Review by Seraphimon

"Diablo III: an exercise in instant gratification"

After eleven years, Diablo III has finally been released. Was the wait worthwhile? Bizarrely, while the development process seems to be a prolonged and patient process, the impression one very quickly receives when playing the long awaited game is that Diablo III isn't about subtlety. It's about instant gratification. I mean by this that the game isn't very good at making the player take a step back and thinking, either about the best way to play the game, or to consider the plot. Instead, the game is mindless, it's simple (I would say oversimplified), raw pleasure. The game isn't sophisticated, but is immediate and direct in what it's trying to do. In this review, I want to suggest that this works both in the favour of but also to the detriment to the title: it has its good and bad side. Ultimately though, while I think Diablo III is a decent game, it's certainly not justified by its long development time, and certainly not worth its launch price.

In this review, I want to focus on the gameplay and the storyline of the game. I don't have any extended thoughts about the graphics or the sound, both of which I thought were excellent (although I know there have been lots of fan complaints about the first).

Given how new the game is, it's hard to take a step back to impartially assess the gameplay. Among other things, the metagame hasn't developed and may not develop for months or possibly even years, and there's still alot of anger at Blizzard for a botched launch.

Nevertheless, distancing oneself from these issues and trying to look at whether the gameplay of this key hack and slash / action RPG title could be one for the ages is important. In my view, the gameplay is decent to good, but certainly not worth the long development time of Diablo III.

What aspects of the gameplay do I think worked well? First, once you've logged in and the game has loaded, the game is easy and intuitive to play. This is a game that goes out of its way to avoid the minor inconveniences that plague the action RPG genre. The obvious example is that instead of endless tedious backtracking to town because you ran out of potions, many enemies leave health globes upon their death, which you can't store but which you can pick up to restore your health. This means that your trips to dungeons are frictionless and can potentially go on forever without having to return to town (which in any case is easy because of the ability to town portal unlocked early on). It's little things like this that make the combat and dungeon trawling of Diablo III often a joy to play – there's no downtime, there's no fiddling. In this aspect, the game is incredibly polished.

Second, at least on the earlier difficulty levels, the game is far more tactical than Diablo II, though perhaps less so than Diablo I. By this, what I mean is that your gear or your character build are not by far the most important factor for whether you succeed in combat, but also, just as important is the skill you have in manuevering the battlefield and using your character class' abilities in just the right way for the situation. For example, Diablo III is choke point intensive, so that there are real tactical questions presented to the player of where best to fight in order to say, make best use of area of effect abilities when enemies come charging but can't all quite fit through a narrow corridor. Thus unlike Diablo II, which I felt relied too much on who had the best character build, Diablo III is better at rewarding skill.

But both the two merits of the gameplay above have corresponding and quite significant flaws. First, I think Blizzard's emphasis on convenience and intuitiveness has additionally led to a dumbing down of aspects of the game. I've just mentioned that I think the game is less about character builds and more about tactics. However, this is the case not only because Blizzard has clearly made design decisions in favour of tactics, it's also clearly made decisions aimed to simplify aspects of the game relating to character customisation. You can't allocate stats. You can't add weapon sockets. And so on and so forth. The overall effect is that a player feels as if they have the exact character as another player with a character of the same class and level. Yes, there are faux customisation options, mostly relating to dyeing your gear to make your appearance different. Therefore, one feels as if the game has been dumbed down to its predecessors.

Second, everything about tactics and use of skill and intelligence goes out the window in the hardest difficulty setting, Inferno. Inferno difficulty is an exercise in an artificial raising of the difficulty for its own sake and at the expense of the player's enjoyability, with for example instant one shot deaths from the vast majority of enemy hits, or randomly buffed up elite but non-boss enemies who are impossible to kill. Now, an immature player might respond, it's not the game's fault; you're just terrible or underprepared. But to reply to this, imagine a hypothetical game where a boss took three hours to kill and had a move that was undodgeable and instantly killed you. By any objective measure, such a boss would be a very, very, very hard boss to defeat. But the reason why they're hard is not because of anything to do with the player's skill, but because the game designers just wanted the boss to be hard despite this being idiotic in the circumstances. Of course, such a hypothetical is ludicrous. But I think it illustrates a certain point: what Blizzard has done here is buff up the difficulty of the Inferno setting in a way that is artificial, that doesn't reward skill but rewards luck, and really kills the enjoyableness and replayability of the game.

Finally, no discussion of the gameplay could be complete without a mention of the technical ‘innovations' Blizzard Entertainment has made for Diablo III, namely its online-only and Auction House features. At the time of writing, fans are still reeling at frequent server crashes (which because the game is online-only, make even single player inaccessible when those crashes occur), and at constant reports of account hacking despite players having authenticators. I assume that in the medium to long term future, Blizzard will fix these. What interests me more is the erosion of trust and commercialisation of the gameplay that all this entails. Let's be clear about this: online-only is an anti-piracy measure. It's not there to benefit players, but to ensure Blizzard's profits, which is understandable though Blizzard's disingenuousness on the point is frustrating. But even when the server crashes stop, the fact will still remain that what Blizzard has done is restrict access to its game in a very important way – if I don't have an Internet connection, or if it's an unreliable one, I can't play, full stop. I don't have an issue with Blizzard including anti-piracy measures. My problem is when Blizzard resorts to effectively punishing legitimate buyers and players of the game to achieve this. It very quickly leads to an erosion of trust on the part of the gaming community, which is a stark contrast to the intense loyalty that the Blizzard fanbase has previously had to the company.

The Auction House, where it's possible to pay for better gear with real or game money, is a lesser but still important example of this. Blizzard charges a commission on transactions. Okay – but it's only to be hoped that the company realises that behaviour like this only makes players see Blizzard as a commercial entity which doesn't care about players except insofar as they're a source of revenue. This is in contrast to the relationship between Blizzard and the player in previous Blizzard games (the games that made the company so initially successful and well regarded), where the relationship between Blizzard and the player was one of trust because even though they took ages to release the games, we could be damned sure they were fantastic.

Until now, the Diablo series has never been concerned about plot – I personally enjoyed the lore of the first two games, but it was the gameplay and never the lore that was the focus and the appeal of those titles. Diablo III, however, is different, because it asks the player to take the story seriously. It goes out of its way to fill the player in about the Diablo universe's lore, and has increased character interaction and dialogue compared to previous Diablo games. In other words, unlike a series like Pokemon where the terribly cliched storyline doesn't at all detract from the games because the storyline is just there as an excuse to catch or defeat Pokemon, Diablo III wants us to take its plot seriously and to judge and rate it as such.

But once we've established that Diablo III wants us to take the storyline seriously, it's not a difficult conclusion that that storyline is unfortunately not very good. I think there are two distinct reasons for this, which I'll state without giving spoilers. First, Blizzard Entertainment seems content to recycle tropes and cliches from fantasy literature. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: for example, Starcraft and Brood War were quite effective even though they borrowed excessively from every other science fiction work in existence, because they were able to combine what they borrowed into a compelling whole. The problem is when you feel that the Diablo III plot only progresses because this or that fantasy cliche demands it and the writers couldn't think of anything better. It's as if the plot has no inspiration or life, and simply has to do the next thing because this is what fantasy stories have always done. The most obvious example of this would be the game's perpetual references to prophecy, destiny or some great hero – these concepts get chucked at the player through endless narration, but they never get explained in a way that makes one think, aha! I should care about this.

Second, the game isn't quite sure about its characters. Now, having strong characterisation is not at all necessary for a video game, just like how some very good short stories can have no characters at all. But Diablo III sets itself up in such a way through lots of character interaction and dialogue so that you feel as if it wants you to care about the characters. The problem is, you can't. Again, there are just too many cliches dominating the character's actions and motivations that those characters seem implausible, simply doing things because narrative causality dictates it. Moreover, the game engages in excessive ‘tell, not show': you can't care about the characters because mostly, it only describes how the characters feel, without showing how they act on those feelings.

Ultimately, I wonder if Blizzard was confused about what audience it was targeting its story towards. On one hand, despite handing out so much lore throughout the game, I felt as if it still presupposes that players have finished one or both of the previous Diablo games – the story isn't really comprehensible otherwise. But on the other hand, with all the cliches and predictability built into the plot, one thinks that the game was targeted at 13 year olds new to the series. We're then left in an awkward situation where the only people who understand the plot are the ones who are hopefully old and slightly more mature, but who therefore won't enjoy the plot; and the only people who will enjoy the plot are the people who can't because they won't understand it since they're too young to have played the previous games.

Overall, is Diablo III worth playing? The answer depends on exactly what you want in the game. I mentioned before that Diablo III isn't particularly subtle or sophisticated, but is simple and immediate in what it's trying to do with its gameplay and plot – hence why I've called it an exercise in instant gratification. If that's what you want, excellent: go ahead and pick up the title. But if you want a game that challenges the boundaries of the action RPG genre, that encourages player choice, or which presents a genuinely sophisticated story instead of relying on cliches and tropes, then despite the eleven year long wait, then unfortunately, you'll have to go on waiting.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.5 - Playable

Originally Posted: 05/29/12

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

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