Diablo III Battles Battle.net Blues as Players Slam the Game in Reviews

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“Has anyone heard whether Diablo III‘s out yet?” I had to double-check myself, spying that on a message board earlier this week. Blizzard’s chthonic action roleplaying game actually arrived on Tuesday, May 15, as expected, but you wouldn’t know it, given the dearth of media hullabaloo.

Actually you might know it, given the deluge of complaining about Battle.net, Blizzard’s online master control program. It’s required — as, therefore, is an Internet connection — to play the game at all times, whether you’re cleaving infernal succubi solo or in multiplayer droves. The game launched with all kinds of bugs, some of which I’ve personally encountered, some of which you’ve probably encountered and many that’ve been (cleverly) documented in this “beginner’s guide” to the game (see Venturebeat’s “World exclusive Diablo III review!!!!” for another angle). The two most egregious issues: Random game-breaking interruptions, and problems logging on in the first place. Blizzard launched an “emergency” maintenance update yesterday, promising to “monitor the servers for any additional issues.” Cloven-hoof-toes crossed.

(MORE: Buyer’s Guide: ‘Diablo III’ and ‘Max Payne 3’)

The reason we haven’t yet been inundated with reviews, is that Blizzard didn’t offer critics early access to the game (though to be fair, the company gave us plenty of hands-on beta time), which is why you didn’t see a bazillion stories on Tuesday. They’ve been trickling in since, so we have the Guardian, out of the chute a day later with a 4 out of 5 star writeup, though the reviewer uses most of his word count to ding Blizzard for barely updating turn-of-the-century gameplay.

So the key question remains, was Diablo 3 worth the 12-year wait? That depends on how you play it – for single players, it’s an entertaining and gorgeous-looking dungeon hack but it’s a bit short, extremely linear and hardly pushing any boundaries. Playing online (and Blizzard isn’t really giving us a choice) makes it a better balanced and more compelling challenge, with all the potential to be the kind of lifestyle substitute that Diablo’s legion of hunter-gatherer fans should relish.

Bitgamer strikes similar chords in its otherwise upbeat 85 out of 100 review.

Really, we just wish there was something in Diablo 3 that justified the enormous wait and hype that’s been built around it over the years. There isn’t, though that doesn’t make it a bad game – it is, in fact, quite a good game. It’s playable and fun and exciting and interesting; it’s taxing on hardcore mode, easy when played solo and designed to be played by groups of friends together. It’s fun, even if it’s not ground-breakingly so.

And then we have the “first impressions” posts, like this one from Wired, calling the game “beautiful, addictive nonsense.”

This game has no control over its own mechanics. When people die, funny money and enchanted doodads always come flying out. The game’s rules don’t bend, even when those rules ruin attempts by the developer to tell an interesting story … That said, all of the actual game parts of Diablo III are wonderful. Blizzard added in loads of tiny refinements to the formula. You can pick up gold by simply running over it, warping to town no longer requires scrolls and the skill system is far more approachable. These make the game feel snappier than its predecessors. None of the game’s depth has been removed by these streamlinings.

(MORE: Play ‘Diablo III’ Today: Blizzard Launches ‘Open Beta Weekend’)

But the most unnerving (if by now predictable) development is the explosion of negative roundup user scores. At present count on Metacritic: 2,360 ratings, of which 1,529 are “negative,” 748 “positive,” and a trifling 83 “mixed” (the user score average is 3.6 out of 10). It’s like reading a U.S. public opinion poll on [insert political issue]: love it or hate it, there’s little middle ground.

To be fair, a surprising number of user reviews are detailed and understandable, not just one or two line screeds in ALL CAPS by lazy zealots looking to sabotage the average. And while some of the negative reviews focus on the Battle.net launch issues and game bugs, it’s less of a “why do I need an Internet connection Blizzard?!?” slam-fest than a chorus of “the game’s just a Diablo II clone.”

Would the latter be so bad, once Blizzard patches the game’s bugs and gets its servers under control? Do we need to reinvent football, basketball, or tic-tac-toe year in, year out? I’ve always had mixed feelings about hack-and-slash games — it’s just a preferences thing — but I’m not sure what fans were expecting. We knew Diablo III was going to be Diablo II in slick 2012 duds from the start. Why praise an almost slavish (though just as addictive) Diablo-clone like Torchlight, for instance, then pan the reinvigorated source material? Because it’s our natural tendency to pick on the 800-pound gorilla?

MORE: ‘Diablo III’ Gets a Release Date: You Can Go to Hell on May 15