Tuesday 11 December 2012

Diablo 3

The Title Screen

Diablo 3 is an isometric "Hack and slash" RPG, exclusive to PC (Windows & OS X). Released in 2012 and developed by Blizzard Entertainment, it is the third 'stand-alone' in the Diablo franchise. It requires persistent internet to play and the first major content patch is to include a Player versus Player (PvP) mode.

Disclaimer : Diablo 3 is a big game and is actively developed. This review will cover most of the features but some complexities will not be mentioned, or might be out of date at time of reading.

The First Thing
My first impressions for this game were always going to be biased; I had effectively been waiting for this for 11 years. Diablo 2 and expansion are games that I have extremely fond memories of. I was excited and probably overlooked many things.

Plot & Devices
20 years has passed since the events of Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction. Deckard Cain and Leah, his niece, are investigating a cataclysmic prophecy when a falling star crashes into the Tristram Cathedral they are in. Leah manages to avoid harm, but Deckard has vanished into a fiery crater. In addition, the fallen star is causing bodies to rise from the dead and adventurers (you) come to Tristram to put a stop to it. Instead, they find themselves in the middle of a war between Angels and Demons that will lead them up to the Gates of Heaven, and into the depths of Hell. And in the middle of it all...is Leah.

Leah narrowly avoids the falling star

The story is large in scope, but narrow in focus. The world has a lot of lore is slowly uncovered, but the focus of the story is on Leah and the events that transpire in her mission to find Deckard. Each of the playable characters has their own reason for partaking in events, but they all travel the same story to the same ending. The plot is progressed through in-game events and pre-rendered cutscenes between acts. However, there is plenty of opportunity to flesh out extra details with optional NPC dialogue and discoverable books. The player is left to decide how involved with the story they wish to become.

Whilst it does follow on from the previous games, Diablo 3 makes an effort to be relatively self contained - since so much 'real' time has passed in between titles. Leah is a completely new character, for example. Of course, those that have played the other games will still enjoy a sense of overall story progression.

The Game
The gameplay of Diablo 3 can be summed up as follows: explore, kill, loot, upgrade, repeat. The game is story driven, but not in the traditional sense. There are four difficulty settings, each one needing to be completed in order to progress to the next. This means the player may complete the entire story at least four times to get to the 'end', and probably different sections many times more. XP is awarded for quests/kills/special accomplishments and the character will 'level up' in standard RPG fashion. New levels reward in an increase of statistics, and sometimes a new Skill or Rune. The maximum level is 60 and players can expect to reach that sometime during the third difficulty setting. At Level 60 players will receive no new abilities/runes and further XP will count towards a 'Paragon' Level, which can be viewed as "end-game" content.

Killing and looting

The main 'point' of the game is to acquire loot. Unwanted loot can be sold to an NPC, or put on the global auction house for other players. Loot will generally have randomised 'stats', but the overall power of an item will be relative to the stage of the game it was obtained. Loot will provide the most significant upgrades to characters. Different characters and playstyles require different stats, i.e. A Barbarian will generally want strength, and a Wizard would not; but both may wish to prioritise health, resistance, critical strike, etc. The wealth of stats provides plenty of variation in possible gearing choices. All creatures/items can drop loot, and the game is designed to have sections replayed many times.

Given that repetition is part of the core gameplay, effort is made to try and keep things interesting. Levels incorporate many randomised elements, such as: layout, dungeon location, randomised scripted events, etc. They all adhere to a general frame, and after a while a player will encounter most possibilities. 'Elite' monsters will also feature randomised abilities like: creating rotating lasers, teleporting, leaving patches of fire, and many more. They also have more health and increased chance to drop good items. Some of the ability combinations are a lot harder than others, but this random element is considered a core part of the game. The idea is, every time you step into the world, you are not precisely sure what you may encounter - but you have a rough idea. Each act features its own enemy variety, with different tactics required for each.

The classes adhere to general fantasy standards. The Barbarian is a brute force mêlée fighter. The Witch Doctor specialises in curses, diseases and minions. Wizards assault enemies with magical fire, lightning and ice. The Monk is a fast mêlée attacker, who wields holy powers. The Demon Hunter is a master of traps, archery and manoeuvrability. It is possible to customise the gender and name of each character, but nothing more (except with in-game dyes to change the colour of armour).

Female Witch Doctor character creation

Each class has its own Skills and resource mechanic, making them feel unique. Players can choose 6 Skills (abilities) to have access to during combat, and each ability has 5 Skill Runes to modify the Skill in some way. The player may only choose one rune per ability, and Skill Runes rarely change an ability to have a completely new purpose. There are many more Skills than available slots, and the Skill Runes provide even more customisation on top. Of course some Skills will be considered more useful than others, but Blizzard puts continued effort in addressing the lesser used to make them equally desirable.

Some Skill choices interact better than others, and some may be influenced by the content itself. Playing on the highest difficulty with no defensive Skills may prove exceptionally difficult. Skills can be changed at in the town at no cost, but will create a brief cooldown if changed elsewhere. There are also 3 slots for passive skills, where the player can choose from a list of available bonuses they wish to have at all times. Slots, Skills, Runes are all slowly given to the player as they level, and they have all of them at level 60.

Here are some examples :
The Demon Hunter Skill "Elemental Arrow" launches an arrow made of fire, at the cost of the Hatred Resource. The Skill Runes available for this Skill change it:
- to a slow moving lightning arrow
- to a frost arrow that does less damage, but slows enemies down
- to an arrow with a 40% chance to fear enemies
- to an arrow that stuns enemies when it critically strikes
- to an arrow that heals the Demon Hunter for 3% of the damage it does

Examples of a passive Skills include "Deal more 20% more damage to slowed enemies" or "Your Skills that require Discipline cost 10% less to activate". 

Skills And Skill Rune customisation

Diablo 3 is divided into four Acts, with each Act split into chapters. A completed chapter can be revisited at any time and since the world is rebuilt/randomised upon each entry, it will be as if unexplored each time. There are checkpoints, but they represent somewhere you can start again from, rather than a saved instance of your character. It makes sense if you consider the main aim of the game is re-playability. 'Waypoints' still exist to allow instant teleporting around each Act, but are significantly less useful than previous games now characters have the ability to teleport to town at will. Town is still a safe haven to repair, vendor unwanted items and change Skills/Runes easily.

If you open your game to Battle.net (or your friends), then people can enter and play with you at any time. A maximum of four players can play at once, and the enemy number and difficulty will increase to compensate. Classes somewhat compliment each other, but not in a way that makes a varied group, or particular skill assignments, desired  Dropped loot is individual to each player, to prevent any problems. There is no difference in story between playing solo, or in a group, except that sometimes a different character than yours will be interacting with NPCs.

Once you have reached level 60 then the 'End Game' of Diablo 3 begins. This is still about the acquisition of loot, but now XP will grant Paragon Levels. New Paragon Level awards minor stat boost, and a 3% increase in chance to find magical items. Players should expect to repeat sections and bosses many times in order to get loot that will allow them to proceed through increased difficulty. The player also has the ability to change the level of difficulty of 'Inferno' by adjusting the Monster Power feature. Decreasing Monster Power makes enemies easier, but less likely to drop good items, and setting it higher will have the opposite outcome. The higher the difficulty, the rarer and more powerful the items, and players will find Monster Power 9 on Inferno difficulty an incredibly challenging experience.

I hear you like loot...

As a PC exclusive there are no porting issues. Keys can be rebound, but there are not that many bindings needed as the primary input device is the mouse, which has excellent implementation. Sound effects and background music are of very high quality, and voice acting is good too. The pre-rendered cutscenes are in keeping with Blizzards regular outstanding quality and there are no in-game cutscenes. The view is isometric, so graphical requirement is not so high, but that doesn't stop levels being interesting and fairly detailed.

As a reminder, there are more features and implications to Diablo 3, but it's too much to expect one review to cover. The idea is just to give a fairly detailed look at what to expect.

Wrap Up & Negatives
You have to like dungeon crawlers, otherwise you will not enjoy the main appeal of Diablo 3. Yes, there is a story - but it is really just a framing device for the gameplay. The entire point of the game is about gathering new loot and enjoying the process of doing so. Anyone who wishes to just play to experience the complete story just once may feel a little short-changed.

The permanent internet connection will be a negative for some, and will seem unnecessary for those that just want a singleplayer experience. Solo play is still fun, but I would advise that people consider playing in groups. DRM is obviously part of the permanent connection to Battle.net, but the game shows a clear design with multiplayer in mind, and I believe that is the primary reason for the permanent internet connection. It really is impressively easy to dip in and out of a strangers game (if they have enabled it). Four player groups on hard difficulty settings will feature chaotic battles with hoards of enemies. There were problems at the start with the Battle.net service, and in theory you can not play if the servers are down, but I have had no real problems since the launch days.

I did not find the story as interesting as Diablo 2. This could be because I really did not like Leah, and the entire plot revolves around her, but it is a valid observation that the story seems to be second in emphasis to gameplay now. The story is still moving things forward, however; this is no remake. There are key developments in the established characters, as well as introducing new ones. But in general, if you are playing Diablo 3 for the story alone, then there are probably better RPGs out there to be honest.

You have to like the specific gameplay it offers. Farming for loot and proceeding with my friends through Inferno difficulty provided a lot of enjoyment for me. It was very satisfying to slowly increase character power, and overcome previously challenging encounters. I do not play it much now, but in total have clocked well over 220 hours of game time easily, and there are three characters I never played. A lot of the early problems have been fixed, and they are constantly making real adjustments to improve the game - which is good for a non-subscription title. 

The Diablo franchise in general has always had special importance to me, the previous games were definite milestones in my gaming upbringing. So keep that in mind when I say that I heartily recommend this game, if you like dungeon crawler/hack and slash RPGs. Be warned though, if your aim to try to farm Inferno Difficulty on high Monster Power, prepare to see this a lot...

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