Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Review: Diablo III (PC)

Diablo III logo
After StarCraft II, it's no stretch at all to say that Diablo III has been the most anticipated sequel in Blizzard's long history of game franchises. It is a title whose development has taken several years, with details dribbled out with the precision of the Chinese water torture. It has courted controversy practically from the first announcement of its existence. And now, it has finally come out. Was it worth the wait? Did the naysayers have a point? Was the hype and the controversy overblown and unfounded?

As somebody who loved the first two games, I spent a long time waiting for this installment. When the art controversy blew up on the day it was announced, I didn't get into the fray, saying to myself, "Be patient, this is early stuff, it's not set in stone." When the classes were announced, and only the Barbarian returned, I didn't freak out. When the skill systems were rewritten so radically from what had been previously shown, I squirmed a little but figured that it was worth taking a closer look at once things were finalized. As long time readers know, the real money auction house and the persistent Internet connection were the breaking point for me. It was at that point that the credit I was willing to extend to Blizzard ran out. I voiced my opinion on the wisdom of this move very clearly, and it clearly fell upon deaf ears. When I received the assignment, I told myself that I would play the game and review it as objectively as I could. The hell of it was that I couldn't quite help myself from muttering, "I told you so!" as I marched through the game.

Witch Doctor in Diablo III
The game picks up twenty years after the end of Diablo II, and the world of Sanctuary has been wide open to the demon legions of the Burning Hells as well as the angelic armies of the High Heavens. The paladins and priests of Zakarum seem to have been decimated, the Amazons lost to unknown forces, the Necromancers probably exterminated, and the Druids likely wiped out in the destruction of the lands around what is now known as Arreat Crater. Only the Barbarians, the sons and daughters of Bul-Kathos, have survived. Into the vacuum, new warriors such as the Monk and the Demon Hunter have come about to make their stand against the profane forces of the Burning Hells. They might bear passing similarities to previous classes, but they have their own unique foibles to keep them from being mere retreads. As for familiar NPCs, all we meet in the beginning is Deckard Cain, and the opening cinematic shows that the years have only gotten heavier on the last living Horadrim. Sanctuary has been on borrowed time, and the Last Days are at hand. Back in the cursed Zakarum cathedral in the ruins of Tristram, he spends his time trying to decipher a prophecy which might spell out humanity's doom or possibly its salvation. The first sign of the prophecy comes to pass rather emphatically as a falling star smashes through the cathedral, taking Deckard Cain with it, and leaving his young niece to stare in shock and horror at the flaming cavity driving straight down into the catacombs.

Insofar as the art controversy, I'd have to say that the hype was overblown. As one would expect out of a Blizzard title, Diablo III looks excellent. Far from the cartoonish "World of DiabloCraft" style many feared, the game utilizes a highly detailed and natural color palette to flesh out full 3D models instead of the sprites from the first two games. The architecture goes from the gothic to the exotic to the purely medieval as the game goes across its four acts. The five classes of hero, both male and female versions (a first for the series), look suitably heroic. The various monsters cover the range from merely bestial to unspeakable hellspawn, and if they look ugly, it's because they've been designed by some of the best artists in the world to be ugly. Special effects about in the game and all of them are the sort of eye candy that gamers can't get enough of. From the biggest fireballs down to the humblest of lanterns and torches, there is virtually nothing to complain about on the quality side of things. If I were to level a complaint, it would be that Blizzard didn't take things far enough in regards to the character models. Sure, you can dye your armor. The variety of styles in terms of weapons and armor are tremendous. But the appearance of the character models are locked down to a single form for each class and gender. Doubtlessly somebody might argue that they're trying to deliver "iconic" heroes, but I'm not buying that argument. What was a technical limitation in the first two games has been co-opted into an "aesthetic" decision, and it's really rather curious to keep things that locked down when you look at the power and the flexibility of character meshes vs. sprites. It would have been a neat little feature to keep ahead of the competition being offered by Torchlight, and for as long as the game was in development, adding that little extra bit of customization couldn't have been that hard. Customizing the little banner on the side just isn't the same as making our avatars look as cool as we would like them.

Wizard versus Skeleton King in Diablo III Keeping with the established tradition, Diablo III sounds absolutely magnificent. There are sound effects aplenty, from new creature sounds to the familiar sound effect of loot dropping on the dungeon floor. This title probably has more voice acting in it than both of the previous entries combined, and it's used to great effect as we're filled in on the lore of the world as well as connecting more deeply with the NPCs around us in town and in the dungeon. The cast is diverse and deeply talented, with voice over superstars like Jennifer Hale (Knights of The Old Republic, Mass Effect) and Simon Templeman (Legacy of Kain, Dragon Age: Origins) working alongside the likes of Claudia Black (Farscape, Stargate SG-1) and Dominick Keating (Star Trek: Enterprise). It seems like in every game, there's one voice actor that steals the show, and for Diablo III, that honor falls on James Hong (Blade Runner, Big Trouble In Little China) voicing the lecherous and possibly demigod jeweler Covetous Shen. Normally, NPC backstory conversations range from painful to mildly pleasant, but Hong puts Covetous Shen into the same category as characters like HK-47 from KoTOR and Morte from Planescape: Torment. As with its predecessors, the soundtrack sounds excellent, mixing moody background themes with rousing battle anthems that evoke the music from the previous games without outright copying them. My only complaint here is that Blizzard has opted to put out the soundtrack only on iTunes or in the Collector's Edition, rather than offer it up for sale as an Amazon MP3 or selling the disc themselves on their own store page.

This actually sort of segues into the gameplay and the myriad issues I have with it. As I went through the game, I felt something was terribly off. Yes, we go around, we destroy mouse buttons clicking on monsters to kill and loot to pick up, we see a lot of pretty special effects and hear a lot of cool music, but the sense of exploration and wonder is missing. The maps appear to be operating on a highly flexible definition of "randomized" as opposed to the procedurally generated random maps from the first two games. While I know that there were some small maps that were static in the previous entries, the external areas and dungeon maps were always completely random. Here, it's more like the randomization is limited to mobs, special events, and which side dungeons you get to enter. If there's any variety in the dungeon maps themselves, it is apparently subtle to the point where it's not noticeable, and that's never a good sign. While the overall look is visually stunning, playing around on the maps quickly devolves into a joyless slog. Even getting loot isn't as much fun as it used to be. Charms have been removed, runes are relegated to power modifiers rather than the complex rune word system from Diablo II, the Horadric Cube is gone, anybody can identify and use Town Portal at will, and items only take up one or two squares in the backpack rather than having specific dimensions which force you to think and play smart with your logistics as you adventure. I can appreciate simplification. I can understand wanting to streamline things. But there's a point where simplification turns to mindlessness and streamlining starts stripping away valuable meat once the fat's all gone.

Things get worse when we look at the character mechanics. Before, you could build characters any way you wanted. Yes, this led to massive min-maxing and elitist jerks on giving you shit about not having the "right" build. That's really nothing new. But when the game automates your min-maxing for you, that's not cool, particularly if you hate min-maxing. The skills system has been overhauled and retooled to the point of irrelevance. Now your skills are automatically slotted and organized all according to Blizzard's master plan. You'll get defensive skills and you'll like them. You'll receive passive skills when Blizzard tells you you'll get them. You will damn well use the runes that are scheduled to unlock when they unlock.

Demon Hunter at Bastion's Keep in Diablo III
It was right about here that the realization finally hit me. I've seen a product like this before. It's the goddamned iPhone all over again! It's a manufacturer telling you how to use their product and claiming that it's all in the name of providing a better experience. Variety and experimentation is replaced with homogeneity and regimentation. Blizzard's overarching goal stopped being about delivering a great game, that series of interesting questions we love to ask, and became all about delivering a great experience, an experience whose value is determined not by the player but by the developer.

And I haven't gotten to the technical side of this travesty yet. Early adopters (and reviewers) hit the servers so hard that they coughed up "Error 37" to point where it became its own Internet meme. Even if you were just going solo, Error 37 killed your fun before you even before you got going. I've complained about the lack of wisdom in forcing a constant Internet connection for a single player game, and Diablo III's launch proved every one of those arguments had merit. Worse, it actually generated new arguments. Consider for a moment the pernicious effects of a lag spike. This happened to me a few times in the beginning. I'd be going along, see one of the little side dungeons, click on the entrance, and nothing happens for a minute or two. The loading screen disappears to be replaced with my corpse in the dungeon surrounded by monsters and the words "You have died" plastered over the screen in 96 point type. The fact that it has not happened recently does not in any way negate the possibility that it will happen again. This would seem to be kind of an invitation for people to really fuck with Blizzard's best efforts to deliver their much touted "experience" to players. Who needs to attack directly? Just cause enough trouble to generate lag spikes on their stretch of backbone and watch the hilarity ensue. As other people have pointed out, the always-on requirement really causes trouble for people with limited or non-existent Internet capability, and they are out there, even in the biggest cities in America. Moreover, what happens if Blizzard either goes out of business or Activision decides, "fuck it, the servers are costing too much money, shut'em down!"? MMOs going dark happen, but this is not an MMO, no matter how much Blizzard seems to want it to be one. How are you going to put this game in a Battle Chest if you keep the always-on requirement? Are we really going to lose this piece of gaming history because Blizzard was too blind stupid to put in an offline mode? I think the final insult in all of this is that the "feature" which we were told justified the idiocy of the always-on connection, the real money auction house, didn't even ship with the game. That ought to be pissing off every single gamer who bought this title. God knows it does for me.

Demon Hunter fighting her way through the high heavens in Diablo III
Bill Roper, who used to be one of the big names at Blizzard, created an ambitious and beautiful action RPG which tried to have it both ways, though he was at least smart enough to allow for offline play. The result of that game brought forth the term "flagship," and the appropriate conjugations thereof, to describe a product which is riddled with bugs and bad design choices that went out the door anyway. Now, the company he left behind has managed to duplicate his mistake. For the first time that I can easily recall, Blizzard has actually flagshipped a title, and they did it to one of their most anticipated titles in the last five years. There is absolutely no denying that Diablo III continues to maintain the high artistic standards that it has kept over the years. But the dumbed character and inventory systems, coupled to the ridiculous always-on connection and the breathtaking arrogance of the"you'll play how we tell you to play" attitude makes playing this title a damned shame instead of a hell of a good time.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
- Excellent transition to character meshes from sprites
- Masterfully done visuals
- Gorgeous soundtrack
- Top flight voice cast delivering excellent performances

The Bad:
- Always-on connection is always bad
- Distinctly dumbed down character system
- Lack of visual character customization is a shortcoming
- Tremendously vulnerable to external Internet instability
- "Play it how we tell you to play it" is precisely as much fun as it sounds

Score: 4.5 / 10