Success has a price. Think about Blizzard for a moment; three huge franchises that helped define gaming in general and PC gaming in particular. Two were Real-Time Strategy games (Starcraft and Warcraft) and one was an action RPG. But when Warcraft changed from an RTS to the MMORPG World of Warcraft, Blizzard had a problem.
Sure, it was a problem most developers would love to have. World of Warcraft is arguably the most successful video game ever. But you have to sustain it. So it’s not surprising that Starcraft and Diablo fans have had long waits for the next game in those series. Starcraft II hit last year and has been successful for Blizzard. The question now on the table is whether Diablo III lives up to the Blizzard pedigree.
Diablo III tweaks the Diablo formula but it does not change the basic core. It is still an action RPG with loot drops. You play as one of five character classes, each with a male and female variant. Two characters, the Barbarian and the Monk, are close-in fighters, with the Barbarian being a slower, stronger character and the Monk being a faster, more agile fighter. The three remaining classes, the Demon Hunter, the Wizard, and the Witch Doctor, fight from a distance. The Demon Hunter uses bows, the Wizard magic, and the Witch Doctor conjures up creatures to fight.
There are six active abilities and three passive abilities, all of which apart from your first active ability have to be unlocked by reaching a certain level with the character. Default controls map the two main abilities to the mouse, while the remaining four are the one through four buttons on the keyboard. Attacks are made at the location of the mouse cursor, which is also how you move your character. If you click a spot where there is no enemy or item the character will move to that location. For ranged character classes, you can hold down the Shift key to lock the character in place during battle. This prevents them from accidentally charging into the middle of a group due to an errant mouse click.
As you level up your character, you gain additional abilities or variants to the abilities you have already gained. But unlike most RPGs, there is no skill tree. Each level has a defined set of upgrades for the characters. When you reach a new level you can choose to enable the new ability or stay with the ability you have been using. Sometimes the new ability may not be superior to the old but it supports a different tactic or style of play. You will want to use the new ability for a while but may find that switching back to an earlier version is more suited to your style of play.
The world of Diablo III has seen a couple of decades pass since the events of Diablo II. The game starts with a star falling from heaven and your character heading to Tristam to discover the nature of the star, which has caused the dead to rise and attack. There are a number of non-playable characters (NPCs) who form the supporting cast. This includes Deckard Cain and his niece Leah, the blacksmith Haedrig Eamon, and others that are added along the way. Among these other characters are three who can be selected to support you in battle. Only one may accompany you at a time, but you can switch up as often as you want and they level up as well and you will have to choose abilities for them and equip them with items.
Whether you are selecting equipment for your character or a companion character, the screens are easily accessed via a mouse click. At the bottom of the screen is a toolbar that allows you to access your inventory and your skills. If a supporting character is with you, their icon will be in the upper left and you can access their skills and equipment with a simple click on that icon. Items may be moved using drag and drop but the most likely action is mapped to the right mouse button.
Since Diablo III is a loot drop game, being able to quickly compare items is a necessary feature. Diablo III allows you to see the stats of an item on the ground by pressing the control key or you can check the stats once the item is in the inventory. Items can be easily compared to other similar items through a few comparison numbers through a color coding of the stats. Where the item is worse the numbers are shown in red and where it is better the numbers are in green. This allows for a quick assessment of whether you want to equip the item, buy it (if it is in a merchant’s inventory), sell it, or save it for some other use. Items which cannot be used by the current character class will have a big red X across the item, while items which require your character to be at a higher level before using will highlight the level requirement in red.
In addition to finding items, any item found can be sold to a merchant. Items with magical properties, which increase your health, for example, are worth more but these can also be converted into materials that the blacksmith can use to craft new items for you. This crafting requires that you spend money to train the blacksmith and frequently the crafted items have random magical properties. Therefore, having an item constructed is a bit of a crap-shoot: you’re never quite sure what you’ll get.
The game does provide you with a storage area for anything you do not want your current character to carry but that you do not want to sell or convert to usable material for the blacksmith. Items placed in this container can be accessed by other characters you create. So, for example, if you find a great cross-bow for a Demon Hunter while playing as a Monk, you can store if for use when you play as a Demon Hunter. In cooperative play, you can also trade items (or just give something away) to one of your friends.
Yes, Diablo III allows drop in and drop out cooperative play with up to three other people. This can be done with friends or you can join a public game. The coop works great but Diablo III only offers a typing (as opposed to voice) chat option. Given the keyboard this can be done but it is better if Skype, Steam chat, or some other voice chat service is used.
Cooperative play requires Blizzard’s servers, of course, but so does the solo campaign play. The biggest negative for Diablo III is that Blizzard has implemented an always online requirement for play. You have to be connected to their server to play. This caused the game to be unplayable most of the release day, though I was able to play for several hours that night. Glitches continue and even today you may experience lag in your game where your character is suddenly back several steps. This doesn’t happen often but it is noticeable.
The always on requirement is largely a piracy measure and is to protect another feature of the game, the item store. Eventually (this feature is not available at launch) within Diablo III you will be able to sell, for real world money, loot you have picked up. So if you have the time to dedicate to the game, you can play and pick up better and better items selling them to those who would love to deck out their character but don’t have that much time to get those rare loot drops. Whether this is a good feature will be left up to the reader as it is not required to play the game (fortunately).
The first act of the game focuses on the falling star which was mentioned earlier. This serves to set up the remaining three acts in which the repercussions of the revelation of the star’s nature must be addressed. Diablo III is steeped in the lore that the first two Diablo games created and builds upon it. One good addition to the game is when you find books that help flesh out the lore, it plays audibly as if it were a recording. This means you can listen to the lore as you continue to progress. While the story and characterization may not be deep as with a standard RPG it is good and provides a context for the action.
Graphically, the game looks incredible. The acts change the background quite a bit, from the farming area of Tristam, to a desert, then to a snowy fortification in the mountains. These settings provide a lot of variety and the engine holds up well. The character models in the game are solid, though the distance imposed by the third person overhead view means that you do not see them close up.
Some cutscenes are done as drawing on parchment with your character narrating. These are the scenes that occur within the acts. The major cutscenes for the acts are fully animated and these are exceptionally well done.
Diablo III is a great game that will provide you with hours of fun. It is the type of game that you will come back to repeatedly. The game shipped without the player versus player mode and Blizzard has not yet announced a release date. So if that’s a major factor for you, waiting to buy may be appropriate. Otherwise, the server issues appear to be resolved (I haven’t experienced any major issue – like being kicked – in the last four days) and nothing should keep you from having a great experience with the game.
Diablo II – Twelve years later people are still playing Diablo II. It is hard to say at this point whether or not Diablo III will have that kind of staying power, but it is a good successor to Diablo II. Also, it is not necessary to have played Diablo or Diablo II to enjoy Diablo III as Diablo III explains any needed details along the way. After twelve years, the graphics are definitely improved in Diablo III and the game play is a little more streamlined. So whether or not you’ve played Diablo II, if it sounds interesting at all, play Diablo III.
Borderlands – If you liked Borderlands for the humor or you are really tied to the first person perspective, Diablo III may not be for you. But if you loved the loot drop in Borderlands but thought that the story needed some work, Diablo III may be just what you want. Diablo III has a darker story with realistic, not cell-shaded, graphics and there’s a lot of loot with all kinds of buffs for your character. Diablo III has a fast travel system somewhat similar to Borderlands but it also has a portal back to town feature that can be used almost anywhere. This allows for quick selling of goods you don’t want or checking with the merchants for that one perfect item to help you through a rough spot. Of course, you’re always on foot in Diablo III, so that portal feature was more of a requirement than in Borderlands where you typically had a vehicle to help speed you along.