I remember Diablo 2 very fondly - a game I played a moderate amount on my own, but a hell of a lot in crowded LAN parties and over an earlier, less user-friendly incarnation of the internet. Not a complex game, really, but one that was great manic fun in company, its comparative simplicity allowing for some strange compulsive alchemy of destruction. But that was in another house, and besides, the Diablo is dead.
Except now we have a sequel, at the cutting edge of modern gaming, right?
I think I should start by saying that I’ve played a lot of Diablo 3 in the last few weeks. I’ve finished it with one class, very nearly finished it with another, and played through the first Act with a third. I’ve dabbled with the “Nightmare” difficulty, I’ve had a peek around the Auction House. I can’t say I’ve not had my monies worth, or that I’ve not enjoyed it, nor even that I’m done with it. It is, it has to be said, pretty good fun.
The thing is, the more I play it, the more time I spend with it, the more hollow the game seems to be. It’s unambitious. It’s safe. It takes no chances - aimed squarely at the things that made Diablo and Diablo 2 fun it is simply an evolution of those games. And not even a big evolution in many ways, the sort of evolution that gave us more shark-like sharks, not the sort of evolution that gave us Bengal Tigers descended from dinosaur-dodging rodents. It is the Diablo experience focused and streamlined and smoothed, cruising through the deep waters of the modern gaming oceans, secure in its niche.
Take the game engine. This is really a good looking game - everything is fully 3-d rendered, the character models are lovely, the environments fade in and out to keep your line of sight clear, walls crumble around you and winds swirls across the empty deserts. But the game is locked to the same isometric position that it precursors were, you can’t zoom in or out, the beautiful environments are, ultimately, very conservative and familiar choices. In places its more like playing an HD remake than a wholly new game.
The gameplay is of course unchanged - which you’d expect from the franchise that pretty much created the whole click-loot-click ARPG genre. You get to map more abilities to the number keys, which is nice, and the whole talent tree thing from Diablo 2 is gone in favour of a more flexible system that gives you a few skill options for each slot, with each skill having a number of modifiable “runes” that change their behaviour. With no penalty for switching around your spec, this encourages experimentation to find both fun synergies (self-resurrecting, exploding poisonous Zombie Dogs!) and to mould any given class to your playstyle. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t confirm that each of the classes does seem to play genuinely differently, which is often a stumbling block in these sort of games replayability.
Of course you’re playing these characters in a very familiar environment - randomly generated map grids full of hostile creatures you have to hack your way across to the next goal. Mixed in are Elite and Rare mobs with special abilities to keep things interesting but after a while another of the games big issues starts to seep in - it’s too easy. After a while you just start ploughing into huge packs with little care, and there is little to worry about other than the odd chug on a health potion or run for a “health globe” dropped by a defeated enemy. On multiplayer this is less of an option, especially if you’re disorganised and split up and overrun, but even then you can often power through. I was expecting a step up from “Nightmare” but apart from the rares and elites, not so much.
Oh, and there is a plot, but perhaps the best said about it, the better. The cutscenes are nice, but the story is dull, predictable, and the less said about Diablo’s...”redesign”...the better!
OK this all sounds a bit negative, and I have to admit that yes, the game is a lot of fun. The “always online” thing was always going to be stupid, and consumer unfriendly, and in practice, it is, but from a multiplayer perspective the drop-in, drop-out functionality is pretty smooth and easy, and clearly how the game is “meant” to be played. These is a simple joy in the core gameplay - repetitive though it is - and who doesn’t like collecting shiny loot upgrades? The drops are horribly, horribly random however, and given all the effort Blizzard made with fixing up World of Warcraft’s itemisation systems, I can only assume that its been left like this in Diablo 3 to drive people to the silly Real Money Auction House function. But seriously, I already paid for this game, so screw that.
And there you have it - Diablo 3 is a better shark, slicker, faster, better suited for a modern gaming ocean. But like a shark, it is just one thing; eating time efficiently, without offering anything more, anything new. It won't splash about in the shallows with you, kicking back and having fun. Its siren song won't haunt for days after you put it down, echoing around the vast open spaces of your imagination. It may swim faster, and eat better, but it will never fly.