Wednesday , May 29 2024
We love it, we love it, we love it. Why do we always have to be online again?

PC/Mac Review: Diablo III

The unfortunate truth is that sometimes I just don’t know the best way to write about a game.  How can anyone write a review of Diablo III without discussing the debacle that has been trying to actually play the game on launch day?  Yet, that’s not really the game itself, is it?  And, presumably as the days, weeks, and months pass Blizzard will work out the issues and it will be smooth sailing

(or questing) for all.  But, with the servers being down (or inaccessible or inadequate or whatever you want to say, the upshot of any of which is that the game can’t be played) for so much of launch day, something must be said.

A week before launch I, I think wisely, downloaded the seven-plus gigabytes of game software for Diablo III from Blizzard – I didn’t want to hit a crush on the first day and be unable to download.  Of course, the sad truth of Diablo III is that the way the world is constructed, you have to be online to play… yes, even though you have more than seven gigabytes of game on your hard drive (in point of fact, it appears as though after install I have nearly eight-and-a-half gigs of Diablo III on my computer).  The flipside to the player needing to be online is sometimes not considered but certainly true – the servers need to be running as well.  This isn’t like a Steam-downloaded game that suggests that it would be awfully nice for you to be online to play (so you can save your game to the cloud), if you’re not connected to the servers for Diablo III (no matter whose fault it is), you’re not playing.

I have never been a big fan of MMORPG that require a large outlay of cash for the title and then a monthly expense for exactly this reason – if I’m buying the game, then I should be able to play the game.  I should not be forced to shell out additional cash every month to play something I’ve already bought.  In my mind, the model where the game is free but one still has to pay monthly works, the double-pay model doesn’t.

Happily, folks aren’t being forced to pay twice for Diablo III – there is no monthly access fee, but, if eight gigabytes of game reside on everyone’s computer, connecting to an online server to play ought to be optional.  Even if that means that the game is somehow limited as opposed to the online version, it should be playable in some format.  Eight gigabytes and $60 and you can’t play on an airplane, on the train on the way to/from work, in a diner, anywhere you please… it’s ludicrous and there isn’t an excuse (be it DRM or the wondrousness of saving your game to the cloud) that makes it acceptable for a single-player title.

“But the game requires you to be online so you can do ‘x,'” you say.  “It won’t work because the way the game is constructed…” Well, then it should have been built differently, shouldn’t it have, especially if, as virtually everyone who has tried to play today can tell you, Blizzard wasn’t going to be able to handle access for everyone who bought the game.

Okay, phew, that’s out of my system – it is unquestionably an important fact of the game, its development, and its distribution,  and therefore had to be said, but it isn’t the game itself (mostly anyway, we’ll get to where it is below).  If you only are concerned with the game itself and how it is when you can actually play it, the short answer is – wow, it’s just fantastic.  It’s not perfect, but it’s fantastic.

When I played the first Diablo oh so many years ago, one of the things that struck me instantly is how different an experience I had going through the game as compared to anyone else.  The weapons and armor, spells, potions, and whatever else may have been there completely altered the way I went through what otherwise could have been a straightforward title.  I played GoldenEye 64 before I played Diablo, and the 007 title has always remained a favorite of mine, but, essentially, everyone had nearly the same experience with it.  With Diablo, that’s not true – a great bit of magic or weaponry early on changes the way the game unfolds.

I am happy to report that Diablo III has lost none of that surprise and difference.  I played the open beta earlier this Spring, but when I jumped into the full game, I did so from the beginning.  While I thought I knew what I could expect to have happen, at least in the first 10 or 15 minutes, I was wrong.  While the outline of the map was the same and while I was sent on the same main quest, the monster locations, sidequests, weapons, and just about everything else I saw was different.  Were I to choose a new character type and go again, the experience would still be different. 

As you might imagine, that can make a review a little tough to write.  What was my experience?  I love the game and the experience of playing it.  I find some moments incredibly tough, but once I level up a little and thereby get a new skill or find a weapon or someone to go through a place with me (either an NPC or another real person) they are significantly more easy. 

At the outset of the title, which starts 20 years after the last Diablo, with your character coming to town to track a falling star.  I don’t want to give anything away about what actually takes place, but you will see previous characters return, meet new ones, and generally be intrigued by what takes place story-wise.  It isn’t really the greatest of tales – but it holds everything together well enough.

In terms of actual play, before the game begins you have to choose whether you want to be a Barbarian, Wizard, Monk, Demon Hunter, or Witch Doctor.  Each class of character has their own set of strengths and weaknesses and one ought to make the selection carefully based upon your style of play.  I myself, initially, opted for the Demon Hunter who is best at attacking from the distance and remaining in the shadows, but folks who prefer magic-based characters or guys who get up close and personal will also find someone to their liking.  When you level up in the game, you don’t get a choice about how to assign your skill points – that’s chosen for you. 

What you do get to choose is how you decide is how you outfit your character, both in terms of armor/weapons and which set of attacks/defenses you choose to make active.  Early on there isn’t a whole lot of choice, but as the game gets going and you get further into it, a whole lot of stuff opens up.  It begins to feel somewhat diverse once you start selecting which set of runes you want to augment your active skills, but it’s never Skyrim.

What Diablo III is—first, foremost, and always—is a hybrid hack-and-slash dungeon crawler mixed with an RPG.  That means that while there’s a ton to do from battling monsters to finding armor/weapons to crafting more armor and weapons, the heart of the game always lies in the battle portion.  Maps may be large, but they’re not Skyrim large.  When it comes to crafting weapons, you don’t actually craft them, you get the material and give it to a blacksmith… a blacksmith whom you level up rather than learning the crafting yourself.  That doesn’t make it worse than Skyrim, it’s more the same notion transformed from RPG emphasis to hack-and-slash emphasis.

Diablo III, as brilliantly fun as it is, still fails in some crucial ways.  First off, the default keyboard layout isn’t very good.  In said layout, the numeral 1 is a defensive move, Tab brings up the map, and Q uses a health potion.  That’s three crucial buttons in an awkward little corner of most keyboards, and combined with the fact that if you’re using a trackpad on a Mac and have no right click, the Command button combined with the single button substitutes for a right click.  That means that in the heat of battle you might just by accident hit that Command button and Q slightly too closely together (especially when the game lags which is issue number three… or four) and wind up quitting.

What is worse, is that you’ll quit without having saved your game.  While some games have a tendency to go overboard with their autosave feature (I swear this is the last time I’ll mention Skyrim), Diablo III goes way, grossly, embarrassingly, horrifically, absurdly under.  Finish part of a main quest and you’ll get a save.  Finish part of a sidequest and you won’t.  Level up?  No save.  Progressing to the next level of a dungeon?  Sometimes.  Heading into town?  Only if said visit coincides with a part of the main quest (no random refuel stops in town garner an autosave).  Then, Blizzard has failed to include the ability to allow you to save at a time of your choosing.  Yes, the only saves are autosaves – you cannot save at a time of your choosing.

The upshot of this incredible deficit is that you can play for 10 minutes and have your game saved twice or for 40 minutes (if you’re exploring a huge open area in order to get all the baddies and level up) and have your game not saved at all.  Now, remember how you always have to be connected to the server to be playing?  If your connection drops out–or Blizzard’s does–and you haven’t saved for 40 minutes, you’ve just lost oh-so-much work.  The servers will boot you if you haven’t done anything for a while, so there’s no simply leaving the game paused but running for hours either.

As for that lag, it has certainly been reported (and experienced by us), that there are moments (heavy network traffic?  lots of baddies?  slow connection in multiplayer? other family member streaming a movie elsewhere in the house?) when the game begins, against all odds, to just crawl along.  Often rectified by dumbing down the graphics, it’s an incredible annoyance.  This is made worse when you know that if you could just quit for a minute and go back in or not have to play online at all there would probably be no issue at all, but the way the game has been set up neither of those options are available.

You know what though, despite the size and scope of some of the flaws, Diablo III is a great game.  These issues feel like things of which Blizzard had to have been well aware prior to release but which were pushed aside.  It remains hard to believe that anyone could have thought that the game needing to always be online would in any way lead to a good experience for the end user who shelled out $60 for the title.  But, Blizzard managed to make a game that is great in spite of flaw large enough to deserve to kill most games.

Diablo III is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Violence.

It must be said that we went through much of the game with the official BradyGames’ Diablo III Limited Edition Strategy Guide by our side.  While we have never been one to sit with a guide as we go through a single quest (we don’t want answers handed to us), the guide is full of incredibly useful information which we did want.  Right up front the guide offers a far more in-depth analysis of the character types and what their short- and long-term abilities are than we could find anywhere else (and don’t kid yourself that such information isn’t hugely important).

Beyond that, it contains pages and pages and pages (seriously, there are a lot of them) full of armor and weapon attributes, which make it far more simple to work out what you ought to be keeping in your exceptionally limited inventory (stuff can be stored in town, but you can’t always get there) in the middle of a quest.  The usual sorts of monster information charts and tables are also present.

Perhaps though one of the things we liked the most about the guide are the blurbs and artwork from the folks at Blizzard.  It isn’t just a guide to what you’re doing in the game, it’s a guide to portions of how the game was constructed and what went into it.  As it says, things in the game aren’t random, they just appear to be, there’s actually an incredibly in-depth set of rules (to which we are not privy) that determine where and how everything gets laid out.  And, the thought behind each of the various looks for the characters are wonderful to see laid out on paper. 

As for those who want more of a step-by-step walkthrough of what to do and how to do it, to the extent that such a thing is possible, it too is present.  The guide can’t tell you how many steps until the next monster and exactly how many or what type of creature you’re guaranteed to see somewhere (save bosses), just what tends to be around and how to fight them.  It is incredibly useful without giving away anything massive. 

The Limited Edition comes in a beautiful binding, with a Diablo-head bookmark, a flash copy of the guide, and the aforementioned art section.  Of course, this is a computer game, so it’s a little tough using a computer-based guide at the same time you’re actually playing.  As you can go through the game without the guide it can’t be termed essential, but it really does provide an incredible wealth of information at one’s fingertips, information not easily obtained elsewhere and which is truly useful.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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