There really is no cow level.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: 5/12/2012
Platform Reviewed: PC
Intel i7 @ 2.8GHz
Played with Controller or Mouse and Keyboard? Mouse and Keyboard
Difficulty(ies) Played: Normal, Nightmare, Hell
Time Played: 70+ hours
Concept & Execution
Diablo I, Diablo II, and D2′s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction, were all developed by a small subsidiary company of Blizzard Entertainment called Blizzard North. When Blizzard North dissolved in 2005, a new team was brought in to create Diablo III, and the result is something spectacularly different from what could have been. It is worth noting that Diablo I is one of my favorite games of all time, followed closely by Diablo II. While there is a possibility that this impacts my objectivity, I do not see that as an issue. I have a lot of authority on all things Diablo, and due to that, I see flaws others may not notice and I’m very quick to point them out. This review will be no exception to that.
Diablo III takes place twenty years after the events of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, that ended with the archangel Tyrael shattering the worldstone, which held the powers of the humans (nephalem in the game) in check. The consequences of that action were mysterious (and in many ways remain so), which is what players were burning to know: what happens now? D3 begins with a star falling from the heavens into the old Tristram cathedral, which was the setting for Diablo I.
As with the previous game, D3 begins with a cinematic introduction, with book-ended cinematics after each of the four acts. The cinematics this time are centered mainly on a new character, Leah, and also the perspective of Tyrael. In addition, there are short cinematic sequences for each class and gender in the game, which gives them a bit of exposition and explains to the player why they are searching out the fallen star in Tristram, instead of simply dumping the player off in the beginning camp of the game without rhyme or reason, as in Diablo II.
Players who come from the Blizzard community will find a lot familiar about the narrative of D3, because Blizzard basically uses the same story in each game they make. While it isn’t as poorly-written as some of their other titles (the dialogue in particular has been improved), it leaves a lot to be desired. Characters have very little personality (outside of the followers), some of the dialogue is extremely cheesy, and cutscenes seem as if they were designed to emulate a Saturday morning cartoon due to melodramatic elements that have little to no resonance, which is a shame, because the game could have easily done without them.
However, where D3 excels, particularly over D2, is the presentation of the narrative. D2 relied on large, unwieldy text boxes to deliver dialogue, expositional elements, world flavor, and pretty much everything else. The dialogue in the boxes was fully voiced, but at the end of the day, it was a large chunk of text in a box, which isn’t very compelling. The player also found characters like Tyrael, an extremely powerful angel, tasking them to go into very dangerous situations while they sit idly by in town. That has changed with D3. Many of the main characters will accompany the player on their quest, and they will even fight with the player and make voiced comments during combat or while exploring about the world around them and what it is they are doing. Instead of simply reading what is happening, the player plays it, which is a vast improvement over many games in the ARPG genre.
In addition, D3 employs a new narrative element called “events” which can randomly occur in certain maps in any give game. Events are self-contained quests that take place in the same area where they are issued, and offer the player an opportunity to actually take part in the narrative of the game instead of simply being told about it in a dialogue box. An example is the Last Stand of the Ancients event in the Festering Woods, where the player must defend a hill against the deformed ghosts of nephalem who died during a brutal battle in the area. The battle is replayed during this event, so the player not only gets to see it actually happen, but gets to take part in it as well.
Followers are an upgraded version of the mercenaries from Diablo II, but their largest improvement would be that they are named characters who have their own personality and plotlines. Sadly, the plots of the characters are explored purely through dialogue with them during downtime within the game. The player never gets to help them achieve their goals, and thus each moment of epiphany for the follower lacks sentiment, as it has no impact on the world or gameplay. Thus, each follower’s story is stuck in a narrative quagmire at the end of the game without resolution.
Overall, the plot has intrigue (despite Blizzard using their tired and very obvious plot twist yet again in Diablo III), but the presentation of the narrative, despite its flaws, is light years ahead of previous titles.
Concept & Execution Score: 22/25
Many changes were made to gameplay throughout the Diablo series, but D3 retains the Diablo feel throughout. It feels very much like a Diablo game, despite having a different team of developers. D3, like its predecessors, is an item game. Nearly everything that can be logically randomized is randomized, including the items, which gives the game its “slot machine” appeal where every barrel broken and every monster killed is a potential gamble for loot and gold.
A lot of marked changes have been made to the item system, however. In Diablo II, the focus for gear was on unique items (which had set properties, but the properties could range, ie. an item would always spawn with fire damage, but it could spawn 1-4 or 2-8 damage), and also on rare runewords which were rune items that could be socketed into gear in a specific order to infer incredibly large bonuses. D3 changes this focus to rare items (which can spawn with up to six affixes that grant random properties) and also crafted items. Uniques are now called legendaries, and set items remain in the game as well, although they are mostly crafted now.
D2 had a form of crafting in the mechanic of the horadric cube, but the artisans in D3 are immense and complex in comparison. An artisan can salvage magical items for components to craft more items, they can be leveled up at great cost, and they can upgrade gems and remove gems from socketed items. There is Covetous Shen, the Jeweler, who handles everything related to gems, and Haedrig Eamon, the blacksmith, who crafts gear and salvages items for material. Unlike in D2, legendaries now have a set amount of slots for random affixes, so each crafted legendary is going to differ greatly from one to the next, and the set affixes also have a very large range on them, enhancing the item game.
The problem is that the legendaries are incredibly rare to find (in my entire time playing, I found only one legendary and no patterns to teach to the blacksmith), exceedingly expensive to craft, and they are much less powerful than an equivalent rare or even magical item at the level. Set items suffer the same burden, where the player, when equipping a specific amount of items within a single set, are granted bonuses depending on how many pieces they are wearing. The bonuses are very underwhelming and the rarity of the patterns makes them mostly useless by the time they can be purchased in the auction house or unlocked. The game is still rather fresh, though, and Blizzard has time to look at the balance for all of these items.
Combat, while being one of the most changed aspects of the game, still retains every essential ingredient to make it truly feel like the distinctive Diablo games of the past. In previous games, the player had to rely on spamming health and mana potions in order to stay alive, or else stacking up life stealing items. Gameplay, then, heavily revolved around being mostly immortal as long as the potion bar was stocked. Potions are not removed in D3, but they don’t heal very much in later levels, and they are also on a cooldown. Most of the healing in the game comes from skills, items, and health globes, all of which require more tactical thinking on the part of the player. Monsters have a chance to drop health globes on the ground which will heal a certain percentage of maximum life when they are walked over. The problem is often getting to the health globes when there are a lot of enemies in the way, which is half the fun of fighting boss packs. Skills or spells which heal the player are often on cooldown, or offer a low passive benefit that cannot be relied upon to get the player out of trouble quickly like a health globe can. This also requires the players to fully understand what their skills are and how they work, particularly since most defensive skills are on a cooldown, and it’s crucial to use them at the right moment to achieve victory.
The game features five classes: the Barbarian, a brutish melee attacker, the Demon Hunter, a gadget-wielding ranged fighter, the Monk, a holy melee warrior with very fast, agile strikes, the Witch Doctor, a pet class with various debuffs and damage-over-time spells, and the Wizard, a glass cannon liable to make the entire screen a delicious explosion soup. Each class, even though their abilities sound as if they overlap in many areas, play distinctly different from each other. Each class has their own resource (instead of everyone using mana), and the mechanics of the resources are different. The Barbarian uses fury which is gained by inflicting and taking damage and decays over time, while the Wizard uses arcane power that drains quickly but also automatically regenerates quickly.
Skills scale much better in D3 than in many other RPGs due to most of them being based on weapon damage. There are no longer low-level skills that nobody uses in end-game due to this, which is a very refreshing change.
Skill trees and points are no longer in the game, and attribute points are automatically distributed as the player levels up (like in World of WarCraft). The thrill of leveling for D3 comes in the form of skill runes. I had previous talked about this in our D3 preview, but it’s necessary to re-hash that conversation. Skill runes augment or sometimes altogether change how a skill works. They are unlocked at specific, set levels, and give the player something to look forward to. They’re very surprising in that some of them seem very underwhelming, and I found myself thinking “I’ll never use that,” but once I tried them out, they each have a very good purpose to them when used correctly. It greatly enhances the joy of not only combat but leveling up. Entire sets of gear can be made to customize a very specific build thanks to the skill runes, which are one of the greatest additions to the game. Skills and runes can be swapped out at any time, but if the player is outside of town, they will have a five-second cooldown before the skill can be used. Passive abilities can also be swapped, but the player may only have three of these active at any one time, and the benefits are so large and specific that it isn’t likely that they’ll be changed very frequently.
Like previous entries in the series, the game is set up to allow the player to progress not through the storyline, but through difficulties. Everyone begins in normal mode, which is incredibly easy to get through, and then they unlock nightmare, hell, and inferno difficulties. Nightmare is a mildly upgraded version of normal, but hell is another beast entirely, likely requiring the player to farm better gear and learn how to properly gem their items, in addition to intelligently building their skill set before continuing on.
The most difficult part of the game is not the act bosses (who are, disappointingly, pushovers), but the randomized elite packs in the game. Elites are normal monsters with specific attributes or “powers”, and also much higher health pools, damage, and movement speed (in hell and above). In normal mode, an elite can only have one boss modifier, but in nightmare they can have two, in hell three, and four in inferno. A player entering nightmare will quickly learn to glance at a boss pack’s modifiers before leaping into battle, because (depending on the class) some combinations of abilities are incredibly deadly. Unlike other ARPGs, many of them are tailored to punish ranged combatants and make kiting nearly impossible.
Beating an elite pack with modifiers that are specifically tailored to kill your class, particularly once the player reaches hell, is incredibly satisfying. The combat is smooth and fluid (although there can be some pretty nasty lag spikes, disconnects, and errors due to being forced to play online), and the increase in difficulty makes the game feel very fresh while hunting for better loot, which is what the core of Diablo is all about.
Mechanics score: 23/25
D3 has eschewed the previous “dark gothic” European setting and art style in lieu of something much different and very unique: the game looks like a moving painting. It’s a good style for a fantasy game, which doesn’t necessarily have to look photo-realistic in order to capture verisimilitude and have the player suspend disbelief, and the game will also age very well because of this. I spent a lot of time simply looking at the gorgeous scenery in the background, particularly in Leoric’s Manor near the end of Act I, and the crater in Act III. Some textures are noticeably dated compared to others, which can be a sticking point when playing, but overall the entire game is extremely detailed and sucks the player into the world. Each area looks as if it has been painted by hand. The color balance in the game is fantastic, since the backgrounds do not contrast too much with the foreground, allowing the often-hectic combat to retain more clarity. Act III features all-out siege warfare, and the art style and architecture in the game really lend to this feel and greatly enhance it.
Blizzard is well-known for releasing high-quality, polished games, but one aspect that is often overlooked is their keen ears and ability to create sound. Some of the sounds are a bit strange, such as the Barbarian’s revenge ability where he spins around in a red flash, dealing damage and healing himself, and the accompanying sound is the screech of an eagle in flight, which is kind of off-putting. However, other sounds are simply amazing and right, such as the resonant tones of a bell being struck with the Monk’s wave of light ability. The music follows tradition from previous games with everything from a twelve-string guitar to wind chimes being employed, each instrument specifically chosen to compliment the composition, even though some choices don’t seem at all obvious or predictable. The in-game music ranges from disturbing ambient sounds of unearthly screams, to massive, resounding church organs accompanied by gregorian chanting with a Wagner-esque backdrop of the signature sonics found in pieces like Tristan and Isolde.
Regrettably, some of the sounds are used so frequently that they become a bit grating. When the player takes a certain amount of damage, their character will announce it, and when they are healed, they will say something as obvious and trite as “my wounds are closing” or, more to the point, “I’m healed” which happens very frequently. The followers, while adding a lot to the atmosphere of the game, also have a lot of repetitious dialogue (although outside of the templar, the voice acting isn’t too bad).
Followers are recruited throughout the first two acts of the game, and they can accompany the player in solo games. While they don’t offer any great boons or bonuses to combat (besides a max-level buff for each of them), they frequently comment on the quest the player is on, the environment, and even chat with other NPCs, which is a great way to not only deliver their personality but also exposition and alternate perspectives on what is going on in the game world. The scoundrel in particular is also quite funny, and I found myself smiling at many of the things he says.
The narrative works in a pretty classic curve, starting very slowly and then escalating quickly as the game progresses to the final, fast act, and the pace is also reflected in the music and gameplay, which gives a very frenetic feel to the late portions of the game.
Atmosphere Score: 23/25
D3 isn’t as social a game as an MMO, but the only way to make a game with a friend is to add them to your friend list and then create it. You can’t make private, named games in D3, which becomes a point of frustration. There are many reasons for this. D2 was very much a trading game, with games created specifically for this purpose. The game would be named “trading” or “ISO Item Name” (ISO meaning “in search of”), and then other players would enter and you’d haggle them for a bit. D3 has a gold-based auction house, with gold being a viable currency now instead of being useless as it was in D2, but the trading aspect has been lost. It’s entertaining to play the auction house, but it just isn’t the same as the social trading that happened in trade games in D2.
It is also very frustrating to chat with your friends due to how the chat system is set up. There’s a very small chatbox which can contain roughly eight lines of text. You cannot create a chat channel specifically for the purpose of all of your friends being able to talk to each other at once, instead having to whisper each one of them individually, which is an incredibly clumsy and frustrating system. One of the greatest improvements to the chat system, on the other hand, is the ability to link an item. Shift-clicking an item while the chat box is open will send a link to the other player that they can click, and they’ll see the tooltip with all of the item stats listed. It’s a godsend compared to having to list (and understand) complex acronyms peppered with numbers and then comparing them to your currently equipped gear.
D3′s greatest strength lies in the concept of randomization. Even though each difficulty level is simply repeating past content, the level of randomization of dungeons, monster composition, and items are very compelling and always gives a reason to continue playing. The sense of progression is a very strong motivator to get that “just one more level” addictive quality that gamers are always seeking.
Unlike in D2, armor appearance doesn’t repeat in each difficulty level. In D2, upon entering nightmare, a helmet upgrade from what was gained in normal will have the same appearance as the first helmet available in normal. This isn’t the case in D3, with armor upgrades each having a very distinct visual theme, appearing more intricate and complex as the player reaches the maximum level. It feels very good to enter a new visual tier of armor, and prods the player on to collect more of the set.
Everything levels up in D3. Your artisans, the blacksmith and the jeweler, will gain levels and also their cart and gear will be upgraded in appearance as well. The followers you recruit have three visual tiers of armor, being upgraded at certain levels throughout the game, making them look much more powerful and imposing, which is always satisfying. Legendary and set items, while being lackluster in stats, are always a reason to continue playing because you want to collect them, even if they are subpar. There’s also a host of achievements for everything from simply gaining maximum level, to much more difficult achievements like fighting a boss in hell difficulty without wearing any gear at all. Achievements unlock flourishes for the banner that resides by your character in the login screen, giving you a tangible bonus (although purely cosmetic) for racing after achievements as well.
I’ve played mostly a Wizard in my time so far, although I was in the beta and extensively played all of the classes and messed around with many of the skills. It’s easy for me to say that D3 has a ridiculous amount of entertainment value, particularly for the price point, as I’ve already put over seventy hours into the game and I haven’t even beaten hell difficulty yet. There is also a secret level, which is one of the most insane and hilarious thing I’ve ever seen in a video game outside of Saints Row: The Third.
Diablo III is a very rare kind of game that only comes around, well, once in a decade, but it’s certainly worth the wait.
Entertainment Value Score: 25/25
Overall Score: 93/100 (A)