I really don’t know how to say this without sounding like a jerk, so I won’t try.
The Diablo 3 beta* is bad, and Blizzard should feel bad.
They’ve had a decade to plan, execute, and polish a sequel to the rapturously addictive Diablo 2. Hell, so many other games have tried to do it, all they really had to do was copy/paste the best features of each, slap on a story, and call it a day.
Instead, they’ve put together one of the most overglossed, soulless experiences available in PC gaming today.
PHL 203: Diabolic determinism
If there’s one thing the Diablo series** has always been about, it’s choice. The player, at many turns, had to make tough decisions that could affect him or her throughout the course of the entire game.
In Diablo 1, players had to carefully weigh the potential risks and benefits of using shrines, for instance. Some shrines might just top off health or mana, but others could permanently change a character’s stats, for better or for worse.There were a lot of other hard calls to make – should the player increase a magic ability, even if it would then cost all his mana to use it? Part of the scare of the original was the dread of failure, not by monsters, but by one’s own decisions.
That trend continued in Diablo 2, where players were given precious few stat and skill points to allocate each level-up. Stat points always conferred a benefit, but choosing between additional life and the strength to wear more protective armor was often difficult. Likewise, skills were built into a broad but generally unforgiving tree. Spending a point on one ability might make choosing others infeasible later. It was a careful balancing act.
In both games (and their expansions), players also had to make constant decisions about the loot that fell around them. Was it worth picking up? Was it worth identifying, or carrying to someone who could do so? In Diablo, some Uniques had serious drawbacks that had to be measured against their benefits. In Diablo 2, characters often had to trade off raw power for additional magical bonuses, counterbalancing damage and versatility.
Diablo 3 has taken most decisions out of the players’ hands. Stats and skills are now automatically allocated along a strict schedule of leveling. The reasoning? Blizzard wanted to remove the “tedium” from the game’s beloved formula. They decided players would regret a misplaced bump in Agility, or would lament a poor decision in skill choice. The entirety of character progression is thus automatic, with the only customization available now being equipment: weapons, armor, jewelry.
While I understand new players may be daunted by systems like Diablo 2’s, it’s lamentable Blizzard couldn’t simply make auto-leveling optional. This option worked well in Mass Effect, where the game would give newbies a solid base of skills if they didn’t feel like calculating it themselves. Without this toggle, Diablo 3 effectively cuts a major component of customization out of the game.
Sure, abilities can still be used in a large variety of ways, even more so than in Diablo 2. The third iteration’s skill system is actually quite compelling, with (albeit nonsensical) runes giving the player the option to use each skill several different ways. The problem, however, is that these decisions are immediately reversible and thus have no gravitas whatsoever. Choosing an area of effect skill rune over an increased damage rune can be undone in any dungeon instantly. In essence, all top-level Monks are completely identical except for equipment, decreasing emotional investment in favor of (real money) loot auctioneering and simplication.
Blizzard essentially took the RPG out of action-RPG in favor of a fighting and leveling system more akin to a console brawler.
Characters that don’t build character
Speaking of console brawlers, I was dismayed to launch the Diablo 3 “beta” and reach the character selection screen. The first person greeting me here was none other than Bayonetta: a sumptuous, tall woman in stilettos and leather, dual wielding firearms with a cocky smile. Her abilities included rapid-fire projectiles, insane acrobatics, and expertise in the conflict between divinity and demons.
Oops, that’s the Demon Hunter.
While I’m happy Blizzard added gender choices, none of the character classes grabbed me in the way the options in Diablo or Diablo 2 did. The aforementioned Demon Hunter is pretty much a mashup of the aforementioned Bayonetta,† give or take some Van Helsing and (of course) the Warcraft 3 Demon Hunter. The Witch Doctor continues the trend of mildly offensive voodoo bullshit we also saw in Warcraft 3, while the Wizard is so generic, one can only imagine she was included to prove Blizzard knows multiple synonyms for sorcerer/sorceress.
The Barbarian and Monk are fairly inoffensive as returning classes, though the latter got a big ol’ helping of Avatar the Last Airbender in his character design.
Regardless the actual appeal, I ultimately landed on Demon Hunter, since the description sounded interesting. Balancing Hatred and Discipline to use abilities? It had so much potential. Would using one empty the other? Would taking damage fuel Hatred? Would avoiding spam fuel Discipline?
Nope, they’re just two different (yet equally badly named) types of mana. They accumulate over time, they’re spent to cast spells, and they have no affect on each other whatsoever. I haven’t played all the other character classes, but I’d assume their resources (mana, focus, Vespene Gas, etc.) are all basically the same.
Getting past the stupidity of naming a resource Hatred (more on that later), I was floored that the very first ability available was essentially Guided Arrow. That’s right, kids: from the get-go Blizzard decided your default attack is incapable of missing its target. Later abilities included a gigantic trap that slows everything (including bosses) to a crawl, and the ability to become invisible. While certainly cool by all interpretations of the word, I felt like I didn’t deserve such power so early in the game. It made me wonder exactly what I’d be looking forward to later on.
At least the story and atmosphere were good, right?
The only scary part? Voice acting
No, the atmosphere wasn’t good. I wouldn’t say it was terrible; it had all the right set pieces: dimly-lit areas, monsters surrounding you from all angles, that sort of thing. What stood out was just how easy the game is. And while it’s certain to scale upwards with progress, there was no challenge whatsoever.
I disagree with players who’ve told me that Diablo and Diablo 2 are just as easy. In Diablo, many players first experienced death at the hands of the Butcher and the Skeleton King. In Diablo 2, Rakinishu and Blood Raven were all but impossible for low-level characters to face head-on. Both games featured geography that put the player at a severe disadvantage, with claustrophobic spaces in the original and open ranges that benefited ranged enemies in the sequel.
In Diablo 3, I only used three potions in the course of the 2-hour demo, and two were by accident. Half of my gear caused life regeneration, and the plentiful amounts of health orbs dropped by enemies made damage a joke. In the rare instances I was injured, it was easy to run from danger spamming debuffs, with most ranged attacks being laughably slow and easily dodged. Instead of an environment that made fighting difficult, the landscape was full of physics-based traps that easily crushed what opposition I faced. And when battles ended, the otherwise eerie atmosphere was shattered with COD-inspired killstreak bonuses.
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part. No, dear reader, the worst part was the ear-shattering voice acting. I’m not going to pretend Diablo 3’s predecessors had astounding voiceover work. But by comparison, this third game’s narrative is grating, hokey, and poorly scripted. Don’t take my word for it, listen for yourself:
“Not enough Hatred.” Yep, that makes sense. As a professional writer, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the Demon Hunter could have instead said, “Impossible!” or “I can’t!” with a “Not enough Hatred” tooltip appearing instead. This was how things generally worked in Diablo 2, which was great since they weren’t patently ridiculous.
“Catering to casuals” conclusion
Diablo 3 isn’t a bad game, it’s just a bad Diablo game. I understand that Blizzard wanted to make a title that was more action-focused, less mathematical, and more accessible to the teeming millions, many of whom haven’t played Diablo or Diablo 2. I also recognize that while I may have gotten my jollies building Bowadins and Melee Sorcs, meticulously collecting equipment and skill points for hours, most players just want to run a game and click things until they die.
I can’t change Blizzard’s course of action, and Diablo 3 will succeed regardless of my misgivings. Hell, I’ll probably buy it at discount at some point in the future, beat the campaign, and call it a day. But I hope like-minded gamers can understand that, as far as following in the footsteps of its antecedents goes, Diablo 3 appears to have failed my expectations. While many improvements are welcome (like the de-itemization of Town Portal scrolls), I can’t help but feel the gothic, choice-based legacy of the series ended with the fall of Baal.
I suppose I’d be more angry about it all, but my Hatred is too low.
* Read: demo.
** Including Diablo, Diablo: Hellfire, Diablo 2, and Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction
† For the record, Bayonetta is a wonderful game.