There are two reasons the console port of Diablo III, announced by Blizzard last month and shown off at PAX East this weekend, could be the definitive version of the game.
The first reason is obvious: you can play offline. You don't have to worry about server errors or Time Warner Cable while playing this incarnation of Blizzard's action-RPG.
Reason #2 is harder to understand without getting your hands on the PlayStation 3 version of the third Diablo, but it becomes obvious almost as soon as you do: Diablo III feels much, much better on a controller than it does on a mouse and keyboard.
Put the pitchforks down, folks. I was sceptical too. I spent many, many hours in the demon-infested hells of Diablo II, and for a while, I figured a console version would never work. When I think Diablo, I think "click, click, click."
But after just a few minutes with Diablo III on PS3 -- which trades the clicking for nudging, jiggling, and mashing -- I almost wish this series had been built for controllers all along.
I know. Blasphemy. Really, though, it feels like a different game: I hopped on a demo at PAX East this morning, loaded up a Demon Hunter, and wandered through one of the dungeons, flinging arrows and firing energy bolts as I danced my way around a mob of enemies. And it felt good. Surprisingly good.
To play this version, you move around with the left joystick while using the coloured buttons to attack monsters and interact with the world. On the PS3 controller, you can assign attacks to R1 and all four of the coloured buttons. You use L1 (and, I believe, L2) for potions. There's also a new evade command: you can use the right joystick to roll around and dodge enemy attacks.
The takeaway here is that you can move and attack simultaneously, instead of hammering your left mouse button to do just about everything. For a ranged attacker like the Demon Hunter, this is near-revolutionary. It feels graceful. Natural. More like you're inhabiting your character and less like you're guiding them from above.
Worth noting: this is the first Blizzard-developed console game in 20 years. You might remember console ports of the first StarCraft and Diablo -- for Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1, respectively -- but those were built by external companies. This one is all in house.
Likely you have questions. I did too. So after playing the Diablo III demo this morning, I headed to a back room to chat with Joshua Mosqueira and Matthew Berger, both designers on the DIII port.
My first question: is this the best version of the game?
"They're both our kids," Mosqueira said. "The thing to keep in mind is that they're different."
How diplomatic. Ever the good parents, Mosqueira and his team don't want to admit that one of their games is more successful than the other, but I suspect they have private conversations about how much better it feels to play something like Diablo III on a PlayStation controller.
I asked Berger and Mosqueira about a number of other subjects, from next-gen consoles to server issues. Let's go through them.
What's new? Other than the obvious -- the whole "new console" thing -- Blizzard says they've overhauled the boss battles, making them feel more like the sprawling fights you'd see in an action-RPG on your Xbox or PlayStation.
"We know that there's a huge tradition of boss battles on console games," said Berger. "We're going through bosses and updating visuals, cinematics. Also, the pacing."
The item system has also been revamped, and you can now see whether an item will boost your stats even before you pick it up. Your inventory, character, and quests pages are now all tabs of one menu screen, accessible via the select button on the PS3 version. And you equip items through a radial menu rather than a ragdoll screen.
"We don't want to simplify the game," Mosqueira said. "We just want to streamline the experience."
So just how much is new? Says Berger: "If you played it on PC, you should expect it to feel familiar, but you should also expect to be surprised." Okay!
Fans have already shown some anger at this port -- one message board user theorized that the PC version of Diablo III was actually a "beta" for this one. I asked the designers if that was true. Their answer: no.
This version of Diablo III won't connect to Battle.net, so don't expect any sort of cross-play between your PS3 and PC. Instead, you'll use the PlayStation Network infrastructure to play online. You can also play co-op with four people in your living room. No split screen, though -- "The last thing we want to do is make your nice big TV into four smaller TVs," says Berger.
Interestingly, when you're playing co-op, the looting system will go old-school. While in Diablo III on PC every player sees their own items and doesn't have to worry about anyone else ganking them, on consoles, while playing co-op, you'll all swim in the same treasure pool.
"Loot drops a bit more, but everybody gets to share it," said Berger. "So if he picks up your bow, you can just punch him. We let the players police themselves."
No real word on PlayStation 4 just yet. Blizzard's designers wouldn't talk next-gen consoles -- the PR representative sitting in on our interview shut down any and all PS4-related questions -- but they did seem excited about putting Diablo on Sony's next console.
Are there really people who still haven't played Diablo III? Last we heard, Blizzard said they sold 12 million copies of the controversial game. So I was skeptical: just how many PS3 owners who might be interested in Diablo III haven't already played it on PC?
"Just judging by the number of people coming by our booth," Mosqueira said, "at least 50% of the people haven't played Diablo III."
They're not worried about Error 37 this time around. "Our plan is to be 100% ready," said Berger.
No news on expansion packs, or how they'd work on consoles. "Right now we're focusing on getting the core game out," Mosqueira said. "We still need to figure out exactly how we'll handle DLC and that kind of stuff."
Blizzard is known for their frequent patches and content updates, which might seem like a difficult thing to pull off on consoles, but Mosqueira said they've had extensive conversations with Sony about the importance of flexible patching in a game like Diablo III, and that Sony is on board.
What took so friggin' long? It seems like Blizzard has been talking about bringing Diablo to consoles for quite a few years now, but according to Mosqueira, development didn't really kick into gear until last year, after Diablo III shipped on PC. So what were they doing until then?
"What took the longest is finding the team," Mosqueira said. "We have a stringent process, an interview gauntlet that can take up to six months. The core of the console team were all hired specifically 'cause of their console backgrounds."
When's it coming out? "Soon-ish," Mosqueira said.
"When it's ready," added Berger. "On Blizzard time, because it's a Blizzard game, and we're treating it like any other game."
Any other consoles? Blizzard's designers were coy about this one.
"Step one is making it awesome for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4," said Mosqueira. "We don't have any other announcements at this moment, aside from 'stay tuned.'"
So if Diablo III really can be played offline... The PC version of Diablo III was online-only. The console version of Diablo III has an offline mode. So I asked the designers: now that fans can look at the PS3 and see that yes, Diablo III can be an offline game, will we ever see an offline mode added to the PC version of the game?
"It's one of those difficult decisions we had to make," said Mosqueira. "Right now there's no plans. Some of the reasoning behind it is, the PC and console ecosystems are very different."
Blizzard and Sony both did some research and found that many PS3s are never connected to the Internet, he said. "So we figured the best way to offer that Diablo experience was to let players play offline."