After an unforeseen tragedy involving my computer was resolved, I started playing Diablo 3 this week. Yes, yes, I’m a week behind! Oh no! I like to think that this puts me in a pretty good position of having experienced people to play with, and being able to query them when I have questions. This ended up working pretty well as it illustrated some of the more glaring gaps in the game. As of this writing, I have finished Act I twice, once on a wizard and once on a Demon Hunter, and have done roughly half of Act II. All three of you reading this will note that this is extremely similar to the selections I made in Path of Exile, and not by accident. I wanted a strong point of comparison, so I went with the physical ranged and magical ranged damage dealers. The install and patch process were painless, though I am told that I missed a pain point early on by avoiding the first week. Ah well.
The first thing that struck me was the adherence to the Diablo 2 notion of Hardcore, as identified by the button in the bottom left, and the button below that labeled Auction House. That’s right the RMT (Real Money Transaction) is done in character select. There is no location in the game to go and access this. Also, gone are the days of the “flat fee” and the time of the “percentage fee” has been ushered in. I will pause here briefly to note that this was something Blizzard said they were explicitly not going to do. So much for that promise! This isn’t really surprising, and everything I have seen speaks to a lack of confidence in Diablo 3 performing well. It’s inclusion in WoW pricing plans, the fact they are now looking to more strongly monetize the game, and the extremely limited beta testing all say “this product is something we are offering, but it’s not that great” to me. Perhaps rightly so. The last Diablo game came out in 2000. A lot of the younger WoW base, which is firmly entrenched in the game still, had never touched the Diablo property. I don’t know how well Starcraft II’s numbers ended up, but I’d bet “less than expected” is the answer here. That probably colored a lot of the decision making for Diablo 3. Anyway, back on point here, after the slightly jarring experience of the Auction House, I made a Demon Hunter. Hey, I can choose my gender! That’s it for character customization, but I didn’t expect any customization in appearance so even that novelty is neat.
You get a sketch-up voice over cut scene that gives you your character background and why you end up where you end up. For the Demon Hunter it can be summed up as, “I hunt demons, bro”. Well, that’s on message at least. You end up outside of New Tristram and you have to stop and think, “Someone rebuilt this cursed hell mouth shit heap? Well, whatever, I’m sure it’s just a name”. Much like the time you thought that bartender was flirting with you when she touched your arm to give you your drink, you are sadly mistaken. The plot for Act I drifts between prequel and sequel in an unsatisfying bit of frenetic storytelling. The game starts off with you meeting Leah, the niece of Deckard “Stay Awhile” Cain, who is also the daughter of Adria. That name might ring a bell. That’s right, Adria is the witch at the Rogue Encampment in Diablo 2. Is that important? Yes, I guess, if you give a shit about Leah. The problem is Leah tries really hard to get you to hate her. She spends most of the time bemoaning that her Uncle Deckard is a crazy old coot who tells ridiculous stories about the Prime Evils and for some reason gets upset when a Falling Star starts the dead rising from the grave. This being New Tristram, that means you get to fight the same shit you fought in Diablo 1 all over again, this time, with some back story! The Skeleton King is back to his old shenanigans, and you have to put him to rest. Then you fight the Butcher after running into the villain of the first Act, a sexy succubus butterfly witch who serves one of the lesser Evils. I wish I was making this up. That’s right, the lesser Evils are the main villains for much of the first and second act, as you attempt to track down Belial, the Prince of Belies, or maybe just Lies, whatever. You rescue Deckard who promptly says “Hey, I told you guys, this shit is crazy. Also the Falling Star was a guy, I bet he’s an angel”. Leah infuriatingly says, “Oh, crazy Ol’ Deckard”. She did not stay awhile and she did not listen. Look, you basically have one NPC in Diablo that anyone remembers. That guy is Deckard Fucking Cain. When you treat Deckard like a crazy old shit you are treating your players that stuck with the franchise like crazy old shits.
Much like in Diablo 2, you pick up companions along the way who presumably do stuff for you. The first one you get, the Templar, since Paladins are out of style I guess, is a Scottish fuckhead that trash talks at every opportunity while dishing out his massive 2-8 damage per second. Ultimately you respec him out of frustration out of the hope that he will shut the fuck up and just heal you. Well, one out of two is passable I guess. You also meet a Scoundrel who is a scumbag and you don’t immediately murder him. You are a murder machine, but I guess no one inserted a quarter at the right moment to murder that guy. He promises marriage to a woman in order to steal an object, betrays his allies, gets you to do his dirty work, and then runs off on the woman. He then has the balls to be incensed that the artifact is a fake. Yeah, I really what that shit heel along with me! Did I mention that you just randomly run into the Butcher? Yeah, that happens. The story is in your face enough to really notice that it makes next to no sense, but at least picking up books and killing monsters gives you some voice overs, even if Deckard is the biggest litter bug in the world. However, everyone in the game just exists to annoy or betray you, outside of Deckard Cain and certified bad ass Tyrael, oh and the crafting guys, I guess. If you run into any other NPCs, rest assured they are there to fuck you over.
Ok, now that I have harped on story problems for quite long enough, let’s take a look at the game play. First, a lot has changed from Diablo 2. The biggest change is no talent tree. No more wasting points in skills you won’t use just to get to the shit you want. Thank God. Instead, they opt for a pretty interesting skill model of separating things in to seven different categories and unlocking them as you level. To keep all of your old skills relevant, you also unlock skill modifiers to change your old, familiar skills as you level up. One of the skill categories is purely passive, and you get to select a total of three of these as you level up, unlocked at 10, 20, and 30. This is actually a neat system and it’s a lot better than their previous one. However, it runs into some problems pretty quickly. The skill bar consists of four skills and your two mouse buttons. Now, I get that the “limited skill bar” is the new hotness in the RPG hyphenate genre. It’s all over the place now, but let’s be clear about something, this is NOT new. EverQuest 1 had a limited skill bar. You had to memorize your magic and had numbers 1-8 (originally) dedicated to your memorized spells. Otherwise you had numbers 1-6 on individual pages you could change out for your abilities. So, are we cool with the fact that this is just a design choice and not an innovation? Cool. Now, Diablo 2 allowed you do hotkey as many abilities as you want and have them replace your left mouse button. That was the only way you handled skills. I understand that Diablo 3 doesn’t want you to be able to access every skill, because it wants your choices to be meaningful. However, it really loses something, to me, that I can’t just press a button once and have it replace my left mouse button. That was such a big part of gameplay that it feels strange moving to a traditional skill bar system.
The biggest problem with the skill system is the way your skill bar unlocks, though. You have six active categories of skill, and you start with two of them, your two mouse buttons. As you unlock the other active skill categories, you open up one slot on your hotbar. Now, by going into the game options you can enable “elective” mode, which lets you place any skill in any hotbar slot, with no regard to what category unlocked the slot. This is by no means intuitive though. Only about half the players really knew that this mode was an option at all when I asked about it. It’s pretty game changing to have this option, and makes the game a lot more customizable. The funniest thing to me is that if you are willing to open up a menu screen mid combat, you can change your skills on the fly anyway, provided they aren’t on cooldown. To me, this undercuts their design schema. If you want people to only change out of combat, then set it up that way. Sure, you will get used to the skill use system they have in place, but it feels hamfisted and not natural at all. Path of Exile does this same thing afterall, but it just limits you to six active skills being mapped. It accomplishes the same thing, but it feels a lot more organic because you have the slots open at the beginning to play with skills and learn about them. Would it really change much if you had both of your primary skills available to you at level six and could hit three buttons? No, not even in the least. You will still end up replacing those skills as you unlocked other skills and would be more willing to experiment. By limited the hotkey unlocks, they are creating a much more narrow play experience than they are perhaps intending. Customizing feels cumbersome and cludgy, and it can be downright frustrating when you swap out skills and have to ensure that your runes that modify them have stayed locked. The elective menu is not really great either, requiring paging through the various skills and no real indication you are selecting things appropriate, much less where you have your new options available to you as you level up.
The game does a couple of other strange things, too. Gone are the days of identify and town portal scrolls. Town portal unlocks as a quest reward about half way through the first Act, and it’s a much nicer experience for it. Identify scrolls have also gone the way of the dodo, with magic items being self identified…except for rare quality of better items. Those you have to right click and wait three seconds to reveal their properties. I am sure this was done both to “capture the feel” of identifying items, and also to “heighten tension”. Instead, it’s an afterthought that does nothing but slightly slow down game play if you get a rare item, as you can’t immediately slap it on. It isn’t exactly frustrating, but it’s simply a non-entity. It adds and subtracts nothing to the experience. It’s just there. Potions all have timers now, which isn’t exactly new, but they added “health orbs” to make up for this. This makes the game play more like Gauntlet or Golden Axe than it does Diablo 2. They are so prolific in Act 1 that you will almost never use a potion at all if you play even a tad conservatively. Maybe that’s the intent and my reserved nature makes it just seem weird.
Replacing the Horadric Cube crafting black box is an honest to goodness crafting system. You break down magic items in order to create magic items. You train up in the skill only through paying gold, and you learn a pattern or two each time you do this. Crafting items also costs money. As you can easily assume, this is quite the money sink. The early level gaps in the items is pretty high, meaning that you don’t really level the skill early on, because it’s simply not worth it. Compounding this problem is the Auction House itself. What’s the point in paying 15k gold to learn the pattern you want and then spending 1k crafting it when you can buy a better or similar item on the Auction House for 2-5k gold? Now, some will say “the experience of making your own gear”, which is all well and good. If you are heavily invested in that, great. However, it carries no inherent bonuses and it’s not like you will really be selling your work on the Auction House in the early stages. I have heard that later on you will possibly want to craft for set items and legendaries and such, but to me this seems so strange when bolted onto Diablo. Diablo is a game centered around exploration and discovery. You wander around in the world, slowly revealing itself to you as the Fog of War drifts away, and items are loot pinatas that explode to reveal the tasty surprises inside. In crafting, you still have randomization of magical properties, so you can’t even guarantee you will get something that works for you. This captures the discovery portion fine, but you are spending gold in this case. It just seems very counter to Diablo, and I am not sure the gameplay is more rich for its inclusion.
The last strange thing is equipment strangeness. Every ability for all classes is based on weapon damage. Everything. This means as a wizard you might be running around with a giant two handed axe as you cast your spells. You will never have a reason to swing this axe ever. This turns all items into stat sticks. When you add to this the fact that even classes that would care about weapons might not be using abilities that utilize those weapons, it creates a very weird setting design. The Demon Hunters are wielding two crossbows while throwing grenades, bolas, and tossing caltrops. The Monk is wielding two staffs, and punching and kicking instead. Ok, that one isn’t new, but you get my drift. It creates a very over the top, gonzo set design that wasn’t really a part of the old aesthetic at all. When you couple this with the more singular, slower build in creature combat, it just doesn’t feel like Diablo at all early on. About half way through Act I you get that feeling back, but the first half is even more jarring because of that. It seems apparent that Blizzard was trying to include the World of Warcraft aesthetic in a meaningful way, but it just doesn’t really work for me. I know this is preference, but there it is.
Getting past that all, Diablo 3 is a serviceable Hack and Slash that eventually plays out like you would expect Diablo to play out, though with more cruft than is really warranted. I don’t think this will be a benchmark classic for Blizzard, and it won’t carry the place in gamer history that Diablo 2 carried. There are more options now, and a lot of what made Diablo 2 so special can never be captured again, because it’s a core functionality of so many games now, that of playing with your friends cooperatively. I don’t think this needs to be recaptured, but I do find myself wishing Diablo 3 was a stronger entry into the franchise. Time will tell if I am right about all this, but I think I will be proven correct.