Developer: Blizzard North
# of Players: 1 – 2
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
With no reliable internet connection and no desire to play any game with a solo mode that demands one, no matter the reasoning, I’m exactly the sort of gamer Blizzard doesn’t want playing Diablo III, and that’s a shame. No one asked the many thousands of folks like me who happen to love the series what our thoughts were on an online-only Diablo experience, and the fact remains that not everyone who wanted a straightforward campaign is some sort of pirate or cheat-happy coder out to break the game up into pieces and make our own content or whatever else Blizzard was fearful of. That said, last year when I heard about the game being online only, I automatically thought I’d never get the chance to review it. However, I was able to wrangle a deal with a friend where in case a copy DID magically show up, I’d use his spiffy, always updated gaming rig in trade for the game if he set up an account just so I could at least play through it to see how it turned out.
Amusingly enough (and much to my surprise) a review copy showed up two days before the launch and after letting out a nicely demonic laugh (you should hear it – your spine will rattle), I made a phone call and set aside what I thought would be enough quality time to go through the game. Let’s just say that everything I was concerned about came to bear in a few ridiculously annoying ways, but when the game works, it’s addictive as ever (despite some changes made for the casual crowd) and about as good as I’d hoped. The caveat being WHEN it worked…
Like many other players out there, My first week or so with the game was a mess of error messages, dropped connections, a few game crippling glitches and more that left me more annoyed than satisfied. It’s bad enough that Blizzard has shut out MANY old (as well as potential new) Diablo fans by not allowing offline play. However, one could say it’s worse that they also expect blind allegiance to their DRM without a single complaint about the restrictions and how mucked up the launch was. That said, when the game works and the hours go by too quickly, most of the issues fall away as the click ‘n kill bliss takes over. Still, after losing a chunk of progress and some cool items after one server issue, I actually stepped away from the game for a while and concentrated on games that let me play them when I wanted to with no major glitches while I waited for a wide enough block of time to really dive in and try to get to Inferno difficulty.
This review has gone through a few rewrites over a few weeks while I’ve been fighting with the game’s issues and it’s turned into a bit less about the gameplay and more about why I think it’s not so much of a step forward for the industry. It’s just hard for me to fully enjoy something that won’t fit my schedule AND not work when I did have time set aside to play it. My score only deals with the game in working order, or it would be a bit lower based on the things I had problems with. I do realize that millions of DIII players won’t have much of the issues I’ve listed, so I scored the game as fairly as possible. That said, first impressions are indeed important and for a great deal of people on day one, DIII wasn’t very impressive. More precisely, no real opinion could be formed outside of overlooking the general annoyance that not even the solo mode was reliably playable for an extended period of time. The game is more stable now, but was still prone to occasional issues when I stopped playing my Demon Hunter somewhere around level 57.
If there’s one thing I have zero complaints with, it’s the new art style. Yeah, yeah, it’s not as dark and grim amd “evil” as Diablo II, but then again, the game does look superior to DII in terms of consistency. Additionally, you get partially destructible environments and some nicely creepy enemy entrances (and appropriately gory exits) in spots. With the new 3D engine here, there’s no fake 3D mode here to warp buildings and at least the new art style and use of color is solid throughout the game. There are some really stunning CG cinemas here as well as some great references to past games, but the story seems lacking when stacked up the DII. Granted, despite the grand storytelling in the cut scenes, the series has never truly been unnecessarily thick on plot at all. You’re always going after Diablo and his hordes of minions before (or during and after) they’ve wrecked things up a bit. DIII goes a bit overboard in bringing back a few familiar faces and baddies to bash on, but these moments are set up to elicit the exact response the developers wants old fans to have. Some moments work, some don’t, but the overall voice acting and sound design is great.
Again, while the core click-fest action is the same grin-giving goodness, pretty much everything from the way the game doles out skills and how many can be equipped to the amount of gold dropped to the ability to score rare item drops has been fiddled with to assorting degrees of “success”. Sure, the game is more accessible to new players, but on the unchangeable default setting, I kept feeling as if I was in an action/RPG amusement park instead of a game with much real challenge. Granted, the difficulty bumps up geometrically after you complete the first mode (and yes, Inferno will give everyone fits thanks to some crazy enemy balancing and the absolute NEED to have the best gear), but for the first few hours, Blizzard wants every player to have the same core experience with the game while guiding player down the specific path. This sort of “fair” playing field gives DIII an almost World of Warcraft-like appeal many will groove on, but I felt it a wee bit too heavy-handed and limiting compared to Diablo II and many of its contemporaries.
I also wasn’t fond of the ridiculous repair costs for gear here and the addition of the blacksmith and jewelers that needed leveling up (using gold, of course), as it feels too forced. Additionally, Blizzard’s reliance on auction houses that use both in-game gold and/or real world money for transactions yanks you right out of the fantasy world and into modern commerce for no other reason to take more of your money. Want to play Inferno once you’ve unlocked it? Well, prepare to spend whopping amounts of gold or real cash in the auction houses, as unless you’ve been leveling your blacksmith and jeweler and packing the best set of armor and the best weapons available, your character will be chewed up and spit out by some enemies with unstoppable abilities and killer stats. The game is so deeply focused on buying into upgrades using a few means over a player’s actual skills at dealing with its large collection of impressive enemies that it loses a huge chunk of fun as you get deeper into things.
As for the other play modes, well… I don’t give a hoot about PvP, so not having it in place didn’t affect me one bit. I don’t touch Hardcore mode at all either in a Diablo game, so I’m not at all concerned about the pros or cons of that. The one smart thing about Hardcore mode is your character can’t use the real-world Auction House, as that would be a total waste of real money in spending dozens or hundreds (or more) Dollars, Pounds or Euros on virtual items only to lose all that cash once your character was killed. At least the developer had the common sense to not go THAT mercenary on its fans. That said, it’s when you start looking closer at what you’ll actually be paying out over that cost of a retail or download version that things start getting shaky…
The fundamental flaw in the game’s monetizing things so greatly is in fact, the constant (and mildly subtle) pay to win scheme going on. Sure, learning and using skills is important, but if you can afford to part with some coin, you too can be a badass with little effort. To me, anyone who paid for the best rare gear and items in Diablo II (through unofficial third parties not endorsed by Blizzard) was a lazy jerk who shouldn’t be playing the game because they didn’t have the time to grind for gear like every other legitimate player. So why the hell did Blizzard add twice the lazy jerkiness to DIII? Profit, of course. The developer should have nipped the issue in the bud by saying “We’d rather not be part and parcel to people who want to just buy the best gear and win.” Alas, they fell prey the “Wow, lots of people will pay through the nose-hole for that Sword of Incredulity, so lets monetize as much as we can and watch the buck$ roll in!” Ugh.
This tarnished the experience even more for me, as it makes playing the game a real chore thanks to the far lower amounts of gold from drops and chests. It’s all too transparent as to what DIII has become: Another way for Blizzard to make as much money as possible while attempting to change the way we play their games. I have no issue with the former, provided it’s done in an upfront manner. I do have a huge issue with the latter because more and more this is being dome without even bothering to find out if as many gamers as possible who CAN’T play a game like this want to spend their money on a product they can enjoy as well. Diablo III shouldn’t be a restrictive faux MMORPG that locks out people with no means to play it as an online-only experience. But it is, and it hurts the game’s good spots considerably in my book.
Sure, many gamers (especially a few million super-dedicated WoW players) and game critics who have great internet connections and don’t mind the pay to play nature are going to accept this business model as excellent and not question a thing. But it’s hard to enjoy a game where an half-invisible fee clock is running. As it is, it’s only a matter of time until your wallet has to come out and land in front of your monitor so you can buy things you’d normally earn the old-fashioned way. For me, this “future” of gaming is a dirty path that takes a prime point of retail purchasing away and changes it to a pay-go “deal” where no matter how much you pay for a game, you’re not done paying for it because all of that content you think you installed is never actually yours and advancement relies on a sad mixture of simpler gameplay and guided financing of more content. If you can deal with all that and want a dungeon hack designed around this, Diablo III has your name stamped right on the box. Yes, when it works, it works beautifully and indeed, the game can be as fun as hell. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ll go down this new road in gaming again any time soon unless it’s a console version of DIII that loses the DRM and money-grabbing features and lets me play when I want offline and with no need to buy into upgrades with a credit card or other real-world financing.