Diablo III Impressions – Has it Been Oversimplified?

Along with about a billion other hosers, I picked up Diablo III yesterday and have given it a few hours of play time, basically enough to face off against the game’s first “big” boss, the Skeleton King, and then a couple of extra quests besides. I’m not remotely ready to start talking in absolutes about this game and I haven’t tried any multiplayer yet, but I do have some initial impressions to share.

Back in February –good god, was it that long ago?– I posted some thoughts and concerns after having played through the beta. Much of what I wrote there remains true. At its heart, this is just more Diablo. You run around with pointy weapons (or clobber’n weapons, or missile weapons, or spells) and you kill things by clicking the left and right mouse buttons over and over again until your fingers cramp up, decay into blackened dried out husks, and then blow away like dust as soon as you encounter a stiff breeze. This is not your go-to game if you’re looking for a revolutionary leap forward in general gameplay. How much the smaller touches and nuances and changes to some general mechanics change the balance of play I’m not comfortable saying just yet…

Most of the character classes in this action RPG about slaying monsters are new –Monk, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter– with the Wizard class standing in for Diablo 2’s Sorceress and the Barbarian the one holdover from the last game. This time around you can choose male or female for every class, which is inconsequential, but it’s better to have the option than not. The landscapes look terrific, though there’s a softness to them them that I can’t decide if I like or not. The action is chaotic as all get out. It’s to the point where you really don’t see what’s happening anymore. There’s just a whirlwind of movement on the screen and colorful fireworks exploding every which way and at some point you stop clicking and realize that everything that was trying to kill you is now dead. Hooray?

One aspect worth noting about the game is that you’re pretty much on autopilot through the Skeleton King. I’ll get into the skill stuff in a minute, but beyond that, the game is just plain easy up to that point. Until I reached that boss battle I had yet to use a healing potion. Now, I have played a lot of Diablo in my life and I was wondering if maybe I was just that good. (Long time readers know that’s not even a possibility.) But no, the game is just that easy for those initial two to four hours. It absolutely lulls you into a false sense of security because, after that, all indications are the going gets much tougher (I haven’t died yet, but I’ve been close on multiple occasions) and you’ll have to start playing smarter if you want to survive. Thank god.

As to the actual game systems in place this time around, back in the beta I said this:

If I had to draw a conclusion about the design philosophy at work here it’s that Diablo 3 is simplified for the sake of making it more accessible. There’s a considered effort here to remove overtly redundant or repetitive tasks that don’t add a lot of value to the core gameplay. It’s almost the opposite of what Blizzard did with Starcraft 2, which, by reputation, is every bit as fiddly as the original.

 

I still think that, though as I’ll get to, I’m more open to the possibilities for the long term game. In the beta I noted the distinct lack of attribute points visible in the game. They are back now and you can see your numbers for Strength, Vitality, Dexterity, and Intelligence on your Inventory screen. You still don’t directly modify them, however. When you level up the game determines how they change.

Having character-building choices like this taken out of your hands is something I don’t like, and I don’t feel any different about it now than I wrote then. I get the reasoning for it. There is an argument to be made that assigning attribute points in Diablo 2 came down to some basic math in that maybe there was really just one ideal way to go about it. For every five points a Barb received, for example, two should go to Strength, two to Vitality, one to Dexterity, and none to Intelligence. (I’m pulling those numbers from the clear blue sky.) If you accept that as a reality then Diablo 3’s system of just assigning them for you makes a certain amount of sense, but only if you also grant the idea that a good attribute system is one in which there is only one ideal way to assign said points.

I would argue that if character building in Diablo is so rigid that your class automatically determines a best practice way to distribute attribute points you’ve done something wrong in your overall design. This is a problem in a lot of role playing games. It drives me nuts in the Dragon Age games. A system where Intelligence, for example, only applies to magic users isn’t making a credible use of the Intelligence attribute. Whether you’re a Monk or a Witch Doctor, every class skill path should have skills that benefit in some way from at least one of each available attribute as opposed to just deriving their benefits from one or two of them. It puts the player in the position of making decisions about how they’re going to develop their character’s physical traits and talents and gives more flexibility in terms of how many successful build variants are available. Here those decisions are made for you.

The whole game feels this way as you make your way to the Skeleton King. Gone are the familiar skill trees. In their place you simply reach a level and unlock a new skill across various categories. There are Active Skills that consist of the following classifications: Primary (left mouse button), Secondary (right mouse button), Defensive, Techniques, Focus, and Mantras (numbers 1-4 on your keyboard). There are also a bushel of Passive skills. I have to admit, how these all worked together was a bit confusing in the beta, but thanks to some UI clean-up the system is easier to understand here. (I’m not entirely clear on your configuration options with the Passive skills. Need to follow-up on that.)

I’ve been playing as a Monk and, yeah, it’s all sorts of fun watching him use speed and melee attacks to rip up the beasties. However, in about three hours of play I have yet to make a real decision about his skills. I hit level 2, I get the Secondary skill Lashing Tail Kick. I immediately enable it and move forward. I hit level 3 and I unlock the Primary skill Deadly Reach. I immediately set that to being active and move forward. There’s no choice being made here. I simply use what the game gives me when it decides to give it to me. I don’t like that at all. Diablo 2’s sense of infinite possibility, when you got your first skill points and had to decide where to focus your efforts across three sets of completely open skill trees that were at your disposal, has entirely evaporated from the game. There’s no wonder or possibility here. Like killing monsters you just click your mouse and move forward.

But….

Yes, there is a but….

There is one big caveat to this – when you actually get to the point where you’ve unlocked a whole mess of skills, does that then begin to offer you endless variation to tailor how you play? I’m almost positive that it does. You see, each skill also has unlockable skill runes that go along with it. The aforementioned Lashing Tail can be tweaked with the Vulture Claw Kick rune (unlocked at level 7), which adds fire damage and knockback to nearby enemies. The Spinning Flame Kick rune (unlocked at level 28) hurls a column of fire at enemies to the tune of 240% of your overall weapon damage. I expect this use of the rune system ensures the viability of every skill in the game as you progress deeper into it. That would make it almost the opposite of the Diablo 2 system in that a built-out character has all sorts of choices rather than in Diablo 2 where, once you go down a path, you’re rather stuck on it. Here there will be no need to re-roll and start over if you want to change the way your Witch Doctor puts the smack down on little white rabbits with nasty, pointy teeth.

Personally, I liked the idea of re-rolling and having to start over in trying out new character builds, but then I’m a sadist and I don’t expect to be in the majority opinion on that front. This could ultimately be very effective design for the long run even though I can’t help but miss the aforementioned possibilities present at the beginning, as there were in Diablo 2.

So, how good is Diablo 3? There’s much more to do, obviously, but I’d call it a very professional, probably well-balanced, piece of work. It’s also not particularly remarkable in any way. If you didn’t like the first two games, there’s no reason you should pay this one special attention. If you loved the first two games but became entirely bored with the gameplay, this probably isn’t going to have long legs for you. The rules have changed, but it’s the same game. It’s still full of thin RPG characters saying all the same things about impending doom and the coming darkness and yada, yada, yada. You still pick up and sell a metric ton of phat loot, and find gold hiding in tree stumps, and commit mass genocide of ugly, feral monsters. It’s also still entirely addicting if you do like the general concept and you’re not tired of the method.

That said, if you just want a few hours of hack and slash, I also can’t give you a good reason why you should play this and not at least wait and see on the release of Torchlight 2. I don’t know much about that game, but I know it’ll have similar gameplay, be cheaper and still competently put together, and it won’t force you to be online at all times, playing through corporate servers instead of just on your own machine.

I had about 20 minutes of play into Diablo 3 before Blizzard’s game servers went down and I got booted. I wasn’t playing with anyone else. I didn’t want to be playing with anyone else (at that moment). I just wanted to play and I couldn’t. Blizzard may want everyone to believe this is an MMO, but it’s not an MMO. And when I got dropped from my game, suddenly my $60 +tax investment in it didn’t seem particularly worth it. Sure, it was back up an hour later and I then played for a good three hours, but why I should have to concern myself with Blizzard server outtages to play this game single-player is utterly beyond my comprehension.

Yes, I know – DRM, piracy, bibbledy-bobbledy boo! The level this game takes it to is annoying and unnecessary and though I ponied up for Diablo 3 because it’s f’ing Diablo 3, that doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same the next time Blizzard puts out a new IP or a game in one of their other franchises that I couldn’t possibly care less about. I want to like this game –I’m predisposed to like this game– but Blizzard isn’t making it easy and even though Diablo 3 may have been built for the long term, this publishing strategy isn’t; at least, not where getting my business is concerned.

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Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor, with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and is a 20-year publishing veteran as an editor of books on consumer tech and professional development for educators. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd was a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets from 1997-2015. Follow him on Twitter @toddsfoolery.

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