At last! The star has fallen from the heavens, and once more my heroes can walk the wildernesses of Sanctuary. Good old Blizzard have hyped this beyond the hilt. There’s a stark six inches of PR-inscribed steel standing proud out of the back of anyone who’s typed so much as a D and a 3 into a search engine in the last month. Much faith, much anticipation and much gnawing of nerdy knuckles has ensued. The open public beta last month probably upset as many people as it got exciting.
Here are the main concerns that lots of people seemed to have after the beta: –
1. It’s going to be way too easy! Everything died but me, this is really lame and just for casual gamers, WTF Blizzard, where’s the love for the hardcore fans?
2. The authentic dark and brooding feel of the last title has been lost and replaced with ‘WOW-style gayness’. WTF, Blizzard?
3. It’s not a proper RPG! All the stats and skills have been turned into an auto-select progress thing, I have no choice or control over my character’s skills any more! Blizzard! WTF?!
4. Online auction house? Must be online at all times? WTF WTF WTF Flame war?
So let’s cut straight to the chase – how valid are these fears? Does D3 disappoint, or does it unleash a tide of frenetic gaming joy like everyone wants it to?
I’ll say as little as I can about the story. There’s not much to say, really, it does what you’d expect. Demonic horror has indeed returned to stalk the lands, and it’s up to you, the passing prophesy-chosen hero of the day, to liaise with a great cast of much-loved characters from the previous games as you race against time as they struggle to contain the tide of terror. It’s well-realised and attention grabbing, and once you begin the game, the plot quickly gets you involved. Perhaps there’s nothing here that is going to surprise or amaze anyone, it’s all perfectly acceptable and slightly clichéd dark fantasy. It’s raised above the average genre gumbo, however, by an attention to detail and polish that makes it a pleasure to immerse yourself into.
Blow-by-blow, here are my feelings on the main worries the forum-botherers seemed to have.
Q – It’s too easy!
A – No. You are an idiot for thinking this.
Seriously, no, not at all. The beta, as everyone from Blizzard very patiently explained repeatedly for a long time, only showed the first quest of the first chapter. Yes, that chapter is very easy, but it’s a tiny, insignificant part of the whole experience. All those video diaries and presentation of the makers of this game sighing and trying to stay enthusiastic and cheery as they tried to console a foetid hive of wailing geeks, crying how this game would only be for crappy casual gamers? Well, hats off to the developers. They’re totally right and the crybabies are totally not. Yes, your first play through is going to be fairly comfortable, but that’s how this genre of games usually work. And although those training-wheel early chapters do go on a bit, once the gloves are off, they stay off.
No more shambling zombies. No more puny quill beasts. How about a throng of worm-handed demons with a huge ranged AoE DOT attack that devours your health with toxins as they twitch and shiver behind a wall of lesser melee minions? Or teleporting fireball-throwers who can saddle up on giant monstrosities which themselves can stun you for long seconds as the riders burn you to cinders? Or wave upon wave of tiny, scuttling shadow demons almost impossible to detect against a corruption-scarred battlefield? Blizzard astounds with their range, variety and repulsive inventiveness. I died a fair amount on normal, and in nightmare, when the champions have a vastly increased toolbox of unfair traps and abilities to draw on, I’ve been dying a lot. And I love it.
Q – WOW gayness?
A – No, not really. Again, you are an idiot.
Okay, maybe it’s a little pastel in places. The graphics are great – not incredible, but certainly very well presented. Sanctuary looks a bit like an oil painting, like Rembrandt with psychosis. It’s a little blurry and impressionistic in the details if you get in close, I suppose. Generally, I have no time to get in close, I’m trying to leap into the very centre of a scrawling pack of nightmares so that their burning limbs and blood splatters will repaint the pastel areas of the map with something more 18-cert. Apart from the cavalcade of hilarious and brutal deaths your foes will be enacting for you, the setting is atmospheric in the extreme, packed with detail. Some parts are genuinely horrific visions of hell, particularly late in Act 3. It’s worth seeing this stuff – it’s spectacular and thrilling. You’re fighting on a world stage, and you feel it. Things happen in the background, npcs scream and yell and beg for your help. But it’s never too busy, and the focus is firmly on you and your actions. Combined with the rollicking gothic soundtrack, which is orchestral, immersive and entirely appropriate for the demon-wrecked ghast-scape that it accompanies, anyone who tells you this is some whimsical world of fluff and unicorns is jaded beyond redemption. End their miserable life now.
Q – Skills and stats? Broken WTF?
A – No. Wrong again, idiot.
It’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes, I’ll grant it that. And in those early stages, you do feel a bit corralled by the developers. You begin with a single skill, powered by a mana-replacing resource that works slightly differently for each class. Over the first 30 levels, this become a large set of crazy abilities to pick between. From the Witch Doctor’s giant frog ally that eats monsters whole, to the Barbarian’s summoning of a trio of psychotic helpers, to the Wizard turning into a floating embodiment of arcane power, everything is very-well animated, entertaining and over-the-top. Your base set of skills are introduced slowly, true, and there aren’t vast selection of them, but they all very unique. And then each one comes in what eventually turns into 7 different flavours as new rune upgrades are added in. Your initial piercing crossbow bolt as a Demon Hunter can become a shrapnel spray of expanding bolts, for example, or a single burning shot with added damage.
Combine that with the continuously changing skills that the bad guys charge you with, and you end up having to change and tinker all the time. Mostly for fun, in fact, because experimenting with different builds is great. My Barbarian, Jillgamesh (stupid names are a must, by the way), likes to build up a good reserve of Fury (her mana-like resource) with a rune-enhanced cleave that swipes at any targets in an arc. Once I get furious enough, I unleash three other skills at once – a huge blast of fire, a speed boost and the ever popular whirlwind attack, which causes me to pirouette gaily through my foes, twirling baton-like battle axes into their faces. The fire blast is upgraded so I leave a trail of lava behind me, and the speed boost to throw in addition deadly tornadoes in my wake, and the whirlwind attack itself adds even more twisters. Result? Hilarity, loot and a shower of crispy demon chunks. It’s great.
You’ll probably gravitate to one or two favourites, but now and again you’ll find they just won’t cut the mustard. Jillgamesh was way out of her comfort zone for several boss battles and had to entirely retrain to a whole new mix of stuff. Same when I hit Nightmare, I was much too frail to keep my original plan in action, I needed a much tougher and tankier approach just to survive.
So what’s not to love? Well, Blizzard’s spoon-feeding is a bit tiresome. They give you this marvellous toy set slightly too slowly for my taste, one by one basically. Once you’ve beaten the final boss once (SPOILER ALERT IT’S DIABLO BUT COME ON THE GAME IS NAMED AFTER HIM WHAT DID YOU EXPECT FFS), starting a new character from the ground up feels horribly tame, dull actually. From the spike-ridden kill-fields you’ve just been frantically slaughtering across, you’re back to the Sleepy Hollow of Sleeping Zombies with some pretty low-budget zaps and pows to power through them with.
Loot is also very different from previous games. It feels blander, to be honest. Armour will tailor itself to a specific look depending on which character you play, so the same hat appears different depending on who’s wearing it. It’s a nice touch, but it feels like I don’t have as much choice in how my character looks, beyond the use of dyes if I can be arsed. Weapons are really just part of the aesthetic now – their stats power the damage from your skills, you almost never have to lower yourself to hitting things with them. Not on the difficulties I’ve played, at least, it might change later on. That’s a shame, I think, but not a serious one. The skills are more than cool enough to make up for it. Why use a pointy stick when you’ve got exploding flame bats?
Also, the online auction house means if you don’t like grinding for loot, you’ll be able to pick out and buy whatever you need. If that’s a massively overpowered weapon you usually wouldn’t get for ages, fine, go for it! You don’t have to, the auction house is completely optional. And at the moment, you need in-game gold to spend in it, so you’re still going to be grinding for a while. Once the real money house opens, there’ll be shades of Team Fortress 2, with killer hats and daft weapons for all. But not if you don’t want them.
The developer talk a lot in their videos about how they want player choice to be the key thing, and how much fun they want everyone to have. This is a great game, really good fun, but I think having a little more faith in people’s brainpower might have paid off. More choices early on would make it feel like you’re designing your character more, and I did find I missed this from the earlier games. There, you get a choice of three basic skill sets, each with various options open to you. It’s your call which to go for. But what was broken about that is definitely fixed here. Previously, you made those first choices and ended up stuck using the high end skills all the time, because the baby skills were useless in harder difficulties. Here, the harder you go, the more choice you have. And everything keeps working, it just gets better and shinier and sillier. The big choice is which ones to use, and that’s amazingly fun. But like I said, this new approach isn’t going to suit everyone. Personally, I think it’s great, it’s a new approach to what is all too often a cookie-cutter skill tree, and I’m looking forward to tinkering with it more.
Q – Always online?
A – No, it’s okay, there’s no problem here. You won’t be.
As I’ve been hinting in my own small, droll way, Diablo 3 has a huge problem with the online thing. The servers are vastly overloaded and can’t cope. And that means that a lot of the time, you can’t play. You can’t play even if you are only interested in single player, which the game does brilliantly. When it works. And I find that completely incomprehensible. Was it a producer who doesn’t play video games making this choice? Someone who only thinks with their wallet and was scared the nasty hackers might score some pirate copies? I honestly don’t think this will stop them for long. And this game badly needs an offline fix, I just hope Blizzard comes out with it first.
In fairness, the tech support is good, there’s lots of sensible and calm advice on the forums amidst the shrieking of folorn fanboys. But they are legion right now, to the extent you really do suspect this problem is major. I’ve got a decent if occasionally patchy internet connection, nothing amazing but usually reliable, and I’m sure one or two of my drops can be pinned on that. But I’m getting kicked out of the game once or twice an hour today, although it was much better a couple of days ago. Could be teething troubles, let’s be honest. Might be fine tomorrow. Probably lots of other people doing fine. But that just makes me feel worse.
In the five days since launch, I’ve played quite a lot, and I love the game. I think it’s a fresh and invigorating action RPG game that will launch a million lesser clones. But when I regularly lose progress to lags, server drops, service outages and seemingly random errors, some of which have caused the program to lock up and then crash to desktop, I feel really angry. Angry because Diablo 3 has had a massively long development process including a beta where this was identified as a big problem. Angry because Blizzard are usually very good at problem-free, well-supported launches. And very angry because this game is a snip above the usual launch price for a game anyway, I’m paying extra for the names here, I expect a fully functioning product on launch.
And it’s utterly utterly avoidable. I want to play solo, generally, although a spot of multiplayer now and again is great. I have no beef with the online auction house (although quite why Blizzard needs to take a 15% cut of my fictional gold pieces every time I sell an item, I don’t understand. What will they spend them on?), and I’m not really upset that the promised PvP arena wasn’t ready at launch. But I’m furious that this brilliant game is frequently spoilt by the lag and drop which plagues me right now. I’m sure it will improve. It has to, because it’s trashing the game for me at the moment.
The combat is very fast-paced, lag kills you. And if you drop from a game, you often lose a chunk of progress. Levels are randomly generated every time you log in, it seems. As a side note, most levels really aren’t random at all, they just have a few side dungeon entrances either on or off. Those dungeons are usually randomly generated. But log back in and the one you were about to enter may no longer be there. It sucks, bluntly.
Overall? This is a really good game, but Blizzard have put its success in some little jeopardy by their bizarre insistence that you can only play it online. What does this add, other than frustration? Security? I suspect not, I don’t think anything stops hackers forever. Starcraft 2 needed a Battlenet account to sign in and activate the game, but after that you could play offline quite happily. It’s a much better game for it. Enforced online play adds nothing at all for the player.
I ought to give this nine or more out of ten for gameplay and value. It’s huge, challenging, detailed, beautiful and complicated. I won’t, because of a single stupid production decision. These are currently having a huge impact on whether or not you can play it at all. My scores are basically a futile way of trying to penalize Blizzard for this really stupid choice. It won’t make any difference, I doubt anyone at Blizzard has the time to read my obscure reviews. They have too much money to count.
It’s still a great game. But genuinely, it’s not worth the current price. And it’s not working properly yet, which is very disappointing. Stay your cash awhile, see if Blizzard listens to the community on this, and maybe you’ve got one of the best games of the last couple of years. But not until then. Right now you’ve basically got an averagely buggy launch of a high-profile new game, which you should not pay a premium rate for.