D3: The Devil Is In The Details

WoW has been pretty quiet lately. I’ve been totally immersed in Diablo 3, along with my friend Dan Spidell. He’s been enjoying the game and came across a few things that inspired the writing bug. Since so many of you snagged the Annual Pass for WoW, I told Dan I’d post his thoughts on my blog.

Note: I will endeavor to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. I’ll be talking about game mechanics primarily (and my impressions of same), and when I do have to mention something about the story, I’ll be as oblique as possible.

So. The wait is over. Diablo 3 is here.

Now what?

This article isn’t designed to be a review per se. My plan is to talk about the good and bad of Blizzard’s newest juggernaut and hopefully get a feel for how it’s going to do long term. What did they do right? Where did they miss the mark? And how will all of this affect the longevity of one of the most-anticipated games of all time?

For anyone that’s not familiar with the Diablo series, let me set the stage: There’s a world called Sanctuary. Mostly common working folk living in towns and villages; think Earth’s 17th century. There’s magic, ghosts and demons. And of course where there are demons, there are angels with the sole intent of destroying the demons.

A small hamlet named Tristram was invaded by the titular demon—The Prime Evil Diablo– for the sake of… well, mayhem, really. Demons don’t generally invade to raucously breed the newest geranium, after all. A dark, brooding hero (that’d be you) set upon a quest to deny Diablo his goal, and did it. That’s the gist. If you’d like to read more, you can do so at this site.

Diablo II and its follow-up pack, Lords of Chaos, expanded on this story by having Diablo’s brothers Baal and Mephisto show up to cause more trouble. Diablo III begins several years later in the town of New Tristram, a stone’s throw from the original town. More demonic baddies have arrived to cause a ruckus, and it’s up to you to send them back to Hell… again.

To this end, you can choose from several classes: Monk, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter, Barbarian and Wizard. Each of them has their own flavor in terms of moves and resources, but there is a necessary amount of homogeny present, i.e. certain number of AoE moves and single-target moves. Some classes have the ability to buff other party members, etc.

This actually brings me to my first and primary problem with Diablo 3 (D3). It doesn’t really feel like a Diablo game to me. Sure, it’s got the isometric view and the same voice actors from previous games. It’s even got the “make your clicking forearm twice as big as your keyboard forearm” game play. But it just doesn’t… click.

I think part of the problem is that it wasn’t designed by the same team that worked on Diablo 2; the team that gave us such a memorable experience that we waited with bated breath for the release of D3 nearly 12 years later. That team has moved on to greener pastures, and in looking at the credits of D3, I notice a large number of World of Warcraft talents listed.

Therein lies my issue; the game feels like it’s stuck between two worldviews. Diablo 1 & 2 were offline single-player games that had the ability to log onto the then-burgeoning Battle.net service in order to play co-op and/or PvP-style games. D3 is an always-online game. There is no way to play this game unless you’re connected to the Interwebs. This was my first clue that Blizzard had something else up its sleeve. I think by now we know how rough the first week of launch was for Blizzard and its hojillion launch-day purchasers that now dread the very mention of the phrase “Error 37.” I should know, I was one of them via the Annual Pass.

Also added is one of the most seamless and fluid join-when-you-want party systems I’ve ever seen. From the character selection screen you can click a button and instantly be transported to your friend’s game. You’ll spawn in New Tristram where you’re one banner-click away from demon smashing.

The problem with this, to me, is that while the always-online, social media-type system works, it really doesn’t feel like Diablo. It feels like WoW with a Diablo sheen. I play WoW to get my social fix, partying up with 4 (or 9) other friends and going out as a band to slay the baddies. Diablo (as a series), on the other hand, has always been my “I don’t know how long I have to play, so I’m just going to hop in and slay things for a while, knowing I can turn it off whenever” game. That’s just not as possible now because of the checkpoint system.

Let’s say I’ve spent the last hour wandering around the map, clearing it completely (yay OCD), looking for elite or champion spawns for all that lovely loot they drop. Now let’s say that my wife needs me to go to the store. Since I haven’t hit the story-based checkpoint, as soon as I quit, I just lost that hour of progress… maybe. I haven’t been able to nail down hard rules as to when you lose exploration progress and when you don’t. Doesn’t quite seem to fit the typical Blizzard polish.

This brings me back to the online vs. offline debate. If you’re going to force me to be online all the time and even include an Auction House (another WoW bleed over) and give the game most of the trappings of, well, let’s call it MMO-lite, I expect a few certain features if I’m going to put it in the MMO box. For example: In-game mail. Since it is prohibitively expensive until you’ve soaked many hours into the game (more MMO grindy goodness) to upgrade the shared stash, it would be great if, when I looted a perfect piece of gear for one of my alts, I could just mail it instead of having to play inventory Tetris in the stash.

I suppose that my point is that D3 feels like a hybrid game that isn’t good at either part of its make-up. With the always online-ness, it’s clearly not a single-player game with multiplayer trappings any longer. And with the dearth of expected MMO-style features, it’s not very good as a persistent constantly-online game, either.

And you know what?

I don’t care.

All of the things I’ve said above are true, and there’s still more I could nitpick. The fact that even on Nightmare, the 2nd of 4 difficulty levels, the bosses are pushovers doesn’t bother me. The fact that the primary challenge is in the packs of elite and champion mobs instead of the bosses doesn’t bug me. That much. Unless I get two-shot because my health potions are on cooldown and I freeze for a moment. I can even ignore the fact that it seems like half of the gear that drops seems to be tailored for my alts five levels below me.

I just don’t care.

This is Diablo, and at its core, it’s about mindlessly smashing through hordes of demons to see shiny loot drop. The story, the stash, the quests, everything… they’re all secondary. But when the bloodlust is slaked, the framework that holds up the game needs to be stronger than it is, or I don’t see myself sticking with it long-term, which is a shame.

You know what they say: The devil is in the details.

So what do you think? Is Diablo III the game you wanted it to be? Will you keep playing or do you think you’ll go back to WoW once the luster has worn off? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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5 Responses
  1. Tzufit says:

    I suppose this is going to sound crazy coming from someone who likes to complain about story issues in WoW as much as I do … but I sort of love the chaos and mindlessness of Diablo. This is my first experience with the franchise, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect or if I’d enjoy it. But just as Dan describes, there is something undeniably fun about “mindlessly smashing through hordes of demons.” Sure, my friends and I predicted the major plot “twists” of each of the Acts about five minutes into them, but that didn’t make demon smashing any less fun!

  2. chase says:

    Belial & Azmodan in D2?…………………….. Dang, so then we fight Baal & Mephisto in D3!? So weird…

  3. Navimie says:

    Glad you’re having fun in there! I haven’t quite gotten into it…

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