Platforms: PS3 | PS4 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Diablo III is now available on consoles, but I still can't work out exactly why.
There's no denying that it works, that it functions. Last year's dungeon-crawling experience has been faithfully recreated here in its entirety, save for the real money auction house and always-online connection requirement. The former of which we literally couldn't care less about, while the latter forced us to laugh and cry in equal measure. Blizzard should be congratulated for managing to successfully introduce a click-heavy dungeon crawler into a traditionally hostile ecosystem, but can it thrive away from its beloved mouse and keyboard?
Unless you're a Diablo fan who couldn't (or refused to) play Diablo III last year, you'll be thrown into a generic fantasy world with no attempt to explain where you are, what's going on or why you should care. Sanctuary has two games' worth of lore behind it, but the console version makes no effort to bring new players into the fold, making the setting feel flimsy and irrelevant. Still, this probably won't matter for many players, because we're here to get on the loot grinding conveyor belt as quickly as possible. For, dare I say, the hell of it.
For that is what Diablo III is: a conveyor belt of mobs, loot, more mobs, more loot and the occasional boss to take down as your virtual avatar goes from cloth-clad peasant to unstoppable powerhouse. Throughout some conventional fantasy settings (blighted medieval towns, deserts, you know the drill), we'll kill and loot, loot and kill, growing ever more powerful and potent thanks to a versatile 'mix and match' skill system. The Diablo formula is as empowering and compelling as it ever was, and none of that has been lost in its jump to consoles. Like comfort food, it's neither complex or overly cerebral, but it's undeniably satisfying. Smashing monsters into chunky bits with varied skills, then stealing their stuff, will never get old.
Visually, Diablo III proves to a seriously mixed bag in its new home. Enthusiastic (read: outrageous) physics and plenty of flashy attacks helps to distract you from a noticeably more drab graphical experience, with plenty of uninspiring textures and vast swathes of unattractive empty ground. On the other hand, it still benefits from a rich colour palette and relatively uncluttered aesthetics that make it easy to keep track of the carnage.
In terms of the all-important gameplay and combat, Diablo III proves to be a surprisingly good fit for a gamepad. Last year's original already streamlined the skill system down to seven simultaneous abilities, two of which double up as primary and secondary attacks, meaning that they've all got a button, trigger or bumper to call their own. Be sure to activate advanced tooltips in the options menu to understand how much damage they do, and how they're directly affected by the weapons you wield.
Click-heavy movement and targeting has been replaced by direct character control and auto-aim, weighing in somewhere between a brawler and twin-stick shooter. Better yet, a brand new dodge roll lets you evade incoming attacks or quickly close with enemies via a quick stick flick - which you'll primarily use to break every barrel, crate and destructible scenery object in sight.
You might expect combat to be doubly involving and engaging on consoles, then, but you'd only be half right.
The melee-centric Monk and Barbarian have been granted a new lease of life. Charging through the hellish hordes, rolling out of engagement range and unleashing devastating crowd control abilities feels dynamic and potent on a console controller, much like a simple yet brutally effective hack & slash brawler. Put simply: it's fantastic fun, and feels like a totally new game.
Unfortunately the opposite is true for ranged classes, who are now a slave to auto-targeting; standing still, occasionally rolling and grimly holding the attack button until either they or the entire mob is dead. Picking out a priority target in a group proves to be nigh-on impossible, while the 1:1 relationship between a mouse click, target and projectile impact is sadly missing. I'd never appreciated how important the humble yet empowering cursor was to dungeon crawling combat, but its absence is immediately noticeable. You won't miss it until it's gone.
Thankfully the rest of the streamlining works well, serving to cut out busywork while keeping features intact. Radial menus make light work of inventory juggling and skill selection, doubly convenient since you'll now receive slightly less loot compared to the PC original, and almost always find gear that can be equipped by your class. Thoughtful shortcuts and tweaks abound, not limited to a clever 'quick equip' system designed to let you compare and equip items without even opening a menu.
Oh, and it turns out that we didn't need a Real Money Auction House or always-online connection after all. Diablo III works just fine without them, and as far as the RMAH is concerned, its absence actually helps increase immersion and keeps you invested in the game itself, not the distracting frippery.
Taken on its own merits, Diablo III's intrinsic flaws are much more noticeable. It's undeniably linear and restrictive, exhibiting a rather short campaign and surprisingly brusque dungeons that end just as you're starting to get some meaningful exploration done. Repetition sets in quickly, not helped by a dearth of interesting characters or imaginative environments - beyond the surprising final act that ends far too quickly.
Much of Diablo's longevity stems from replaying it ad infinitum at harder difficulty settings, but the likes of Torchlight II and The Incredible Adventures Of Van Helsing show us that a little more fun factor and panache can go a long way. On PC, that is. For a console comparison, look no further than Borderlands for an example of a game that manages to better marry moment-to-moment combat with compelling RPG progression.
Thankfully multiplayer helps to punch things up a notch. Online co-op pales in comparison with the new local mode that brings four players together on the same screen, with multiple heroes bringing the pain in insane pitched engagements. Boss battles, which initially felt a little disappointing on PC, are much more rewarding when tackled with others, especially when you can high five after a job well done.
It's not perfect, mind. Despite offering Gauntlet-style local shenanigans at its best, Gauntlet never had to deal with Skill Runes or inventory menus, resulting in regular flow-breaking pauses in the action every few minutes. The lack of enemy scaling also means that any level disparity between players can lead to one hero being overwhelmed or bored senseless - you'll ideally need to create a separate multiplayer character for every friend you play with. Borderlands players will be used to these issues, but they stop the action from ever realising that 'drop in and play' ideal. Plus, it's unlikely that you'll both want to complete the campaign several times over.
Despite all that, Diablo III ultimately works on consoles, and I'll score it accordingly. That was the easy part. The question of why Diablo III specfically needs to be on consoles, however, is still anybody's guess.
Diablo III is the final part of a trilogy that has never previously been available on home consoles. Without the lore backing it up, there's no reason to care or engage beyond grinding for the merry hell of it; you wouldn't read the last Harry Potter book or watch Return Of The King before the rest of the series, would you? What's more, Diablo III has the weakest storyline of the franchise, the least memorable characters, the limpest bosses and the most restrictive campaign. The original game released over a year ago. Who in their right mind would even want to play this new version?
That was rhetorical, because we can think of a few people. Perhaps you refused to play Diablo III on PC to protest against its always-on DRM. Maybe you loved Diablo II but haven't been upgrading your rig over the last decade. And, more likely, I suppose there are plenty of console players who just want to play a dungeon crawler, yet paradoxically haven't jumped ship to PC, where dungeon crawlers live.
If you fall into either category, Diablo III is here to fulfil your very specific desires. Just be aware that better dedicated RPGs and action games are available on both platforms.
- Functional and fun dungeon crawling, intelligently streamlined
- Melee classes totally revitalised
- Immensely enjoyable - if sometimes inconvenient - local multiplayer
- You can play it offline if you want to
- Hopeless storyline, context and characters make no effort to ground new players in the lore... despite being the final chapter in a TRILOGY
- Dreary and unsatisfying ranged combat, massively repetitious by design
- Very linear and restrictive level design compared to other ARPGs
- Short (if highly replayable)
The Short Version: Divorced from its predecessors and lore by the change in platform, Diablo III is an adequate dungeon crawler that stumbles in the storytelling and ranged combat departments. Satisfying melee madness and fun multiplayer buoys up the package, so if you crave an addictive dungeon crawler on home consoles, you could do a lot worse.
It's a shame, though, that Blizzard didn't design an entirely new console experience rather than ripping a year-old sequel out of its context and canon. Otherwise we're just grinding for the hell of it.