The fact that Diablo 3 was being released this year was mostly a curiosity to me. I had played a bit of Diablo 1 and 2, played a reasonable bit of Torchlight, and had attempted (and failed) to get into World of Warcraft. The action RPG never really caught me, because of a variety of gameplay and gaming reasons. But as Diablo 3 release day grew closer, my friends got more and more excited about it. I was interested to see how the real-currency auction house would work, and I had faith that Blizzard had enough people, experience and smarts to make a great game. And a good few days later, here I am, reviewing it. The one-line review is that I like it, but I am very, very uncomfortable about that.

To put it favourably, Action RPGs are all about taking the mechanics and settings of standard RPGs and streamlining them to be more arcade-like. You still have stats and gear, but you don’t have skills like Diplomacy, or Crafting. Everything is about killing bad dudes. Gear makes your stats higher, which makes you better at killing bad dudes and better at not being killed by bad dudes. You have skills but they are really different attacks or abilities. My Diablo 3 character is a female Witch Doctor. Her skills are shooting blow darts, or throwing jars of spiders at people, or throwing frogs at people, or throwing decaying zombies at people… you get the idea. You can choose a single skill from a bank of what you’ve unlocked by gaining levels. You can swap skills at almost any time. This gives you a bit of latitude in how you want to play. I play my Witch Doctor by creating a clusterf mess of zombie dogs, gargantuan zombies, followers and spells I’ve thrown into the fray. Basically I stop throwing spells when the area that the bad guys were in stops moving.

Action RPGs are designed to be little pockets of bad guys that you encounter in an area. Kill them all and then you can move onto the next pocket. There are very few scene transitions, narrative or much that isn’t fight, fight, fight. Hence the name “action” RPGs.

Diablo 3 does this well. They shake up the “pockets of bad guys” just enough to keep you on your toes. A dead tree may actually animate and ambush you. Lizards or giant worms may advance on you by swimming through the sand like sharks. Birds may drop in from the sky. There’s a lot of flavour in it all. Bad guys have a bunch of tricks up their sleeves, although some of them are not so fun. Fear effects on bad guys is awesome – they all run away. Fear effects on you is not so great – you run away and lose control of your character. Same goes for “jailer” bad guys who can temporarily freeze you in your spot, or “waller” bad guys who can arbitrarily create smashable walls.

The environments have a lot of flavour. Each area has a different visual texture to the others. It may be the difference of lighting (an underground cavern may have very diffuse or very harsh lighting), or architecture (the ruined castles you wander through all look different) or just special effects like sand storms or swamp gas. Even the abilities have some great effects on them.

Levels are procedurally generated, so while the artists have put a bunch of work into the “local” art, the level design in general is some form of controlled randomness. This idea was borrowed from roguelikes like Angband. They’d randomly create the levels every time you entered a new one. Torchlight did the same thing, although not so successfully. They had an evil dungeon near town that had endless levels on top of each other, which was jarring if you had a level with lava everywhere somehow on top of a level of bottomless pits. Diablo 3 is a little more careful. Some levels are large plains that have cellars or a few levels of a hidden city underneath them. It’s logically consistent if a little fantastic, which is great.

Diablo 3 does this all very well. It’s a polished game and you can see a triple A developer has been working on it. What I don’t like is that a triple A developer could have done so much more.

After 12 years of development, really they’ve just come up with the same game. There’s some new classes and tweaks, there’s a bit more physics and particle effects to make things look interesting, but the gameplay is fundamentally the same. Which is to say incredibly shallow. Spam an area with attacks and that’s strategy. The difference between the classes seems to be the distance to your foes that you need to be (monk/barbarian – up close, wizard/witch doctor/demon hunter – at range) and how big an area your effects hit. Witch Doctors, for example, hit far and wide, but precision stuff is not so good. You can change this up with different skill load-outs, but there definitely seems to be an optimal load-out and all the rest are kinda flavour.

Even then, the experience is pretty empty. The writing and narrative are really quite terrible, although the ideas present suggest that there is a good writer in there trying to get out. All the quests are about killing everything in an area, maybe clicking on a book or two. No puzzles. No real choices. Everything is about making the numbers bigger. Like I’ve mentioned to my friends, this will become a game to play whilst listening to podcasts. Which doesn’t say much for the mental stimulus of Diablo 3.

Loot drops like rain, but it’s mostly trash. You can buy a weapon for say 2000 gold pieces, but if you found the same thing, you might get a handful of gold pieces in return. Even then, the merchants sell nothing of interest. Your blacksmith requires loot to improve, and you will sink hundreds of thousands of gold coins into him to just get him to be able to make something you want. And halfway through that process, a lapidary shows up and you need to do the same thing for him.

The heart of the game is loot. It’s the only way you improve outside of levelling, and levelling slows down over time. Because of the randomness of it all, you’re encouraged to shake down every last bookcase, punch every last coffin and run over every last gold coin on the ground. And this is where I really dislike the game. It becomes pure addiction. Very shallow gameplay, yet they constantly encourage you to act compulsively. You probably can┬áplay through Diablo 3 not grabbing all the loot not immediately in your path, but you will have a tougher time because of it.

Worse still is the game engine they decided on. It’s a MMO-like. You play on a server somewhere, even if you’re playing single player. The idea proposed by the developers is that this approach gets rid of the black market or grey market item selling, thus protecting their customers. But it also means you can’t play without an Internet connection. You get lag if the network or server is flaky.

Which would be okay if they went all the way with this, but they seemed to have ended on some half-arsed solution. A new player is not explained that they may lose their game or items if the server is shut down. In fact, you are fairly unceremoniously bounced from a game if this happens. You can’t use the auction house mid-game. You can’t even get the benefits of the auction house mid-game. The UI for contacting friends and being social is slightly awkward, a thing you’d think they’d have spot-on from 8 years of experience with WoW. And you’d especially think they’d know how to provision a few extra servers for the release date. With all the people, money and experience, they kinda did an underwhelming job. I feel uncomfortable supporting dev work like that.

The economics of it all, while still nascent and developing, are kinda worrying. Loot is plentiful but mostly worthless. You have to invest a not-insignificant portion of time picking up and selling loot (gold is automatically picked up if you’re nearby, why not items?) The gold auction house is in a weird state of flux. There’s a vast number of items that the game can procedurally generate, so there’s no baseline prices for anything and the market will have a hard time agreeing on a value on anything based on stats. Plus the gold auction house feels like a trainer for the real currency one. For example, the auctions for game gold charge a processing tax. I can understand that they want a coherent system, but that in itself is devious. If I can’t really tell the difference between virtual game gold and real money, what are Blizzard trying to encourage? Especially when they are taking a bit off the top for every auction, even ones that fail!

There’s something unsettling in the final product that I have a problem putting my finger on. I would have thought that you could have a hybrid server/single player model and still preserve the integrity of your auction house. If the server goes down, your computer takes over until it can pass the reins back to Blizzard. All the items you have generated by your computer aren’t signed by Blizzard, so they can’t be used in the auction house and maybe they get even poorer merchant exchange rates to avoid converting illegitimate goods into gold. Maybe only have rare identifiable items be auctionable, and identification is the process that generates an authorized item. These solutions aren’t foolproof, but with the amount of money and people they are throwing at this game, you think they’d try something better than booting single player gamers out of their game.

In addition, Diablo 3 really feels like an MMO-lite. There’s the endless cooldowns on abilities. Some I understand – you have to wait between changing a skill and using it, so you don’t get to use all skills all the time. Others are daft – the game encourages me to stand and watch a clock tick down before I can re-summon my zombie dogs. If the game knows there are no bad guys nearby and I’m not in combat, speed the cooldowns up! This is a single player game, and you don’t want the experience to be “I’m watching cooldowns tick down.”

All in all, it’s an okay game, but it’s unsettling. Blizzard has so much resources and sway, and really they’ve put out a graphically nicer version of a 12-year old game. It’s about as good as a game like this can be. But they haven’t innovated. They haven’t improved the customer experience (except for protecting against being ripped off by the item black market, which is a small problem at best). They’ve secured a profitable model for themselves, based on a shallow addictive experience, and given very little back to the customer. Definitely nothing with lasting value. A bunch of decisions could be made by fear or greed, but I’m willing to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. What I’m not willing to give them is any more of my money. They’re a triple A developer, an industry leader. They need to act like one.

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3 comments until now

  1. Harsh. I think the story is good but parts of it have been delivered badly, either through poor dialog or poor voice acting which is a bit of a detractor. I’ve been playing the wizard and I’m finding it great fun finding a combination of skills that work for me, but the play, at least for this character, is fairly varied. I’m also replaying a lot of sections when I play with various peeps online and I’m amazed at the variety that comes up with the random level generation in the way of different side quests. I’ve already started playing with a new character before I even finish the game with my first just to experience some of those differences. Some of the quests can be sigh-worthy but on the whole its a great game. Also, dont confuse the 12 year turn around time between D2 and D3 as 12 years in development. I’m fairly sure they only started making it 4ish years ago.

  2. @Bender
    Wikipedia says otherwise. It’s gone through a few revisions (and dev teams!) and this version has been announced since 2008. Here they announced various things like the always-on requirement for single player, so it’s unlikely they started dev then. Rumours say the actual dev team was about 70 people. I’m unsure if it’s quite a multi-million dollar, quarter-of-a-man-millennium product.

    I don’t think it’s a bad game. I just have some serious reservations about development choices they made and don’t think it’s a great game.

  3. Paul Murray

    I’m playing some space-time studios games on the iPad – Pocket Legends, the vampire one – and the point of all these games to to get you to spend real money. You use the apple app store to buy “platinum”, with which you can bypass quests, get better items and so on. The formula is: make the game addictive but boring, offer to remove the boring bits in exchange for real money.