Review by Lady_Gweyn

"Blizzard Just Can't Help Themselves, Can They?"

There was a time when first person shooting video games had protagonists that didn't regenerate limbs or stumble down narrow corridors with big glowing arrows showing the way. There was a time when role playing games had lengthy and well-written dialogue options instead of wheels that give you three “options,” all giving the illusion of choice when, in fact, they lead to the same outcome. There was also a time when online multiplayer wasn't a requirement to make a game “good,” but I think that is just a myth, though.

These majestic times I like to call the “Early 2000s.” Games have changed a lot since then, nearly all for the worse, with the names of old franchises (hello, Final Fantasy 13-2) being slapped onto games that don't resemble them in the slightest. One franchise that hasn't had the opportunity to be ruined is Diablo, a fantasy/horror hack-and-slash RPG that was one of the most significant RPGs of its time. Diablo launched in 1996 with its much lauded sequel, Diablo II, following in 2000, the middle game in the PC RPG enthusiast's triangle (Planescape: Torment being released several months before and Baldur's Gate II following later that year). After twelve years of waiting and a seemingly-endless development hell, Diablo III saunters its way into stores to many fans' delight. Is it worth the wait?

Story – 8.0
Diablo III opens with the player character, known as the Nephalem in the Diablo III lore, entering the town of New Tristam twenty years after the events of Diablo II. The Nephalem has heard of a star crashing to the earth nearby and has come to investigate when she finds the town under attack. Upon helping to repel the attack, the Nephalem is introduced to Leah, whose uncle, series stalwart Deckard Cain, has gone missing while investigating ancient prophetic texts. Tasked with rescuing Deckard, the Nephalem finds herself drawn into a much more diabolical plot.

The story has never been a major strength of the Diablo series; rather, the plot is quite ordinary for a fantasy tale – an unheralded individual is the only one who can possibly stop an ancient evil that threatens to take over the world. There are some twists along the way, but there aren't any storytelling techniques or innovative elements present that you haven't seen before.

What separates Diablo from the rest of the paperback section at Barnes & Noble is the world it creates. Sanctuary is an incredibly well-thought out and developed land with a rich history and bundles of interesting lore to discover. It is much darker than a typical “Tolkein world,” which is not only a welcome relief from generic video game fantasy worlds (hello, Kingdoms of Amalur), but adds considerably to its charm. You'll find yourself wanting to learn more about the world in spite of the average plot.

Design (Graphics and Sound) – 8.0
Many longtime Diablo fans took up arms against developer Blizzard for changing the art direction of Diablo III from the grimdark styling of the previous games to something more akin to World of Warcraft. And yet, Diablo III still has many areas which are just as grim as its predecessor, although taken as a whole, the game is much brighter. That being said, I did find myself enjoying the art style of the game, as many of the environments have the appearance of being painted on (which is an effect I enjoy quite a bit). It's not as World of Warcraft as many of the pre-release screenshots and developer videos would have you believe it to be.

I do take issue with the technical aspect of the graphics – the game just looks dated. Character and weapon models look as though they belong on the PS2, player equipment looks as though it's actually body paint (in the bad way), and in general it just doesn't look like a game should in 2012. There's no excuse for a game looking as dated as this does, and its only saving grace in the graphical department is how wonderful the art style is. It's easy to reason why Blizzard chose to do this – they wanted to increase their potential buyer base. I'm certain they could have easily made the game look like an AAA release (they've been developing this for at least 5 years, after all) but if they did so, it would increase the minimum PC requirements and that would conversely decrease the number of people who could run the game well. I've never been a fan of catering to the lowest common denominator (especially when it affects a game's quality), and cannot be anything but disappointed in Blizzard for sacrificing visual quality for more sales.

The music, though, is absolutely fantastic, and the only thing that saves the game from getting a sub-7 score in the design category. It fits the game perfectly, and it's something that wouldn't at all out of place on a late 90s gothic metal album. It's hauntingly beautiful, and some of the tracks from previous Diablo games are present with slight changes here and there, so fans of the music from the first two games surely won't be disappointed with the offerings in Diablo III

Gameplay – 9.0
The core gameplay from previous iterations remains largely unchanged in Diablo III. The user moves his or her character around the game environments via the point and click method, attacking enemies by hovering the mouse cursor over them and pressing the designated button or key. Six skill slots are available this time around (two defaulted to the mouse buttons and four to the number keys) with a designated key for potion use. Each of the five classes, in addition to the life orb that all classes share, gets its own special orb as the fuel for unique abilities – Demon Hunters get a hatred and discipline orb, Wizards get an arcane force orb, etc. It's a classic design that didn't need to be changed; it worked well back in 2000 and it continues to work today without feeling archaic or outdated.

That isn't to say that nothing has changed since Dell was the dominate manufacturer of home computers. Instead of the “skill tree” progressions system that has become a mainstay in the RPG genre over the past eight years or so, players unlock each and every skill that their class has available to them. For customization, Blizzard has introduced the rune system – each skill has six possible runes that can be equipped to it, adding everything from extra damage to new elemental properties. For instance, on my Demon Hunter, I have a crossbow ability that deals damage to two enemies and snares them both for two seconds. I can equip a rune that doubles the number of enemies that I hit to four, or a rune that only hits two enemies, but deals additional lightning damage (among other possibilities). The difficult decisions don't come from what skill tree to follow or what particular build to bind yourself to, but from what skills to use (as only six can be slotted at once) and what runes to equip to those skills. It harkens back to older MMOs like Everquest before skill trees became “mandatory” for a MMO to be considered “good.” To achieve success in the game, the focus is switched from having the best, most elite character build to evolving and becoming a good player who knows what to use and when to use it.

Speaking of the classes, I'm a bit disappointed that there are only five to choose from – Barbarian, Wizard, Demon Hunter (akin to a ranger, but uses crossbows), Witch Doctor (something of a necromancer, but not quite) and then a Monk. While there are only five, pretty much every player will find a class they like to play, and since the differences and play styles between the classes are so numerous and different, many players will find themselves playing through the four act campaign as several, if not all of them at least once. That being said, I would have liked to have seen the addition of a paladin or some sort of knight (since there is somewhat of a void for a “tanking” class) and perhaps another magic user, although I suppose five fine-tuned, balanced classes are better than seven or eight rougher ones.

Not all is well in the land of Sanctuary, however, as Blizzard, in an effort to prevent game piracy, requires all users to be connected to their Battle.net servers before one can enter the game. This is fine, as many of the online aspects of the game are well-done (being able to quick join into a friend's game, having the ability to chat with them while in game, among others) but the problem lies in always having to connect, even if you want to play alone. The end result of this is that if you want to play the game at all, you must be connected to the Battle.net servers. Even if you have no intention of playing cooperatively with a friend, you still must connect and be online at all times. I've had to re-do the same area three separate times because I was disconnected, which is rather frustrating. There's also the subject of the “pay to win” auction house, where players (starting at the end of May) will be able to purchase items for real money instead of in-game currency. I dislike all “pay to win” business models, but judging from the current prices on the auction house (which are all grossly inflated), I doubt that anyone but Richie Rich will be spending really money on it.

Value – 9.5
Thanks to Diablo III's four difficulty settings and four player online support, the game has a high level of replayability. The game isn't overly long for RPG standards and it can be breezed through in a short matter of time if the player skips all side content and doesn't bother to explore anything, but in a market where the average game is only seven or so hours long, I'll gladly accept the length of the game. Given how different each of the classes plays, it lends itself well for multiple playings for players that want to experience the game in a different way. I don't anticipate it being played for as long as Diablo II was (on the account of it not being as good as Diablo II), but it can be a game that will last someone months or even years.

Summary
Blizzard didn't re-invent the wheel with Diablo III nor did they have to. They knew that the gameplay from previous games was excellent and didn't have to be changed, only modified slightly to make it work for the masses in 2012. What they did have to do, though, and failed at, was provide a game that looks and operates like a 2012 game. I shouldn't be seeing visible lag in my single player game nor should the armor I equip to my character look more like body paint instead of leather or steel. It's as if Blizzard just could not release a game without adding some nuances here and there that bring down the entire experience. Still, it's an extremely fun and worthwhile experience, and I would hope that many of these server side issues are corrected in the future.

On the Positive Side…
+ Fantastic music and artwork bring the world of Sanctuary to life
+ Fun, yet challenging gameplay that has stood the test of time
+ The game is built upon replayability; your money will go a long way if you let it

On the Negative Side…
- The technical aspects of the graphics are incredibly outdated
- While the universe is fascinating, the actual plot for the story falls short
- Anti-piracy features can severely hamper gameplay even when playing alone

What You Should Expect:
A well-designed dungeon crawler set in a richly detailed universe that you'll want to see through to the end at least once, and likely many times more.

What You Should Not Expect:
Diablo II. Fans of the older games may want to be cautious of this newest installment. While similar in many ways, World of Warcraft's influence on it is undeniable, which is a turn-off for many.

Story – 8.0
Design (Graphics and Sound) – 8.0
Gameplay – 9.0
Value – 9.5
Overall Score - 8.6


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/24/12, Updated 05/25/12

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


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