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Diablo was dead, killed off by the Blizzard high and mighty with the closure of the Blizzard North studio in 2005. Blizzard North created the original Diablo as an independent studio, but it was Blizzard's eventual purchase that built the franchise into the modern day colossus it is now. Vivendi, then owner of Blizzard, was quite disappointed with the development of Diablo III, leading to an exodus of Blizzard North's founding employees. Diablo was dead, but much akin to its titular character, Diablo would inevitably rise again.
The Diablo III available now was first displayed in 2008, and to say fans were shocked at what was shown is a severe understatement. Reinvention may be an over-exaggeration, but the new Diablo III was and is a vastly different experience than its predecessors. Attitude, atmosphere, play style and customization, everything from Diablo II was washed clean and rebuilt from the ground up. Is the new take refreshing, reinvigorating, or outright sacrilege? What are Blizzard's intentions, making such a drastic departure from such a popular and well-regarded formula?
It's now 2012, and Diablo III has been out for more than a full week. The hype surrounding the game has reached a point unseen in PC gaming for years, if ever. Records have been broken, as Diablo III sold over 3.5 million copies in 24 hours and more than 6 million to date. Everyone in the gaming community has heard about the issues with Battle.net and the broken midnight launch. Everyone has something to say regarding permanently-online DRM, no offline play and Blizzard's almost daily server downtime. It's a spectacle, high controversy, more of a circus than a game launch, but behind the outrage is one of the most highly anticipated games of the year.
Not just any game either, but a great game – the best action role-playing game since Diablo II. And may the prime evils damn me, but I'll be blunt and say it clearly: the controversy is trivial when compared to the game's astounding gameplay quality and addictive nature. No cliffhanger review introduction here -- Diablo III is awesome.
Loot, Monsters, and Mouse Clicks
Diablo III really should have a sub-title to it: "The Adventure of a Billion Clicks." Clicking is the fundamental element in making Diablo III's gameplay so engaging. Characters will follow your mouse clicks endlessly, from enemy to loot and then in circles as you kite and chase the more challenging monsters in the world of Sanctum. Dragging and clicking armor and weaponry to equip your character are just as exhilarating as combat itself. Even the absence of clicking, hovering over skills for helpful tooltips or on items for stats is in itself rewarding.
If this sounds ridiculous, that's because it is. I feel a little ridiculous thinking about how Diablo III and I interact, but it works. The point isn't that clicking itself is so wondrous, but that Diablo III is able to take such a simple method of interaction and build a wonderful experience out of it. It's literally something everyone can partake in and find rewarding and enjoyable, without difficulty – unless you want difficulty, because Diablo III has that too.
The simplicity and low border for entry will entice new players, but what will enthrall them is twofold: the unfathomably addictive loot and power grind, and the inherent fun and challenge associated with acquiring said loot and power.
I don't see a need to describe why a loot and power grind is in itself so tantalizing, as the popularity of Diablo II and dozens of MMOs in recent years are evidence enough. There's psychology at work here. What Blizzard has done with Diablo 3 is streamlined and expanded the process. There are approximately 18 tiers of armor for eight different armor slots, multiplied by five different playable classes. Each tier of armor is visually unique on its class, and most of the armor slots are dyeable, with a dozen or so dyes to choose from. Add in gold to spend, jewels that can be socketed into armor, and crafting items, and you’re looking at an astounding amount loot, entailing an extraordinary number of customization. That's not even including weapons! Add to that a complex system that randomly assigns attributes like damage values to each item that drops, and there are interminable possibilities for uniqueness, both visually and statistically.
Blizzard's biggest challenge, then, is making this search for loot an endlessly enjoyable experience. In Diablo II, dedicated players were forced into specific classes and skill point distributions to endlessly grind specific bosses. For the majority of players, that exhilarating treasure hunt ended early due to disappointment or sheer boredom, rather than a feeling of reward or completion. So how does Blizzard accomplish this? Three notable ways: four difficulty modes spread across 60 experience levels; five classes with unique play styles and extensive skill customization; and background systems to create random dungeon layouts populated with increasingly challenging enemies and assorted quests and events.
These three aspects of Diablo III's overarching design perform excellently thanks to scalability. Each works to make gameplay unique and exciting every time you log in, from when you're a fresh noob to a rugged and bitter veteran. In Normal mode, a character will look like a hoodlum, have relatively few skills, and battle rare enemies with a single random attribute. You’ll feel tough and unprepared at the same time, like Commander Shepard at the inception of the war against the Reapers.
By Hell mode, a Barbarian near max level will have near every skill unlocked (which are customizable at any point out of combat), look like a Cimmerian king, and fight rare laser-throwing, plague-spreading, vampiric doom beasts by the handful. Seriously, these random rare spawns don't just have more HP and elemental resists – they’ve got legitimate abilities that force you to constantly move and think strategically. Now imagine Inferno difficulty.
The strength of Diablo III is that the more you play, the better it gets. The first Normal mode playthrough may take six to ten hours just so you can soak in everything Diablo III has to offer. Subsequent playthroughs are maybe a few hours, because you know the meat of the game is in the later difficulties. It still feels extremely gratifying tearing through lower level dungeons with your high level character though.
A Tale of Demons, Angels, and War
Woe to those who buy Diablo III for its story. That's not to say there isn't a story in the midst of all of that loot and that other loot. In fact, Diablo III's plot is rather good considering what's readily available in games these days. The story just simply seems to be less of a priority, almost a sacrifice for the greater good. Instead, Blizzard focuses more on ensuring various requisites for gameplay are met, and then the story was built around that. For instance, the diversity in environments is incredible in terms of replayability, but regarding story it's rather distracting. Given that Blizzard wants to continuously introduce you to new, exciting, visually interesting areas means a deliberate narrative would prove contradictory to the whims of exploration and progress as a result. Though the tale itself may be a broken thing, Blizzard fills the absence with a rich and powerful lore.
Possibly to make up for the lack of a full Diablo release in over ten years, Blizzard put out over six books in the time between. That abundance of new backstory, combined with Blizzard's newfound love of expansive lore from World of Warcraft breathes life into the once cold world of Sanctuary. NPCs will constantly refer to various cities and countries yet to be explored in the Diablo universe. Diaries found in the open world describe haunting events involving demons and the growing darkness in the world. Similarly, Diablo III's main characters and companions have multiple conversation options, providing a background for each you might never have cared for. It's all there for you to ignore or enjoy, though I'd recommend reading as much as possible, given how well written this extra content is. In fact, all this additional lore lends itself to a world and story much greater than what Blizzard created in Diablo III, which could lead the series in other directions in the future.
Nevertheless, the story of Deckard Cain, his adopted niece Leah, a falling star and an adventure to rid the world of the prime evils is exactly what Diablo III required; a grandiose epic, full of the risen dead, battalions of demons and a coven most devious – a massive universe that's easy to fall into.
Of course there's the highly controversial issue of Diablo III's artistic direction. Let me just say, straight away, that the entire argument is bogus because Diablo III is visually astounding. Crypts, torture chambers, caves of ice and sand, and hell itself – all brutal, detailed, and at times, graphically disturbing. Is it different than Diablo II? Yes, the smoggy film grain is gone, but only for the better. Everything now is crisp, distinct and clean, so every sword thrust and magical burst is evident the moment it occurs. Trust me, you'll need to be watching for them. I'm constantly impressed at the quality of work involved in animations, even the ambient ones. Stray arrows coursing through crumbling statues or sputtering lightening strikes on brick walls are all very dynamic and of extraordinary quality. Diablo III is not like Diablo II, but better in every regard.
Friends, Enemies and the Disconnects Between
Right now, I and likely millions of others would love to have an offline option that works on a LAN. It has nothing to do with not enjoying the online features Blizzard has, well, forced upon us, but with having the option of playing such a great game whenever, wherever we want. It's that simple, and I don't believe any further explanation or justification is needed.
No need for an argument; Blizzard made the anti-consumer choice and they have to do their best with that decision. Dramatic, right? Diablo III is still a ridiculously amazing game, and I'll probably be hunting those achievements for years.
I keep returning to just how enjoyable it is to play Diablo III. Yeah, collecting loot, leveling you character and slowly growing into the ultimate demon killing badass is beyond fun. Enjoying the demon slaughter as you do it? Priceless. Blizzard has crafted an impeccably designed and nuanced combat system unlike anything done before. It requires a frantic sort of precision and a willingness to run like a huge coward. A majority of your skill choices will dramatically affect how you have to gear your character and play the game. Balancing the stat and level grind with a combat system that requires you to be strategic and careful is the best improvement to ARPGs in a decade.
The online features, artistic design, and story are all built to complement this extensive loot climb and combat system. Considering each aspect individually, they all have their faults, but when put together, the seams disappear and everything clicks. Diablo III: It Clicks. Now there’s your tagline.
Seriously though, Diablo III is an amazing experience, and by far the best game this year has yet seen. Even now, I can't help but reflect on what sort of rare items I might have acquired if I had been playing rather than writing.
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