Review by UPRC

"A conflicted review for a long overdue sequel."

I don't know what to write. I hate to open a review by saying that because you're here for my opinion on this game, but I truly have no idea how to go about reviewing Diablo III. This is a game that is so hard for me to describe my feelings for. When I'm playing the game, I think it's a lot of fun and I don't want to stop... but when I'm not playing the game, I pretty much have nothing but bad things to say about it. I've never felt so conflicted about a game before! With that said, if you are reading this now, then surely I came to a decent conclusion about this game that I felt was worth expressing. Let's hurry up and cut to the chase, shall we?

Diablo III is the third installment in Blizzard's sixteen year action RPG franchise. It's hard to believe that the Diablo series is so old now with only three games to its name, but keep in mind that the original Diablo III would have happened over half a decade ago if it hadn't been for the unfortunate demise of Blizzard North. Twelve years have passed since Diablo II and, in that span of time, one would expect Blizzard to come up with a lot of exciting and innovative ideas for the next game. To put this span of time into perspective, the time that passed between Diablo II and Diablo III was greater than the time that passed between Super Mario Bros. on the NES and Mario 64 on the N64. Hard to believe, isn't it? Even more so hard to believe given the severe lack of innovation in Blizzard's latest outing. Irvine, California based Blizzard definitely played it safe with Diablo III, believing that sticking to what they knew, rather than pushing the envelope, would be the key to Diablo III's success. Why do I say that Diablo III isn't innovative and that Blizzard played it safe with the development of the game? Unfortunately, it's because Diablo III is pretty much just a 3D version of Diablo II with several features stripped away or dumbed down. For each step forward this game takes, it then takes a dozen steps back.

Remember socketed gear in Diablo II? Don't even think about seeing it until midway through the game's second act. Socketing works the same as it did in Diablo II, though there are not as many kinds of gems available and the socketing rewards are not as exciting. You see, since Diablo III also removed stat point allocation, the process of distributing additional stat points has been placed upon gems and socketing. Gems now increase strength, dexterity, and other stats rather than offering additional bonuses like in Diablo II. The whole socketing meta-game feels a little cheapened in Diablo III, but there is one definite feature which I welcomed with open arms. You are now able to remove gems from items and reuse them again. While I like this feature and find it to be incredibly handy, I will admit that there is a definite disadvantage to it. Without having to worry about permanently socketing an item anymore, the risk of losing gems or using them on something that will soon be obsolete no longer comes into play. There's no risk and reward gameplay involved in socketing anymore, removing the aspect of gemming that sort of felt like a lottery at times. Plus why bother hunting down new gems when you can just take out the old ones from your previous pieces of equipment?

The greatest change, aside from stat point allocation going the way of the dinosaur (which I'm fine with), is the streamlining of player abilities. This is a feature that I'm glad to see, but it was implemented horribly and is an awful mess. Rather than choosing which skills to learn and refine via skill points that you gain as you level up, players now learn new abilities upon each level up. It's not a bad system because it allows players to try out everything and figure out what works best for them rather than playing what I like to call "skill point lottery" by sinking a bunch of points into skills that may end up being garbage later on. All abilities scale with your level, so they're all viable throughout the entire game. Combined with runes, which are performance changing modifiers that you unlock as you level up, each class has dozens of different combinations to play with. Now, what makes this a horrible mess? The ability menu does. It's clunky and not at all user friendly. It feels like something I'd expect to find in a children's game, as everything it tucked away into little categories that you have to click to access. The game practically recommends what abilities to use and in what slots, which takes away from the player's independence a bit and really holds their hand. Thank goodness for elective mode, which lets you place any skill into any slot on your hotbar.

I was supportive of some changes Blizzard made for Diablo III back before the game launched, but not so much anymore. I'm okay with them removing a little freedom of choice. Maybe we don't need attribute points or skill points to fiddle with each time we level up, but come on Blizzard… taking away every freedom that players enjoyed in previous games? We can't choose what areas our characters will physically specialize in, we can't choose what skills they will learn or when, and we can't determine what field of expertise our characters will follow. Everything is 100% decided for us. Every single aspect of our character development is set in stone. Now this is where some loyal Diablo III players will pipe up and support the rune system. That's not character development and it's not customization, it's just picking skills. That's it. When anyone can copy your “build” within thirty seconds at zero cost, it's not customization. There is no customization in this game, I'm sorry to say. Even the process of gemming isn't as thorough as it used to be. Gemming in Diablo III is only half as deep as it was in Diablo II. Hell, we don't even have as many socketable items anymore. Does anyone else miss diamonds and skulls? What about real runes?

Scrolls of identify and town portal have vanished as well. Players can now use town portals whenever they want, but the spell to cast a portal must first be obtained from an early quest in the first act. As for identifying items, almost everything already comes identified for you. Rare items must still be identified, but this is simply done by right clicking the item and waiting a moment for your character to identify the item in question. Pointless feature, I know. If identifying no longer costs money or requires Deckard Cain, why even have it in there? The cost of identifying items has become three wasted seconds of your time.

I've also noticed that Diablo III is very light on randomization. Outdoor areas are no longer random at all (though they do contain random dungeons and events) and are entirely static. As for quest dungeons, they all seem to feel the same to me each time I visit them. I've seen people claiming that the game does randomize their layouts, but I can't help but feel like I'm running the exact same path through the Tristram cathedral each time I play, which I attribute to the fact that there are very few set pieces used in randomization. Expect to find the same rooms and hallway layouts almost constantly in this game. There's very little in the game world that is any bit interesting to look at or explore and, since nothing appears to ever change, I can't think of any reason to thoroughly explore any given area on additional characters. Unlike the world of Diablo II, Sanctuary is a very static place in the newest installment. A good chunk of the fun of past Diablo games came from the fact that nobody ever knew where to go. Finding a dungeon's exit was often just as challenging as defeating the inhabitants of the dungeon. It gave us a lot of opportunities to explore and collect additional loot. None of this exists in Diablo III. Right from the very start the game is a linear line until the Tristram Cathedral. Everyone knows exactly where to go, and that's not what made Diablo fun. The only thing Diablo III has working in its favour would be the random dungeons, but unfortunately even these are static locations inside.

Gameplay thankfully feels a lot like Diablo II. The AI has been improved significantly and the newer game engine allows a lot of interesting things to occur during important boss fights. The only part about the gameplay that feels a little off is the graphical presentation. Diablo used to be a dark, gothic 2D adventure. It's now a semi colourful 3D experience, so a bit of the game's personality has been lost and it is felt during gameplay to an extent. Everything else in the gameplay is pretty much the same as before, right down to spell properties and how certain monsters behave in battle. Fallen shamans still resurrect the dead and the barbarian's whirlwind still annihilates everything in sight. This is the same ol' Diablo experience that we're used to but, as I said at the start of the review, Blizzard played things too safely. This is pretty much just a colourful Diablo II with new classes.

I mentioned elective mode a few paragraphs back. This is a feature that you can enable in the game's options menu which allows you to place any skill into any slot on your hotbar. Without enabling elective mode, you are stuck putting certain skills of one category into a sole slot on your hotbar. So, if you have two offensive abilities that fall under the same category which you really like and don't have elective mode turned on, you can't use them together. Elective mode makes things a lot nicer and allows users to fully customize their hotbar, but I still have one beef with it. You have to unlock slots on your hotbar, and you won't have them all unlocked until around level 20. This is because certain slots on the hotbar were designed to be used by certain skill types only by users without elective mode on. I can understand the reasoning for this, but it really gives users of elective mode the shaft. If you have four skills that you want to use early in the game but only have three hotbar slots unlocked, you're screwed and have to deal with it until you unlock the next slot.

I'll also take a stance against the bosses in this game. While they are all very well designed and are loads of fun to fight, they're simply far too easy. Players are extremely unlikely to be challenged by any of the game's major bosses on normal difficulty, and even on nightmare they're still relative pushovers in comparison to what you'll face in the wilderness. The unfortunate truth with Diablo III is that random monsters can pose as greater threats to you then the leaders of Hell itself. This isn't terribly evident in normal difficulty, but once you move onto the harder difficulties you will encounter champion and unique monsters that have pretty terrifying affixes that are designed to make them more challenging than they would normally be. These affixes give monsters some pretty scary passive abilities such as poison clouds, molten magma trails, and magical arcane beams. Every single one of these affixes is designed to either harm you severely or lock you in place. On nightmare and above, the combinations that some monsters are given are just downright frightening. They provide great challenge and are fun to fight, but I really do take issue with them being more challenging than the big boss fights of the game. For example, I'm yet to die on the game's final boss, but I died to an amped up champion or two on normal difficulty. The contrast between bosses and lowly champions grows even larger once you hit nightmare difficulty. It's a pretty strange anomaly, and I hope Blizzard buffs the bosses considerably. They should be evoking apprehension and fear into the players but, at the moment, they're just not doing that at all.

I don't want to knock on the game's visuals too much because I know that Blizzard designed the game to be able to run on a wide variety of systems (a feat that is easier in 2D than 3D without sacrificing visual style), I can't help but shake that the WoW influence in the visuals is extremely worrying. Diablo never used to look like this at all. Models all have jagged, pointy edges along with very colourful but simplistic textures. At times, this game seriously looks a lot like WoW from an isometric angle with slightly better graphics. Looking like WoW isn't really a bad thing, but it's not the visual style that a Diablo game should possess at all. It just doesn't fit and it makes the game feel like an imposter parading around in Diablo's skin, which is a bit of a role reversal since that is usually Diablo's specialty.

It's also worth noting that there is some visual inconsistency in the game. Characters and NPCs look fine for the most part, but the are several varying styles in Diablo III's monster designs. For example, the two Lesser Evils looks pretty Diablo-esque while other models, such as the Butcher or Maghda, give off serious "designed for WoW" vibes. Other monsters don't look like they belong in Diablo or even Warcraft, such as the huge exploding zombies and the suicidal fallen demons that blow themselves up. There is also one enemy type appearing in the third act that I can't immediately recall the name which looks downright cartoon-like in nature. This visual inconsistency in the game's monster models is very disappointing and unfortunate when you take into consideration how consistent and detailed the game world itself is. One last note on the visuals. The cinematics in this game reminded me that Blizzard really needs to make a movie. They have the talent to do so, and it would certainly be a gorgeous film to watch... but the story would probably be something worth worrying about for sure.

That was a pretty good segue so, next up, the story. It's pretty bad. Without spoiling anything, Blizzard can only rehash the same formula so many times before people know what's going to happen to every character in their games. There are twists and turns in Diablo III, but they are all very predictable and anyone who has played Starcraft or Warcraft will know what to expect. There's nothing groundbreaking in this game, but the actions of one character did bother me slightly at one point in the game. Also, as if a poorly crafted story wasn't bad enough, the writing is pretty lousy as well. Outside of Cain, Leah, and Tyrael, I cannot think of a single character with good lines. To make matters even worse, the games two big baddies Belial and Azmodan, frequently appear and taunt you in a manner I'd expect from a high school jock. It's just so juvenile and silly. It's beyond evident that Blizzard North's writers were in a league of their own when compared to the current crop of writers employed by Blizzard.

What to say for the sound effects and music? Very generic, really. None of the sound effects are particularly satisfying and the music is entirely forgettable. I don't even have the music on anymore when I play because I never notice it anyway. I just play my own tunes now or put Diablo II music on loop instead. The voice work isn't any better. I love a few of the voices for the playable characters (the male monk is just awesome) and a few well known talents such as Dominic Keating and Jennifer Hale do a good job in the game. Other characters (mostly NPCs) sound absolutely dreadful, and don't even get me started on the voices of the antagonists. Are demons supposed to sound like Saturday morning cartoon villains? Azmodan, buddy, I can't take you seriously with that voice!

I didn't even touch upon the fact that you have to be online to play at all times and that everything occurs server-side. This is a pretty terrible system that prevents you from playing the game whenever you want and it makes progressing through the game a real challenge when you have to log out of the game before you can complete an objective that you've been on for a good amount of time. It will all reset unless you hit a checkpoint. There's also the issue with inevitable lag spikes which are completely out of the player's control. This can make playing a hardcore character extremely risky. Would you be okay with permanently losing a hardcore character to a lack of skill or a lapse in judgement on your part? Sure you would, it's to be expected. Now, how does it sound to have your character die for good due to an unexpected increase in latency that results in you being unable to respond to monster attacks in a timely manner while also being hit by melee creatures standing halfway across screen? Not very good, right? Not at all, and I learned that the hard way with my own hardcore character that I lost due to a random lag spike. Hardcore characters are now very risky to play. Given how you can now lose your character due to factors that are out of your control, it definitely does raise the question as to just how good of an idea it is to play a hard core character, especially for those who may already have existing connection issues.

Even though Error 37 is mostly a thing of the past, it doesn't change the fact that one fundamentally wrong thing about Diablo III is the fact that the game must be played online at all times. We, the players who laid down $60, are not allowed to play whenever we wish. Even those of us with stable connections aren't as fortunate as we like to think. What if our ISPs are doing routine maintenance for a few hours? No Diablo III for you. What about on Tuesdays when Blizzard conducts routine maintenance for eight hours? Again, no Diablo. Despite the fact that Blizzard conducts the maintenance when most people are at school or work, it still scews over Australian players and the like who are in different time zones but use the US servers. Australian players are upset that they cannot play during prime time hours on Tuesdays, and who could blame them? Most of us like to unwind in the evenings and play a game or two for a little while, but Australians cannot do that with Diablo III despite paying good money to play it.

Why is this essentially just a melting pot of good ideas from Diablo II that have been ripped to shreds? Aside from the crafting NPCs, there have been no major innovations in Diablo III. Heck, you could even argue that Shen is nothing more than the Horadric Cube with an annoying voice and desire to milk you of your hard earned gold coins. Actually, doesn't this make Shen a step back in terms of features? The Horadric Cube allowed us to upgrade gems for free.

My biggest beef is that every location we visit just feels like an area of Diablo II with a new paint job. Blizzard could have gone in many different directions with this game, but they chose not to. We could have explored beaches, murky marshlands, rocky mountain pathways, or actual dense forests with meadows and winding rivers. Instead we've been given the Tristram area (for the third time), a desert (for the second time), and the Arreat region (for the second time). Has anyone seen a map of Sanctuary before? There are at least two dozen places we haven't actually seen that would be worth going to. Are we ever going to see the fabled city of Westmarch? It is referenced in every Diablo game but we've never seen it. Instead we're thrust into Caldeum which is arguably not even half as memorable as Lut Gholein was when it was introduced. Also, what is with the unwritten rulet hat we have to visit Tristram with each game? Blizzard can only throw us back into that hamlet so many times before they start retconning their own lore or just flat out boring their audience. We've had to run through the town of Tristram three times now and we've had to delve into the Cathedral twice. This doesn't seem like a series that wants to advance. Blizzard is stuck in the past, unable to get over their admiration for the town of Tristram. Well I say get over it, because no series should make the player constantly revisit the same old areas time and time again. That's not pushing the boundaries, it's unimaginative game design.

Diablo III is a good game, but it is littered with many flaws and minor issues that hold it back from true greatness. There were just too many questionable design choices made during the development of this game and they really do harm the overall quality of the product. Too many changes have been made and almost none of them were for the better. Diablo III does somewhat excel where it matters, and that's hacking up dozens up dozens of monsters while fighting for your life. The combat-heavy dungeon diving is a sheer blast in this game and serves as a nice counter to all of Diablo III's surprising shortcomings. Make no mistake, this is a very good game. Diablo III simply isn't the masterpiece many people expected due to Blizzard's hesitance to raise the bar and push the boundaries of the action RPG genre. This game is light on new features and some aspects of the game fall short, but the overall gameplay is certainly right on the money.

Pros:
+ Cinematics are absolutely amazing to watch and are satisfying conclusions to each act.
+ Classes are quite varied and there's at least one here for everyone.
+ Gameplay is still fast paced and a lot of fun for those who enjoy action RPGs.


Cons:
- Requirement to always be online to play means you will not be able to play whenever you wish.
- Story almost feels like it is over before it even begins due to the four acts being very short.
- Very little innovation in the game, if any at all.


Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 05/21/12, Updated 07/05/12

Game Release: Diablo III (US, 05/15/12)


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