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Game review: Diablo III

28 May 2012
FYI, this story is more than a year old

With the release of any sequel, comparisons to the original are inevitable. Diablo III follows on from the juggernaut that was Diablo II, the king of hack-and-slash RPGs, and a game still played nearly twelve years from its release. Have the years of waiting been worthwhile, and will this entry in the series last the test of time?

If the sales figures are anything to go by, absolutely. Diablo III set the world record for fastest-selling game, with over 4.7 million players hammering Blizzard’s servers on its opening night. Due to the high demand, the launch night was plagued with connection issues, high latency, server overloads and downtime. This was to be expected, however, and when the dust settled the end result was a much more tightly-integrated and improved multiplayer experience.

Earlier Diablo games separated their single-player and online modes. For Diablo III, Blizzard has merged single and multiplayer into an always-online experience with a large focus on social gameplay - although, as always, you can play on your own. This has led to heated discourse on internet-based DRM, especially as the launch-night connection issues prevented many from playing even in single-player mode. The outcome of this integration, however, is a much less painless experience when you want to play with your friends. Some gamers are still reporting connection issues unrelated to the launch night overload; however, Diablo III’s robust autosave system turns what could be a crippling flaw in the game into a minor annoyance.

Much like the multiplayer features, the core gameplay of the Diablo franchise has been drastically refined. Monster hordes provide just the right balance of resistance that progression does not feel effortless. In previous games, loot was server-wide, resulting in a race for worthwhile loot, leaving those with slower mouse clicks to pick through the worthless leftovers. Diablo III does away with universal loot, instead dropping items for each player currently in your party. This also adds to the social gameplay aspect as players trade and share loot that is more useful to another player than themselves, and overall it feels far more like a cooperative experience than the somewhat competitive nature of Diablo II.

Most importantly, the thorny maze of branching dubiously useful skills, character stats, and sub-optimal builds has been pared down to a simple and elegant system that encourages trying new things without punishment for getting it ‘wrong’. Add in regular infusions of backstory and monster information, and you have a finely-tuned game that manages to hold player attention for hours of monster slaying on end. It’s a time sink, and unabashedly so, but it’s good at what it does.

While Diablo III is decent in single-player, the game really shines when played with others. The excellent random matchmaking system and absurdly large playerbase means joining a public game at the same level of progression as you is almost instantaneous. Joining a game with friends is a seamless and utterly painless experience with none of the frustrating separation of single and multiplayer characters that marked earlier Diablo games.

In addition to the excellent multiplayer, gold and stored items are shared across an account. The addition of an official item auction house means that players are no longer bound to spending hours grinding for ideal equipment, o relying on annoying workarounds. The auction house is also slated to accept real money from May 30 at the time of writing.

That said, the spell breaks whenever a loss sets the players back. Much of the fun in Diablo III comes from continuously tearing through hordes of demons, and retreading the same monster-free ground is a recipe for tedium. This extends to disconnections, which despite the generous checkpoint system can lead to repeating an entire dungeon floor.

The boss fights are also largely disappointing. Despite hours and hours of build up by the game, it is all too common for a battle with them to end far more easily and abruptly than the random ‘elite’ enemies. Their introductions also lose a lot of their impact should death force players to repeat a fight.

While groups of enemies mostly do not provide too much challenge, the difficulty curve sometimes jumps up unexpectedly as elite enemies drain your health in less than a second

In writing this, and in struggling to point out any major flaws with the game, I have come to realise the biggest flaw of them all. The demonic elephant in the room.

Diablo III is a safe game. For all the refinements and improvements in ease of play, it does nothing terribly new with the franchise. Diablo took a risk bringing a previously niche style of game to the fore, and Diablo II expanded what we loved from that. Diablo III seems to mostly take its predecessor, polish it to a mirror shine, and update for the social-media age at the expense of adding to the Diablo experience.

Safe doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Diablo III is still great to play with friends, and satisfies the hack-slash-loot itch quite well. It just doesn’t offer anything new to the franchise beyond additional accessibility.

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