Diablo III is a lot of things: it’s the fastest-selling game in the long history of the personal computer, living proof that Blizzard Entertainment, as both a developer and publisher, still owns the landscape of PC gaming, and, most of all, is the long-awaited sequel to Diablo II, a game that is only slightly younger than the new millennium. There is one thing, however, that Diablo III is not: your mother’s Diablo.
Diablo II was a role-playing game with action elements; Diablo III inverts the formula. To be a role-playing game would imply that some accountability is being taken for statistical improvements and skill accrual, neither of which are the responsibility of the player in this iteration of the franchise. Instead, the stats and skills of characters progress in a fashion more predetermined than scripted television, professional wrestling, and boxing. This isn’t so much a criticism as it is an observation of the title’s diversion from the tropes of its former genre and in a direction that favors action. In fact, as an action game, Diablo III is fantastic and easily sets itself apart from the current stream of properties flooding the market.
Though skills are automatically awarded based on a character’s level, the skills available for use in combat are designated by the player. In a move that supplements the game’s action-heavy approach with a dose of strategy, each individual is allowed six abilities at once with two being assigned to the mouse and the rest being left to their respective hotkeys. Adding to the tactical angle are the facts that each skill can be augmented with a set of runes and that each ability can only be bound to one of the keys based on the category, a definition determined by a skill’s status as either a basic attack, area-of-effect maneuver, statistical enhancement, or incredibly powerful signature move, it belongs to. It is in this respect and in the fact that the game manages to make each of the five classes play in a distinct manner entirely independent of one another that Diablo III slightly transcends its own genre to become something with a little more substance than its peers.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Diablo III and its action are completely free of faults. At the game’s most basic difficulty, much of the combat feels mindless to the point that it feels as if Blizzard is pushing the player towards the title’s conclusion. Beyond that, it also suffers in that the concessions made to a more mainstream, action-heavy approach have taken away from the individualism often associated with the franchise and the characters created within it; outside of armor, there is little distinction between one user’s character and one belonging to another. Yes, they may have assigned skills differently in their quest for completion, but, at the end of the day, they are a few clicks away from being practically identical. If Diablo III were to be an entirely single-player experience, then such issues would be of little import in the grand scheme of things; however, as is made blatantly clear by Blizzard, Diablo III is not an entirely single-player experience.
With Diablo III, Blizzard has made a frustrating amount of decisions that have pushed the game far beyond its original intent and towards that of a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Whether or not you want to be online, you are forced to be so by the game’s insistence that all users be connected to the internet while enjoying either the single-player and cooperative campaign. This isn’t uncommon for PC games, but, in Diablo III, it becomes particularly annoying as the troubles of network gaming take up residence within the title’s single-player offering. What this means is that those going it alone in Sanctuary are prone to experience lag and spam at a time in which they would normally be free of it. Had Blizzard gone the route of so many others and merely made the always-online functionality of the game extend to maintaining a slight connection, none of these problems would have manifested and the product would have been left relatively pure. Had Blizzard gone that route, though, it would have had to have been done in the absence of the feature that has defined Diablo III in the weeks since its launch: the auction house.
The auction house is, in both its real and fake-money incarnations, an idea that fundamentally opposes the way in which Diablo III should be played. Instead of naturally acquiring items as the player fights through the game’s lengthy campaign, users are encouraged to utilize a system that allows them to purchase items that make the experience less of a challenge and, quite honestly, less fun. It is true that one does not necessarily have to buy items from the auction house, but it is also true that Blizzard has made changes since the game’s launch that push players towards the fortune that waits within its confines. Item drops, a concept at the very core of the franchise that has entirely maintained its addictive nature, have been altered in ways that have had many individuals chasing digital goods being sold by others around the globe looking to reap the benefits of the situation as opposed to simply playing the game. This problem only becomes worse as one approaches the auction house’s real-money alternative, an eerie inclusion that promotes the idea of deliberate farming.
All of that in mind, it bears repeating that the auction house is not entirely necessary. With a little hard work and dedication, a player can best any of the difficulties in Diablo III without having to turn towards the enticing deals of their peers, and there is much incentive for the individual to do so if only to see all of the beautiful landscapes laid out by Blizzard over the span of the game’s campaign. While not original settings by any means, each piece of scenery pops off of the screen in a way that only a game with stylized visuals can. Best of all, the series has, in its long absence, evolved to the point of having dynamic environments that are often manipulated by scripted events and user intervention. Above all else, Diablo III is a beautiful game that is almost worth the price of admission on aesthetics alone.
It’s unfortunate, though, that these beautiful landscapes aren’t complemented by a compelling thread of plot that runs throughout them. From beginning to end, Diablo III is host to an uninspired tale that focuses itself around a mysterious star that has crash landed in the game’s first area. By the middle of the game, I had begun to lower the master volume to the point that I could instead listen to the musings of more interesting individuals found in my iTunes library. By the end of the game, I cared so little that I watched only the cinematic moments in which Blizzard demonstrated their expertise within the craft of pre-rendered visuals, a field in which they continue to show unrivaled ability.
With the largely negative atmosphere that has followed the game’s launch, it is easy to be down on Diablo III. After all, the real and fake-money auction houses have corrupted the experience to the point that it is turning away the very players that have been waiting for the game for over a decade. However, it must be said that, though the title is not a fitting entry into the franchise to which it belongs, it is an exceptionally beautiful, solid entry into the action genre whether it is played alone or with friends, an area in which it excels like no other. Few games belonging to the medium demonstrate such polished combat while, at the same time, approaching it with a level of finesse that allows it to adhere to ideas more intellectual in nature.
Diablo III may not be the best Diablo game, but it is most certainly one of the better action games of this year and the many that have preceded it.