Diablo 3 may not have been the game that its predecessor's biggest fans were hoping for but, nearly two years removed from its May 2012 retail debut, Diablo 3 has surpassed damn near every expectation I've ever had for a modern hack-and-slash adventure.
To be fair, skipping out on the Diablo franchise isn't quite the same as passing on Half-Life for a decade and a half or waiting until the end of 2013 to experience Nintendo's highly-addictive collection of Pokemon titles for the first time. That said, people still tend to be a bit surprised when they hear that someone who writes about games for a living hasn't played one of the hallmarks of PC gaming, though it's generally more of an "Eh, Diablo 2 was pretty fun..." these days.
I suspect a fair amount of that apathy is a direct result of the public's disappointment with Diablo 3, at least as it's existed for much of the last two years, and the sense of betrayal that many seemed to experience after the game's debut. For whatever reason, whether it be tarnished memories of a treasured franchise or the widespread availability of alternatives like Torchlight and Path of Exile, there really aren't many people still willing to look down their nose at we Diablo freshmen.
Still, I think I may very well have been doing myself a much greater disservice than I realized by waiting so long to check out a series that (in hindsight) clearly inspired a number of heavyweights in the genre.
To answer the obvious question...
Growing up outside of Dallas, one of several places commonly known as the Buckle on the Bible Belt, my parents weren't having any part of game called "Diablo". The same went for anything else that seemed to invoke demons, witchcraft, wizardry, or just about anything else that a Southern Baptist minister might find appalling. Hell,I wasn't even allowed to buy/play games sporting the dreaded Mature rating until I was old enough to attend an R rated movie on my own -- and even then, I couldn't play particularly dark/violent games until after my parents had gone to sleep for the evening.
By the time I was old enough for my parents' religious leanings to be inconsequential, I was already hopelessly addicted to a rotation of City of Heroes and World of Warcraft that consumed far more of my time and disposable income than I may ever be comfortable admitting to. To say that Diablo 2 was even on my radar at the time, outside of occasional references from other WoW players, would be a bald-faced lie.
By the time Diablo popped up on my sensors again, most of the series' biggest fans were already waiting for the arrival of Diablo 3, so I figured I'd wait and dive into the franchise alongside friends who'd spent varying amounts of time with one or more of the game's predecessors.
Then Diablo 3 was released to the public.
By a startling number of accounts, including our own Mo Mozuch's review of the game, Diablo 3 was pretty terrible at launch. Even those who enjoyed the game probably wouldn't argue that it was a vastly different experience than what most people expected from the sequel to Diablo 2. Though a number of complaints emerged, the majority of the unhappy players seemed to take issue with the game's always-online nature and a loot system designed almost explicitly to keep the auction houses active.
At this point, I'd assumed the Diablo franchise would become an inerasable stain on my track record; the one series that I'd never get actual hands-on experience with, leaving what I could only assume to be a gaping hole in my knowledge of its genre. A lack of understanding that would somehow expose itself every time I reviewed an action-RPG project of any kind. Fortunately, things rarely turn out the way that an anxiety-ridden brain assumes they will, and such was the case with Diablo 3.
Almost two years removed from the game's May 2012 debut, millions of players are celebrating last week's closure of the game's auction houses (both gold and real money), and a host of other major changes intended to draw players back to Diablo 3 just in time for the launch of Reaper of Souls. Blizzard has also slashed the price of the game, asking only $20 of those who've yet to buy the game, and even kicked off a Bonus XP event that's seen players raking in fifty percent more experience points during the final countdown to the Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls release date. What better time to jump in?
For those who aren't familiar with the game, Diablo 3 is an action-RPG that sees players repeatedly completing a four act campaign set in Heaven, Hell and the mortal realm that lies somewhere between the two. Working solo or groups of up to four players, you'll battle the assembled forces of evil, and ultimately find yourself going toe-to-toe with the reincarnated Diablo before everything is said and done.
Like most games of its ilk, Diablo's hook lies in players' ability to increase the game's difficulty, with the best equipment saved for those willing to brave the fifth-tier Tormented campaign. While a single run of the game's campaign will give you 8-10 hours of entertainment, the real value of a Diablo 3 purchase doesn't begin to show until the third or fourth time you've run through the campaign. With a few dozen hours of clicking, you'll soon find yourself banging up against the game's existing level cap, but the end-game in Diablo offers a bit more for anyone willing to spend a little extra time building up their favorite character(s).
Those who don't do well with repetition need not apply, as there's no real long-term appeal if you aren't willing to run increasingly difficult versions of the same four act story. On the flip side, those willing to devote enough time to Diablo 3 will be rewarded with a never-ending stream of Paragon points and enough set pieces to outfit their entire roster of heroes.
While interesting enough, the plot of Diablo 3 isn't especially groundbreaking either. With the fallen angel Tyrael by your side, players must work with a small group of allies to overcome an army of demonic soldiers that are looking to resurrect Diablo, one of the seven Great Evils. Along the way, you'll encounter dozens of the demon's subordinates, and an uncountable legion of imps, minor demons and other assorted evils.
To keep things from getting boring, you'll also occasional find yourself doing battle with amped-up versions of the game's various enemies, and will even stumble upon a rare spawn or two from time to time. Each of these encounters will generate substantially more loot than your average kill, though the challenge will also scale based on the number of players currently taking part in your game.
Unlike many games, new mob types don't await you at the game's highest difficulty levels. Instead, Diablo ups the ante by increasing your opponents' stats in near-exponential fashion, creating waves of enemies that require increasingly lengthy battles to defeat. With the longer encounters come more opportunities for mistakes to be made, and more opportunities for you to be defeated by Diablo's demonic armies, though death isn't so common in Diablo 3 that it ever starts to feel irritating or stifling to your progress.
For my first character, I chose a Barbarian, one of the last Children of Bul-Kathos and the closest thing that Diablo 3 has to a pure-melee character. Armed with a massive axe, he charges headlong into whatever groups of enemies cross his path, sending the bodies of his fallen opponents flying across the screen with surprising regularity. After more than two dozen hours of play time, said Barbarian is now level 60 (the pre-RoS max), and more than a dozen levels into the revamped Paragon system that was officially introduced to the game earlier this month.
Thanks to the generosity of a few a friends, I've even got a couple pieces of the Immortal King set, though I'm very much looking forward to replacing them with a complete post-Loot 2.0 set. Ditching the previous loot system, which did little more than keep money flowing into Blizzard's pocket (via the Auction House), friends assure me that the new Loot 2.0 system in Diablo 3 is quite a bit more generous than its predecessor.
Of course, you'll always bring in more than you can use, but there's plenty of other ways to repurpose the various drops you don't need in Diablo 3. At this point, my global stash is practically overflowing with Iridescent Tears, Exquisite Essences, and all sorts of low-level legendary gear for the alts I'll be rolling in the next few days/weeks. Yet, for some reason, I can barely bring myself to log off Battle.net long enough to get any actual work done.
It doesn't help that each of the game's classes offer substantially different experiences, as I've been learning the last day or two while leveling a hardcore Demon Hunter, or that the semi-randomized nature of the game's loot system means there's almost always an upgrade of some kind to be tracked down. And you can always sell whatever gear isn't beneficial, and use the extra gold to buy everything from equipment repairs to new space in your global stash.
Or you could take your wares to Haedrig, and let the traveling blacksmith reduce each item to its base components, giving you the materials needed to craft new armor and weapons. If you're lucky, you'll find plans for legendary weapons and/or armor, giving Haedrig the ability to forge some of the game's best equipment at your whim.
You'll also rescue a jeweler along the way, a man by the name of Covetous Shen, who opens up a world of gem-smashing that acts as a secondary money-sink if/when you finally gather up enough jewel fragments to create the best gems that Diablo 3 has to offer. Both Shen and Haedrig's respective work spaces can also be upgraded, giving you access to a pair of moderately-sized lists of craftable gear, and you'll need both artisans in top shape if you have any desire to construct some of the set and/or legendary smithing plans scattered throughout the game.
And don't even get me started on how excited I am to dive into a whole new chapter of content, alongside the rest of the Diablo 3 community, when the Reaper of Souls expansion opens its gates later this week.
Though much has been said about the game's network requirement, I think it's a sacrifice that I'm finally willing to make, especially once I saw how refreshingly convenient it is to hop in or out of a Diablo 3 campaign with people on your friends list. Just select your preferred character, click the "Quick Join" icon under your friend's user name, and voilà...you've got an adventuring party!
Anytime you find yourself without one or more companions, the game compensates by letting you choose one of three possible followers to aid you in your adventures. Like your character, followers will have their own sets of skills and equipment; however, your companions won't be able to help carry any extraneous gear if/when your inventory is full.
On the plus side, your companions can generally be counted on to offer some assistance in combat, though the effectiveness of your allies will depend largely on who you're fighting with/against at any given time. Those who plan to make regular use of these NPC companions will also want to set aside a few choice pieces of gear for their allies, otherwise it's going to be the digital equivalent of an uphill battle for most of the Diablo 3 campaign.
None of this is to say that Diablo 3 is a game with imperfections. Despite having almost two years to address the various complaints from the game's community, there are some real issues that should keep any rational person from declaring Diablo 3 a "perfect" game.
Most obviously, now that the console versions of the game have proven that Diablo 3 doesn't actually need a network connection to function, Blizzard needs to offer the same ability to play the game offline that gamers expect from most anything that isn't explicitly labeled an MMO. Hell, even that insult to the memory of SimCity is going to be playable sans network connection by the end of 2014.
The game could also use a few minor tweaks to make subsequent campaign runs feel less tedious. Yes, Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls will introduce Adventure Mode, giving players a means of navigating the game without having to stop for narrative purposes, but I had no idea just how revolutionary Torchlight was (with companions that could sell for you) until the first moment I realized that my companions wouldn't be able to return to town and sell my unneeded gear in Diablo 3.
Sure, you can portal back to town pretty much at-will, but it's not quite the same as sending your pet wolf/panda/badger/etc back to camp with a backpack full of loot while you continue slicing and dicing your way through the forces of evil.
At the end of the day, what separates Diablo 3 from the rest of the pack has to be its production values. Even if there were no other area where the game excels, and I'd argue that there are quite a few these days, I'm not sure anyone could offer a credible counter to the suggestion that Diablo 3 is one of the most effective digital stimuli to emerge in the last couple of years.
Much in the same way that each new iteration of Battlefield or Call of Duty keeps players hooked with wave after wave of new weapons and other rewards -- not to mention an endless stream of highly visible score notifications -- Diablo strings players along with a parade of side-quests, high-value encounters, sound bites, achievements and more loot than your adventurer can possibly carry. And that says nothing of the various spell effects that accompany each character's skills/spells/abilities, random side-quests and mini-dungeons that provide just enough rotation to keep each environment from feeling over-utilized, or the flashy notifications that follow each increase in experience level.
In many ways, Diablo 3 triggers the same feelings you experience when entering a casino; an inavoidable wall of flashing lights, possible rewards and high-profile congratulations for those who've already found a way to come out on top. Unlike those establishments, you'll generally walk away from Diablo 3 with all of your money, especially now that that the Real Money Auction House is a thing of the past. It's the sort of gameplay environment that can be quite enjoyable, especially if you've got a couple of friends to play Diablo 3 with. Bonus points if the whole group has access to voice chat.
It's the game's attention to detail that sets it above the rest. The fact that Blizzard has a few more dollars to spend on such minute details, especially when compared to the art budgets of Diablo 3's biggest competition, probably helps a bit too.
Diablo 3 may not offer the same experience that Diablo 2 once offered but, in many ways, that's probably a good thing. Despite fans' fond memories, the mechanics of older titles rarely hold up under later examination, and it's hard for me to believe that Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction would command the same sort of following in 2014 that it did in 2001.
Though certainly not perfect, Diablo 3 is a close enough approximation that I felt confident uninstalling the various competitors I've purchased over the last couple of years, and I'm not sure what (other than the upcoming PS4 port) might break the game's sudden hold on my attention. That isn't to say that I suddenly think all other action-RPGs are terrible, or that Diablo 3 is the only game I'll ever need again. But there is a brand new expansion around the corner, four classes left for me to explore, and (I'm told) some sort of cartoon level that still needs to be discovered pillaged.
So, it's safe to say I'm hooked for the time being.
Granted, given the nature of my profession, I can't sit here and make any sort of promise about the number of hours I plan to spend playing Diablo 3 during 2014 - though I'm sure I'll lose at least a couple dozen more to the Reaper of Souls expansion. I also can't be the one to properly argue whether or not Diablo 3 is a worthy successor to Blizzard's last entry in the series, given that playing Diablo 3 doesn't suddenly make me a Diablo 2 expert. But I will say this.
If Diablo 3 was new to stores this month, instead of a two-year old property that's finally getting the changes some fans have been calling for since launch, there's a good chance it would be a 2014 Game of the Year contender. It may not be perfect but, with what I'm told are a number of recently streamlined loot and character progression mechanics -- not to mention a fifth act for the campaign, a new level cap, expanded crafting and a new class just around the corner -- Diablo 3 has been one of the few games that I've gladly spent most of my waking hours playing in the two weeks since purchase.
Be sure to check back with iDigitalTimes.com and follow Scott on Twitter for more on Diablo 3, including our review of the Reaper of Souls expansion, for as long as the company continues to produce new Diablo 3 content.
Have you spent any time playing Diablo 3 in the weeks since Update 2.0.1 was released to the general public? Still disappointed with the overall Diablo 3 experience? Want to offer some advice on how to approach the game's remaining character classes?
Let us know in the comments section!