item they find. There are two halves here, using the gold found in-game, as well as real-money. While the latter isn’t up yet, the former is already filled with thousands of items that you can bid on or just buy up. I found the implementation of the auction house to be solid. If I’m bidding on an item and have been outbidded, I’m not only informed of it, but left a link with how much the current bids are going to decide if I wish to outbid something else. What will be interesting is seeing how the long-term real-money half of the auction house will play out, as Blizzard takes a cut of every sale, and even more if you choose to have the funds cash out to Paypal.
Day 3: The Sell
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, how does Diablo III play? As a comparison, about a month ago I was induced to fire up Diablo II just to refresh my memory instead of playing it through the lens of the past. The short version: Not much has really changed, has it? Oh yes, there’s plenty of improvements. Skills, the bread-and-butter of Diablo’s clicky-clicky goodness, are still here and the primary means to blow up demons. What’s changed is that there are no more stat points to distribute, no nail-biting thoughts of whether to put more points into this or that, no madly trying to hit various hotkeys to swap skills on the fly.
Instead, it’s been boiled down to four number keys and the two mouse buttons. Each corresponds to a specific skill school for the five characters — for my Witch doctor that meant throwing out a handful of poisonous frogs, sending out spirits to haunt enemies and summoning a pack of zombie dogs to serve as protectors. As players level, more skills unlock, as well as special runes that alter how each skill works. Take that handful of frogs I mentioned. One rune turns them into explosive frogs, another alters the skill into a gigantic frog that swallows foes whole. At any time, players can swap these skills and runes to fit the needs of the situation.
This is, hands down, the best thing that could have happened in my opinion. In a nod to MMO’s where everyone now has the ability to switch roles and skills on the fly, why not your own hero? If I’m playing Diablo III by myself, I’ll roll with a huge pack of zombie followers and slow, poison, and keep myself at a distance. If I’m hooked up with friends, I’ll lead the way with frogs. Or maybe I’ll throw a pile of spiders in a jar… The options are endless and fun. These skills all look suitably flashy and powerful, speaking to a graphics engine that knows where exactly it should be trying its best. Monks dropping bells on foes, a Wizard’s (hilariously nicknamed) “optic blasts” or a Barbarian’s whirlwind of fury all give players the sense of power that comes with being a mighty hero of Sanctuary.
And what mighty hero goes into battle without suitable gear? Someone once called Diablo and its ilk “slot machines with monsters on top”. And that sums up what you’re doing this for, really, in Diablo isn’t it? There’s that adrenaline rush of killing a monster or popping open a chest, loot spilling everywhere. And in the pile, something useful! A rare item! Stopping to examine it, discovering its useful (or, far more often, not so useful) abilities. The tons and tons of loot make for greatly distinctive characters, a feat that only helps keep players going for “just one more piece of gear”.
Day 4: The Rot
Unfortunately, of course, nothing is ever completely perfect. When I sat back to think about it, Diablo III brings few real innovations other than quality-of-life changes to gamers. For starters, the graphics still look a little fuzzy around the edges, with no ability to rotate my camera or even adjust the zoom angle. Yes, the world is a lot more destructible now – with crazy achievements like blowing up 1000 ash cairns to help nudge you along – but it’s still the same, 2.5D isometric mode that it was without much significant improvement in how it handles.
I haven’t quite unlocked Nightmare yet, where tales of being killed in one hit are beginning to filter down from those who have more time than I do, but with the abundance of health potions and health globes that refill life as you slay, there’s a significant slant towards keeping players moving and on the go rather than slowing down to admire the surroundings. I’ve not been killed once yet, despite exploding demons, fist punched by Belial and various other attempts on my life.
Finally, despite the game’s best efforts to ease players in with helpful hints and tooltips, there is still far too little being told to me. For instance, weapons and items that add a measly four to five damage are highly prized. Why? It took another player explaining to me how that small addition, coupled with the multiplication of a class’s primary statistic, can add up to hundreds or even thousands of points more damage to deal. Oh. And, as a bit of a post-script, there is the small issue of Asia. Most players seem to be congregating to the American servers rather than the Asian servers. That’s fine, except maintenance for the past few nights have been done during prime time hours for Asians. If that continues, it can be a significant downer for most looking to settle in for a long night of monster slaying. Keep that in mind.
Day 5: The End
Overall though, Diablo III delivers on everything that it promised to gamers – Hack’n’slash adventure, non-stop action, more loot than I know what to do with, and an immersive game that makes it easy to hook up with friends and game together. Considering that servers for Diablo II are still around over a decade gone, and the incessant high of picking up new items and earning tons of achievements, it’s fair to say that Diablo III is a winner.