Dancing With The Devil Again
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Like many of you, I spent long nights playing Diablo II. The game did so many things right, not the least of which was being accessible to players of all skill levels. My complete range of friends at the time, from novice players to hardcore heavies, all seemed addicted to running rampant through the fields, collecting loot and eventually taking on Diablo himself. All of it was basically done by clicking and killing.
Over the years, a new type of game even developed, the Diablo clone, which came in all shapes and sizes, from outright copies to sci-fi shooters. All were extremely easy to play, focused on loot gathering, and constantly rewarded players with new stuff. A few, like Torchlight, were extremely successful in what they did.
So now Diablo III comes forward, and one has to wonder if it might be a bit too late? What can DIII offer that makes it something more than a clone itself? It's clear that Blizzard asked itself these same questions, and I think they have been largely successful in striking out into new areas while keeping the core gameplay intact. DIII won't revolutionize games like DII did, but it may change the way we think about virtual loot moving forward. But I'll get to that bit later.
Diablo III is an extremely well-crafted game. Graphically, it looks really good. There is a gloomy shroud over most areas, at least when you are starting out, a sort of gloss that sits overtop what is actually a beautiful hand-drawn world. Even so, the graphics are not so over the top that more modest computers can't run them. Indeed, while the game ran fantastic on our desktop gaming test computer, it also performed well on our more modest notebook, albeit with a few settings tweaked like removing shadows to give the mobile platform more of a chance to catch its breath.
The five main character classes are all rendered very well, and when you add items their appearance changes. It's interesting that items will reconfigure themselves to match a certain character. So leather armor on a witch doctor will appear tribal while sitting on a demon hunter the same piece will look more like thieves' armor from Dungeons and Dragons. Some pieces are only available for certain classes, though these tend to be among the more rare loot varieties.
Gameplay in DIII has not changed very much at all from DII. You still left click to move and make a primary attack, and right click to make a secondary attack. The number keys, from one to four, can launch special, mostly defensive, tactics. You can hold down the Shift key to stand in place and make an attack, which is something almost every ranged character will need to learn very fast. That's pretty much it in terms of keys, so you won't need very much time to get up to speed. As you learn new skills and open up new buttons, the game goes out of its way to show you how to employ them. Instead of giving you a bunch of new skills, at higher levels you earn runes which can enhance existing ones, so it's never very complex. The downside is that pretty much every character of the same class and level is going to be the same, with only their gear separating them. However, this does serve to make gameplay easy, which is a good compromise. DIII is accessible to everyone of any skill level.
To make things even easier, potions now stack, so all your minor healing goes into a single slot and can be drank with the touch of a key, your mediums go into another slot and so on. There are no mana potions. Special abilities that depend on mana, or whatever energy your character calls it, either regenerate automatically or when attacking monsters. I almost never used a potion anyway, especially at lower difficulty levels, because besides health-regenerating armor, dead monsters drop red orbs which automatically heal you when you walk through them.
Town portal scrolls are also a thing of the past. Instead, pretty early in the game you are given the unlimited ability to open up a portal to the town where you can sell your gear. That frees up a lot of inventory space, which is good because you are only limited to what you can carry by how many slots you have left in your pack. And it will hold quite a bit. If you pick up everything, you can probably go 15 minutes to a half an hour without having to warp back to town. More selective players can hold out longer, though you hardly need to do so.
The story isn't much to write home about, but it wasn't in the other Diablo games either. At least an attempt has been made to give NPCs a voice and to show some cut scenes at key moments to help advance the thin plot along.
The voice acting for the main characters is really well done. Both the male and female versions of each character do a wonderful job. Sometimes you have a companion that will travel with you and they too have voices. While their voices are okay, they repeat the same few words time and time again which did get annoying after a while. If that templar asked me if I ever got scared in battle one more lousy time'
The five character classes seem balanced. Of course you have the Barbarian from the original game and the mage. They are joined by the monk, which was an add-on to Diablo II and the brand new witch doctor and demon hunter. I think the demon hunter is among the most powerful of the lot because on harder levels her ranged combat ability can keep you alive, while the barbarian has to get up in an opponent's face too often for my tastes. The witch doctor is also very cool because she summons creatures to fight for her, and can flip jars of spiders at enemies, which then also attack independently. The spiders only live for a little while, but you can get at least 40 of them attacking at the same time, which really spams the bigger opponents and shreds weaker ones. Of course the automatic fire of the demon hunter also gets the job done, especially when you can make your arrows flaming, or add other special properties. Can you say scorched earth?
Which brings us to the real star of the show, the LOOT. Yes, greed is good again. Like a Vegas casino, Diablo III rewards us for killing monsters, smashing barrels and opening chests with showers of gold coins and magic items. There is even a little cha-ching tone that accompanies the spray of money. I think this is scientifically tested to stimulate the happiness centers in our brain. We see the money sparkle, hear the music, get happy and scoop it up. This leads to an addiction where we need to get more and more and more. Suddenly it's four in the morning and you forgot to sleep, and eat and set your alarm for work. You really can't shake this devil's hand and then say 'only kidding.' Once you commit, it's got you.
Then there are the items themselves. Each item above common loot is a mix of magical properties and benefits. Truly special items need to be identified before they can be used, though your character can do this themselves. It just takes a few seconds and is probably done just as an extra special reminder that you scored something truly remarkable. I've spent a lot of time comparing the pros and cons of different items before deciding on the best loadout for my character. Something you don't want or can't use can be dropped into your shared storage chest if you like, so your other characters can grab it. Or it can be sold to a vendor for money, or broken down into magical components, which are used by your personal blacksmith to make new gear.
Yes, you have access to your own blacksmith. He is pretty much like your NPC. He can be trained with gold to be able to make better items, and most of the gear he crafts is randomly magical, so there are great benefits to making use of him.
The final thing you can do with gear is what I think will set Diablo III apart from every other game on the market: sell it on the auction hall for either in-game or REAL money. Blizzard has short-circuited the gold farmers and shady item dealers that would have popped up by making everything in the game available for sale. Find a huge flaming two-handed axe but don't have a barbarian character? No problem. Instead of getting a tenth of its value from a merchant, post it on the auction hall and let real people fight over it, with you getting the check once the auction is finished.
As of when I was writing this review, only the in-game money part of the auction hall was working. Blizzard says the real money side of things should be online soon. The hall works pretty much like auctions elsewhere. You post a starting bid and a buyout price (which is optional) and then the item goes live for two days. You pay a tiny fee to post an item and then Blizzard takes 15 percent of the final price if it sells. If not, the item is returned to you.
Once the real money part of the auction hall goes live, I can see some real opportunity. Yes, you can sell gold for real money, but since everyone has access to gold, I don't know if you would get very much unless you accumulate a huge amount of it. However, those ultra-rare mega-items you picked up probably do have value. You can tie your Blizzard account to Paypal or other methods, so the transactions should be automatic. There is a risk of course because of the fee to post an item, but careful players who study how the auctions go can probably make a good deal of money on the game. It will just require a lot of dungeon delving. Better loot is dropped at higher levels, so running old quests at higher difficulties is an option to try for sellable loot.
The question may come down to buyers. Will people be interested in purchasing a Holy Mace of Wounding, a Lucky Doll or a Mighty Belt of the Bear? Again, if my experience in the in-game money area is any indication, I think so, as long as you ask a reasonable price and understand your market. I plan to really try and make a go of it, and will let you know how I do at a later time. I don't know if someone could really make summer job type money, but it seems like a reasonable possibility.
I think the auction hall more than anything else will change the way games are played. If it works out, then I don't really see any MMO being able to resist setting one up for themselves. Then again, Diablo III is all about the loot, so other games may have to adapt their content accordingly. But the posting fee as well as the transaction costs could really add up for the company that owns the auction hall, while keeping the 'professional' gold farmers locked out by simple and fair competition.
Which brings us to the one sort-of negative to the game. You have to be online to play DIII. It's not even like a Steam game where you have to go online sometimes. There is no off-line mode. Even when playing the single player game and not joining others in your quest to battle Diablo, you have to be connected. So those without a broadband Internet connection can't play this game, period. That's kind of a heavy penalty to pay, but I suppose it makes the auction house and the seamless jump-in/jump-out multiplayer possible. Still, it kind of rubs me the wrong way, and I do feel sorry for friends of mine who live in rural areas and still use dial-up to get their e-mail. I didn't do any testing, but I'm pretty sure that won't work to play Diablo III.
Taken just as a new game without a history, Diablo III is a real winner. It's easy to play, has beautiful graphics, is great fun and even has the ability to make players real money if they want to give that a try. When looked at in terms of the Diablo legacy it also moves the ball forward, just not in expected ways. The gameplay has been simplified quite a bit, and the auction hall is truly revolutionary, almost a game in itself. In that respect, it's more of an evolution of Diablo than a total re-boot of the beloved series. And really, that's just fine with me.
Diablo III earns 4.5 GiN Gems for being an addictive action RPG that's destined to become a classic in its own right.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.