The most pre-ordered game of all time on Amazon.com, Diablo 3 hit shelves with high expectations. Some claimed they’ve been waiting years for the release, with others taking days off works and even hosting parties to celebrate the event. Was it worth the wait? In part one of the OKS Reviews’ Diablo 3, that’s the question I’ll be trying to answer.

The first part of the review is about the controversy surrounding Battle.net. If you’d like to skip to gameplay, please scroll down the section below it.

Controversy

Blizzard made no attempt to hide the fact that Diablo 3 uses the Battle.net system, for both online and offline play. Those who pre-ordered either from us or directly from the Blizzard store were at least made aware of this prior to launch. The problem is, although Battle.net is a great service, offering a host of features (that I’ll talk about in a moment), it requires a constant connection to the internet and Battle.net servers in order to play; including whilst playing offline. This has caused out-rage among gamers, regardless of their intent to buy the game or not. Following Blizzards controversial scheme to milk Diablo for World of Warcraft subscriptions, by means of annual passes, some players had an already bitter disdain for the way in which Blizzard conducted themselves by treating the product like some kind of marketing token.

Evidently, the reliance on Battle.net has brought a host of problems. Error 37, for example, kept players out of the game on launch until at least the 15th. Error 3006 similarly caused rage within certain circles. Arguments such as “why does a single player game need Battle.net and a constant connection to the internet” started appearing. Rebuttals also started popping up, including the fantastically stupid “Diablo 3 doesn’t even have single player, it’s a multiplayer game” and the less stupid “Blizzard have the right to protect their IP from piracy” rebukes. Needless to say, players were torn – and a massive rift of crazy opened up on YouTube and gaming forums, seemingly eliminating rational conversation through a huge anti-matter explosion. In an instant, Diablo 3 started getting 1/10 reviews from seemingly loyal fans of the original  crazy people, who, because they took a day off paid work to play on the 14th, and couldn’t play until the 15th, decided that the entire game was awful – and that Blizzard were terrible people.

Now, without getting into the technical aspects of what Battle.net entails too much, it’s rational to expect that millions of people all trying to log into the client at once, at 00:01, is going to cause problems. Every MMO beta/launch in the history of time has taught us that the idea that you can play these games on the dot, right at launch, is ultimately a flawed one.

Here comes the next installment in the anti-Blizzard spiral of hatred:

Diablo 3 isn’t an MMO. Why should players expect it to react like one on launch?

Well, there are two sides to this sorry tale. Firstly, Battle.net is actually a very, very good service – with a host of benefits. It allows users to tie in all their Blizzard product friends through RealID. It reduces the chances of hacking and stat/character alteration (since characters are not stored locally). It means that players don’t have to save or worry about save files. Battle.net offers, in my experience, great customer service and a lively (I use the word broadly) community. For those of you with long-standing friends on WoW, Star Craft 2 or other Blizzard games, Battle.net is a useful service. All of these things may seem trivial when looked at independently, but in reality – the whole package works really well… when it works. 

The downside is this: users must have a connection to the internet 100% of the time, otherwise they will be logged out of the game, rendering it unplayable. Those who argue that, since Diablo 3 is a single player game, this shouldn’t affect them, are partially right to argue this fact… if they haven’t bought the game.

Battle.net is a feature. It’s one of the features you have access to when purchasing the game. It’s part of the game… it’s part of the overall experience. If you didn’t like Battle.net, you shouldn’t have bought the game – the fact that it uses Battle.net wasn’t hidden from anybody, as far as I can see.

Now, I’m not defending server down-times, or even the necessity to play online – I’m merely saying that these factors are all part of the product that you were happy to pay for in the first place. If you weren’t, and haven’t – then I refer you to the below:

Battle.net is not the unholy mess that people like to make out it is. Less than 20 hours of service interruptions on launch does not tarnish the 6-months – X amount of years of enjoyment you could potentially get out of the game. Is Diablo 3 a bad game because it uses Battle.net? No. Is it a bad game because millions of people trying to log in at once didn’t turn out to be a great idea? No. Is Blizzard evil for using Battle.net, continuously? Not at all.

Is the impossibility of playing offline acceptable? Well, if you bought the game – you must have thought so. Is it preferable? No. I shan’t defend it, but I can certainly understand it – and, to me at least, it’s this issue that really is the only real rational complaint about the utilization of the Battle.net system.

As the service passes its teething stages (a mere couple of days after release), we can start to enjoy the game for what it really is…

(Other controversial subjects will be discussed below, such as the “lack of skill trees” and “lackluster combat” views.)

Getting back into Diablo

Entering Sanctuary once more, players have the choice of five classes: Witch Doctor, Barbarian, Wizard, Monk and Demon Hunter. Criticized for not featuring character creation, Diablo 3 is eager to remind us right at the start of the game that this is indeed an old-school top-down dungeon-crawling loot-fest, something that a lot of gamers apparently didn’t expect. Regardless, within moments of research and a little reflection I was off and away with my Demon Hunter; the lovingly named Rodger.

You emerge after a stylistic cut-scene  from a shed on the top of a dead-end, apparently taken a-back by the scent of the dead. Using the mouse by either clicking or holding down the left mouse button, you head down the bottom of the hill to the front of Tristam, a familiar setting in the Diablo series.

Suddenly, the dead rose before me and I found myself underwhelmed by the spamming of arrows from my mini-crossbow. Underwhelmed for why? I asked myself. The combat in Diablo 3 is certainly true to the genre – but spoiled by hype and a $60 price-tag, I found myself a victim of high-expectations. Never-mind, I figured – plod along.

Tristam serves as your home for the foreseeable future, housing the initial way-point and merchants, including black-smith, and main NPC’s you’ll interact with for the first act. A charming little area, Tristam is really your first ice-breaker in the world of Diablo 3, helping you get accustomed to the music, theme and aesthetic of the game.

After 20 minutes of running around, it all came flooding back to me. Titan Quest; Dungeon Seige; Dungeons: I’m playing a proper dungeon-crawling hack’n’slash. From that moment forth I began to start cutting through hype and slip enthusiastically back into this undernourished genre…

Venturing out into the playfields

After spamming 20-30 zombies, following the initial underwhelming introduction to the combat of Diablo 3, I set about heading to the vague way-point set on the first quest. What struck me most here was the fact that I knew exactly what I was doing, and why. Diablo 3 offers quest dialogue in a free, concise way – with very competent voice acting. You’re able to run around, shop, sell and craft whilst the quest giver passes on his message. Likewise, journals found all around the houses and fields of Sanctuary are short and to the point, and play as you fight. This method of story interaction in short but frequent bursts is an incredibly well thought out method of information connotation. I didn’t miss a thing, and without long streams of quest text with unnecessary bulk I was into the story of Diablo 3 within moments.

The lore is also introduced in the same way – with clickable ‘lore’ tabs in the bottom right hand corner of the screen when you come across a new enemy or area. It’s read from the perspective of a scholar, who is not without wit or disdain for his fellow country-men. If there’s one thing I love about Diablo 3, it’s not having to wait for people to read reams of bloated nonsense to get a feel for the game – only to have them, or myself, run off from frustration (not that this doesn’t happen for other reasons).

Unlike the previous games, the playfields of Sanctuary are not randomly generated – but they do feature randomly generated dungeons, with varying loot-tables and varying degrees of boss rarity. Playfields are vast and wide, taking quite a few strides to uncover all the fog. You’ll undoubtedly come across dungeons, cellars and explorable wells of varying difficulties, which you can either venture into or ignore. Since many of these are randomly generated (cellars – not so much) there is, to use a marketing term, “infinite replayability.” Although not my thing, you can farm for rare items and sell them on one of the two auction houses.

Diablo 3’s playfields feature a vast range of enemies – and whilst initially you’ll find yourself a classic zombie hunter, other types do pop up within a relatively short amount of time. There’s also great destruction thanks to the amazing untilisation of the Havok engine. I really do mean amazing. Decapitation and element destruction’s look great – with walls, trees, logs and destructible environments causing damage to enemies when use correctly.

Unlike other games in the genre, Diablo 3 doesn’t offer an extensive range of side-quests, and most you come across will be achievable within the immediate area. These can range from helping out locals to defeating rare or difficult bosses in dungeons. They’re worth doing, if only for the subsequent dialogue. On one mission, I helped a guy out by eradicating the undead on his farm. As a thank-you, he took us down to meet his wife. She was sat in a chair – really quite dead. As her head fell off, the man said “Oh, I’m afraid her head seems to have nodded off”. The entire thing was so bizarrely juxtaposed to the relatively serious setting that both myself and my partner burst out laughing. We didn’t expect it. It was a great introduction to what there is to see and hear in the new world of Sanctuary.

Dungeons

As I said above, dungeons can be (but aren’t all) randomly generated. Story dungeons are not – but dungeons stumbled upon in the playfields indeed are. The dungeons vary in length – some merely caverns; with others extending to multiple floors. They feature an array of enemies using the labels of varying difficulty: grey, white, purple, and yellow, to warn or entice players to their  respective difficulty.

As you’d expect, it’s loot galore – with a quite unrestricted system of gear compared to other games. You’ll find that most classes can wear each-others gear, or use each-others weapons where they would usually not. For instance, the mage can use any single handed weapon in order to increase his spell damage – and whilst there is a +spell damage stat, his base damage relies on his main hand weapon damage – regardless of what it is. You could see this as dumbing down, but I didn’t really care. Gear is distributed per player, and you’ll not be able to see other peoples dedicated gear on the floor if it is for them. Because of this, looting is much less of a head-ache than it could have been. Rolling for gear, for instance, would have been a nightmare. I found myself picking up blues and rares quite frequently, and to stop and have a conversation about it each time would have been a huge pain in the neck. It’s very handy to be able to quickly throw on something that appears to be blatantly better than an item before it, without picking up 6 times more crap that I couldn’t use. There are items, of course, that are class specific; a Mage can’t use a two handed sword of course, but he can wear leather armour. There is also armour that is dedicated to class not because of the type – for instance a cowl that is labelled for use by the Demon Hunter.

You’ll learn quickly that picking up slot-heavy grey items for sale is a pointless enterprise – since it isn’t worth anything much, and most of your coin will be collected from corpses (without needing to click on it.) Total Biscuit complained about this aspect on this video  – but the argument seems illogical. Would you rather pick up white/grey items and have to head to town to empty your bags every 10 minutes, or just skip over them and make most of your money from coin drops? You don’t automatically pick up weapons and armour by running over them – so it’s really not a problem, and leaves your bags free for rares and purple items that can be either sold on the auction house or given to friends – or stripped for crafting.

Dungeons are really fun – and they look really great. Cosmetic objects line the walls and floor, with interactive items that can cause damage to the enemy fun to use. The dungeons are artistically fantastic, and have a wonderful atmosphere that immersed me completely – far more so than Titan Quest, which was, until now, my favourite game in the genre. They can take anything from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours to clear completely – and are often overwhelmingly large. In a group, you can split up if you want to cover more ground – but it’s likely you’ll miss out on loot in doing so.

Craftily avoiding store-prices

The Diablo 3 crafting system is quite interesting. It allows players to recycle rare and powerful items for base materials, which are then used to create items for yourself or your friends, or for the auction house. You don’t level up with each item, so much as pay a set fee each time. A quite expensive 2000 gold, with prices rising, it’s quite a costly exercise – but when you actually do it you’ll find it’s the only thing worth spending money on. If you save all your materials and dedicate them to crafting, you can make equipment that is far better than vendor equipment in a flash. Crafted items are also automatically “enchanted” in that they have increased based stats and other cool stats. They almost make vendors redundant, which is a curious thing in and of itself.

The whole “all you do is click” thing…

It’s true that Diablo 3 features a two mouse-button combat system to some extent. The left mouse button is your main attack, whilst the second is your secondary attack. At first, you’ll find this a very weary system. Using shift to steady yourself, you stand and either click or hold down the left mouse button for the majority of the time… at first.

Lest we forget, again, that the style of combat mimics the genre perfectly. Titan Quest featured an almost identical combat mechanic but took half of the heat because of it.

Now, I’m not one to defend a bad combat mechanic – but truth be told Diablo 3 doesn’t have bad combat – it merely takes a little time to understand and get to grips with.

Within a couple of hours, my Demon Hunter went from spraying his alternative attack and alternating to his main attack, to laying traps and using tactical dodging. It is incredibly satisfying to use a barrage of arrows in a long stream to decapitate a horde of oncoming enemies.

Each class has it’s respective “rotation”, if you will, that does require thought and clever use of the hot-bar skills if you don’t want to die. Sure, you can go through the game using your main attack only, if you want – but that would make you weird. Why would you do that?

Another complaint was the lack of skill trees. Some players thought this meant that skills would be granted and merely level up along a linear process. This is also an unfounded myth. Each class has access to 6 active skills and 3 passive skills at any one time. These will unlock as you progress in level. It’s true that you don’t need to go to town and ‘train’ – but how well would that have worked in a party of four strangers? You can allot any skill within the 6 different classifications that you wish, one in each slot. They are fully interchangeable at any time out of combat.

Another complaint was that the skills unlocked are merely improved versions of the prior skills. This is also a complete myth. Skills vary from ranged to melee – AOE to single target. You’ll often find yourself switching skills out for bosses or certain enemy types. There is a lot of freedom here, folks – and instead of being confined to a set tree of skills, you can actually change your “tree” at any time – from ranged to melee at your will. I often found myself going back from my second or third unlocked skill to my first one. If I knew I needed to hit one target harder, I set the right skill for the job. For mobs, likewise, I set the right skill for the job. A tactical use of your skills, and which to use for the right task, is an integral part of Diablo 3 that some people, possibly from beta experience, fail to see.

And for those of you who claim that Diablo 3‘s combat is a lack-luster, linear process: I refer you to this article that could enlighten you as to how to fix that problem, which didn’t actually exist in the first place (because it was made up.)

Is Diablo 3 really just a click… click… click… experience? No. Not at all. Sure, you can choose not to use or care about the arsenal of skills at your disposable, and just assume the next one up is intrinsically better – but that isn’t a problem with the game.

Graphics and sound

Are Diablo 3′s graphics good? Technically? No – but it is a beautiful game. The player models are noticeably ugly, and the armour really doesn’t shine. I’m not sure why Blizzard decided that the poly-count in these cardboardy tiny-folk was alright, but it really isnt… at least, not for me. It’s a strange thing, though, graphics – because the game is visually pretty. The murky tones blend in incredibly well with the thick and smooth particle effects and lighting. Spells and lights look fantastic, and the game has a well painted aesthetic that is easy on the eye and shows a lot of love. The transcendence from art to execution has been executed masterfully, and the play-fields and areas are radiantly beautiful and masterfully crafted. Will Diablo 3 win any awards for technical prowess in this department? No. But I don’t think Blizzard cares – it’s a pretty game, and I am in love with the atmosphere. In love, perhaps, but not head-over heels – there’s room for improvement.

Sound design in Diablo 3 is also worth an independent mention. I use a 5.1 headset for clarity of sound, and the surround mixing is superb. For every arrow fired I had a directional sound that was independent from the sound of the arrow, bow and directional noise. Likewise, monster and ambient sounds are great – and dungeons have a fantastic level of immersion using 5.1 (or higher) sound.

Music is absolutely fantastic, and the World of Warcraft composer Russel Brower returns with fire and skill. Utilizing hypnotic hymns and battle drums, with eloquent strings and nuances of minimalism in places just to give a certain area that little bit more atmosphere, Brower has recaptured everything we loved about the original memorable WoW soundtrack with such brilliance that I would recommend a purchase of the soundtrack to anyone interested in contemporary classical or film music. A true master of this art, Brower deserves a large proportion of the credit Diablo receives for the experience.

An underwhelming schlep through zombie meh, or a loving return to the loot-fest questing of old times?

Well, it depends. Diablo 3 isn’t your childhood gaming memories in a box. It can’t rekindle all those moments on the originals you had as a kid, immersed in an epic fantasy world at a point where your imagination was much more open, and much less tarnished. It is a humble game, lovingly true to the genre; a genre that is inherently underwhelming.

A classic dungeon-crawling adventure game, Diablo 3 finds it difficult to justify the high price – especially for those of you who expected something else. I wouldn’t say that Blizzard pretended Diablo 3 was anything other than what it is, but there is a sense in the community that a lot of people expected something more. As for myself, I expected classic dungeon-crawling, with lots of loot. That’s exactly what I got. If that isn’t your thing, then you should probably look elsewhere.

I am certain of the following, though:

  • Diablo 3 is not a terrible game because of Battle.net launch issues.
  • It does not feature brainless, one click combat.
  • It does feature varied and customisable skills and abilities.
  • It does have a rich lore and great atmosphere.

Did it live up to the expectations? Well – perhaps not; but then, could anything have? With a clear head and an open mind there’s a great, polished adventure set up for you and 3 of your friends to get stuck into – and I highly recommend that you do. Blizzard didn’t do much to innovate the genre, but just as they did with Star Craft II, they offered exactly what fans of the genre wanted: a polished and well crafted experience. The problem, I fear, is that thousands of copies sold were indeed not sold to fans of the genre, and expectations were somewhat misplaced; whether the fault of Blizzard or media speculation remains to be seen.

It really needs to be enjoyed as a whole-package experience: music, lore, atmosphere sound and questing. If you place more import on some aspects over others – or, in the case of a good few people – only seem to care about combat, then you might simply find yourself misunderstanding Diablo 3.

Join us for part two later in the month, where we’ll be talking about the latter parts of the game, including an in depth look at the auction house and pay-for services, and PVP.