Platform: PC (reviewed) | Mac
Diablo III is possibly the most and least ambitious game to have released in recent years. Following up the beloved, glorious and seminal dungeon crawler Diablo II was always going to be a tall order, and as the years marched on, our expectations swelled to potentially insurmountable levels. But the end result is superficially the same: yet another isometric click-heavy action game... this time with a controversial skill system and DRM sent from the bowels of hell itself. First impressions can be damning, and Diablo III's horrendous launch tainted our relationship with it from day one.
Look a little deeper, though, and you'll discover that Blizzard hasn't spent the last ten years sitting on their laurels. The new boss may look much the same as the old boss, but he's got a whole new way of doing business.
Upon choosing from one of five classes – the classic brawny Barbarian, tricksy trap-obsessed Demon Hunter, nuanced Monk, 'glass cannon' Wizard or riotously eccentric Witch Doctor – players are thrust into the final battle against the forces of hell. By which, of course, I mean delving through an isometric set of dungeons and overworld levels, clicking on enemies until they die, and grabbing their sweet phat lootz as your weak hero gradually evolves into a menacing powerhouse. It's a ruthlessly compelling formula that still feels relevant and aggravatingly compelling today, and it's absolutely intact. Though the pleasingly detailed new 3D graphics engine literally adds a new dimension to the visuals, and the powerful physics modelling delights in sending enemies and objects flying, a cursory examination reveals little in the way of truly new features. Diablo has always been a loot grinder, and Blizzard have ensured that the fundamentals are locked down nice and tight.
As mentioned, however, a cursory examination isn't enough. After a couple of hours, Diablo III shows its true colours, mainly thanks to some sensational new features running behind the scenes.
The five classes feel completely unique in terms of play style and combat options, right down to the ways they deal with mana and skill usage. The barbarian and monk, for example, deal out powerful melee damage and use certain attacks to charge their rage or spirit meter, which leads to a tense and cerebral focus on balance. Demon Hunters use two gauges – Hatred and Discipline – both of which power separate skills based on debilitating enemies at range and wiping them out before they get close. While the Wizard has a regenerating mana pool, he or she can also deploy a number of devastating signature spells that are free to cast. And, not to put to fine a point on things, the Witch Doctor's bizarre range of summons, ranged attacks and curses are so ridiculously imaginative that I've been spent the last multitude of hours grinning like a maniac. There's a huge amount of specialisation and potential for unique builds to be enjoyed within each hero class, so rather than wasting your time with a lengthy description (this is a review, not an FAQ), I'd urge you to check out the guides and skill calculator over on the official site.
The new progression system sparked some genteel yet spirited arguments (who am I kidding, insane amounts of flaming) throughout its many evolutions, and the current system is a first for the series – possibly even the genre. Instead of gaining skill points upon levelling up, players unlock six action skill slots throughout the game, each of which can be filled with a small list of abilities that become available at certain levels. Their damage is based on your equipped weapon, meaning that all of the skills remain potent and relevant throughout the campaign rather than becoming useless in the late-game or harder difficulty levels. Skill runes also gradually unlock, allowing players to augment their abilities with new animations and effects that radically change their function. As an example, the Witch Doctor's Plague Of Toads skill can be modified to deploy swarms of explosive frogs instead of poison damage, or to release a single giant toad who literally swallows enemies whole. Each class boasts an array of offensive and defensive options, including passive skills, and an initially limited choice broadens into a veritable buffet of combat options.
Brilliantly, you're free to respec (freespec) your loadout at any time – with only a short cooldown period stopping you from doing so in the heat of battle. Though I initially hated this system, I quickly came to realise that it's a brave and successful step forward for the franchise. For one, it's now impossible to level your character into a dead end, a key issue with its predecessor. More importantly, thanks to the new focus on drop-in cooperative play, you're instantly able to effortlessly compliment your fellow players with different abilities. Rather than keeping one hero for multiplayer, one for solo hell runs and another for PvP, you can use the same character and rejig their skills to fit the situation. Glorious.
The only problem, for many, will be that your character is now essentially a clothes horse. Without the ability to spec your character's stats or properly specialise in certain skills, it can be difficult to feel the same emotional attachment as we had with our Amazons, Necromancers and Paladins – indeed, you'll sometimes feel that your hero is never really yours. The fact that advanced tooltips aren't displayed by default is also a shockingly poor decision that stops new players from understanding the new relationship between weapons and skills from the get-go. But compared to not spending any skill points until level 20 to avoid our characters being gimped down the line, the new system is a revelation, and a mature take on the classic Diablo formula.
After a fairly insipid first act, which serves as fan service more than anything, Diablo III opens up into an emphatic journey through new environments and epic set pieces, hammering home that this is the final chapter of the trilogy. A varied mix of melee, ranged and miniboss enemies challenge players to switch up their tactics at every opportunity, and pleasingly, Blizzard has clearly spent a huge amount of time labouring over creature spawns. Many monsters enter the map by climbing up cliffs, emerging from furnaces or bursting from the ground, creating an unpredictable and exciting atmosphere. Some destructible scenery and interactive scenery elements help to make the solid dungeon crawling feel much more visceral than ever before. The action may boil down to clicking and clicking and clicking some more, but you'll keep doing it regardless, just to gain 'just one more' character or dungeon level. As you'd expect, there's also an obscene amount of loot to collect, or convert into raw materials to be crafted into new items by your blacksmith.
Streamlining abounds, and most of it is for the best. As an example, some enemies release health globes upon death, which instantly heals your hero and makes potions an emergency measure rather than a constantly flow-breaking gameplay feature. Town portals can be freely triggered at any time, made up for by a time delay, and rare items can be automatically identified without buying a scroll. Purists will doubtlessly rail against some of these features, especially the aforementioned tooltip issue, but the end result is that Diablo III allows you to focus on the fun of smashing, raiding, looting and experimenting with hero builds without being constantly burdened by unnecessary busywork.
Well, almost. Diablo III came under major fire for its 'always on' DRM, and there's no denying that this controversial move has hurt a lot of players in the week after launch. In this reviewer's opinion, not being able to play a singleplayer game offline is a travesty, and the number of errors (from the classic Error 37 to some latency issues, loss of progress and rubber banding) experienced by the understandably irate community is unforgivable. Diablo isn't an MMO – it's a four-player action RPG – and having its launch and continued play plagued by all the typical pitfalls of an MMO launch is galling beyond belief. Not to mention a worrying precedent that will modify our final score.
Thankfully, the always connected philosophy does have its perks. Chief amongst them is the new focus on drop-in multiplayer, with players able to seamlessly leap into a friend's game, a random open match or invite friends into their own campaign. This is where Diablo III really comes alive, since the versatile skill system and unique classes complement each other in profoundly different ways. It feels like a brand new game and a unique challenge every time you team up with other players, even if they happen to be the same class. The multiplayer has the potential to run and run ad infinitum, and I'm having to marshal all of my self discipline to avoid hopping back online instead of finishing this sentence...
Other advantages include being able to share items and the crafting blacksmith between alts, as well as accessing the new auction house that lets players put items up for sale for in-game profits. The system works on a functional level, but whether Blizzard can stem the inevitable tide of scammers and dupers once the real money auction house is implemented remains to be seen. More to the point, I can't help but worry that the whole point of the game -- getting cool new gear -- has been undermined. It's early days and early doors, so watch this space.
In terms of criticisms beyond the shocking launch and end-user problems, Diablo III happens to be a little short, and surprisingly linear and restrictive in terms of level design. Many of the dungeons tend to end just as you feel like you're getting some real exploration done, and the largest overworld levels are surprisingly small and leave little room for venturing off the beaten track bar a couple of optional oubliettes and dungeons, though this is mitigated somewhat by random map generation. Plus, the normal difficulty setting will let most players blaze through the campaign with a minimum of fuss or challenge.
All of which won't matter in the grand sceme of things, because as any Diablo player knows, it's all about the higher difficulties. Once you've completed the (easy) campaign on Normal, the harder modes provide more than just increased risk and rewards. Not only will you take more damage, but the monsters exhibit new abilities, meaning that you'll have to continually adapt your strategies in the face of a totally unpredictable foe. New PvP content is also incoming, which should help more aggressive players to perfect their builds yet further.
Blizzard's trademark polish and attention to detail help to make Diablo III a worthy – if not necessarily superior – sequel. The devil's in the details, such as each hero and gender (a nifty new feature in itself) having their own cutscenes and dialogue. Followers actually play a part in the story, becoming friends rather than hirelings. And the triumphant final act, despite being far too short, does take us somewhere truly unexpected to cap off the series. Diablo III feels like a quality product through and through, and one that warranted its decade of development.
Could Diablo III have offered more? Probably. But it is what it is: more Diablo, but slicker, more user-friendly and prettier than ever before.
- Brilliantly balanced and unique classes, versatile new skill system
- Stupendously polished combat and dungeon crawling
- Infinitely enjoyable multiplayer
- Horrendous launch and always online issues; lack of offline singleplayer
- Some levels and dungeons are short and linear (not to mention the final act)
- One man's 'streamlining' is another man's 'dumbing down'
The Short Version: Diablo III is a fitting end to the trilogy, and a superior dungeon crawler in almost every respect. The astounding mix of classes and skill system promotes freedom and experimentation, brought home by unimpeachably strong combat and bags of polish. Some more expansive environments and dungeons wouldn't have gone amiss, though.
Sadly, we can't ignore the fact that the 'always connected' philosophy has woefully crippled the experience for many players, and the lack of offline singleplayer is a worrying and inconsiderate precedent.