For the first 20 levels or so, Diablo III is like skiing down a gently sloping hill, one you’d label whatever comes before “green” at an actual resort. You can pretty well wade into any combat situation and wander back out by spamming a handful of buttons, playing to your character’s basic strengths (ranged or melee). If you die, which you probably won’t, your equipment takes damage and you re-spawn nearby. The most I’ve paid is a little over 100 gold pieces to have the guy back in town patch my stuff up. I’m carrying over 50,000 gold around in my “rare” leather pants, money that’s pretty much intravenously tapped to my character’s bank account. I’m like Warren Buffett in The Canterbury Tales with super powers.
I’ve been worried about this for 20 levels now. I’ve also been a little bored. I think I get what Blizzard’s up to — the long, slow hack-and-slash “normal” mode glide to the higher level real game, ala World of Warcraft — but the filler’s awfully dull. Blizzard crafts some of the slickest cutscenes on the planet…and that about sums up the company’s storytelling abilities.
I wish they’d built in a shortcut to the actual game (or given beta testers a way to skip the first act). I don’t need to spend 20 levels (and around 16 hours, according to the game clock) to figure out how to craft armor or juggle runes or slot this skill instead of that one using “elective mode.” If you asked me what my DPS (damage per second) is, I couldn’t tell you because I haven’t had to care. I’m just grabbing whatever magic items max my class’s stats and beating a path to each area’s exit. I can see where that stuff might matter when I unlock the higher difficulty levels and the game finally puts up a fight, but so far, Diablo III feels like a throwback to that game some of us played when we were younger — the one where you push a machine around an area that turns long green stuff into shorter green stuff.
And yet I’ll admit the part of me that compulsively played Diablo and then Diablo II for similar boring stretches can’t help but hack away at Diablo III. I want to see what happens at level 21, even though the last 20 upgrades have felt like watching the FedEx guy walk up with a box containing Diablo III, only it’s Sniper Elite instead. I want to see what’s in Act III and IV, even after the monotony of Acts I and II. I want to get achievements like “kill 15 monsters in 5 seconds using Spike Traps” and “teach the Blacksmith a recipe” even if the only people that’ll see my achievement score are the handful of friends on my Battle.net list.
That’s Blizzard’s secret: making the game version of not stepping on sidewalk cracks, or checking (repeatedly) to make sure you turned off the oven and locked the front door, or going back (repeatedly) if your car thumps over something to make sure it wasn’t a person (or if there’s nothing there, that they didn’t just limp/crawl away).
Now I realize, from reading what other players are saying about the game, that it’s supposed to get better. These first 20 levels are like the cover charge to get into the club, they say, and hey, World of Warcraft works the same way. In fact the latter’s hand is all over this game: The toolbar’s just a WoW-interface shrink, with its mutable skill slots and option buttons and latency meter. The message window on the left looks like it was snatched from WoW and just plunked in. Equipment comes in colors that correspond to rarity — as in WoW, all of that can be bought or sold on Diablo III‘s auction house. And let’s not forget the connection requirement, which — just like WoW — means you have to be online at all times to play the game.
I know I’m just scratching around the surface at 16 hours, and I didn’t mind Final Fantasy XIII taking as much time to get to its point, so let’s call this “praising the game with faint damnation.” After I unlock “Nightmare” mode, there’s “Hell” and “Inferno” difficulty levels to look forward to (no one’s complaining about “Inferno” being too easy), and I’ll surely have to round up friends and dig into co-op mode to pull that off. I’m even looking forward to creating a “Hardcore” character, where death is permanent — no re-spawning or loading from a save file — and seeing if, after I make it to level 30 or 40, then die after doing something stupid, I’ll like the game enough to bother trying again.
But for these first 20 levels, Diablo III is like the prettiest McDonald’s meal you’ve ever had, and just as forgettable. Since my Demon Hunter unlocked “Caltrops” and “Chakrams,” I’ve been sitting back, screened by slowing traps, plinking away (saw-blading, technically) at whatever crawls out of the sand or up from the sides of drop-offs. I’ll keep at it, because I can’t help myself, but if the game has something in the offing that’ll pique more than my compulsion center, it’s time to pony up.