Blizzard has always been a PC-centric company, but with the release of Diablo III in May of last year, the control scheme hinted at something interesting – a potential console product. Sure enough, we return to the world of Sanctuary where Diablo and his mischievous little brothers are at it again, only this time we get to take them on from the comfort of our couch. Can hundreds of hours of loot addiction translate to the console market? It’s time to find out.
The most immediate need in moving from mouse-destroying PC title to gamepad-centric co-op console game was to address the control scheme. Blizzard hinted at it with the simple approach to skill distribution, and sure enough those powers map perfectly to the handful of buttons on the Xbox 360 – no keyboard required. Using a radial menu system, all content can be accessed with a categorized layout that classifies your skills and equipment neatly. Stars indicate new items, and a quick press of the X button lets you compare it side-by-side with your currently equipped gear. The powers are equally well presented, and it is very easy to map them to any button you’d like. Like the PC version, it’s gated to help new players acclimate to the system, so you won’t have eight buttons to manage until much later in the game. Also coming over from the PC is Elective Mode, unlocking the ability to map any power to any button.
To keep the action pace moving without a constant need to pause for gear adjustments, equipment has been purpose-tuned to the character classes. This means gear drops are slightly tilted in your favor. That’s not to say it’s Dexterity items dropping non-stop if you are playing a Monk, it just means you’ll see Wanga Dolls and disembodied heads a little less often. Because there is no auction house mechanic in the game (and for that, I’m rather thankful) there isn’t a big need to hold onto gear that doesn’t fit you. There is still a Storage Chest in town to hold onto those Legendaries for your other characters if you are inclined. Beyond the drops themselves, inventory is no longer a game of Tetris, giving players 60 slots that will hold a gem as easily as a two-handed broadsword. When you pick up an item you’ll get an on-screen prompt that shows little green up arrows or red down arrows relative to attack power, defense, or other relevant attributes. It’s not perfect, but it keeps it simple.
The HUD is equally easy to manage, giving up to four players locally or remotely the opportunity to have their own little bit of real estate for their icons. Nephalim, Defense, Mantras, and other buffs and debuffs are cleanly presented, flanked by the appropriate globe for powering your skills. For my money it works best with two players, leaving the top part of the screen completely unobstructed.
On the PC version, without the gear tuning, a player with a well-trained smith could make weapons and armor for their friends. In the console version I found that around level 15 I was cranking out gear that was perfect for my Monk but terrible for my wife’s Wizard. No matter how much money I dropped into Haedrig’s hands, nothing with an Intelligence attribute would come off of his anvil. She was forced to do her own upgrades to get gear that matched her skillset. Obviously this is a non-issue with gems, but it’s critical with gear.
One final mechanical change puts the cherry on the top of the console translation – the dodge-roll. While the Demon Hunter has this skill in the PC version, now all characters can perform a quick dodge to keep them safe. Not unlike the dodge that Kratos can execute in the God of War series, players can now dodge away from ice bombs, scoot out of danger, or just roll around like an idiot as I’ve found to be common on Xbox Live. The net result is a faster paced game that doesn’t ask players to stand toe-to-toe, hip deep in acid, with giant angry trees out to kill them. I can tell you that the fight with The Butcher was a different experience (albeit no less difficult) being able to roll away from the fire under foot.
Local cooperative play is not normally something I embrace as I typically hate split-screen. Rather than going with that method, Blizzard puts all players on one screen. To keep everyone together and to keep the camera at the same height all the time, other local co-op players are warped back to Player 1 should they try to stray too far from the pack.
Graphically, there have been some concessions to bring Diablo III to the console market. Running at 720p, there is a bit of jagged and lower resolution texture work on characters and monsters. That said, all of the beautiful lighting and effects work comes across intact. The framerate is pretty solid, with dips below 30fps being as rare as Legendaries, though they do happen when you’ve got four players and a ton of enemies. With two players, the framerate hangs out at 30 almost exclusively.
When you put the simplicity of all of this together, something rather awesome happens. Back in May of last year I picked up an extra copy of Diablo III for my wife to play the game with me. She struggles a bit controlling the camera and her character, so I figured the isometric camera-locked lootfest on PC would be right up her alley. At the end of a few sessions, it was more obvious that she isn’t a fan of PC gaming. When Diablo III for the Xbox 360 arrived on my doorstep I took another swat at it. Two marathon sessions later and she was completely hooked – this game translated perfectly. The simplicity of the changes broke the barrier to entry and turned this game into something that anyone could play, regardless of skill level. Online the game feels familiar but more suited to a controller, and cooperative play works very well for you and a friend. While I’m not sure the harcore end-game will translate with the console audience, there is no doubt that Diablo III is the new couch co-op king.