Save humanity from the wrath of an insidious demon.
PC Release: May 15, 2012
By Ian Coppock
I mentioned recently that the company I’ve worked at for two years closed its doors, and I’m now unemployed. In that same blog post, I discussed that I’d be putting Art as Games on hiatus until I found a new job. I’ve since rescinded that decision, because while looking for a job is obviously important, the job hunting process drives most people mad. Continuing to review video games is a great way not only of achieving a creative outlet, but giving me an opportunity to blow off some steam as I send out resumes and edit cover letters. With that in mind, our series on Blizzard Entertainment’s catalog of games will continue with their dark fantasy adventure, Diablo III.
Diablo III is the latest in a series of isometric third-person adventure games that Blizzard’s put out. The original Diablo was released in 1996, and Diablo II in 2000. I’ve never played the former and my experience with the latter consists only of running around for a few hours in a very old-school medieval landscape, exploring caves and getting motion sickness from the poor framerate.
The Diablo series takes place in Sanctuary, a medieval world full of gothic motifs and high fantasy spins on biblical themes. Above Sanctuary sits the High Heavens, ruled over by righteous but uptight angels, and below are the Burning Hells, inhabited by conniving, bloodthirsty demons. Sanctuary itself is inhabited by humans, who are portrayed in Diablo as being the offspring of angels and demons.
Diablo III is a role-playing game in which you create a male or female character and pick from one of several classes. I picked the Demon Hunter because the bow is my RPG weapon of choice, and because I had the feeling I’d be hunting plenty of demons.
Diablo III starts things off when a comet strikes the town of New Tristram, and zombies begin emerging from the crater it’s made. Our hero, who just happens to be in the area, meets up with a crazy old scholar named Cain and his niece, Leah. Cain is convinced that the demons are returning to Sanctuary and that this comet strike is only the beginning.
Cain’s theory is brushed off by most as senility, until our character fights his/her way to the comet’s crater and recovers an amnesiac angel named Tyrael, who’s arrived to Sanctuary with a warning bearing Cain’s exact prediction. With your scholar friends and the now-mortal Tyrael in tow, it’s up to you to travel the world and stop the demons from invading Sanctuary. Even though the titular demon lord Diablo was vanquished in games past, you can bet that he’s scheming his way back to the top.
Diablo III‘s narrative is presented in a fairly linear format, despite the open-world nature of Sanctuary. In the tradition of most isometric “dungeon crawler” games, your character is given missions by various non-player characters, and these almost always involve fighting through hordes of monsters, completing an objective and teleporting back to the mission hub. These missions are a lot more diverse than the hum-drummery I found in World of Warcraft, and the powers and skills your character develops means that machine-gunning zombies with twin crossbows will never get old.
As you kill demons and find treasure, you’ll level up and have access to ever-branching tiers of powers. The Demon Hunter, for example, eventually gains access to a plethora of hunting tools, like mines, grenades and more powerful crossbow powers. The world of Sanctuary is stuffed with loot, and Diablo III‘s in-game economy revolves around finding and upgrading new equipment. You can sell the stuff you don’t need, but your most powerful tools will be your only hope against the demons.
Diablo III is also built to incorporate multiplayer or single-player gameplay, and I had loads of fun with both. My buddy Trent was an absolute menace with the hammer-wielding Barbarian, which played off well against my range-based Demon Hunter. Diablo III balances itself out depending on how many people are in your party, so solitary gamers like me need not worry about getting outmatched. The game remains a challenge no matter what your preference.
Diablo III‘s sheer number of powers yields an endless mix and match of demon-slaughtering capabilities. You can shoot them into the wall, set traps and summon monsters to fight for you. Certain classes are more adept at different combat methods than others; obviously the well-armored Crusader is the better choice for swordplay than a Demon Hunter; but this is a fact of role-playing games. The items you find carry different properties suited to different play styles. You can also modify them with gems and other add-ons to amplify their properties.
Each region of the world you travel to has its own cadre of monsters. From the dark forests of New Tristram to the scorching deserts of Caldeum, the local monsters have their own spin on things and their own reasons for wanting your blood. Combine this with Diablo III‘s variety of powers, and its thousands of item combinations, and you have a game that is an exemplification of versatility. Few games I’ve ever played have been so open-ended in how you go about things. Lots of games post the “play it your way” marketing material on their covers, but Diablo III is one of a select few that actually implements it.
The one caveat about Diablo III‘s enjoyable gameplay is that it doesn’t have much in the way of a tutorial. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the mouse button is used for shooting things, but the game just assumes that you know how to hotkey powers and how their energy meters work. It was only through sheer trial and error that I figured out how the Demon Hunter’s powers tick, but all of that could’ve been avoided with a simple text window. Each class of Hero also has its own type of energy meter, called different things like Hatred or Discipline or whatever. Why not give all classes the same type of energy meter and call it good? It would be easier for veterans of one class to get acquainted with another, for a start.
Additionally, Diablo III has perhaps the best item management and modification system I’ve ever seen in a video game, but figuring it out is a goddamn nightmare. You’re presented with a giant pile of menus and absolute bugger all on how to navigate them properly. Which items can a blacksmith work on versus an alchemist? What are the benefits of melting down materials? How do I add gems to an item? Which items can even receive gems? Diablo III tells you none of this and expects you to sink additional hours into figuring it out yourself.
So what is the central motif that this abundance of good gameplay is holding up? The term “dark fantasy” gets thrown around a lot in video games, and most developers assume that it means fantasy with dimmer candles. I think Diablo III‘s spin on the term holds up the best; the game contains a lot of bright colors but they’re all swathed in shadows. Most of the game takes place at night to reinforce the game’s eerie gloom, if the hordes of twisted, grotesque monsters you’re up against don’t already do that. Seriously, Blizzard didn’t hold back on making some icky shit, like giant intestinal worms and zombies that belch poisonous gas.
More to the point, though, Diablo III‘s story is dark. It combines the visual accents of, say, Lord of the Rings, with a dystopian atmosphere akin to Batman. The main characters don’t have a lot of room for development, since most of the game is spent alone and far away from them, but the narrative is not afraid to assault you with an overwhelming sense of dread. From rampant diseases to hordes of hellish creatures, Diablo III‘s visual and narrative subject matter is no joke.
The other thing I appreciate about Diablo III‘s narrative is that it weaves many shades of gray into the picture. You might think a story about stopping demons sounds pretty cut-and-dry, but there are layers of human intrigue woven into the story. Even the angels are not above having questionable motives in this whole mess. They’re also not above disagreeing among themselves how best to handle the demon situation.
Diablo III is also not above killing off beloved characters. It is not nuanced with its emotional heaviness and goes right for the gut in many instances. This addition of drama and suspense is something rarely seen in dungeon crawlers and in most video games released these days, and it’s something I mightily appreciated.
Diablo III is a well-polished game with an enjoyable narrative and gameplay, but it suffers one fatal flaw that I’ve been holding back on until now. The game will run on most systems and doesn’t require a power plant of a processor. However, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, Blizzard requires that you have a constant Internet connection in order to even play the game. Even if you’re only on single player.
Yup. You read that right. Even if you’re by yourself and have absolutely no need for an Internet connection, Blizzard built the game to require one at all times. This design facet angered a lot of gamers, quite understandably. When asked why such a thing was included in Diablo III, the game’s lead designer meekly replied that, “it’s kinda the way things are these days”.
What in the hell does that even mean? The way things are these days? Even in the age of Uplay and other draconian digital rights management, very few games have this heavy of a DRM setup. Anyone who is so twitchy over needing new updates immediately enough to justify an “always on” Internet connection should be in an asylum, not a games room.
Diablo III is a fun game that I recommend you try, but I can only recommend it to people who have a constant, high-speed Internet connection, and I think that’s a demographic far smaller and more privileged than Blizzard might think. I hate to mar a recommendation because of a technical detail, but Jesus Christ… no one should need a constant Internet connection to play a game. At least, a game that can be played in single-player mode.
Digital rights management is dangerous business, my friends. Ubisoft, for example, constantly freaks out about piracy, but what they fail to realize is that they perpetuate that problem with DRM-heavy services, such as Uplay. The creators of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt put almost no DRM on their game, and they found that the rate at which it was pirated was substantially lower than that of games with lots of annoying security and restrictions. Simply put, the more DRM you have on your game, the more likely it is to be pirated, because you’re letting your newly minted customer know that you’re not to be trusted. Diablo III is still a great game, but its emulation of this line of developer thinking is disturbing.
You can buy Diablo III here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.