Sunday, December 15, 2013

GOT 'IM - Diablo III

This review is the culmination of a former early 2000s curiosity turned mid-2000s obsession turned full year of resistance turned giving up and giving in.  I bought Diablo III on impulse and beat Normal Mode a few days later.  Here's the review.

I'm going to try and make this one brief, but it won't be.  I rarely end up being brief when I say I will.  Anyhow, this review is for Diablo III, and it will be HEAVILY informed by my past experiences with Diablo, Diablo II, Torchlight, and Torchlight II.  Those four will come up a LOT, especially Diablo Dos.

Now, my first Diablo experience comes from when I was ten, and my friend Leo (with whom I stopped being friends a few years later) was really into it.  He was playing as a Sorcerer and died in about three seconds against the Butcher, Diablo's first boss.  Shit was scary; I was frightened.  I also wasn't a PC gamer by any means (lots of Carmen Sandiego and Civilization II and that's about it) so Butcher nightmares were all the Diablo memories I had for a few years. When Diablo II came around I still wasn't really playing Blizzard games, but I remember a bunch of my friends playing it at the time.  Around 2001 or so I got into Starcraft (since so many of my friends in high school played), and eventually Warcraft III, which I liked better than Starcraft.  For several years, I managed to avoid playing any Diablo in earnest.

Fast forward to college and a few of my friends started up a Diablo II LAN party on a lark, seeing how far they could get in one night from level 1 Normal.  I joined, died a lot, but had a better time than I anticipated (playing a Barbarian).  I went and grabbed the Diablo II Battle Chest soon after (this is probably late 2007).  I played a little more Diablo II, eventually beating Normal with a Barbarian named Boss_Lasz.  I tried to get into the D2 multiplayer but it wasn't grabbing me.  I liked the selection of classes, I liked the basics of gameplay, and I liked the Gothic setting.  I treated it like a single-player action RPG, but with a more customizable experience and more treasure hunting.  I beat Diablo I, also solo, in the summer of 2008 during summer classes - I vividly remember the crappy dorm room in which I played it.  It was extremely dated by then, but I finally understood why it was so compelling to Leo all those years ago.  There wasn't ANYTHING like it back in 1996. 

So I played Diablo Dos sporadically over the past six years, but only ever beat the game (and only Normal) with five classes, with two or three of them heavily assisted by my friends playing along with me.  I also experimented with a variety of Diablo clones, really enjoying a few (namely Sacred and Torchlight).  I was leery about trying Diablo III because of rumors about online connection errors, a broken economy due to the auction houses, and dumbed-down mechanics.  Then, last year, the big one landed: Torchlight II.  This was exactly what i wanted.  A game extremely similar to Diablo II with modern trappings and sensibilities, more customization, its own unique lore and look, and a near-endless amount of endgame content.  Torchlight II was probably my favorite game of 2012, shared a lineage with the Diablo series, and was my assurance that I didn't need to play Diablo III.  T2 was all I needed.

And then I saw Diablo III on sale while buying Christmas presents for friends.  I couldn't resist.

Now, before I get to the review proper, I'm going to explain a few things: I will NOT go into minute detail as to how this game is played.  It's a third-person RPG where you control one character with mouse clicks, special skills hotkeyed to the numbers of your keyboard, and inventory management.  It's a Diablo game.  I *will* be focusing on the major changes to the Diablo formula that Blizzard has made, and what stood out to me as good and bad.  This is not a review for a magazine or to educate curious gamers - I'm writing my thoughts on a game I recently finished. So I will gloss over gameplay basics, because I don't want to bother with them.  Thanks for listening, if you haven't closed your browser window yet. 

So, Diablo III (D3 from now on).  I finished it in mid-November over the course of about two weeks, using a Barbarian just like my first time with Diablo II (D2 from now on).  I beat Normal mode with a dual-wielding build with buffs and Barbarian shouts, which is a little riskier than I usually roll but it was good fun anyway - typically in Diablo-esque loot RPGs I play as summoner, buffer, or tank.  I'm glad I played through it once to experience it for myself.  It's behind me, and I can revisit it later whenever I please.

...except I'm not entire sure I want to.  In beating Normal and reaching level 31, I've experienced almost everything the Barbarian class has to offer.  Instead of choosing your stat boosts and new skills at every level, you character learns every active skill and passive boost available to the class.  Character building is now entirely driven by weapon selection, as every character learns every skill available and character stats are predetermined.

Now, there is a lot of loot and Diablo has always had loot as a major focus, but this feels like oversimplification.  Part of the fun of replaying games like Torchlight II (henceforth called T2) and D2 is trying new skills and builds, since there is an inherent commitment and risk to choosing certain combinations of skills and different levels of investment.  D3 has characters learning a new skill (or a "rune" that changes an older skill) at every level.  At level 30, your character has learned every active skill and you can customize your gameplay experience that way.

Now, it's nice having every skill available, but there are two downsides here.  First, you're only allowed to equip six active skills at once.  No hotkey customization without going into the code, and two of those hotkeys are the mouse buttons.  This is a little limiting, considering that D2 had unlimited hotkeys (I would roll more than six skills quite often for my old Necromancer build).  Second, it just feels... empty.  In D2 and T2 your skill investment carries an element of risk and an element of personalization (as I mentioned earlier).  MY Barbarian is different from YOUR Barbarian because of  skill and stat choices.  In D3, all Barbarians are alike except for equipment.  Unequipped, all Barbarians at level 60 (the current maximum) are identical.

Now, Blizzard's reasoning for this (and also their reasoning for the automatic stat distribution) is to make Diablo III idiot-proof.  With those two customization elements automated, inexperienced players can't shoot themselves in the foot with misguided decisions in increasing certain stats and skills.  Stats are also simplified, with each of the four stats representing a type of defense (armor, evade, resistance, and HP) and each class having one specific stat determining ALL damage.  It's fun exploring the moveset of a character as you learn additional skills, and there is a lot of active customization choosing which skills and which skill upgrades to equip (each class has at least 15 skills, 20 passives, and five variations of each skill).  Still, I prefer the older way of things, which is alive, well, and improved in Torchlight II.

Now, there are two other major caveats about Diablo III worth bringing up before I start praising it (I will soon, I promise).  First, The Internet.  D3 runs on an always-on connection, which is annoying when you consider features it cuts (LAN playability) and insulting when you consider its other limitations (can't play when internet is down or absent).  Now, this allows for a lot of neat Battle.Net features to be implemented, like live stat updates and profile sharing (here's my D3 profile) but several people are upset about it.  I could care less, since I'm basically always on the internet anyhow.

The other thing that bothered me a little is the auction house.  I never used it because I was only playing on Normal and never approached the far-endgame at all.  However, the option to buy potentially any item in the game with in-game gold or real dollars completely bastardizes the loot hunt and makes the endgame economy wack.  You don't believe me?  The huge amounts of complaints and accusations of illegal gold-farming resulted in Blizzard relenting; the auction houses are being taken down just before the D3 expansion lands next year.  Again, this bit never affected me since I didn't even obtain enough gold or a high-enough level to get anything out of the auction house, but it's still something that clearly never belonged in Diablo.

So let's get back to the game.  Now, you choose your class and end up in New Tristram.  D3 takes palce 20 years after D2, so mt. Arreat is a ruinous crater and the world has been (mostly) demon-free for several years.  However, the last two of the seven Evils, Belial and Azmodan, are still alive and beginning to terrorize the world again.  You team up with the elderly scholar Deckard Cain ("stay awhile and listen") and his young assistant Leah to stop the Evils from rising again.  This plot exposition is fine, but the execution is... eh.  Each of the four Acts (structurally, D3's plot is almost identical to that of D2) has a predictable twist at the end, telegraphed far in advance.  These twists weren't *bad* exactly, but their over-the-top and obvious nature made D3's plot about as subtle as a professional wrestling storyline.  I enjoyed watching it play out (hey, I enjoy pro wrestling storylines), but it was unsophisticated to say the least. 

And hey, playing D3 feels like playing Diablo, and that's pretty great.  Manipulating your characters around with mouse clicks feels smoother than ever, and if you don't have any aversion to click-based combat (if you do, well, I understand) then it plays great.  Skills are also fun to mess around with, with a strong variety for any given character.  My Barbarian focused on his Tactics tree, with war shouts, boosts, and a powerful summon rounding out his skillset and dealing the bulk of his damage with mad-clicking Frenzy attacks.  As such, I dual-wielded weapons for most of the game; unlike D2, D3 has all three warrior equipsets be very effective (two-hand, dual-wield, and shield).  In D2 shields were too effective NOT to use one except for novelty's sake. 

D3's selection of enemies is a mix of the old and new, with Diablo favorites like goat-men, Fallen, and all manner of demons and undead.  There are plenty of callbacks to the first two games, with classic bosses like the Butcher and Izual making new appearances.  The new super-uniques and bosses are all pretty cool, with the final set of enemies in Act III particularly impressive (the Siegebreaker Demon and Mistress of Lust were awesome).  The boss battles themselves also have a little bit more thought put into them (relative to D2 or even T2), being more than simply slamming enemies with your best moves at all times. 

The environments in D3 are excellent, with the four Acts comprising of highlands, a desert, a snowy battlefield, and an impressive final act set in [spoiler].  The maps were a healthy mix of open areas, obviously directed overworlds, and winding corridors.  It felt more structured than maps in D2, but that's probably a good thing.  I didn't explore every single optional cave in the game (or all the optional hidden quests), but the layout and organization was impressive. 

Visually, Diablo III is gorgeous.  Everything looks and moves great.  Voice work is outstanding, and the addition of three companions for banter and companionship is a HUGE improvement from hiring followers in D2.  You get three combat followers and two merchant followers, but I liked them so much I would have liked more of each.  Those merchants also allow your character to forge weapons, armor, and gemstones for more equipment customization, and I was taking advantage of it a LOT. 

Look, this review is already too long, so I'll cut it off here.  Diablo Tres is definitely a Diablo game, but it feels oversimplified and / or soulless at times.  I wouldn't recommend playing it just for the story or to create a bunch of builds (your character max is only 10, for chrissakes), but there's a lot of content, a bunch of achievements (that Blizzard clearly wants us to explore in depth), and a FUCKTON of loot.  Visuals are better; customization is worse; action is pretty much the same.  I'm glad I played Diablo III, and I yet might play more to see how the other classes are, but it mostly made me want to revisit Torchlight II.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement. 

Games Beaten: 2013 Edition
1. Persona 4
2. Pokemon White Version 2
3. 10,000,000
4. Persona 4 Arena
5. Persona 3 FES: The Journey (NG+)
6. Hexyz Force
7. Persona 4 (NG+)
8. Psychonauts
9. Tales of Vesperia
10. Guacamelee!
11. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
12. Final Fantasy VI Advance
13. Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 4
14. inFamous 2 Evil Finish
15. Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis
16. Torchlight II (Classist)
17. Donkey Kong Country Returns
18. DuckTales Remastered
19. Ys vs. Sora no Kiseki: Alternative Saga
20. Diablo III
21. Ys: The Oath in Felghana
22. Ancient Ys Vanished: Omen

Targets: 6/13


Over the past few weeks or so I've beaten two main-series Ys games, one spinoff Ys game, and started a fourth.  Very soon you'll finally hear all about my new obsession in a review of Ys: The Oath in Felghana, followed by a review of the PC version of a PSP remake of the original 1987 Ys game.  I'll get to finishing Metroid Prime.  Eventually. 

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