Diablo III unfurls a long narrow stairway to heaven

, | Game reviews

I was one of those guys who played the Diabo III beta and decided — harumph — I liked Diablo II better. So I played a little Diablo II. I sulked for a bit. I resolved not to overly care about Diablo III.

Now that Diablo III is out, it turns out Blizzard was right and I was wrong.

After the jump, one of us really knows what they’re doing

Diablo III is a socks-on-hardwood-floors slide down a long corridor full of stuff to break and squish: earthenware pottery, old barrels, bubblewrap, honking squawking critters that need killing. It is the product of more than fifteen years of Blizzard whittling away at a genre they arguably invented, weighing carefully how best to get it right for the most people. It is a velvet smooth, resistance free glide without the tough choices an RPG demands. “Sacred cows and longtime fans be damned,” Blizzard cried. “Let them sulk and play their copies of Diablo II!” I love it when a developer does this. I love it when a developer has the confidence, experience, vision, competence, and balls to not listen to us.

Not to say Blizzard has turned their back on what makes a Diablo game great. They still know how to let you freestyle your way through a symphony of gratifying thwacks, crashes, thuds, tinkles, and dings. They still know how to bring you the joy of a hammer smashing skeletons, a machinegun bow mowing down demons, a wizard’s magic beams frying whatever those things are, a pet class shuffling along with her ridiculous and glorious entourage in tow. Diablo III is still the crackle of flames, the swish of an axe, the twirl of a barbarian, the obligingly eager charge of a zombie dog, the satisfied burp of a giant frog. Some of these things are new, but they are as right and ancient as anything from 1996. Blizzard knows we love this stuff and they dole it out perfectly. The reason to level up your Diablo III character is not just the grind. The reason to level up your character is to discover the delight of new ways to break stuff and kill critters. That’s the secret of Diablo III’s new leveling system.

Which is the first and most important way I was wrong. I didn’t want to play Diablo III. I wanted to build my own character by choosing my skills from a list, or a tree, treating it like a menu where I have to decide if I want the fish or the steak. I wanted to be held to mutually exclusive this-not-that either-ors. I wanted to put points into strength or dexterity. I wanted to be able to play a barbarian one way the first time and another way the second time, but never either way the same time. I wanted to make difficult choices. I wanted Diablo III to work like those other RPGs, action RPGs, and MMOs. I wanted to play Diablo II.

But Diablo III instead pushes every character down the same rail, both geographically (this is an oppressively narrow world compared to Diablo II) and in terms of character development for each of the classes. A witch doctor, barbarian, demon hunter, monk, or wizard of any given level will have the exact same skills and attributes as any other witch doctor, barbarian, demon hunter, monk, or wizard of that level. Which seems like a terrible idea to those of us who sulked and booted up Diablo II for a while.

But in Diablo III you will start to get it after about ten levels. You will wallow in it gleefully after about twenty levels. You might roll up your sleeves and start poring over wikis after thirty levels. I expect we’ll be arguing about it online after forty levels, discovering new options after fifty levels, and unable to let go even after hitting level 60. The simple fact of the matter is that Blizzard was right to unfurl class skills in a set order and to instead give us the option of equipping any six at a time (hello, Guild Wars!). And to furthermore let us modify each of those skills with runes to tweak how they work, and then passive skills to further tweak how they work. Diablo III is built for people who want to tinker rather than people who want to just cop out and decide. Tinkering can be every bit as effective a hook as deciding.

Diablo III looks great. Also, water is wet. But it runs really well on what I’d call lower end computers (i.e., my crappy gaming laptop and my desktop with an old GeForce card). The multiplayer is really slick. Also, the sky is blue. Just as I expected, the effective battle.net front end for Starcraft II is in full effect here, even if it is just achievements and a silly customizeable banner. I’m already eyeing those hardcore challenges. And I care far more about my banner than I should. What an anemic meta-game reward system. But you can bet I’ll occasionally tap the G key to drop my banner because, dammit, I unlocked that pattern and I’m going to use it.

Oh, and crafting. Crafting in Diablo? Ha! It’ll never work. It’s bad enough in MMOs. It’s not going to work in Diablo. It’s just not. No way. Oh, hey, look at me being wrong again. To be fair, it’s a bit misleading to call it crafting given what we usually call crafting. It’s more accurately a combination of collectibles, money sinks, and — here’s the real hook! — the gambling that you probably never used in the previous Diablo games. It gives you a sense of control and calculated risk in the loot chase, which used to be a matter of kicking monsters until they dropped a thing you wanted. Diablo III even has an auction house, although I like to think I’m above that madness. Except look at how cheaply this guy listed his legendary item. I’d be a fool not to at least bid on it. So, yeah, I was wrong and Blizzard was right about crafting.

I do think Blizzard made a bad call about some things. It’s a pretty short game if you think it consists of playing through the story on normal difficulty (it doesn’t). The basic progression consists almost entirely of stuff you’ve already seen in the other Diablos. And stuff that doesn’t vary much. The world is mostly dull, unless you’re endlessly fascinated by castle corridors and caves linked by slightly fat outdoor corridors. Diablo III’s geography doesn’t afford much sense of exploration, or discovery, or even the option to veer left or right very far. For all the great work Blizzard did on characters, they didn’t extend much of that to the actual world, which is disappointingly linear, or the story, which is awfully Blizzard. And why bother with these cinematic cutscenes, most of which are sepia-toned concept art, when they’re nothing like the experience of the game?

At least the events, which are hand-made vignettes that may or may not appear, lend a bit of unpredictability to repeated trips down the same hallways. Diablo III doesn’t have the wide-open replayability of a tile-based randomly generated world, but neither does it have the occasional awkward slapdash of a tile-based randomly generated world. It’s all very handbuilt and it shows. And the events are a lot more exciting to discover than a passageway that goes left instead of right.

Then there’s the fact that Diablo III is an online only game, even if you’re just in it for the single-player. I understand this decision from a business perspective. But I don’t play Diablo III from a business perspective, so it’s a real thumb in the eye to have to suffer through a launch that was exactly like any MMO launch. It’s a sad reality that too many of us have accepted DRM with gritted teeth and open wallets, so this is likely the price of AAA gaming for the foreseeable future. Us sheep get what we deserve, which is a Diablo III, a fine game for playing solo, with all the pitfalls of an online game. So I reserve the right to replace this review with an angry screed if I ever lose my hardcore character to lag.

4 stars