DIABLO III — A REVIEW

Developer: Blizzard

Platform: PC

Australian rating: MA15+

The Diablo series are roleplaying games only in the loosest sense of the word. They’re missing many of the elements that make RPGs fun: the small maps mean there’s no sense of exploring a world, and the top-down view means you never see a horizon to strive for; conversations are usually boring things you click through on your way to clicking on more monsters; the setting, plot and characters are all thin and cliched. Instead, Diablo hones in on one aspect of RPGs with a laser focus – killing things and taking their stuff. Monsters die in a gaudy, clanking explosion of shiny free stuff, showers of gold coins and clattering piles of equipment dropped without rhyme or reason. You just killed a swarm of insects? They were carrying five gold coins and a magic belt. Of course they were. The sounds and animations for loot are unchanged in all the games, gold vomiting out of dead bodies in the same leaping arc it always has, because they got it exactly right the first time.

In spite of everything they lack, the Diablo games get their hooks into you because the one thing they do, they do very well. The mountainous climb of killing things to get more gear, gold and experience points so that you can swap out your weapons, buy better armour and then level up so that you get better at killing things to take the next batch of stuff is micromanaged with a finesse that makes you suspect a team of behavioural psychologists worked round the clock for the last 12 years figuring out how to perfect it.

Each of the classes has a different suite of abilities that can be mixed-and-matched as you go like you’re dressing for a party, keeping your date waiting downstairs while you figure out if healing clashes with teleport. They create very different playstyles – the monk whirs through fights in a blur of kung-fu while the demon hunter leads enemies in circles, trapping and then shooting them. Meanwhile, the bizarre witch doctor summons zombie pets while throwing jars of spiders and exploding frogs around, occasionally turning someone into a chicken. Each class has a different ‘juice’ to power special abilities which they replenish in different ways, none of which involve guzzling potions – a definite improvement over Diablo II, where the speed with which you hammered the potion key was your most important skill. Healing potions remain, but are less essential; they operate on a cooldown, forcing you to wait between each drink. Instead, you rely on instant-healing globes dropped by monsters, encouraging you to keep killing by clicking.

Replaying Diablo III with different classes is enjoyable, so it’s surprising that you have to finish it on Normal to unlock Nightmare difficulty with each one – and then finish Nightmare to unlock Hell and finally Inferno. If you’ve played the earlier games you’ll find most of Normal to be a breeze, and the 20-odd hours per character it takes to unlock Nightmare is a slog. It feels like artificial padding, as if the developers don’t trust their game to hold your attention long enough to satisfy without artificially slowing it down.

Diablo III doesn’t need to be this insecure. In spite of the plot being as goofy as ever, the basic formula of kill and loot is presented more slickly than it’s ever been and there are even a few memorable characters this time around. A jewelsmith voiced by the same actor as Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China is a highlight, and the followers who join you in single-player all reveal intriguing personalities through dialogue as you play.

It’s a shame then that the servers have been so unreliable. Sometimes connecting is impossible, connections are interrupted mid-game, and you’ll probably be frustrated by lag. Requiring even solo players to be online the entire time they’re playing was a terrible mistake, not only because it contributes to the server load but because experiencing lag in a single-player game that’s taking up 7.7GB of my hard drive is ludicrous.

There’s a very fun game in here, the best in the series, but it’s been hobbled by what are clearly financial decisions rather than game design ones. The developers at Blizzard are obviously as hooked on watching a gushing fountain of gold as we are.

***

Second opinions: Tom Chick, Oli Welsh, Joaby