In 2000 a little game came out called Diablo II. A game that back then broke the record for fastest selling PC game and has kept selling consistently for over a decade, thus it’s only fitting that Diablo III in 2012 would break the same record again. The original Diablo (1996) brought an entirely new beast on the market by combining fast-paced action-oriented point & click gaming with old-school dungeon crawling and loot hunting. It became such a defining franchise that most other games in the same genre are all identified as “Diablo clones” and not a single one of them has managed to reach D2s level of success and praise.
What truly earned the former game its unequaled reputation is the fact that 12 years later people are still playing the game with equal enthusiasm, having been perfected and developed constantly since its release. In short, expectations have been out of this world.
So how do you sell Diablo all over again? – Something that appeals to the hardcore fans who logged out from D2 yesterday as well as to gamers who are completely new to the concept.
Blizzard have answered this question by keeping the core game the same, we still set out as a nearly naked level 1 hero with the goal of killing the devil and amassing gold, weapons and armor on the way. As is good practice, they have done this while trimming all the fat, reinventing obsolete skill-trees, adding a new set of classes and a new multiplayer platform, requiring you to always play online with the option of going co-op at any time.
This latest aspect has been subject to much debate and to add insult to perceived injury, the initial weeks have been plagued by server failures, delays, downtime and heavy lag – a problem that a company of Blizzards stature just shouldn’t be having.
Technical difficulties aside, the actual game is nearly great, but not without some big flaws and a few doubts regarding its longevity. The graphics have been updated for the modern crowd while keeping it isometric and to the point. It looks “nice” and the animations are fun and satisfying; each meteor spell crackling down just like it should. The fundamental problem is that they decided to let Warcraft’s cartoonish style bleed over a bit too much into this game. The gloomy, gothic, horror atmosphere with pale colors and no sympathy just isn’t there anymore, but has been replaced by a vivid palette and heavy saturation on all fronts.
Presentation is important but not a deal-breaker. What is truly astounding is the extremely low quality of the story elements. It’s almost insultingly bad. Blizzard have proven their capacity before with the Starcraft and Warcraft games; managing to tell a great and epic story in an RTS context, not a small feat. Diablo III meanwhile, suffers from cheesy cartoon villains, horrendous cringe-worthy dialogue and instills about as much fear as a Saturday morning on Nickolodeon. You see everything coming three hours in advance and every single second needs to be narrated for some reason.
Where the game truly shines is in gameplay, to such an extent that the story and presentation nearly stops mattering. The new skill system lets you mix, experiment and play around with any combination you’d like, slowly unlocking all of your potential as you level up to 60. No more will you waste precious points on skills that turn out to be useless and you are encouraged to try out new builds without penalization. The monsters are as good cannon fodder as ever and each class feels unique and worthwhile. Burn them to a fine crisp as a Wizard, rain poisonous frogs on them as a Witch Doctor or just repeatedly apply a greataxe to them as a Barbarian. Co-op is a great deal of fun as well and until the endgame you are having a blast, with every hour offering something new.
It needs to be said that the very core of Diablo has always been one thing: The loot. You kill a hundred, maybe a thousand creatures until you suddenly see that yellow, green or brown text pop up, indicating a rare piece of hardware in an ocean of trash. And that’s where a little nugget of gratification puts a smile on your face and successfully motivates you to kill a thousand more. Perfecting this system is what made Diablo II such an addictive and fun experience.
This is unfortunately Diablo III’s biggest problem. The business plan was to introduce an in-game auction house, where you could use gold or real money to buy and sell equipment. Economically it makes sense, the creators get a slice of the money third parties would have been making otherwise. The problem is that this has had adverse effects on the rest of the game, since it all needs to balance out.
To account for the fact that you can access anything you want from the auction house, the developers have lowered drop rates to ensure you don’t progress too quickly. This isn’t inherently a bad idea, but it breaks the rhythm of the game. You now need to kill 5000 monsters before you see a good item, and while you can sell that and then use the gold to buy an item suitable to you, it just doesn’t work on a gameplay level. The game doesn’t succeed in masking the inevitable grind as something fun. Adding the fact that you know that dagger might get you €5 on the market just makes it even less like a game and more like business.
Even worse is the fact that due to some bad design choices the legendary items are all worthless and are easily outclassed by regular magical items. This, coupled with the linearity and simplicity of how the item attributes work makes the loot seem very bland and uninspired. You’re still not going to see more than half a dozen of these items in your first 100 hours, and on top of that they are terrible and sell for peanuts on the market.
The last issue regards the difficulty scale. Diablo III has four difficulty levels, and you play through each in order to qualify for the next, with increasingly better loot and more difficult monsters. The problem is that the first run though the game is pathetically easy, to the point where you yawn your way through the first time you defeat Diablo and beat the game. It then gets incrementally tougher until you hit Inferno, the fourth level which has intentionally been designed as a brick wall. Here is where many players will just lose motivation and drop the game. The developers have promised that this will be adjusted but by now it’s been a month and many players will probably already have moved on. And if not because of that, probably because the real money auction house just opened.
At the end of the day, it’s a game that’s going to frustrate you, agitate you, and slap you around mercilessly but you are still going to invest a lot of hours and you are going to love it at least for a while, but that won’t be 10 years from now. This is the main reason between Diablo 3 being a pretty good game, and Diablo 2 being a phenomenal game. Out-of-game mechanics, economies and business decisions shouldn’t compromise how much fun we are allowed to have as players, and that’s exactly what happened here. Blizzard still knows how to put together a high quality game, but they have never before managed to put fun as a secondary priority.