Diablo III: The Kotaku Review

Plagued with disconnects and shot through with lag, the May 15 launch of Diablo III had players and press alike railing against the always-online nature of the latest entry in the genre-defining action role-playing series. While not entirely unexpected, those unfortunate events punctuated the problems with requiring constant external server access for a single-player game.

And I was right there with everyone else, cursing Blizzard for imposing its online agenda on players. How dare they take an experience I've always been able to enjoy offline and force me to bow to the whims of external technology? It's unconscionable! It's intolerable!

It's quite brilliant.

Diablo III is a mouse drive-action game that sees the player take on the role of one of five characters tasked with saving the world from being overrun by the forces of evil. Humanity cowers in the shadow of ever-growing darkness, their only hope for salvation a player more engaged with collecting magical equipment and earning experience points than any noble quest.

As I type this I have the game sitting idle on my laptop, suspenseful orchestral music somehow managing to please despite being trapped in the tinny prison of portable PC speakers. My level 34 Demon Hunter stares out from the screen, resplendent in her hard-earned metal armour and high heels. Her steely gaze is fixed on me, but I'm not staring back.

I'm watching the bottom left corner of the screen. The achievements earned by people on my friend list scroll by. When an accolade I don't recognise appears I click on it.

BlueIce just defeated one of the game's tougher boss fights in Nightmare Mode.

I played a few levels with BlueIce earlier in his Nightmare career, and while I've not been able to continue that particular crusade, I find pride in the knowledge that my one-time companion has made it that far — I'm proud of a player who I shared a mere fraction of my overall Diablo III experience with.

WHY: Because the action role-playing game that launched a thousand clones remains the most viscerally entertaining way to click your mouse several hundred thousand times.

Diablo III

Developer: Blizzard

Platforms: PC and Mac (for now)

Released: May 15th

Type of game: Isometric Hack and Slash Action Role-playing

What I played: Completed the story on normal mode in around 15 hours as a Demon Hunter both solo and in groups, exploring every inch of every map obsessively. Continued in Nightmare mode, nearly completing chapter one. Played Wizard, Monk and Witch Doctor at least five levels each. Played Barbarian in Hardcore mode to level 14 — he still lives!

Two Things I Loved

  • Diablo's trademark fusion of visuals and acoustics, producing a profoundly sensuous combat experience.
  • The exquisite tension of Hardcore mode, acutely aware that each battle could be your last.

Two Things I Hated

  • Single-player lag.
  • Never fear, Town Portal is always just a click away.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "It might be a little dumbed down, but it's still one of the best Diablo clones I've ever played" - Michael Fahey, Kotaku.com
  • "If you're not interested in multiplayer, you aren't getting the most out of the game" - Michael Fahey, Kotaku.com
  • "You'll hardly believe Blizzard was still nailing down core systems a couple of months ago!" - Michael Fahey, Kotaku.com

It's as if I'm playing vicariously through the other player, a video game voyeur experiencing pleasures I'm not currently able to indulge in through a third-party.

This is what the Battle.net 2.0 experience was meant to be. In 2009, when Blizzard first revealed that the single-player and multiplayer experience would be tied together via an infrastructure that drew inspiration from both Microsoft's Xbox Live service and the sheer joy of playing games with friends by your side, I was sceptical. I knew it would cause the sort of problems we experienced during the Diablo III launch. Hell, Blizzard knew it would as well, but by being uncompromising in its vision the developer has created a platform that makes even not actively playing a social experience.

TyGO just reached level 20 in hardcore mode. Yes!

Less unwavering has been Blizzard's vision for Diablo III as a whole. Since the game's announcement in 2008, the developer has regularly rolled out features and figures that wound up not applying to the final game. From the collectible Rune System that would work alongside expansive skill trees and customisation, resulting in some 2.8 trillion character builds, to the arena combat system that wasn't ready for the retail release. As recently as January of this year, Blizzard was still revising the game's core systems. For a company that prides itself on not realising games until they are perfect, these constant changes and last-minute revisions didn't inspire much confidence.

While features I was rather fond of have been lost forever, I'm not reviewing the game that might-have-been. This is about that Diablo III that is.

Fortunately, that Diablo III is as supremely satisfying as its predecessors.

One of the key features of the Diablo franchise and something I look for in any Diablo clone that comes along is the tactile essence of the click-based combat. Diablo III excels in this area, bringing the full force of 12 years of advances in PC sound and effect to bear. Every attack, be it a swing of the axe or a fiery beam of pure magic, solidly impacts its intended target. The slick animations and sounds unite in a communion of sensory excellence.

It's a transformative experience; as I leap into the middle of a dozen creatures, swinging my weapon in a wide arc, I grit my teeth with savage glee. To the outside observer I am clicking incessantly and cursing intermittently. Inside the game space Blizzard has crafted I become something completely different.

And that leads us to another hallmark of the franchise: a wide selection of diverse characters. Diablo III's lineup features a grand mix of melee, magic and mayhem. Each of the five unique classes requires a different style of play. The Barbarian charges into the fray with little regard for safety or sanity. The Wizard keeps his distance, weaving a deadly display of light and power to decimate enemy ranks. The Monk weaves in and out of combat like a ghost. The Demon Hunter leads enemies on a merry chase along a trap-laden path, peppering them with arrows at every opportunity.

And the Witch Doctor? The Witch Doctor tosses jars of live spiders. I don't care what the circumstances are; that is never acceptable.

Of course that's only how I played those classes. With six skill categories each with multiple assignable abilities, each of those modifiable by six unlockable power-enhancing runes, players have ample opportunities to tailor Diablo III's classes to their own play style. One of the joys of playing the game online with strangers is discovering new ways to capitalise on available skills. One player's useless ability (the Demon Hunter's grenades, for instance) is a mainstay of another player's arsenal. There might not be 2.8 trillion builds, but there are enough to keep things fresh for years to come.

The progression system has definitely been streamlined and simplified. Having played the previous entries in the series I must admit I'm disappointed at the lack of stat points and skill trees — stats increase automatically, and skill unlocks are all level-based now. At the same time I find myself grateful that some of the more complex decisions have been taken out of my hands, leaving them free to crush the life out of countless enemies on the way to the game's ultimate battle.

The story of Diablo III is relatively simple as well, but that's to be expected in a game that's title is also the name of its main antagonist. Telegraphed twists and turns lead the player through four chapters, culminating in a showdown in one of the two places a game focusing on the battle between heaven and hell can culminate. There's lore to be uncovered and unrelated side-quests to stumble upon, but for the most part Diablo III's story is far from its most compelling feature.

Some features of the game have been simplified to the point of stupidity. Replacing the need to purchase identify scrolls to uncover the secrets of rare and powerful weapons with a simple right-click mechanic begs the question of why Blizzard included unidentified items in the game at all. Similarly, Town Portal scrolls have been replaced with a Town Portal spell, a five-second cast that takes you back to town at any given point, removing the need for inventory management and a great deal of the previous games' tension. As long as you can get five seconds away from the enemy, you can warp home.

The end result is a game that's a bit on the easy side, especially for players who have followed the series for any extended period of time. Even transitioning to Nightmare Mode the challenge is only a modest one; any player who's made it that far should have enough of a grasp on their character to handle anything the game throws at them.

There is salvation from this lack of tension and terror in Hardcore Mode. In Hardcore Mode you create a character and play the game normally, only when you die, your character dies for good. There is no resurrection; no salvation. The higher your level, the more deliciously suspenseful the game becomes. When your screen flashes red, indicating extremely low heath, your heart pounds, your palms sweat; it's a glorious experience.

And you know what adds to the experience in a perverse way? It's knowing that at any moment your latency could drop into the red and you could be killed by lag.

And so we come back to that controversial always-online experience. Again, I understand the pain of people locked out of the game during the rocky launch. I felt that same fury.

Kenn just acquired Wirt's Cowbell! I still need to get that.

However, Diablo has never been a purely single-player experience. The original game was about a solo player clicking his or her way through a dungeon to overcome ultimate evil. Despite some structural changes, the second and third games in the series deliver more of the same. In fact, as I attempted to play through Diablo III solo, I found myself getting bored. The combat is exciting and impactful, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was simply going through the motions in order to see the credits roll; that every encounter was just an obstacle in my way to seeing the credits roll.

It wasn't until I embraced the online social aspects of Diablo III that the game truly captured my heart. This is a game that's meant to be shared, whether it be in party filled with strangers working embroiled in a chaotic fight against the ridiculous amount of enemies the game throws at full parties of four players, to simply watching the achievements roll by, following the exploits of your friends from afar.

The inconvenience of server issues will pass; the only problem I've had over the past three days was a hiccup on the part of my cable internet provider. What won't pass, unless one lets it, is the disappointment of the solo player. To that player this is a well-crafted if repetitive dungeon crawler with an unfair restriction that could potentially compromise their enjoyment.

Play in a few public matches or get together with some friends, however, and Diablo III becomes a magical, transcendent and wonderfully social experience, well-worth the frustrations of its early days.


Comments

    Diablo 3 is $20 on catch of the day today!

      Yea it is!

      Anyone else see the irony in D3 being sold on a website notorious for server-overloads on their sales?

        That isn't irony.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony

          Alanis Morissette must be so proud she fundamentally screwed an entire generations understanding of the word irony

            Most North Americans don't understand irony.

              The use of words expressing something other than their lit-er-al in-ten-tion: now that. Is. Ironnnyyyy!

                I was gonna +1 for the Futurama reference, but then I saw the name, so like +10 or something.

            Funny story! Alanis Morisette later claimed that she knew none of the things she listed in that song were 'ironic'. She did it on purpose because, she claims, she was being ironic ...Which isn't ironic either!
            /facepalm.

              irony strikes again then.

        Irony or not..... Catch of the day servers are "overloaded"

        Chances are they only had 2 to sell anyway.

          haha, when I read this post about the missuse of the word irony, I literally exploded!

    100% agree with the entire review :D
    So many people gripe about the always online, but when playing single player the game seems less fun to me.
    I do spend a lot of time watching other peoples achievments and sending a quick "GJ" "WD" "Nice".
    We have upto 12 of us all in "mumble/vent" jumping in and out of each others games to provide backup, when needed, a quick run through a boss when having issues, but mainly to SHARE LOOT, its amazing when just starting out in nightmare mode, you have a friend who has reached inferno, jump into your game, drop a whole mess of Gems you havent even seen yet so you can get a slight edge while u wait for your gear to catch up to your level.

    Everyone i work with has been talking about nothing but D3 since launch, comparing achievments/loot/DPS stats, and horror stories of the boss fights that went horribly wrong.
    Its an amazing game, with some issues yes, but amazing non the less, it reminds us of the good old days after high school sitting in the lounge rooms with 4-6 mates smashing your way through D2 and loving every minute of it.
    GJ blizzard you have proven that good old style hack/slash RPG's are still fun and not a dead art.

    Good luck getting one. They will have hardly any copies & the servers will meltdown.

    There are 2 reasons you pick up items unidentified in D3:

    1. The first is something of a joke. In the beta, all items were identified on pickup, and people started complaining on the forums that they had lost that sense of anticipation that came with an unidentified rare/set/legendary item; it was like unwrapping a present on Christmas morning, they said. So as a joke, Blizzard put this system in, and people accepted it, so they left it in.

    2. The second reason deals with how the game systems work. When you pick up an item, it's base stats are already set, that's why when you pick up a rare it already has a DPS number on it. However, the modifiers are NOT set, and they depend on your character's level. The modifiers are instanced (generated) when you IDENTIFY the item. That means, if you're 3 monsters away from levelling up, and you pick up a rare, you should probably leave it unidentified. Moreover, i'd suggest, as hard as it may be, especially when playing with friends, hold out on identifying rares till your pack is full and you're going back to town.

      About point 2: I did not realise this. Thanks El Kapitan!

        Thanks for info re: point 2! I didn't know about that and was curious myself as to why you had to identify and item considering there were no longer identify scrolls.
        It seemed pretty pointless.

      I can think of one more...

      3) Unidentified items would sell at a standard rate (level dependent ofcourse) at an auction house for those willing to try their luck. This is a norm in several MMO titles. Where unidentified items exist so does the unidentified item market.

      There probably is an achievment for identifying a certain amount of rares that people are willing to pay for too.

        You fell into the trap Bill. While this was absolutely valid in D2, you specifically cannot sell unidentified items on the auction house (believe me I tried), and thus I excluded it.

      There is also from memory the fact that there was originally a third artisan(enchanter of some sort) that would ID those items for you. But like so many things in Diablo 3 she was cut out, probably to make launch.

    Blizzard casual game creators since wotlk

    Nice review,
    I've totally agree with the social aspect of the game, in my opinion and i'm sure the thousands of flame posts will suggest I'm in the minority. D3 isn't really a single player game, its an online multi-player game that you can play solo. In terms of difficulty finishing normal is not finishing the game, even getting to lvl 60 is just the beginning, it gets much much harder and even more rewarding (especially hardcore) .

    Should I play this game? YES/NO/WAIT
    Where's the green/red verdict?!

    I actually don't have friends or know a single person interested in games, and have no interest in multiplayer myself. Co-op might be fun, but for the most part I want to play offline by myself. I could care-less about Auction houses. I'll wait a year and look for it in the bargain bin. If the future of video game is mulitplayer only, then they can stick it.

    I've been playing through single player. Yesterday my net went down because of the supplier. Its going to take them two days to come out to test the lines. In the mean time I can't play through the single player campaign because of lack of internet.

    This is the reason I hated the always on nature of the game and the reason I will never purchase a blizzard product again. Bring on Torchlight 2.

    I found this a very biased and Blizzard friendly (suck-up) review.

    Always on connection is a horrible idea, and why do I want to have an an online status all of the time? Even the most popular social networks don't have this. And the most horrendous is that there is server downtime. So for I can't play a single player game, where there should be no need of a connection, because there are no servers to connect to? Why do I need to connect to a server? This is not an MMO or a web based game.

    I'm really looking forward to Torchlight 2 and Grim Dawn also.

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