Wandering around gloomy dungeons attacking endless waves of enemies should be the most tedious thing in the world, but in Diablo 3, it’s quite the opposite. Blizzard, with their years of MMO experience, know exactly how to appeal to the obsessive compulsive gamer. By constantly rewarding you with loot and sparkly gold pieces, and giving you a feeling of power over your enemies, the game digs its talons in and never let go.
It’s an action RPG, so don’t expect reams of complicated stats. The raised camera angle gives it an old school feel, reminiscent of the isometric look of the original games, and the controls are simple, using only the mouse and a few keys. In many ways, it feels like a game from another age. A modern game with retro sensibilities.
It’s a slow start, though. We didn’t die once for the entirety of the first act on the normal difficulty setting, which lasts about six hours, and unused health potions were piling up in our inventory. Based on the first few hours of play, it seems as if the game is about as deep as a particularly shallow puddle.
But it’s when your character levels up, and enemies get smarter, that the combat comes into its own. At first you only have a pool of basic offensive attacks to choose from, but as you gain XP, you get access to a wealth of unique abilities.
You attack enemies by clicking. Lots and lots of clicking. Hold the mouse button down while hovering over an enemy and your character will repeatedly attack it until it dies. Powers are assigned to the number keys, and have an MMO-style cooldown. Mixing the two forms the basis of the combat, and it rewards experimentation.
There are five classes. The barbarian is self-explanatory. They use brute force, wading into battle with heavy weapons and strong offensive powers. Witch doctors summon undead minions to do their dirty work, and weaken enemies by cursing them. Wizards, predictably, are experts with magic, and have a variety of ranged and defensive spells at their disposal. Monks engage enemies in hand to hand combat, and are incredibly fast. Finally, demon hunters are a pure ranged class, and use dual crossbows and launch explosives.
It’s an eclectic selection of characters, and they all feel distinct, and work well together. For example, a wizard might freeze a group of enemies in place, allowing a monk to charge in and punch them to death. The combat feels great. Even though you’re only clicking a mouse, there’s a great feeling of weight behind your attacks. Enemies pop like balloons and tumble down stairs (thanks to the new physics engine), and there’s a fair amount of gore.
In later levels, your foes become more intelligent. Some wall your party in, rapidly teleport around the level to confuse you, or knock you back when you approach. Bosses are tough, but only because they have insane amounts of HP. Most can be bested by simply dashing around, avoiding their attacks, and spamming them with ranged magic. Mostly, though, enemies are just fodder – but entertaining fodder. You never get sick of killing them.
There’s a story, but it isn’t crucial to the experience. If you’ve never played a Diablo game before, the mythology can be quite confusing, but it’s a fairly simple fantasy tale at its heart. Voice acting is a mixed bag, but overall the presentation of the game is of an extremely high quality. The music is atmospheric, and the visuals – which have the same stylised textures as World of Warcraft – are richly detailed. There are loads of neat little visual touches, and environments are varied: from sun-bleached deserts and snowy mountains, to rain-soaked fields, and the bowels of Hell itself.
The integration with battle.net is both brilliant, and utterly terrible. The server problems that plagued the launch have cleared up, but it’s still unforgivable that crowded servers should hamper the single-player experience. We’ve been thrown out of the solo campaign twice, both times losing progress. It’s one of the most irritating examples of DRM in recent memory.
But it’s not enough to stop us enjoying the game, and the way battle.net makes drop-in, drop-out co-op possible almost makes up for it. Providing they’ve made the game open, and there are slots free in their party, you can jump into a friend’s game at any time.
There’s next to no loading. Co-op adds further depth to the combat, as the classes have been designed to work in tandem with each other. Because there’s so much loot in the game, your character will always look unique, even though there are only five classes to choose from. It doesn’t have the same level of customisation as, say, World of Warcraft, but you can bring an element of personality to your hero.
One thing we love is that whenever you replay a quest, it’s always different. Levels in the game are randomly generated, which means you never feel like it’s a burden having to go through a level you’ve already done in co-op. The layout of the map, the placement of the enemies, and the locations of treasure, are all random. You can also mix things up by changing the difficulty setting. Going form normal to hard doesn’t just give enemies more HP; it actually gives them a whole new range of abilities, forcing you to think up new tactics to beat them.
The game has been designed with replayability in mind, which gives it a pleasing longevity. Even if you think you’ve finished the game and seen all there is to see with one class, there are still four more to master. We can see ourselves still playing it for months to come.
Battle.net is also used to host an auction house, where loot you find can be sold for vast amounts of gold. You can also buy gear here, but we advise against it. Often you’ll buy a weapon that’s so powerful, it renders all the loot you find obsolete. This might make you obscenely powerful, but you’ll be missing out on the thrill of discovering a rare new weapon in a dungeon.
Items and gold can be shared between all of your characters (who are stored online, so you can access them from any computer), which doesn’t make sense from a story perspective, but is hugely convenient. If you’ve amassed a fortune and loads of useful crafting materials (more on that on the next page) as one character, your brand new alt will have full access to them.
Crafting gives you something to do between bouts of dungeon crawling. The town hub – a safe area where you can store items, get healed, and trade with merchants – has a blacksmith that can break down rare items into materials.
You then use these to craft new weapons and armour. The quality of the recipes you have available depends on how much money you’ve invested in the blacksmith’s shop. For every lump sum of gold you give him, he offers better items to craft. It isn’t a staggeringly complex system, but it’s an entertaining distraction from regular combat, and a good way of making some extra money. If you craft something special, you can flog it on the auction house for a tidy sum.
If you want a vast, open RPG like Skyrim, Diablo is not the game for you. It’s a tight, focused experience, and heavy on action. Even though it should be massively repetitive clicking on monsters for hours upon end, it really isn’t. The constant stream of new skills you unlock, endless supply of loot, and randomly generated levels keep you interested.
It only gets better when you play with friends. Working together to take down bosses and discover secrets in dungeons is the very definition of classic role-playing, and it’s always nice to have someone to show off your awesome new hat, or magic pants, to – and to trade with. But you can still enjoy it on your own, thanks to the lengthy, involving story.
Diablo 3 is like a combination of Blizzard’s other two big games, StarCraft and World of Warcraft. It has the social elements, fantasy setting, and tactical combat of WOW, but with the real-time gameplay, and top-down perspective, of StarCraft.
The DRM issues and busy servers have left a bad taste in many peoples’ mouths, and not being able to play solo offline is ridiculous, but if you can get past that, you’ll find a supremely polished and rewarding role-player that’s a blast with friends or alone, and fiendishly addictive.
Blizzard have taken the seemingly tedious act of clicking repeatedly on a goblin, and turned it into one of the most entertaining RPGs in recent years.