Stay awhile and listen! (Diablo III Review)

 Diablo II, our last full outing to the world of Sanctuary, was released twelve years ago. TWELVE – let that sink in. The last time I played Diablo II my ISP was @Home and the world had recovered from the Y2K bug. I think I may have still owned a mouse that had a mouse ball in it, though it was likely in a box somewhere. At one point I was asked what I expected a new Diablo to deliver, to which I reflected on what I felt the previous game brought to the table. Diablo II had everything you could want – simple interface, tons of action, multiple classes with their own skill trees, cooperative-and-competitive multi-player, and the unforgettable sounds of loot dropping that created a Pavlovian response to grab it before anyone else does (AKA ninja looting).   It had its downsides too: low resolution, item duping, town-killing, tons of mad clicking, scrolls of identify and town portal, as well as the aforementioned ninja-looting.

[singlepic id=6835 w=200 h=150 float=left] I’ve played the Diablo III beta for the past few months, so going into this review I can say the product isn’t entirely new to me. In fact, I got to play it prior to the rune system overhaul – and in that time I brought each class to the maximum level, and sunk over 50 hours into various versions. Maybe you have too, though I’d expect you would have already made a purchase decision. I certainly did – I bought my own copy of Diablo III (Collectors Edition, no less) long before I was tapped to  review this title. If you are wavering but are interested in owning Diablo III (among other prizes), we’ve been running a Facebook contest for our USA readers (closes May 29, 2012).

While this review will focus on the game, I will not be dwelling on the collectors edition extras – because really, Diablo III is big enough on it’s own. I’m also not going to dwell too much on the perceptions that were out there prior to the game release, nor am I going to set this up to be some sort of bastion against single-player DRM – no, the scores represented are for the game I played and not some agenda I’m trying to force on the publisher. Frankly, while some of my opinions may vary a bit, I felt Victor hit the nail on the head. In short, the drawback of online-only gameplay are far outstripped by the benefits that Blizzard’s always-on strategy brings to the table, even if there is room for improvement – more on that in a bit.

[singlepic id=6831 w=200 h=150 float=left] Let’s kick things off with a bit about the presentation – Diablo III is not going to push tech barriers. In fact, its presentation is solid, consistent, and screenshots make it look like any other 3rd person action-RPG out there. At one point we would have referred to it as an isometric view, but as I understand it, it’s actually diametric projection. You can zoom in – mostly to admire your characters equipment, as the shortened range of view does not lead to good combat. The artwork and characters all have flavor and don’t look bad in screenshots, but the game isn’t really beautiful until you see it in flight.

What truly sets it apart from its current contemporaries is, though it’s legacy is over a decade old and its model has often been imitated, is that it actually feels like Diablo. The artistic presentation does not feel like World of Warcraft, though the character selection screen may recycle some elements. The varying friends and foes all jive, and while I would have liked to have been able to have a higher resolutions to the characters (as seen in modern games like Batman: Arkham City), the pulled back view isn’t hampered by the lower resolution, and allows the scene to be filled with dozens of enemies on-screen without hitch, and incredibly short load times on my mid-range PC.

  [singlepic id=6823 w=160 h=120 float=right] The music is fantastic, and can be hauntingly beautiful. The acting itself is suitably dramatic and while sometimes overwrought, generally not to the point of distraction.  Some of the voices of the demons fall low in the register and I almost considered playing with subtitles or earphones – my son was sleeping in the next room and the last thing I want to to do is inject into my seven-year-olds subconscious mind the booming threats of demonic intent. If there was a gripe I had with any aspect of the audio, it would be that while the voice acting is consistent and better than most games, some of the NPCs can grate as they recycle the same lines far too often, and with substantially less variation than what I’d like to see. Also,  the NPC storylines do not branch out beyond basic dialogue. I hope Blizzard rectifies this down the line with DLC – I’d be interested to see where some of those stories lead.

  [singlepic id=6830 w=200 h=150 float=left] As you progress in level you unlock dozens of different powers, unique to each of the five different classes, and modifiers called runes. A quick example would be where the Wizard can cast a spell that summons forth lightning, and by choosing a modifier rune you might be able to up the number of targets from 2 to 6 via the chain lightning rune, or randomly have 4 charges burst from a target to hit adjacent enemies.  The nice thing about the rune system is that every level from 1-to-60 unlocks several new options – whether they be active skills, such as the one I described, or also passive skills like Glass Cannon which increases a wizards damage by 15% but makes him 10% more vulnerable. If you’re curious about the skills and runes and don’t mind spoiling some of the surprise, you can peruse the different classes on the official Blizzard website which breaks down the level progression in great detail.

Having played each of the five classes (several times over) both in beta and now the retail version, I have pretty good understanding of what each role has to offer. My wizard, BlackMage – named in tribute to 8-Bit theater, is currently my highest leveled character and the one that I’d used to finish the retail release. I found that while I enjoy the Frost Nova to freeze enemies in place and then use Arcane Orb to blast them to smithereens, I needed to change my play style for boss fights. This, in my opinion, really allows you to feel like you have control. While there may be optimal configurations that some folks may swear are the best of the best, there really is no risk in experimenting with the skills, since you can change them on the fly – save a short cooldown period. By default Blizzard has you picking one of each of the six types of  skills for each class. I recommend you turn on the Elective mode from the gameplay options almost immediately. This allows you greater control over which skills you can select for the different hot-keys.

[singlepic id=6829 w=160 h=120 float=right] Diablo’s strength is not the storyline – it will pull you forward the first play-through, and it is enjoyable even if it is a little thin. It might be best to play solo just so that you can experience the dialogue and cut-scenes without having one of your party members skipping past sections, even accidentally. Beyond that, Diablo III also offers a few random side quests including multiplayer-only tasks, and in line with the previous two games, it heaps mountains randomly generated loot, monsters and maps (key areas notwithstanding). Unlike the first Diablo, you are not simply going deeper and deeper into the ground, fighting similar monsters who vary in color based on difficulty. In fact, there are four acts, all which take place in very different locales. The levels were ample, and while I tried to keep my need to explore every section of every map, I did a fair bit of backing up to check where the path-not-taken leads. I was often rewarded with fighting a unique monster, who was harder to kill and dropped better loot which makes the extra exploration worthwhile. Also, the item and gold drops in multiplayer are for each player, so no one gets to steal your loot – and once you’ve finished the game, you can head right back in on Nightmare, Hell and Inferno modes for even more powerful items.  The monsters are bumped up in the subsequent difficulty levels, and don’t think that it’s the same thing over. Some of the monsters have been significantly upgraded with different attacks and while Normal rarely calls for using health potions, the harder setting will challenge players of any skill level.

Lastly, there is a hardcore mode which is unlocked relatively early, where you can create a character who is cut off from your  town chest, common gold, and the auction house. They cannot be resurrected once dead, so gameplay becomes much more reserved, and since you can’t artificially bump your character with items collected from other characters, you rely on the magic drops available. When they die, a memorial is kept to show what they were wearing, how far they got, and what ended their life.

[singlepic id=6832 w=200 h=520 float=left] Blizzard saw fit to include a robust text-only chat system, which allows you to embed item links, chat with friends in other games, and even set off emotes – having your character say hello and wave by typing in /hello, for instance. If you’re at all familiar with World Of Warcraft, they’ve basically lifted the same system here. You can whisper to friends, chat with the party, and even participate in group channels. Unfortunately they don’t have a way to create your own chat channels – I’d certainly enjoy a “GamingTrend” clan-like channel. But what is glaring is the absence of a voice-chat system. With gamers being able to chat in both Xbox360 and PS3 platforms, as well as numerous PC games, it is  ubiquitous and sorely missed. Yes, you can run Skype/TeamSpeak or any other voice chat clients in the background, but it really isn’t the same. Even if they were to restrict it to the game you’re in, it would have been a really nice feature – in the heat of battle the last thing you want to do is stop attacking, hit enter and start composing messages. They have emote hotkeys, but it’s just not the same.

[singlepic id=6826 w=160 h=120 float=right] Speaking of not the same – Blizzard got rid of town portal and identification scrolls – they have been replaced with cost-free spells – save the few moments to cast them. Also, holding your mouse button down is the same as clicking over and over, so you don’t need to click like a madman. As I mentioned above, all item drops are for the person who sees it, so in a game where four people are present when a chest gets opened, there are four different random loot drops that occur. If one character were to discard an item though, it would be available to anyone in the game.  Blizzard also included a trade system, so you can control transfer of items between different people in the same game- this is especially valuable when playing a public game and you may not trust some of the other gamers. Items aren’t just restricted to loot drops – there are two crafting systems included – one for items, and the other for gems. I’m not going to go into specifics, but they add an interesting twist to the game. The Auction House economy can sometimes make item creation more expensive, however in absence of the Auction House, such as with hardcore mode, it becomes a pretty valuable addition.

[singlepic id=6820 w=200 h=150 float=left] The entirely optional Auction House (AH) is where you can buy and/or sell items and crafting materials to other players. The currency at the time of the review is from your common pool of gold that your normal characters have collected. The Real Money Auction House, or RMAH, has not yet been released to gamers. There has been some complaint over the Auction House availability –  sometimes Blizzard brings one or more sections of the AH for different reasons. It will not be reflected in this review – from a game perspective it is completely optional, and though it is certainly valuable, Blizzard is working to meet the demands of its record-breaking 6.6+ million user base garnered in it’s first week of release alone. The security of the online-only component of Diablo III is key here – if they are going to host a game that allows people to farm items for real money, then it’s very important to make sure there is no offline cheating. Is it a perfect system? No, and the launch day”Error 37″ showed us that we’re at the whim of their server availability – but Blizzard has been up-front with users and have committed to working out any issues. It’s not like they’re new to having a massive gaming population online – but the sheer number of people connecting at once is staggering. It is no small task to go from load projections to real-world impact of millions of people connecting – anf frankly Blizzard has done what no one else has. I don’t see any complaint in the fact that since the day-after-release, I’ve been able to rack up 70+ hours with only one time where Battle.Net was unavailable – so, in short, this doesn’t factor into the score.

[singlepic id=6827 w=200 h=150 float=left] While the decent storyline, the online auction house, the active post-release tweaking and the addictive gameplay may be compelling reasons to own Diablo III – Blizzards newest game is king for one reason : accessible gameplay and repeat visits to Sanctuary. You can pop in, pop out, drop off stuff for friends, play your favorite levels, or just hop into a public game with a couple of clicks. It doesn’t matter what level you are, or which act your friends are on – as long as you’ve unlocked that difficulty. It’s a game that is easy to fire up, enjoy for a while, and then shut it down. If a single play-through is what you’re looking for you’ll likely enjoy it, but you’ve missed the point. Diablo III has legs – it will be there months from now when you decide to take another class you hadn’t played, and get together with a buddy or three to max out your level. Blizzard has even indicated that they’re looking at fine-tuning a new competitive mode, and while this doesn’t affect the review scores – who knows what else they have planned after they’ve dealt with any growing pains that Battle.Net has gone through.

Getting back to to answer the question about what I thought Diablo III would deliver, I expected a game that would make me lose track of time, wish for bigger backpacks, and sacrifice real-life relationships. Thankfully, two outta three ain’t bad.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, at a young age I was forced to decide whether the harsh northern winters were going to claim my fingers, or to turn to the safer pursuits of indoor activities. Little did I know that a little game called Ninja Gaiden would bring my digits more pain than frostbite ever could. Starting with Vectrex and C64 games and moving forward through the era of electronic entertainment, I sampled as much as I could in the different platforms, and began my interest in PC gaming from wrestling with DOS memory management.

While console games were a part of my earliest gaming memories and I certainly had played on most platforms including 3D0, all things Nintendo, PS1 and the like, truly the PC was my domain until the Xbox. As an old PC gamer, I ever chased the cutting edge technology. Eye of the beholder with CGA 4 colors was my first step down the the path of blowing thousands of dollars on PC upgrades over two decades. Ultima 7, with the Guardian talking to me through my monitor, still haunts my dreams and keeps me ever hoping for a decent Ultima 8 and 9. From the 3DFX SLI VooDoo2s and Aureal to today's GPU driven DirectX games, the new and shiny pictures seem to keep me going. My PC gaming has slowed down with the market shift though, and although I have choice games that will ever be on PC, I have found myself in console gaming with a bit of portable gaming in my life.

Back around the turn of the millenium (and long before fatherhood), I had fired off an email offering to help Ron with a little-known site called ConsoleGold. Little did I know it would be be a part of my life to this day. While I've seen my fair share of shovelware (thanks Ron!), I manage to try and find the fun in most games. Leaning towards sandbox and action titles, I've grown to love games for their potential to reach art. Console agnostic and excited for the progress of tomorrow, I fancy the latest and greatest, but still enjoy the good old classics ... as long as they've been revamped from their 8bit graphic roots.

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