Review by Sonic Boom

"The star has fallen! The star has fallen!"

Stay a while and listen!

Diablo III hit the streets in May 2012, more than a decade after the previous title in the series, Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, took the gaming world by storm. It's hard to believe so much time has passed between then and now, and that we've all gone on living for so long without a new Diablo game to gobble up our time. But does Diablo III live up to the legacy of its predecessors? YOU DECIDE!

No, wait. I'm the one writing this review. Never mind then. I'LL DECIDE!

Click. ClickClick. ClickClickClickClickClick.

I love the gameplay of Diablo. It's so simple, so engrossing, and so intact in Diablo III. Kill mobs. Get loot. Level up. Do it again on Nightmare difficulty, then on Hell difficulty. Keep killing mobs. Keep getting loot. Keep leveling up. It's satisfying, and it's beautiful.

There are no restrictions on items in Diablo III beyond a straight-up level check. Doesn't matter what your dexterity is, doesn't matter what your strength is. Doesn't matter if it's cloth, chain, or plate. If you've got the level, you can equip it. Doesn't even matter if you've used it already. There isn't a soul bind effect in this game, so you're free to take an item you've already equipped and hand it down to your alts, give it to your friends, or sell it on the auction house.

In addition, all loot is instanced, which is a FANTASTIC change. Every person is entitled to his or her own individual drops in multiplayer. I can't tell you how many times I did a public Baal run in Diablo II, only for some douche to ninja all the loot and leave. Thank goodness that will never happen in this game.

Item sizes have been standardized across the board. A two-handed weapon takes up the same number of inventory slots as a one-handed weapon, a shield, or a bow, or pretty much any other piece of equipment. This simplifies inventory management tremendously, and you won't have to play bag space Tetris quite as much.

The Horadric Cube has been nixed, and in its place, a jewelcrafting NPC and a blacksmithing NPC have been added. The jewelcrafting system works well enough, although it is rather dumbed down from what it was in Diablo II, with far fewer options and item effects available. Gratefully, it does provide the ability to remove socketed gems, something which was sorely missing in Diablo II. The blacksmithing NPC is a little mystifying to me. Before he can craft any gear worth mentioning, you have to upgrade him first, and the upgrade costs are considerable. With a full-fledged auction house now available, it seems a far better use of money to simply buy from other players than to take a crack at the blacksmith and his wheel of random magic effects.

Speaking of the auction house, it's there, and it works, although its functionality is a little lackluster. For whatever reason, there's no way to search for items by name, so if you're looking for something in particular, you'll have to wade through fifty pages of unrelated garbage to find it.

Want to trade an item to your alt? No problem. Just tuck it away in your stash. Any items in your stash are automatically shared across all your characters, along with gold and blacksmith/jewelcrafter upgrades. It certainly beats out Diablo II's system for trading items between alts—or lack thereof.

Scrolls of town portal are a thing of the past. Merely strike the appropriate key or click the town portal button next your hotbar, and a shimmering blue gateway will appear to bear you back to civilization. Scrolls of identify are also gone, although unidentified items are still in the game, for some reason. To identify them, you need only right click on them and wait a few seconds. With zero cost and zero requirements, it's puzzling that Blizzard didn't remove the need to identify items entirely.


I put on my robe and wizard hat

Diablo III trots out a few old class favorites from its predecessor. The Necromancer is back as the Witch Doctor, the Mage is back as the Wizard, and the Barbarian is back as… well, the Barbarian. There have been a few changes made along the way, but when it comes right down to it, the bases are covered. Guy summoning undead monstrosities to beat on the enemy, check. Guy hitting the enemy with ice bolts from a distance, check. Guy getting up in the enemy's grill and going all whirly-whirly-whirly, check. Also on board are the Monk and the Demon Hunter, a martial combat class and a ranged class, respectively. All of the classes are diverse, and all of the classes offer a unique gameplay experience.

Stat allocations have been axed, and THANK GOODNESS for that. Gone are the days of having to spreadsheet your character's final stats! Gone are the days of reaching max level, only to realize you're still a few dexterity shy of being able to equip your best item! Here's one aspect of the previous two games I won't mourn.

Talent trees have also gone the way of the dodo. Instead, as you level, you gain a large assortment of optional skills, six of which can be selected and assigned a hotkey at any given time. Each skill can be further modified through an optional skill rune. There's a lot of customizability here, and the diversity of potential class builds is bound to pay dividends once the PvP system is finally implemented. However, the skill window itself is a little clunky from a user interface perspective, and players will find a great deal of their freedom in choosing skills restricted unless they thoroughly investigate the options menu and check the tick box next to Elective Mode.

The old and the new

One of the main draws of Diablo I was its simplicity, not only insofar as its gameplay, but also insofar as its storyline. You were dropped into a medieval ghost town with no explanation, no background. There wasn't any overarching mythology at that point. There wasn't any need for it. Everything about the game that made it atmospheric and memorable was communicated on such a basic, primal level. The image of the desecrated church, the long column of red pouring from its mouth, the crosses on the shrines therein standing in such stark contrast to the gruesome and the profane. The haunting song that played as you went about the darkened village, each animalistic wail and mournful pluck of the strings serving as testament to just how wrong things had gone in Tristram.

And it was all so self-contained, so confining. There weren't dozens of filler NPCs dawdling about, making small talk amongst themselves as you walked by. There wasn't a whole wide world of desert cities and jungle cities and mountain cities out there, from whence reinforcements—and salvation—could conceivably arrive. It was just you, and the town. And that limitation really thickened the atmosphere. It made you feel like you were the only thing standing between the hapless townsfolk and the darkness lurking beneath that church.

It's a shame all this has been lost along the way. Diablo II opened up the world, of course, and in a way, that was a good change—another self-contained dungeon crawl would have been stale. Still, I can't help but yearn for the feel of Diablo I. My heart still lies in Tristram.

How fortunate for me, then, that Diablo III begins with a nostalgic return to form. You start, once more, in an eerie town under threat of the undead. It resembles Tristram in every way, cottages and all. In fact, this is New Tristram, built alongside the decaying ruins of the old. With bated breath, I made my way into the village proper, eager to taste that sweet, sweet atmosphere again. However, no sooner had I taken ten steps toward the town center than I was greeted by an old priest bleating about the Church of the Zakarum, while nearby, a couple of nameless villagers prayed to someone named Akarat—Wait, what?

I hate this accumulation of lore. People will disagree with me on this, but I think it really hinders the atmosphere of the game. “The Church of the Zakarum?” What was wrong with just “The Church?” I thought that worked pretty well before. And who the heck is Akarat? Not even five minutes in, and already the simplicity of Diablo I is gone. Instead, we're hit over the head with the lore baton.

No doubt, there are Diablo loremasters out there who are rolling their eyes at this; people who know every inch of the backstory inside and out. But for the rest of us, this kind of complicated mumbo-jumbo only serves as a brick wall, preventing us from fully appreciating the story—and by extension, the atmosphere. It only goes downhill from there, with characters yammering on about ancients, prophets, and nephalem, nephalem, nephalem. You'll hear the word nephalem about fifty times over the course of the game, and God help you if you miss the one and only explanation as to what it means, because nobody repeats it—you'll be scouring the Diablo Wiki for an answer before the game explains it a second time.

It was about midway through the first act, as I delved into the ruins of a temple built by the ancients in the dawn era before civilization took hold on Sanctuary and the nephalem still extended their domain over the mortal plane, when it finally hit me—

Diablo III is a little too high on the fantasy

To be clear, I don't hate lore. I think lore is perfectly fine in certain games. But in a game like Diablo, where so much of the experience is based in superstition, and instinct, and the feeling of it all—the feeling of oppressive gloom, of inescapable doom, of a darkness that resonates on a fundamental level of the human soul—the lore only serves to detract. It diverts attention away from the atmosphere, which is where the emphasis should be, and in so doing, it alleviates the clammy grip of fear. Moreover, it discourages players new to the Diablo universe, who find themselves walloped over the head with the backstory of two games, not to mention a trilogy of novels.

The offensive thing is that this lore doesn't even serve a purpose. For all the exposition about nephalem, there's no grand revelation at the end of it. No plot twist. No payoff. It's all just a bunch of empty words, shoehorned into the game to give it the illusion of a sophisticated plot. But the game doesn't need a sophisticated plot. The story worked best when it was just about the Devil taking over a church.

More offensive still is how this overindulgent narrative is presented to the player. It's clear the developers attempted to make the plot evolve organically through cutscenes, quest lead-ins, cinematics, and the like… But along the way, they strayed from the path, and a bunch of smelly conversation dialogue wormed its way into the mix. Here's how over half the storyline is conveyed: your bags fill up with loot, you take a portal back to town, you sell the loot, and then you make the rounds of about a half-dozen different NPCs. As you progress through the game, new conversation topics appear. So you click on the NPC, and then you click on the new conversation option, and then you spend a minute or two listening to all the pointless things that NPC has to say. And then you move onto the next NPC, and the next NPC, and the next NPC. Lather, rinse, repeat. The entire process is boring, the things these characters have to say are boring, and it all bogs down the gameplay so much, you'll dread seeing that blue asterisk on your minimap.

On top of that, you'll find bits and pieces of the story scattered about the wilderness, hidden on lecterns and inside satchels. In previous games, these lore tomes were relatively rare, and they served an additional boon of breaking up the monotony of an otherwise routine dungeon crawl. They were a breath of fresh air, and importantly, they didn't overstay their welcome. In Diablo III, they're practically everywhere. Their commonness is such that it wasn't unusual for my online partner and I to stumble across two or even three of them in every area we cleared. And for every lore tome we discovered, we would have to stop and listen for a good twenty or thirty seconds—again, bringing the gameplay to a screeching halt.

Diablo II's mercenary system has been revamped, although not necessarily for the better. Instead of purchasing the services of a strong-arm to fight by your side, you have the pick of three companions—the Templar, the Scoundrel, and the Enchantress. They follow you from act to act, and they hold their own well enough, at least in normal mode. In theory, there's nothing wrong with this model, but the problem here comes down to execution. Blizzard saw fit to give each of these companions a personality, a storyline, and a motivation, which is cool. But on the flip side, none of these companions have much of a reason to follow you across the world to the brink of Hell, which steps on the realism a tad. The Scoundrel, in particular, is guilty of this—you meet him in a chance encounter, and for no apparent reason, he decides to become your friend for life, simply because you look like you “might know something about markets.” In addition to this weakness in the storytelling, the individual plotlines for each companion all feel tacked on, and they suffer from the same reliance on conversation dialogue.

I'm actually a little conflicted about this. On one hand, when you're out in the field, killing the same old monsters for an hour straight, it can be nice to have an AI to talk and listen to, to break up the tedium of it all. On the other hand, these characters trespass on the solitude of the adventure, diminishing the creepy factor. And on top of that, they can be damn annoying.

“BY ALL THAT IS HOLY! DO YOU SEE THAT ENEMY OVER THERE?” screams the Templar.

Yes, Templar. Yes. That enemy right over there? The one who's bigger than all the rest, has a glowing purple border around him, and is coming right at us? Yes, Templar. Yes. I see that enemy.

Then, after dispatching the elite mob—

“THAT WAS A WORTHY FOE!”

Facepalm city.

You got some Warcraft in my Diablo

Before Diablo III went gold, someone remarked to me, “Wow! That picture of Diablo on the front of the box looks a lot like Deathwing, doesn't it? I wonder if Blizzard just had a bunch of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm boxes lying around and decided to reuse them!”

It's a silly idea, of course, and nowhere near the truth. But I think there's a certain amount of symbolic virtue in the concept of a Warcraft character “invading” the box art of this game, because the fingerprints of the Warcraft franchise are all over the final product.

The overabundance of lore is one symptom of that, but it's also especially prevalent in the dialogue. The comic book-style comedy of the Warcraft universe seeps into Diablo III, and all too often, it undermines the dark tone of the game. The brooding atmosphere of the first act was utterly shattered, along with my suspension of disbelief, when I walked past two NPCs who were idly chitchatting about how delightful it would be to put on a play involving crossdressing—at the same time the walls were about to be breached by the undead, dozens of innocent townsfolk had been killed, people's zombified loved ones were penned up in the basement next door, and there were about four or five amputees bleeding all over the floorboards at a makeshift medical station not even ten feet away. Talk about dissonant. Alas, my initial misgivings were confirmed a short while later on when I fought the Butcher, a boss who ought to have been terrifying—but for some reason, the developers thought it would be a good idea to have him run around and shout, “VEGETABLE BAD, MEAT GOOD,” ad nauseum.

Note to Blizzard. Nothing destroys a dark atmosphere quite like comedy.

The weird Warcraft vibe persists later on when you're pitted against Azmodan, one of the game's main adversaries, and for a full act, you have to put up with his holographic head appearing in front of you at random intervals to deliver unintimidating threats and canned villain dialogue. The whole thing comes off like a Saturday morning cartoon. Maybe that's just me, though. Or maybe it's because Azmodan happens to sound exactly like Dr. Claw. In any case, it falls a bit short of the mark. And it isn't any better in the following act, when another villain puts on the same Dr. Claw voice and starts dishing out the same lame threats.

Call me crazy, but for me, part of what put Diablo I and Diablo II on the right side of creepy was the mystery of it all. You didn't know what to expect at the bottom of that cathedral. You didn't know exactly what you would find at the end of that monastery, or lurking within the depths of Tal Rasha's tomb. When the bad guy not only announces himself, but reveals himself to be a stock villain with B-grade writing—well, that just ruins the whole thing.

Warcraft and Diablo are different games. The fact that they both happen to involve swords, magic, and demons doesn't necessarily mean the same style translates well from one game to the other. So keep your Warcraft out of my Diablo, Blizzard.

Ups, downs, graphics, sounds

Diablo III looks beautiful from start to finish, with some particularly stunning vistas of mention in Act IV. Everything is sharp and crisp, and the game is bound to age much better than either of its predecessors did. Unfortunately, it does come off a bit too Warcraft-ish for my liking, and there's a lack of cohesiveness in the graphic design, which can be jarring.

Act I so dark and morose, you'll feel right at home if you've ever played the first Diablo—that is, until you emerge from a cave, at one point, and find yourself in brightest, happiest meadow in the world, complete with the most out-of-place rainbow of all-time. Then, twenty minutes later, you're down in the torture chambers again, surrounded by blood-soaked killing machines, grisly instruments of death, and a ubiquitous red haze. It's strange, to say the least. Act II and Act III are more consistent, but they aren't anywhere near as dark as they should be. Act IV is the most brightly-lit act of all—but there's actually a very good reason for that, so Act IV gets a pass.

The dungeons are a little run-of-the-mill. Most of them are caves. They might be gray, brown, or blue, but ultimately, you're still looking at the same boring rock formations. The crypts and guard towers are similarly drab. There are a few exceptions to the dullness. The cathedral, in particular, is a real delight to explore, and it's obvious a lot of time and care went into crafting these nostalgic environs. The tombs of Act II are interesting to look at, and the final descent of Act III is both appropriate and impressive for what it is. For the most part, though, the indoor scenery doesn't hold a candle to the outdoor.

There are a few glaring oversights with the engine. The ability to swing the camera around and change perspective is notably missing for a game from 2012, and it would have been awfully nice to have a closer zoom for all those intimate conversations. Perhaps the most disheartening omission is the lack of any way to change the text size. If you aim to play Diablo III on a large monitor or TV, then you'd best invest in a pair of binoculars, because although the rest of the game will render fine, the text will remain miniscule by comparison.

The cinematics might be the most graphically impressive thing in the game. Words cannot describe how fantastic they look. Blizzard has always been known for their CGI, and they certainly showed why here. It's amazing how lifelike and human the characters in these computer-generated scenes look. Diablo III really pushes the envelope.

The voice acting is hit-or-miss. The player classes and the main characters all sound pretty good, but voicework for the villains tends toward the cheesy and the stereotypical. Musically, the game is sorely lacking. There's nothing comparable to the sheer genius of the Tristram Theme from Diablo I, nor even to the ambient music of Diablo II. There are a few overtures to the soundtracks of the preceding games, but these are muted and fade into the background noise, and they fail to leave much of an impression. The atmosphere of the game suffers as a result.

Running down the acts

Act I starts out strong, with some appropriately dark imagery and plenty of nostalgic callbacks to Diablo I. You'll be back in the ruins of Old Tristram in no time, although it's been downsized a bit; the explorable area is even smaller than what it was in Diablo II. With so many other large wilderness regions to roam, it's puzzling why Blizzard decided to restrict the most famous locale of any game in the franchise to the four or five cottages adjacent to the fountain. Regardless, the pacing is good, and soon enough you'll be back in the cathedral—which might actually be my favorite part of the entire game.

Unfortunately, it doesn't last long enough. Before you've really even begun to plumb the depths, the game sends you out to retrieve some mystical MacGuffin from a cemetery ten miles away. This strikes me as a curious decision, considering there's already a system of catacombs underneath the church. I don't know what made the developers think it would be a good idea to interrupt such a nostalgic romp with a lame side-quest, especially when they had a perfect opportunity to extend that romp and make it even more awesome. In fact, the cathedral should have been the centerpiece of Act I. Act I should have played out like a miniature Diablo I, with almost all the action taking place beneath the cathedral.

It all ends far too soon. After the cathedral, the whole act loses its way, and everything begins to fall apart. You're sent to a bunch of boring caves in the wilderness to retrieve even more magical MacGuffins, and all the while, you have to put up with the worst antagonist in the history of the franchise. She's stock, canned, and one-dimensional. Everything about her is laughable, from the way she sounds to the way she dresses.

There's a weird disconnect around this point—the first half of the act and the latter half almost seem like separate acts in and of themselves, for how unrelated they are to each other. It's around the second half that the lore really begins to bog down the game. As you run around fulfilling quest objectives, trying to keep your Alarics, Aidans, and Akarats straight, you might find yourself wondering where things went wrong. Then, just to add injury to insult, Act I hawks a giant loogie one of the franchise's most beloved characters before calling it a day.

Act II is even worse, if you can actually believe that. The desert clime harkens back to Lut Gholein from Diablo II, and I was cautiously optimistic as I started, even blown away by some of the visuals. But the whole thing quickly devolves into a series of fetch quests, which also have no bearing on the ultimate resolution of the story. A large chunk of the act is spent pursuing the same stock, canned, one-dimensional antagonist from Act I. Another chunk is spent attempting to resurrect a lame character you've never heard of, only for an idiotic plot development to make the entire exercise pointless five minutes later. The final sliver pits you against Belial.

Belial and Azmodan are the game's principal antagonists. They serve approximately the same role that Diablo, Mephisto, and Baal served in Diablo II. But somehow, I found it impossible to take them seriously. Maybe it's the Inspector Gadget voice acting. Maybe it's the cliched writing. Maybe it's the realization I had, not far in, that Diablo III takes place a full twenty years after the previous game—but only now, after all this time, do these two losers suddenly pose a threat? That doesn't make much sense… Or maybe it just comes down to simple math. Two Lesser Evils don't quite equate to three Prime Evils, after all. Whatever the case, these cartoon villains didn't do it for me, and not once, in the entire game, did I ever get the impression that the world was in any real danger. Not even in Act III.

Speaking of Act III, it's about as far removed from Act I in tone as you can possibly get. Instead of slow and eerie, it's fast and action-y. But it's actually a considerable step from the earlier chapters. The game seems to catch a second wind here, and the plot finds its legs again. Act IV takes a surprising turn from the expected. It's a little on the short side, but it comes through in the end, and manages to deliver an epic conclusion. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite make up for the weaknesses of Diablo III's earlier stages.

Blizzard's Sin War against the consumer

Alas, Blizzard committed the ultimate sin with Diablo III.

No, I'm not talking about the real money auction house. I actually tip my hat to Blizzard for that little innovation. If the company wants to pre-empt the foreign farming houses and make a little money on the side, I say, let ‘em. It's not like a black market wouldn't have sprung up anyway, and with Blizzard putting its stamp on every transaction, at least there will be security. As long as Blizzard doesn't take advantage of the system to sell god-tier items that are unobtainable in-game, the real money auction house should work out just fine.

The ultimate sin in the online-only DRM.

I know, I know. It's the twenty-first century, and everyone in the world is supposed to have an always-on Internet connection now. Truth be told, the DRM doesn't affect me at all. That doesn't change the fact that this kind of blatant hamstringing of consumer rights shouldn't be tolerated in a video game. It's stupid, it's greedy, and it's punitive to the wrong people. Why should the honest consumer suffer not being able to play Diablo III in an airport, on a train, serving overseas in the military, on the International Space Station, or anywhere else where access to the ‘Net might be limited? Meanwhile, all the privileged pirates out there who've already hacked the DRM can enjoy an offline campaign. It's a disgrace, and gamers should raise Hell over it.

No, I'm serious. Gamers should literally raise Hell. We need to draw a ritual circle on Bobby Kotick's lawn and summon forth Diablo to smash up his Mercedes or something.

You see that 7/10 down there? It would have been an 8/10 if not for the DRM. What a pity!

I wouldn't say I'm disappointed in the cooking of the duck meat, but…

Diablo III fails to deliver on more than one level. The gameplay is solid, and there are some welcome innovations over past entries in the series. But the atmosphere is completely off, the music is forgettable, the story is a joke, and the whole product seems to have been tainted by the contagion of WoW. In addition, the inclusion of online-only DRM is an insult to the consumer and shouldn't be tolerated without complaint. It isn't a bad game, but it doesn't live up to the legacy of its predecessors, and it certainly isn't what it should have been after more than a decade of development time.

Sadly, the flaws of this game seem to mirror the flaws of Blizzard itself. The obsession with Warcraft. The lackluster writing. The persistent need to dumb things down. Diablo III stands as testament to the state of that once-venerable company in 2012, and how far its standards have fallen since its merger with Activision.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 05/24/12, Updated 06/11/12

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


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