If all you play of Diablo III is its no-cutting-in-line “normal” mode, you haven’t played the better game Blizzard wants you to. That one involves epic boss fights, crafting killer gear, questing for legendary item sets and plying your wares on a stock market-like auction house. It’s like World of Warcraft stripped to the frame — just the pruning and dress-up parts. You’ll get there shortly after Blizzard unlocks “nightmare” mode, blinking you back to the starting line with all of your skills and loot intact.
But until then — it’ll take most players a dozen hours their first time to finish all four story acts — you’ll have to slog through a functionally dull, much-too-easy game, schlepping impotent gear and whacking away at stuff that arrows toward you like the robots in Stern Electronics’ 1980 coin-op Berzerk. For all the talk about games like Moria and Angband, that’s Diablo’s pedigree, and the nitty-gritty hasn’t changed much three decades on (it’s alternately like Asteroids, only you can build a better ship and the stuff barreling toward you doesn’t break into smaller chunks). And when you die, you don’t really, your gear just loses a fraction of its durability, which if you biff it often (you won’t) only means you have to teleport back to town and pay a craftsman pennies on the dollar to insta-fix everything. It’s a polite little slap on the hand, a not-really penalty Blizzard asks you to pay as if to wink and say “Remember when games used to be hard?”
Asking non-Diablo-wonks to spam mouse buttons for a dozen hours is, given Blizzard’s reputation for exhaustively over-thinking everything it does, an exhaustively over-thought mistake, and apologists won’t win arguments dismissing complaints about the game’s start-up simplicity as “playing the game wrong” (maybe if we use the house rule “play with both eyes closed”?). Even the learning curve is like riding a golf cart down a 10-degree incline. Clearing a path through each of the acts and taking out the area and final bosses, whether playing as a tank, nuke or hybrid class (you can pick from five total, as in Diablo II), is all but effortless the first time around. It doesn’t help that at the outset, Blizzard picks your skills for you each time you level, and the only optional buffs — runes and passive skills — unlock at the speed of a ride line at Disneyworld.
Stick with Diablo III, however, and you’ll discover it’s morphed into another game around the time you hit level 40, after you’ve unlocked most of the skills and runes and the game’s enemies are actually trying to kill you in tactically interesting ways. In fact that’s one of the most important iterative wrinkles: Enemies don’t just spawn with more health points on the higher difficulty settings, they also manifest more devastating abilities. For instance, taking out Dune Stingers — desert bugs that spit mini-wasp projectiles — is a snap the first time through, but when they’re elite-spawning at level 31 or higher and combining random traits like “Vampiric” (converts damage to you into health for them) and “Fire Chains” (ropes of fire linking multiple enemies that do heavy damage if you get near), they can be incredibly hard to put down. Sussing higher-level enemies like these, whether on your own or playing with others, is where Diablo III starts to become the tactical game it should have been from the start.
The same principle applies to cooperative play, where skill restrictions at first forces parties to follow near/far role conventions. Thirty or 40 levels in, however, you’re playing a completely different game — one that’s much more WoW-like — as characters swap roles on the fly, bringing specializations to bear on random-spawned creatures with surprise ability combos. Blizzard also wisely tossed old-school roleplaying cliches to increase character build flexibility, so you’ll spy Wizards wearing plate armor and Monks wielding swords. Only class-specific items like the Witch Doctor’s masks, the Monk’s fist weapons and the Wizard’s wands are restricted. It’s hard to say which class works best for a given play-style — hardcore players already disagree about this vigorously, which is probably a sign Blizzard got that much right.
Once the loot game picks up toward the first run-through’s end, Diablo III becomes like any other vanity game, where you’re tweaking your character’s prowess by whittling away at equipment slots. As in WoW, you’ll be focused on building the best character, looting the best equipment set, and eventually unlocking all the game’s achievements (a daunting list). The latter’s why I plan to keep playing the game long after I’ve soloed “Hell” mode or stormed the final act on “Inferno,” to see if I can do stuff like complete each act in under an hour, or kill the final boss on “Nightmare” difficulty without using health globes or healing wells, or make it to level 60 on “Hardcore” mode, where character death and equipment loss are irrevocable.
But it’s not as simple as calling Diablo III a mediocre action-RPG that eventually turns into a good and sometimes even great one. There’s the always-on requirement to consider, which — never mind the glitchy launch — sometimes “teleports” my character back a dozen yards as whatever client-server algorithm struggles behind the scenes to sort some lag issue. Or take level randomization, one of the Blizzard’s ballyhooed features designed to make repeat play less repetitive — in actuality, areas and locales are far less pliable than Diablo II‘s, give or take a few mutable mini-dungeons (finding them all requires tediously reloading a chapter until you get what you need to check off an achievement list). And the item economy feels off-kilter at this point: Good luck rolling “legendary” items that aren’t routinely outclassed by less expensive “rare” or even “magic” ones.
You can wave some of that off to “work in progress” (with all the tweaks Blizzard makes to its games, the phrase could be the company’s tagline) and this review may have little to do with what the game becomes in a year or five. Consider how much both Diablo II and World of Warcraft changed over the past decade, and if you haven’t already picked up the game, factor that into your buying decision. At this point, Diablo III is clearly a mixed bag of a game, but with PvP and the real money auction house in the offing, player feedback-based fine-tuning and all the expansions and downloadable content you can pretty much bet the farm on happening, Diablo III stands a more-than-average chance of becoming the better-than-average game so many hoped it would.
Version reviewed: PC
Score: 4 out of 5