Diablo III

Diablo III

The 100-hour review is finally here.

There’s a reason I’m sitting in an airport writing this review, two hours before E3 2012 begins. The reason is that I cannot possibly play Diablo 3. There is no internet connection (at least, none with acceptable ping times), I cannot logistically accommodate a mouse, and I’m freaking exhausted. It’s just not possible.

Because if it was possible, I would be playing it instead of writing this review. Hence the reason the game has been out now for nearly three weeks and you’re only now reading this.

So here I sit, preparing to spew forth all of the thoughts swirling in my head regarding my adventures battling the minions of Hell, probably in a rather disorganized and chaotic fashion (at least, as compared to my usual style of writing). So sit tight, and we’ll systematically dismantle this beast together, in hopes of providing a truly honest and seasoned opinion of Blizzard’s latest blockbuster.

Add about a thousand sand wasps and that's what my screen usually looks like
Add about a thousand sand wasps and that’s what my screen usually looks like

Diablo 3 is everything you’d expect it to be. Anyone who spent even the slightest amount of time with 2 will find themselves right at home with the third installment. The concept is still precisely the same: pick a class, build a character, and dungeon-crawl your way (optionally with three friends) through piles of loot, endlessly, obsessively, forever. But while it’s instantly familiar, almost no corner of the experience has gone untouched. A select few of the differences are major changes to the formula, but the vast majority of them qualify smartly as mere refinements of an already amazingly successful recipe.

The few truly major changes which were applied simply serve to filter out any impurities remaining from Diablo 2’s formula. Aside from one design change which has sparked some outcries regarding overreaching DRM, rarely do you hear any complaints about the remaining alterations—which is honestly a pretty amazing achievement in itself. Some of the ideas originally sounded blasphemous, but ultimately, nearly all of it makes sense.

For starters, there’s the simplifications. No longer will you need Identify or Town Portal scrolls to, well, identify items or create a town portal. Instead, you can simply right-click a rare item to identify it following a short delay of a few seconds (which is a clever inclusion, as it both creates a bit of suspense and requires you to be away from danger while doing so), or click a button to produce a portal after a similar delay. Joining up with allies is quick and painless, as even from the first seconds of logging on, you’re presented with a menu of all your buddies who are already on and given the option of single-clicking to join their respective games. Once inside, it’s as easy as clicking on the player’s banner to instantly teleport to their location.

This also works well when you’re both constantly dying in the later difficulties. As long as one person is still alive, the other can always TP back to town and then click on the banner of the remaining player to rejoin him. The living player can also choose to resurrect the dead ally on the spot by spending around six seconds praying in front of his body. By the way, this all works differently during boss encounters, where all participants are required to agree to enter simultaneously. If any of them dies, they must be resurrected by another living player in order to rejoin; otherwise, they’ll have to wait until their friends are finished with the event to rejoin them. Obviously, this keeps the boss encounters difficult in spite of the conveniences bestowed by the teleportation system throughout the rest of the game.

And by the way, no longer do you lose your gold or equipment when dying. In Diablo 2, a major problem was the potentially catastrophic risks of an untimely death. Of course, no one wants to die, but you might recall situations where you’d do so, be returned to town, and then while running toward your body, you’d pick up another item inadvertently, die again, and end up losing all of your equipment. This should never happen. At least if you dropped out of the game, your body would appear back in town for you to retrieve—but it was still a serious design flaw. Now, instead, the only penalty for death is a 10% durability loss on all your equipment. This might not sound like much (and in most cases, it really isn’t), but coupled with the escalated countdown timer you’re forced to endure, it’s more than enough penalty to serve the purpose. And best of all, there’s no game-breaking risk involved.

Speaking of risk, what about the risk to your friendship whenever you picked up that rare ring that dropped after your Mephisto run, only to find that your friend(s) were more interested in owning it? Once again, no longer. In Diablo 3, your loot is your own (as a tooltip frequently reminds you), meaning that no one ever fights over item drops. Why it wasn’t always like this from the start I’ll never know, but man, does it ever work well. The game truly is all about cooperative fun and character building, and that’s where it shines most.

Inferno Butcher runs are the current popular favorite for quick loot
Inferno Butcher runs are the current popular favorite for quick loot

One of the biggest changes of all entails the skills system. In Diablo 2, players received Skill Points which could be allocated to level up particular attributes and skills of their choice. This was a fun way of doing things, but unfortunately, it was also mostly irreversible. Once you allocated a skill point, for the most part, you had to live with your choice. And what if your choices later revealed themselves to be less than ideal? Well, apart from a few opportunities for mulligans provided by the expansion Lord of Destruction, you had to completely ditch your character and reboot all of your progress.

In Diablo 3, things are completely different. Attributes are leveled up at a clip decided by the game and are unable to be changed. Skills, on the other hand, take the form of several selectable categorical divisions of techniques which can be assigned (optionally) to any of the first four number keys, as well as the right- and left-click mouse buttons. You can retool your skill choices at any time and the only penalty is a short waiting (cooldown) period. Passive skills work the same way, but are, of course, passive. Up to three of these can be active simultaneously. On top of all this, each individual skill also has several different “runes” (yes, they’re a totally different thing in this game) which modify its behavior, sometimes heavily.

This is a fantastic refinement of what was a previously stressful and sometimes misleading system. In Diablo 3, there’s no reason to ever hold out on skill allocations. There is no “buyer’s remorse”. And there aren’t ever any situations where your investment in a character comes back to haunt you following some sort of rebalancing of the game’s parameters by a later, unpredictable patch. This all adds up to fewer discouraging roadblocks and, consequently, an even greater incentive to continue playing.

The Fallens are back, and just as annoying as ever
The Fallens are back, and just as annoying as ever

Which brings me to my next point: progression. Diablo 3 again revamps the series’ philosophy on this subject, as no longer will you be spending years of your life trying to reach max level. Instead, characters max out at 60, after which the only remaining improvements come from the acquisition of better equipment. Reaching 60, by the way, can pretty reasonably be achieved in a matter of a couple weeks or so. The benefit here is that, eventually, all hardcore players will be perched at the same intrinsic power level, and will thus be competing based on technique and possession.

So then, you might ask, what is truly left to play for once you reach this hallowed status? Plenty, in fact. Like Diablo 2, this game features multiple difficulty levels. The first three you’ll find familiar: Normal, Nightmare, and Hell. But now there’s also a fourth: Inferno. It’s so difficult as to be ludicrous, and it is reserved purely for level 60 characters (after all, anyone of any level below this couldn’t complete any of it anyway). Here, you’ll find (predictably) the best items in the game to go along with some of the fiercest creatures by a longshot. Plus, the flow of the game changes at this point, too. Special groups of powerful enemies roam the lands, and each one you kill grants you a 25% magic item find (“Magic Find”) bonus for the next 30 minutes. You can stack up to five of these bonuses, and each one resets the timer, making the acquisition of powerful rare items considerably easier. You can probably imagine how difficult such a design makes quitting for the night.

Let’s talk a bit more about these creatures and items. “Boss” monsters are back, more accurately referred to as “rare” and “elite” groups. These deplorable beings are often extremely challenging, especially in groups (in which they are typically found in the higher difficulties). You will find a vast assortment of modifiers, some of which are familiar from Diablo 2 (such as the usual Extra Health, Electric, Knockback, and so forth) and some of which are new and particularly evil. A few examples of the worst of the worst include Molten (produces fire trails behind the creature as they walk), Chains (ties like creatures together and causes major damage if crossed), Arcane Enchanted (produces random rotating hazards that can easily kill you if you are careless), and Vortex (stand still in one of these and you’re as good as dead). Sometimes these creatures can be so powerful as to be asinine, but it’s all in good fun and worth the effort when they’re finally taken down and give up their Rares.

There's actually a pretty decent assortment of different environments across the four acts
There’s actually a pretty decent assortment of different environments across the four acts

In terms of items, Diablo 3 rebalances the categorical appeal of each item class by offering more flexible and variable rare and unique items. Well, more accurately, “unique” items have now been rebranded “Legendary”, and they’re not always necessarily even better than Rares. Set items are back as well, and all of the various categories are clearly indicated (as before) by their color-coded names.

If you get sick of hunting blindly for items (shame on you), you have other options as well. Of course, you can trade. You can also craft items using a considerably more robust form of Diablo 2’s gambling system, but one which is also mercifully simplistic compared to that of other such games as Skyrim. There are but eight total resources which can be collected throughout the course of Diablo 3, and they all come from clear-cut places: other items. Any magic items you collect can be brought to the Blacksmith and salvaged to produce various combinations of these resources, which can then be repurposed (read: spent) to produce other, more targeted, often more powerful items. The harder the difficulty, the better and more valuable the resource (in general) that you’ll receive from salvaging items.

There is, of course, a great deal of luck involved in getting what you want during the crafting process. Nothing you do will improve the results with any degree of statistical significance; instead, you pretty much just have to choose your item category (i.e., Masterful Greaves or something similar), keep crafting, and hope you get what you want. As with most everything in the game, this is obviously pretty addictive and will likely piss you off on a regular basis as well. About the only way to boost your crafting abilities is to pay the Blacksmith (in heaps of gold, and later on, also Pages and Tomes of Blacksmithing) to level him up and expand your choice of available base crafting categories. (On a related note, gems and socketed items are, of course, back in Diablo 3, and a similar sort of money-burning progression is required with the jeweler. This guy can combine gems—for a hefty price—and even remove them from socketed items.)

Say you aren’t the lucky type and you’d just rather purchase some items outright. What do you do? Perhaps if you’re a D2 nut, you might go lurking through the lists of available public games in search of one titled something like “Your 4 SOJ for SS”. Fortunately, however, such an approach in Diablo 3 would be both futile and overwrought. Instead, why not take a trip to the Auction House? Here, you can easily burn millions of gold (if you’re so inclined) and grab all sorts of great Rare and Legendary items. It’s easy to find the items you want using the robust, advanced search built into the interface. And while the UI isn’t perfect, it does make it pretty convenient to purchase and compare items that you already own. Of course, you can also sell your own items, setting both a starting bid amount and a Buyout Price (think eBay’s Buy It Now function). It’s really freaking addicting and it’s likely to get even worse after real money is introduced into the equation (a feature whose debut has been repeatedly delayed, but which is currently scheduled for launch within a couple of weeks as of this writing).

That means there’ll be no more SOJ-hoarding for purposes of trading for elite items. Gold in Diablo 3 holds real value—at least until people start finding ways to hack it into existence. This is partially thanks to the aforementioned “gold sinks” such as the Blacksmith and Jeweler (and their respective leveling), but mostly due to the auction house’s existence, which, for all intents and purposes, functions very much like a real, actual capitalist economy, with self-regulating pricing (to some degree) and all of the inflation and other natural forces which thrive within it.

If I ever make it this far, I'm sure Act III of Inferno will be great for loot
If I ever make it this far, I’m sure Act III of Inferno will be great for loot

What’s next? It seems like I’ll never run out of topics to write about here. How about the character classes and development? Each one really, truly feels like its own type. Do you want a super-powerful melee machine to tank your way through the hoards? Pick a barb. Would you rather blast your foes from afar using a quickly-regenerating “Arcane Power” source? Wizard. Or you can go truly exotic with the likes of something like the Monk or even the Demon Hunter (the latter of which actually uses two counter-dependent resources which regenerate each other upon consumption).

Each character class again, of course, has his or her own specific items, though for the most part you can equip what you want. Some items are off-limits and restricted only to a particular class or level, but usually it’s anything goes. That means your wizard can wield a sword if you so choose, though she won’t reap all of the usual modifying benefits that you might get from a quality staff or wand.

There’s a lot of equipment to pore through, however. Not only do you have the usual stuff—weapons, boots, gloves, belt, armor, helmet, optional shield, rings, amulet—but you also have shoulders and bracers, new to the game. Plus, there are tons of “off-hand” items which can be equipped along with one-handed weapons in place of a shield to augment the effects of the weapons (and whatever else). It’s a great way to increase the complexity and depth of the experience without, well, overcomplicating matters. It’s easy to understand and essentially just constitutes more of a great thing. This is similar to the benefit provided by the higher-order gem styles (which now extend far beyond merely “Perfect”) and the ridiculous modifiers which are possible on some truly elite Inferno-era items.

One minor gripe which many people have expressed is that of class inequity. No, not the socioeconomic kind, but rather real advantages that one class seems to have over others when, for instance, playing through the aforementioned insanity which is Inferno difficulty. This sort of imbalance should conceivably be rectified by a later patch, however, something which has already begun to take place. Other issues which plagued the early days of Diablo 3’s launch have already been mostly eradicated, such as the infamous Error 37 debacle, which had locked nearly everyone out of the game during major server meltdowns (I suppose 6 million users all logging on simultaneously might present some sort of challenge). It’s unlikely that such problems will be a relevant part of the Diablo experience in coming months as the Blizzard staff experience their largest and most comprehensive beta test to date—the actual retail market.

Sure; there are other complaints. Such as the occasional frustrating server-induced lag, irritating (and mostly random) difficulty spikes for particular groups of elites, and some pretty loudly-voiced criticisms regarding the negative effect the real-money auction house has on the overall experience.  Regarding the latter, yes, it does mean that you can buy your way to success in Diablo III. But are you really willing to spend $250 on a killer amulet? There’s still a very real limit to the items you can reasonably acquire through these means and it doesn’t in any way detract from the tangible value of such items. It’s true that you can spend a mere fraction of the time on the auction house picking up amazing items that might take an eternity to plunder as drops, but in my mind, that simply adds another layer of strategy to the character-building template. Find great loot, sell it for real dollars (or gold, your choice), then use the proceeds to purchase equipment better suited to your character. The net result is something akin to that of a global economy: the acquisition of needed items is simply easier and cheaper than before, and so the standards are raised for all buyers and sellers alike. Like it or not, this stuff goes on regardless of whether it’s facilitated in-game.

What would a Diablo game be without deadly spiders?
What would a Diablo game be without deadly spiders?

Other sweeping improvements including the trading interface (which allows for multiple items to be presented and traded simultaneously), the stash (which now holds 210 squares if my math is correct and must also be upgraded using lots of gold), handy little popups that help you compare equipped items to others of the same type, and plenty of other things which are simply too numerous to mention here. Ultimately, the recurring theme is a symphony of accessibility and complexity, an approach which renders the experience almost irresistible.

You will find yourself playing with no real stopping point in sight. In fact, that’s probably the single most dangerous thing about Diablo 3: there’s never any good reason to stop playing. One experience quickly and seamlessly flows into the next, and friends are never too far away to join (it literally takes seconds). Fact is, it’s just too easy to get hooked and nearly impossible to quit. This is a narcotic substance constructed of ones and zeroes, relentlessly toying with your neural reward center, oozing dopamine and forcing you to abuse caffeine like you’ve never before dreamed of doing. It is the very definition of addiction.

Where does that leave us? For me, on an airplane, typing a review that I wish I didn’t have to type. Because when a game is so good that you don’t even want to stop playing to write the review, you know you have an amazing product.