The Five Worst (and Best) Things About Diablo III

Diablo III (2)

“Diablo III” is the work of master craftsmen/craftswomen. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s without flaws, but it does mean that compared to the work of less talented artists, fewer of those flaws are accidents. To show you what I mean, let’s take a closer look at the game in question. We’ll examine the five biggest flaws of “Diablo III,” then compare them with its five biggest successes.

The results may surprise you.

Flaw #1: Always Online. Let’s just get the obvious one we’re all thinking about out of the way: yes, it is irritating that you can never be offline. Even if we grant that power-outs are unusual, unexpected slowdown from providers is not, and the fact that this now screws with every aspect of your experience instead of only one is deeply irritating.

But that one was easy. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Flaw #2: The Auction House. You could almost hear Blizzard slapping their foreheads while services like eBay made boat-loads of cash from WoW characters and items being sold online. There’s no telling how many millions of potential dollars they won’t be able to earn from their MMO, simply because they didn’t see the potential coming. “Never again,” they cried, and the Auction House is the result. A fully-integrated money changing hole that cuts out the middle man and nets Blizzard a healthy slice of the action.

The problem is, the Auction House scuttles a core aspect of the game. Grinding for loot lacks the same urgency, as there is a statistically laughable chance you’ll find something better than Auction House gear on the corpse of a quillback (at least until you get to Inferno, which is an eternity). Therefore you no longer strive for new gear, you strive for money, and merchants become glorified repair tools. And don’t even get me started on the Blacksmith. Is anyone here really going to drop 100,000 gold to train this guy up to competency, then just hope he makes an item that favors your class? Or will you buy a sword at the Auction House for a fraction of that, in a fraction of the time, that does exactly what you need it to? That’s what I thought.

Functionally speaking, the Auction House becomes the center of the looting experience in “Diablo III,” which renders the former centers of the series’ gameplay as hollow shells. They’re still here, almost as a matter of course, but we don’t rely on them, or even really use them, the way we used to. And with the promise of new and better items removed, dungeon crawls lose some of their thrill. For the first time ever in the franchise, you actually notice how much your wrist hurts from clicking.

Flaw #3: New Leveling System. Tinkering with the foundational elements of RPGs is risky business, especially when you mean to streamline, but Blizzard did it anyway with the new “Powers ‘n Runes” (my name) system. Much like the first time you realized you weren’t getting XP from kills in “Mass Effect 2,” your first level up in “Diablo III” is a pretty disappointing experience. You realize you’re just on a guided track, as if the whole game was the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

But the problems don’t stop there. As the leveling system relies more and more on Runes, the game becomes a bit of a bummer. You only unlock two, maybe three Runes per level, and often as not they’re for powers you don’t even use. Even when you do get a Rune for an active power, there’s a slim chance it’s going to earn a spot in your frighteningly limited queue. Much like the Auction House did for grinding, Runes take some of the joy from the whole experience.

Flaw #4: Character Balance. It’s very hard to get a consensus about class balance in “Diablo III,” but almost everyone agrees it’s a tad wonky. Generally speaking, Barbarians rule the world on Normal (I died only once, and it was an early game accident) and Nightmare, but then a lack of DOTs and other skills start punishing them once you get into Hell and Inferno. Wizards suffer horribly from GCS (“Glass Cannon Snydrome”), because their awesome power can’t compensate for their low HP. And while I don’t personally have experience of this, I’ve heard that Demon Hunters are inherently weak and require way more effort to get up to spec.

Balance issues are kind of inevitable, especially because Blizzard has an adorable habit of getting itself into game design paradigms that make perfect balance unattainable (i.e, three races in “Starcraft”). But still, it’s a hard lesson for those who go into the game not knowing what they’re in for.

Flaw #5: Story. After the fairly gripping narratives of “Starcraft II” and “World of Warcraft,” it’s a little surprising to see Blizzard slip with “Diablo.” The characters here are forced and unsympathetic, and the story relies so heavily on “surprising” betrayals of once-trusted colleagues that it begins to border on comedy.

Also, gone is the dark, murky atmosphere of dread that so beautifully saturated the first two games. In its place is something thematically and narratively a touch too close to “Torchlight” or “Trine.” Much of the pre-release moaning about bright color schemes was fanboy trolling, but it turns out they more or less had a point: this thing isn’t really horror anymore. “Diablo” has lost its edge.

And now, five of “Diablo III’s” biggest successes:

 

Success #1: The Auction House. Surprised? There’s two sides to this particular coin. Everything I said above holds true, but it’s also impossible to deny the genius inherent in the Auction House’s design. And while it does undercut the joy of looting on all but the hardest difficulties, it’s also a tremendously empowering tool that adds a new economic dimension to “Diablo’s” gameplay. Smart businessmen or women can turn a real profit in this place, even without the supposedly upcoming real money version.

Plus, and I don’t mean to sound crass here, but daddy needs a new pair of Legendary boots, and what kind of plebeian runs around in a dungeon like a sap to get them? The sheer efficiency of looking up exactly what you need and then getting it is overpowering. If I was given the option to remove the Auction House from “Diablo III,” I wouldn’t do it in a million years.

Success #2: Character Balance. Again, let’s turn the tables here. It isn’t perfect, but the fact that Blizzard got it as close as they did is amazing. Five classes aren’t easy to juggle, and they almost kept the balls in the air. I personally wouldn’t be caught dead with a Witch Doctor, but I know people who swear by them. That absolutely has to count for something.

Success #3: New Leveling System. You’re beginning to notice a pattern, aren’t you? Going back to the “Mass Effect 2″ analogy, once the initial shock and anger wears off, some real value emerges. For one thing, the Rune system opens up each class in a stunning way. My Barbarian is hardly even the same character as the others in my Friends List. And it’s a testament to Blizzard’s design ingenuity that this huge ocean of options is streamlined and intuitive while in-game.

Also, you’ve probably noticed that leveling comes a tad more frequently in D3 than, say, WoW. I don’t think this was an accident, and I must applaud Blizzard for it. They knew they were handing us a slightly less thrilling system, so they made sure not to be stingy with it, which almost compensates for the indifferent shrug a new level is so often greeted with.

Simply put, the new leveling system isn’t as sexy as the traditional model, but it’s a sturdier and more robust machine than I could have possibly imagined going in.

Success #4: Co-Op. The co-operative experience in “Diablo III” is seamless, effortless and outstanding. They managed to give us everything we want, nothing we don’t, case closed. I still dream of integrated video chat, but there are a dozen very good reasons I know that’s a stupid idea, so I’ll let it go. Co-op in “Diablo III” actually borders on being dull to talk about, because all you can say is, “Yep. Perfect.”

Success #5: Gameplay. At its heart, “Diablo III” beautifully retains what has always made these games so much fun, and that’s the most important victory of all. Yes, looting is now a little duller, and sure, leveling doesn’t thrill as it used to, but the foundation is stronger than ever. There’s a great variety of enemies and locations, and while side quests don’t overflow, it is a nice touch to see new ones almost every time you play through the campaign again. Simply put, Blizzard didn’t fix what wasn’t broken, and that’s to be commended.

_AA

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