It has been more than a decade since Diablo II released. Defining a genre much like its prequel, the game stands as a classic. I was there, I was playing that game despite being 10 years old at the time; it defined my gaming childhood in some respects and it’s installed on my PC right now and the same is probably true of huge numbers of PC gamers.
Diablo III has both the nostalgic excitement of Diablo veterans to live up to and a modern audience to impress, one that is considerably different to that of a decade ago. Pleasing fans who’ve been waiting over a decade for this game, as well as those new to the series, was always going to a tricky balance for Blizzard to strike.[boxout]Before we begin, the elephant in the room needs addressing. Diablo III’s launch week has been marred with technical issues, error 37 being the one everyone recognises most, alongside lag and the maintenance that came as a result of both.
Teething problems were and are expected for the most anticipated PC game of the year (and perhaps in recent memory) when it comes to its servers. The decision to make the game online only is obviously the culprit, though there are reasons for that, even if they don’t quite fully explain why there isn’t a completely separate offline mode. We’ll get into all of that later on, though.
As you might expect, before starting the game you choose one of five classes (Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor, or Wizard) and are then treated to a cutscene containing the setup; your class has been wandering for a long time, notices a star falling from the sky and decides to investigate.
The beginning of the game is a tutorial, tips appearing on screen to tell you what you need to be doing whenever something important happens, from attacking that creature you just came across to equipping your first item. Blizzard have managed to pitch this just right, making them simple enough that they’re useful for a new player, whilst an experienced player can just breeze right through.
You almost immediately come upon New Tristram, a trade village built to provide supplies to adventurers who like to explore the nearby cathedral and named after Tristram, the village in the original Diablo (destroyed throughout the game and later revisited in a quest during Diablo II), where you enquire about the fallen star and are subsequently given quests. New Tristram is the area around which the first act centers and some quite important things happen.
That is, they’re quite important if you already care – Diablo III is incredibly strong in most areas, but the storyline and dialogue are not amongst them. The storyline, whilst having some pretty exceptional moments from a Diablo fan’s point of view, is less interesting than previous games, perhaps due to your character being so… good.
There is never any crisis of faith, never a moment when you think things might turn. This is particularly disappointing as the most interesting characters are those that try to tempt you, but your character never wavers, not even for a second, leaving things feeling a little dull.
The dialogue itself is generally acceptable, but often feels cheesy. It’s nothing too bad, but the moments of dramatic dialogue that cropped up in Diablo II are simply missing. Instead, quests are presented via quick conversations that sometimes involve some silly jumps in logic to keep the story going, which leaves it lacking a little of the wonder that accompanied the lore in the previous game.
That lore is still here, but it seems unlikely to catch the interest of someone who isn’t already invested and the storyline fails to really grab you, not least because it’s pretty predictable. All the best elements are not plot points themselves but the background to them; an explanation of how something happened. The companions you find throughout the game have a far more interesting tale than anything the main story serves up.[drop2]Fortunately the plot is as deep as the mediocrity goes in Diablo III. The gameplay is superb, and perhaps the most unexpected innovation comes from the physics engine. The game has a built in engine that pseudo-realistically governs everything, or at least everything you hit. An explosive spell or melee from a barbarian/monk results in the ensuing corpses left behind to fly across the screen, thudding into walls and falling from ledges. Barrels and skeletons break into pieces that scatter across the screen when they’re destroyed and it’s perhaps this that makes you feel most powerful.
A group of 20 enemies? No problem, just leap your barbarian into the middle and start swinging or unleash the area of effect explosives, leaving you to watch the bodies scatter. It is a tremendous feeling to tear apart a large group of enemies in this manner, there’s really no way to describe it other than cool. You feel genuinely powerful from an early level, especially as one of the melee characters (Barbarian or Monk) that literally send enemies flying out of view from the very beginning. For the first few dungeons I destroyed every table, barrel and chair I came across just to see it shatter into pieces.
Thankfully, the enemies are not merely pushovers. Jumping into a group is all well and good provided you’re strong enough, otherwise getting overwhelmed is a quick lesson in kiting and potion chugging. And they’re smart too, some faster enemies tend to circle around you in groups and use hit and run tactics whilst others hang back resurrecting, the biggest dangers in the game tend to involve a mixture of enemies with different tactics.
The hardest monsters tend to come in groups known as elites. These are essentially mini-boss versions of standard enemies that appear in groups of three or more and are buffed with specific skills drawn from a wide pool. These range from teleport, which has the obvious effect; to mortar, which bombards you with ranged, mortar-like attacks that deal obscene amounts of damage; to jailer, which freezes you on the spot for a few seconds; and to everything in between.
If these abilities weren’t terrifying enough, on difficulties above normal (nightmare, hell and inferno) the elites can have more than one. If you have yet to defeat four elite monsters all buffed with jailer and mortar you do not yet know the meaning of fear. Battles against these enemies can really get your heart pumping and can seriously test your character’s cardio as you kite them half way across the area, fighting them off as you go and possibly running into other enemies whilst doing so.