Fire, Brimstone, Fantastic Art Direction. Thankfully, for all its traits both good and bad, Diablo 3’s success is not just skin deep.
First, the bad. While I had no issue logging in to play on the evening of launch day, reports on other forums suggest widespread technical issues spoiled the first impression of many fans. I did run into the occasional glitch my first run through, but far fewer than other recent multiplayer action-RPG titles (Fable 3 comes to mind). No doubt that not being able to log in at all would have been a big disappointment and I hope those issues are resolved now.
The classic title had it’s flaws too, and it’s back and better than ever. Blizzard shows it’s is not too big of a studio to learn something new, and brought more than polish for the occasion. It’s clear that effort went into the plot and stories of the games key characters, adding an unexpected, unobtrusive element of character development that is more than just complimentary. The way the characters interact with the player, and each other, lends to an atmosphere much more interesting than just squishing the hordes of hell (again). The dialog is tailored to the player’s class and gender, which left me eager to play the story through a second time as a different class just to see how the dialog changes. There are five classes. Well played, Blizzard.
About that polish I mentioned- they didn’t hold back there, either. Start with the easily recognized three and a quarter view, nearly 3 dimensional game field that IS Diablo. The hero is small in the center of the view, plunging into hordes of monsters and endless, dark catacombs with eerie mood lighting. No one piece of art is very detailed but as a sum make each setting seem rich, complex. The backgrounds and locations are beautiful and dynamic – trembling, crumbling, burning and expanding as the hero faces the onslaught. Little of your surroundings are safe from the horrors of combat either, and each wall, table and pile of bones are scattered when struck with realistic physics that are a far cry from just animated crumbling rocks. It creates a very tangible dungeon experience (and more than a few potential achievements).
New to the franchise are the moving watercolor and sketch-style animated sequences that link the sub-stories of each act. They are slightly different depending on your class and gender, enhancing the sense of story. These do not replace the major cut-scenes, long a trumpet of the Blizzard franchise. While there are only four or five of the big production movie scenes, they are breathtaking and easily rival or surpass their Hollywood cousins.
To me, more impressive than the art alone was the art direction. Both prior titles suffered from repetitious environments and monsters despite being more or less random every time you play. Third time’s the charm though. Each dungeon and environment is far from just a new skin on old corridors, and are varied dramatically. Clever camera and perspective manipulation highlight certain encounters. By the third and closing fourth act, the places themselves have built a story that is more than just “tougher monsters in the next dungeon with a boss at the end”. The gorgeous music fits perfectly.
Of course, the art, plot, characters, music and creative direction might keep us playing but it’s the gameplay itself that we bought it for. It’s deceptively easy to pick up and challenging to master. The first play through on “normal” difficulty concludes somewhere around level 30 (results may vary widely based on playstyle), with level 60 being the max. After that you unlock “Nightmare” difficulty, followed by “Hell” and “Inferno”, the latter of which not even the game designers have beat. Each step up, your character starts with all the prior advancement and gear at the beginning of the story against progressively tougher foes, earning even more powerful moves and gear. Diehard fans looking for a much steeper challenge can unlock “Hardcore” mode, in which your character gets just one life to attempt the same feat – die once (even to lag), and the character is gone. Succeed and earn rare achievements, loot and bragging rights.
The combat is a blast, and the monsters and AI are well thought out. The boss encounters are hair-raising and liberally spaced throughout the story. Easily just as challenging are the “elite” monsters randomly encountered throughout the game, which at times can be hard enough to leave you rethinking your strategy while licking your wounds back at your most recent checkpoint. The challenge and AI instantly adjusts to the number of players in your group – it’s not just extra, tougher monsters either. Be prepared to learn how to work together to make effective use of complimentary skills or find yourself quickly overwhelmed by inexhaustible waves of foes. It’s thought provoking, engaging and very fun.
All in all it is a knockout hit – a badly needed success in the action RPG genre, and a big win for Blizzard.