Diablo III is arguably the biggest release of the year. It's been 12 years since the previous instalment, and there is always a huge expectation of refinement with a Blizzard title. What has been presented is an Action RPG in the traditional sense. But while Diablo III appears well-rounded and well presented initially, there's another side to the coin.
Diablo III had a global simultaneous release, and this caused mayhem on the Battle.net servers. Players couldn't log in to play, error after error assaulted the stalwart, and for hours it was touch and go. But this is easily forgiven. With the huge pre-sale fever, this was expected by all but the most optimistic. Blizzard is providing a service, and despite the hiccups it's working as intended. Multiplayer is extremely easy, whether jumping into a public game, or dungeon crawling with friends. Public games are restricted by level, but even if one is level 15 and another friend 55 friends can still play together. For number fiends, endless stat-tracking and achievements are easily accessed thanks to Battle.net. The Auction House is vital, allowing players to find precisely the tools they need. It's seamless – or almost.
Diablo III requires the player to be constantly online while playing, and there are pitfalls to that decision. One is, disgustingly, lag in singleplayer. More than just FPS lag, intermittent internet lag will strike right in the middle of a battle. This is frustrating, but it looks like Blizzard is taking it seriously, so there is hope that this will be a temporary issue. Another fault with the system is that of maintenance. World of Warcraft servers required routine scheduled weekly downtime for maintenance, and surprisingly so does Diablo III. This means that not only will large numbers of people sometimes be unable to play singleplayer, but those downtimes will be scheduled for the US off-peak time – our peak. Blizzard must have decided that their positives outweigh the negatives to consumers. It's a huge boon for them. They have constant access to player patterns, and it's a highly effective means of DRM. Although the majority of folks have constant internet access there are still plenty of valid issues to whine about.
However, players should be more concerned with the direction that Blizzard has taken with the actual game. An aRPG requires at least a modicum of customisation and variety, and certainly Diablo III has this. There's a veritable Niagara Falls of loot constantly pouring over the player. This gives reasonably consistent access to upgrades, or (as is more often the case) gold and crafting materials to create them. Gone are the skill trees of old. Instead, every level or so unlocks new skills and runes, which are a way to customise a specific skill. A character gets to pick and mix no more than six at any time, plus passives. Need to fight a boss? Get some powerful, directed attacks. Clearing trash mobs? Switch over to area-of-effect powers. Leaving the options open is apparently streamlining the experience, but at the cost of taking any importance or permanence out of decision-making.
For all the style, there's little substance. Sure, there's plenty of loot as any similar game should have, but why bother when anything can just be bought or found on the Auction House? Why care about fortunate and well-suited loot drops when the perfect gear is right there on the Auction House? It makes that hallowed sensation of a sweet drop hollow and tedious, a huge step down for the genre. Skills aren't satisfying either. There is no pay-off for switching skills, and having no skill trees means players aren’t locked to a certain path. The 'old-school' approach meant that everything had to be carefully considered. Blizzard has thrown that convention out the window with abandon. And let's not get started on crafting – sure, perhaps at higher levels the customisation with gem upgrades and self-made items becomes important, but, again, the Auction House negates this. This is not a case of streamlining, this is flat-out dumbing down.
For the gameplay itself, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty. Or should that be clicky-clicky? Combat is a merciless flow of action, with the feel of it changing greatly between single and multiplayer. Alone, the challenge is a lot tougher, and gear is more important. There are companions (Enchantress, Templar, and Scoundrel) who can help in the adventures, but they aren't a massive game changer. It's more considered, and honestly more invigorating in terms of gameplay. When it comes to multiplayer, Diablo III turns into a whirlwind of lasers and zombie dogs. It's hectic fun, and enemies are pretty much guaranteed to melt away, so long as the team sticks together. Loot drops are better, and boss fights simpler. In Normal and Nightmare modes it's an easy-going affair, but Hell and Inferno modes do step up the difficulty. Of course, the incentive may not be enough.
The overall experience ends up feeling dull. Combat is mindless. The choice of skills is often a no-brainer, anything other than duel-wielding is just dumb because nothing hurts, and the monsters aren't quite varied enough. A player doesn’t have to prepare for challenges, including bosses, just waltz right in. Some enemies and bosses offer a glimpse of variety, but for the most part it's a mundane trudge. All of the gimmicky achievements, explosions, and kill streaks aren't enough to make the game itself meaningful. To add insult to injury, players have to go through the same environments, the same stories, the same quests, and the same companions four times just to 'complete' the game. And that's just for one character.
The story isn't something to write home about. Yes, for fans and lore freaks it's all there, and yes the cutscenes are goddamn gorgeous, but who cares? That's entirely the wrong reason to play Diablo, or any aRPG. There was probably more clicking during dialogue segments than during combat. The only character worth a damn is Tyrael, as he's the one with an actual character arc. Environments are pretty, if generic (particularly the capital city of Caldeum), but the aesthetic doesn't have any pizazz. There are some segments that feel like old school Diablo, and Act IV is set somewhere unexpectedly awesome, but aside from that, nothing special. Much like the rest of Diablo III.
There are two words that sum up Diablo III: simply beige. The fans worried about it not being 'dark' enough, and they were right. Blizzard have coloured it beige, and it's neither here nor there. Yes, it has that addictive gameplay, and yes it can at times prove itself a worthy adversary, but the rest of it lacks. Most notable is the lack of innovation in the genre. There's nothing small, like the pets in Torchlight, nor anything big, like the dynamic system of Din's Curse. Sure, there are randomly generated maps, and additional dungeons and events on various playthroughs, but nothing stands out. Nothing but the always-on mutliplayer and Auction House, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Diablo III will entertain for a time, but it's a superficial sensation that will leave experienced players hungry for something more substantial.