Diablo III Review: Imperfectly Executed

Diablo III Review: Imperfectly Executed

I realized something in the past few days. Diablo 2 was not a very well designed game. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable; I put hundreds of hours into it over the course of ten years. But it kind of sucked, right? I just clicked things.

click click click click click click click

That’s it. I had a bunch of skills I could use but can only assign two of them at any one time. Sure, I could assign hotkeys, but all that did was change out the skill in one of my slots. I still had to click after selecting it, which was slow and cumbersome. The game was more than hard at later levels — it was downright cheap! Difficulty was completely inconsistent. I’d be cutting through demons like they were nothing and then be dead a second later without a clue as to what happened. The only thing that kept me playing that god-awful game was the glorious sense of discovery, the idea that with every demon in which I tore a fire-damaged new one I could possibly find a helm, ring, or other random piece of gear that would put my current equipment to shame. With Diablo 3, Blizzard attempted to hold on to that sense of discovery while axing all the things that made Diablo 2 a wretched piece of garbage… an idea that Game Director Jay Wilson referred to in a recent interview as “perfect execution”.

Well Jay, maybe not quite.

I will say that Diablo 3 does a lot of things right. Most systems that were ambiguous or useless in Diablo 2 are either overhauled or removed completely. Assignable attribute points are gone in favor of character stats that are entirely determined by gear. Also, skill points have been removed. Each skill still has a level requirement, but any character can use any skill once they’ve met it. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of character customization and prevents messy situations where we could potentially create a character that was completely unusable in later levels.

There is such a thing as taking it too far, however. Attributes are set up in a way that it’s almost too straightforward. Each class has a base attribute that directly influences his damage: strength is good for a barbarian, dexterity is good for monks and demon hunters, and intelligence is good for wizards and witch doctors. That leads into the first problem I have with itemization in Diablo 3: what is the point of a wizard-only item that has nothing but strength? Why would I want a barbarian only belt with intelligence? Those items are everywhere! There are minor benefits that these stats give to other classes: strength adds a bit to armor and each point of intelligence adds 0.1% to resistances. They’re so negligible that there’s almost never a reason I would take a non-core stat unless it also had a significant amount of a core stat associated with it. It sounds like I’m nitpicking but since the driving force of a Diablo game has always been item discovery, the last thing I’d want to feel is that many of the items become worthless.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what was done. White (common quality) items are now completely worthless. In Diablo 2, we had a few options: there was a quest that would allow us to imbue a white item with extra stats that we’d usually get something pretty decent out of. In addition, white items could be used in a number of crafted recipes using the horodric cube. If we didn’t need it for any of those things, we could simply sell it and get a decent chunk of gold. In Diablo 3, we can barely do that. We have just two options: equip it or sell it. Since equipment is our only source for stat points and white items have no attributes, we won’t equip it. We can’t sell them because they only sell for 5-20 gold a piece, even at higher levels. That’s not even worth the inventory space! So they just sit there, left to wither away and ultimately get swallowed into the cyber-abyss when we leave the game. So sad.

Get used to seeing low quality items like this. (No, I don't mean that axe I'm using.)

One more note on items, and then I swear I’m done. Legendary items replaced the unique items of Diablo 2, but they’re essentially the same thing: exceptional quality items with guaranteed stats. I’m on “Hell” difficulty, which means I’ve played through normal and nightmare mode. I have not found a single legendary item. Out of the thirty or so people on my Battle.net friends list, I only know two people who have. The first has found one and the second has found two. That’s an insanely low drop rate. Thankfully, there is an in-game auction house where you can safely trade with players who have better luck than you. That’s nice, but anyone can agree that it’s much more fun to find an item for yourself than it is to spend two million gold on it.

The reason for all these little quips about items is that picking up loot just isn’t exciting in Diablo 3. I started off really hopeful for every little thing that dropped on the ground, meticulously reading over stats and comparing to the items I was wearing. By halfway through Nightmare, I almost stopped doing it completely. The problem is that the moment you make loot uninteresting in a dungeon crawler, you run the risk of people seeing your game for what it is.

click click click click click click 

Thankfully, the underlying game-play isn’t quite as drab as it was in Diablo 2. That’s largely in part due to the newly revamped skill system, which was obviously designed with co-op play in mind. My first play through was with two friends who were both playing as demon hunters. Early in the game, I would run in and ground stop each group of mobs using a skill rune that also pulled all affected enemies towards me. I’d then use one of my barbarian shouts to lower their defenses, enabling my companions to multishoot the newly weakened and concentrated group of enemies into oblivion. It’s much better than the complete chaos of Diablo 2 multiplayer, which could only barely be considered cooperative. You’ll actually want to play cooperatively too, because loot is separate for every player and you won’t have to worry about some Rando Calrissian picking up one of the eight cracked sashes that dropped off the last boss. *audible sigh*

The atmosphere is excellent and looks great even on the lowest settings. It’s dark, cold, and even creepy at times. Characters are much more fleshed out with expanded dialog. Conversations and events in Diablo 3are much more involved than in previous iterations, with player characters actually participating rather than playing the silent protagonist card. When multiple players are present, all characters take part in conversations at random intervals, rather than just whoever started the game. If only the story itself was as good as Diablo 2, though. In reality the story wasn’t what kept me coming back to play Diablo 2 as the years went by, but Diablo 3‘s was weaker than most. In D3, the entire narrative just came off as drab and unimportant — even forced. Without revealing too much, characters that were built up to be important pieces in all of D3‘s promotional material turn out to be minor characters in reality, and not once did I feel like there was any sort of urgency in what I was doing. All that inconsequential busywork just builds up to an underwhelming ending and some of the most thinly veiled, wink-inducing ending dialog of all time.

Spoiler alert: there will be a sequel.

Despite its flaws, I have of my own free will put in some 55 hours into the game in its first week. After all that time I really can’t tell if I like the game for the game or if it’s because of some blind loyalty to Blizzard and Diablo. Maybe it’s the inclusion of achievements or maybe it’s because my friends are playing it. I don’t know. Regardless, I trust Blizzard. Diablo 3 obviously wasn’t rushed and I’m sure most every decision they made had a reason, even if it was a bad one. Plus, there’s the fact that the last time Diablo 2 was patched was just last year, so it’s quite possible that many of my complaints will be fixed in the months or years to come. It’s even more possible that the less diehard fans that are just getting into Diablo won’t have any of the same complaints that I had. For now, however, this is the game that Diablo 3 is: imperfectly executed, but I’m still playing it.