Diablo 3: My thoughts on the series

My Collection: Remember when game boxes were massive?

So it’s 1996 and my dad rushed out and bought Diablo. At the time, it was praised for it’s re-playability factor due to randomised loot, mobs and dungeons and also it’s great story narration and eerie atmosphere. Although marketed as an RPG at the time (something that has long since been dropped), it wasn’t in the traditional sense and really it was simply an action game with an inventory and some  NPC dialogue. I remember it’s sales slogan to this day, “Diablo, one Hell of a role-playing game”. Anyway, It was indeed awesomely addictive and fun and did manage to scare the shit out of me as a kid. 16 years later Diablo 3 is finally released, and boy does 16 years fly-by!

The idea that Diablo was originally based on is derived from the old-style MUD games (Multi User Dungeons) which were technically the worlds first MMO games and on the whole contained no graphics, simply a command based chat room with multiple players venturing co-operatively through a text adventure game. Single-player games spun-off from these with basic ASCII graphics such as Angband and Nethack and these games really ironed in the concepts that the Diablo series has always lived by: procedural level generation, randomised mobs/items, and of course item identification and lots of stats and inventory management. Even the Diablo hardcore mode where if your character dies, it’s permanent  heralds back from these games which were and still are brutal, challenging and mercilessly unforgiving to play. The best article I ever read on them can be found here: http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/zangbandtkconfessions-of-a-dungeon-hack/ , a very entertaining read if you have the time.

Diablo 1

The best thing about Diablo to me was always the atmosphere. The first game and to some extent the second always had this impending sense of dread hanging over you when you were playing. A lot of this is thanks to brilliant music and sound, Diablo’s famous Tristram theme to this day, one of the best original pieces of game music ever created: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2evIg-aYw8

Like the old 70’s horror classics, Diablo seemed to be able to do more with less and today of all the games in the series, it has in my opinion the darkest feel and most original atmosphere. I still remember the meat cleaver wielding Butcher, the first demon boss you come across that in comparison makes Diablo 3’s first few bosses on normal difficulty look like wet paper bags. The levels were strewn with dismembered and impaled bodies that added to the feeling you really shouldn’t be here and in every unexplored corner there could be lurking something sinister. You’d then inevitably be required to return to the village of Tristram to offload your inventory and buy supplies, in utter contrast to the depth of the cathedral you were descending you’d be back in relative safety chatting to the NPC who were scared out of their minds due to things dragging them from their beds at night and unearthly things being seen in the graveyard. You’d then pluck up the courage to return back into the depths where death invariably awaited you due to the fiendishly hard difficulty.

The good thing about the old style large game boxes as pictured above were that they also used to include nice thick instruction books. There’s a whole section of the Diablo 1 booklet outlining the lore and back-story of the game and to this day it’s still a damn good read, much better then anything that was actually in the game and It’s really quite sad that games don’t do this anymore…

Diablo 2

Diablo 2 was incredibly hyped upon release because by this time in 2000, Diablo had already developed a large cult following and Blizzard mania was beginning to ignite off the back of the successful Warcraft and Starcraft RTS franchises. Diablo 2 is arguably the best Diablo game to many people and will likely remain so, for the very simple reason that the game-play was polished to the Nth degree and had a military mirror shine to it. It was as perfect in terms of balance, complexity/simplicity as the series was going to get, with skill trees, manual stat allocation (not automated like D3) and nice archetypal classes such as the Paladin, Necromancer, Barbarian, Amazon and Sorceress. It was also very challenging straight out the box like it’s predecessor.

Instead of everything in the game being based around the village of Tristram, it introduced multiple geographical locations to the series and I remember it being the first time Blizzard took the effort to produce it’s now trademark stunning cinematics to help the story telling. Again, the atmosphere was there and although certainly having a different feel to the first game mainly due to much less claustrophobic environments, it retained the ambiance and interesting story of the first.

Diablo 2 had a great selection of character classes…

Diablo 2’s longevity was largely owed to it’s huge multiplayer following. Even 16 years after it’s release it still has a huge player base by many PC game standards. Game matchmaking in Battle net was setup in a social/chat room style interface and encouraged a large community to develop. Logging into Battle net for Diablo 2, the chat screen would be flooded by players trading rare items and arranging co-operative games with friends and strangers alike.

Which brings me to Diablo 3. D3’s implementation of Battle net in contrast introduces the item auction house akin to WOW and removes the game selection ability, instead opting for the now fashionable auto-matchmaking. The result in my opinion is a much reduced social and community experience. The good thing about the new system is that it means casual players who don’t want to farm for rares have a much easier time getting better items and the interface is clean and simple. In general, as with the whole games industry trend, D3 is more friendly, less hardcore and yes “dumbed down” is probably the most appropriate phrase to use.

Diablo 3: My Barbarian

The auction house also has I think unexpected consequences for the game-play. The whole carrot-stick approach to Diablo’s gameplay over the years has been about getting that next awesome item that will make you stronger. By giving players an easy option to simply go on the auction house and buy awesome items, you find that after a while everything that drops in the game is always going to be inferior to what you have 98% of the time. The games randomised loot mechanic cannot compete with giving the player the ability to go and cherry pick the very perfect item they want for their character at relatively little cost. As a result, the excitement of seeing items fall to the ground from killing mobs is greatly diminished. Yes you may choose stoically to abstain from using the Auction House but then you will soon become irritated by other players being so much better equipped then yourself.

This brings me next to the difficulty issues of Diablo 3. With each completion of the game, a new difficulty mode is unlocked, sequentially this goes from Normal, Nightmare, Hell and Inferno. Additionally, items that drop at the start of Act 1 Nightmare will be as good as at the end of Act IV Normal and new and increasingly powerful items come into the game as the difficulties progress allowing you to carry on developing your character with each play-through.

Normal is quite simply a walk in the park and offers no challenge to the extent it is almost a pure story-telling experience with little consideration required to kitting out your character correctly. Nightmare fairs little better and is still easier then both Diablo and Diablo 2 on their default difficulties. Things begin to get interesting on Hell but not because the average mob appears any tougher, only down to the fact that Champion mobs are buffed to an insane extent. So on Hell the game is very easy until you come across champions and then it gets hard as hell. Insane is apparently just literally that, with normal mobs able to one shot your character.

This is obviously bad difficulty design and the whole experience curve in my opinion needs fixing. You should not have to play through a game THREE times to get to a point where a game is at the same level of it’s predecessors’ and then on the fourth difficulty be one shot by everything. I think clearly Blizzard will be looking to address this issue.

D3’s cinematics are awesome in usual Blizzard fashion…

The atmosphere and artistic direction that Diablo 3 has used has caused a lot of controversy. Upon the release of the first screenshots there was an outcry at the apparent colourfulness and almost WOW style to the lighting in the game. Diablo 1 & 2 were characteristically known for being gloomy and dark and D3’s sudden art direction shift angered a lot of fans. Already there is a mod called Dark D3 that allows you to use a custom shader to change the graphics of D3 to something similar to that of the previous games: http://darkd3.com/ . I must say I prefer grittier and gloomier graphics, I just fits the depressing tale of the Diablo series better, however where D3 has excelled is with the ability effects and animations.

Atmosphere has unfortunately been lost in the transition from D2 to D3 and the music is also not on par with the previous games (The composer of the original games is apparently been working on Torchlight 2 instead!) though the soundtrack is still certainly good. Related to the atmosphere is a rather weak storyline. I’m a big fan of the Diablo lore and was disappointed with some events that transpire with key characters. Without making spoilers I’ll just mention Tyrael, Cain and Adria who were amongst the most interesting and iconic characters in the series are treated rather poorly by the story line in D3. Additionally the ending is far too happy-ever-after and worst of all, the game has lost probably all of it’s eeriness or sense of foreboding mainly because the bad guys in the game go out of their way to laugh manically like bond villains and continuously feel they need to taunt you with cheesy B-movie style threats. In my opinion you shouldn’t hear from certainly the prime evils until the finales and even then actions speak louder then words, cut the childish dialogue please, it’s not in the least bit scary. Amusingly I found some written orders by Asmodan on the body of a demon and when reading them Asmodan actually reads the dialogue… It’s just ridiculous, demons would not scribble down orders, I don’t know why I know that but I just know they wouldn’t, they’d use telepathy or some dark magic to communicate their malign intent but they wouldn’t write a journal of their plans!

I’ve grumbled a lot about Diablo 3 here but in reality I love the game to death. I’m currently at lvl 59 with my barbarian on Act 3 of Hell difficulty and have really enjoyed playing the game. I’m not usually the kind of person to be able to just sit and play a game start to end repeatedly yet with D3 I have done just that. Yes it’s Diablo and I think I do have a particular love for this game type but even though I have finished the game 3 times now with my Barbarian I’m already looking forward to trying it through with the Demon Hunter class.

I think this is testament to why Blizzard are amongst the best game developers out there. They may not innovate the industry but my god do they know how to make a good game with addictive gameplay and achingly satisfying aesthetic feedback. I doubt I’ll ever get bored of bull-rushing my barbarian into a pack of critters whirling and dicing with my axe, the crackling of electricity, splitting skulls, limbs soring into the air and mists of crimson puffing from amongst the carnage, followed by a buzz of excitement from expectedly waiting for rare items to drop in the aftermath. No one does it better.

Yes the story line is a let down, the difficulty is not right and there’s a few itemisation issues that need addressing but on the whole it’s still a damn good game and very fun co-operatively or in single-player. People have moaned about the online-only issues relating to needing to be connected to Blizzards servers to play, yes it’s constricting but it’s not going to change and although it is very annoying when servers are down or full, when their up and open it’s a really quite transparent experience to the player. Given the choice, I’d likely be playing online anyway so I can play with other people, so personally I’m not too bothered about it.

The Diablo series as a whole is iconic and hopefully will be around a long time to come, Blizzard know when a formula just works and that’s why at a high level, game-play has remained very similar throughout the series. It’s an awesome series and I’d strongly recommend people who haven’t played either Diablo 1 or 2 to give them a go along with their expansions at some point.