Eleven years is a long time for a game to be in development by anyone’s standards, and the longer things take to roll out a product the longer expectations have a chance to build. After all, when you hear that someone’s been working on anything for a long time it’s only natural to expect something great out of it. Now we could sit here and make Duke Nukem Forever jokes all day, but suffice it to say that Diablo III, while not a failure to near the same degree, represents a similar trend in the harm long delays can do.
Picking up 20 years after Diablo II, your choice of five playable characters approaches the town of Tristram on their way to investigate a nearby fallen star. There they encounter Leah, the niece of series mainstay Deckard Cain, who’s out to investigate her uncle’s disappearance at the crash site and how it all ties into a prophecy of the remaining lords of Hell launching an invasion on the world. What’s more, the angelic host of the High Heavens has decided to adopt a hands-off approach to humanity, so your character is really the only thing staving off literal Hell on Earth… er, Sanctuary.
The decided focus on story is something new for Diablo, as the usual free-form tidbits scattered throughout randomly-generated levels are now complimented by a much more focused and aggressively presented main plot. It’s a pity that Blizzard decided to shift more focus to story starting with this incredibly average yarn, which is made almost hilariously painful by the lackluster writing and delivery of all but a precious few characters (including Leah, who devolves into a plot device on legs by the end of the first act). This being a thoroughly dark setting the prospect of betrayal rears its head several times, and as long as you’ve got two brain cells to rub together you’ll be able to see each one coming from a mile away.
Anyone who’s played a Diablo title knows that it’s not really about the plot, though; Cooperative hacking and slashing is the name of the game here, and Diablo III still delivers faithfully on this front. The click-on-everything rule is in full effect, its sheer repetition inducing the same familiar Zen-like state juxtaposed by the blood-drenched on-screen proceedings. Online and local drop-in, drop-out multiplayer makes coordinating your group of up to four players all but effortless, and the banner teleportation system in hub areas makes catching up to the action at any time likewise simple.
As we all know, though, adopting a philosophy of simplification can potentially do just as much harm as good. When comparing ability selection and skill trees in Diablo III to those of its predecessors, not to mention the nearly identical achievement systems, it’s plain to see the WOW team’s hand in this game: Skill options have been pared down to a fraction of their former number (with a less robust rune system that slightly modifies abilities taking its place), and as play progresses there are “correct” builds to follow in order to ensure survival. Items also lack a good bit of the personality they used to have, with individual ability boosts and the like cast aside in favor of a few randomly generated numbers. This change is indicative of the overall streamlining of character stats into a small handful of categories – and those pared down further to one or two important ones depending on your class – and it leaves a game that was formerly equal parts on-the-fly tactical strategy and careful number crunching feeling a bit hollow (especially considering that you can now reset spent abilities at any time).
But if there’s one thing Blizzard consistently does right it’s making some really pretty cutscenes. Invasive as they get at times, the hand-drawn style mid-act plot bumpers and full-rendered movies bookending each act are absolutely gorgeous. This stretches into the playable parts of the game, too. The art shift to inject a bit more color into the game earned it a lot of flak while it was in development, but in my opinion it’s entirely unwarranted; The dark mood is never betrayed by the visuals, no matter how vibrant the hue of the explosions, arcane particle effects or near-constant sprays of blood, guts, and ichor. Problems though Diablo III may have, how it looks is definitely not one of them.
What could definitely use some work is the always-online DRM. The prospect of requiring an Internet connection even when playing solo is definitely an unappealing one with the potential to alienate a good portion of potential buyers, and as much as Blizzard claims account security as the reason behind this it doesn’t change the fact that this opens up the possibility that players will be incapable of using a product they’ve paid for at their discretion. Much of the security concern is directly related to the ambitious real-money auction house; Blizzard’s attempt to curtail third-party gold sales by creating an official venue for it is brilliant from a marketing standpoint, but what they forgot to mention in the box quotes was just how much of that money goes straight back to them. Unless a sale is credited with Battle.net credit the number of fees between Blizzard and your third-party money transfer service of choice equal out to diminutive profits on all but the most sought-after of items. That’s a steep price for lagging out when playing by yourself during busy hours.
The problem isn’t that Diablo III isn’t a decent game in and of itself, it’s that the end product neither reflects the amount of time that went into it nor is it a good example of growth or progression in a series. Even with a complete rework several years into development Blizzard had plenty of time to take what worked in Diablo II and build on it, but instead they decided to take a crack at reinventing a perfectly functional wheel. Diehard series fans and people looking for readily accessible fun with a few friends will definitely find things to like, but more discerning eyes will see a needlessly simplified version of a game that’s managed to hold a loyal fanbase for over a decade just as it is.