If there is one thing Diablo III does better than other games, it is to empower the player and make him feel like a real badass. As my monk throws himself into the middle of a group of demons, pulls them together with a cyclone, pours on the holy flames, and sends any survivors sprawling with a round kick from heaven, I realise that I'm smiling as there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from it.
And this effect is even greater when you've got good company, such as when my friend's barbarian lays down zombies to the left and right, or when my witch doctor friend sends rivers of spiders, and other bugs in all directions to feed upon our foes.
It's Diablo in a nutshell - you lay down hordes of monsters in spectacular fashion, and then you greedily go after gold and loot they leave behind, so you can kill even more monsters in even more spectacular ways.
And it doesn't take long to realise that this is the real deal. This is a true sequel to the twelve year old Diablo II. It tickles me in the exact right spots, and rekindles a feeling I thought was forever lost.
If you took part in the open beta, but have yet to play the full game (perhaps due to the beating Battle.net has taken during launch), you may doubt my words. And I fully understand why.
If there was one word to describe the beta it had to be underwhelming. It looked the part, it felt like Diablo, but it lacked that special something. But you don't have to play more than an hour of the full game - halfway through the content that made up the beta version - to realise that Blizzard held back. They kept a little something in reserve. In the full game the difficulty has been turned up, and as you go after elite mobs with great drops, you quickly forget all about delays, simplified concepts, unstable login servers, and focus fully on getting that next piece of loot.
Twenty years have passed since a group of heroes (i.e. those of us who played Diablo II) put an end to Diablo, the Lord of Terror and his Prime Evil brothers. Since then Sanctuary has been blessed with relative peace and tranquillity. But as a mystical star falls down from the heavens and lands in the cathedral in the ruins of Tristram - it's a sign that the end of the world is coming. There are ominous signs that the two remaining lords of darkness, Belial and Azmodan, have begun to make their moves. It's a job for a hero, and that's where you enter the fray.
From a gameplay perspective there is a whole host of details that have changed since the predecessors. All the essential components are still intact, but some things have been drastically altered and this includes the skill system. Where Diablo (and almost all subsequent games in the genre it created) makes use of a traditional skill tree, where you start out by assigning points to some fundamental abilities, and later use points to further specialise your character in various ways, Diablo III is radically different. Here you gradually unlock abilties in seven categories, six active ones and one passive, and you can compose these as you see fit, more or less freely.
All skills are useful, and there is none of the "your attacks make 0.25 per cent more damage" nonsense. You can specialise these further with the help of runes, and these are also gradually unlocked as you make your way through the game, and these also present players with interesting choices.
Best of all, you can shift things around and change things as you wish. If you want to try something completely different, you're just a few mouse clicks away from a completely different build. It may not appeal to all purist Diablo fans, as they are used to having to play as all four barbarians in Diablo II to try out all their skills, but this is truly a step forward, and a system that does away with a lot of unnecessary headaches. And it comes in handy when you realise during a boss fights three quarters into the game, that you probably could use a bit of stun resistance after all.
It took me around 18 hours from the first login until I had completed the game on normal, and it was a captivating experience from start to finish. The difficulty level is well tuned, and it never becomes too hard or too easy, and the hours fly away as you make your way through Sanctuary. Add to this the almost ridiculous ease with which you can play alongside friends and pick any particular point in the adventure in case you want to revisit a dungeon a few times. From a gameplay perspective there is very little to complain about, and as far as entertainment value goes Diablo III delivers with flying colours.
Blizzard have made it their mission to allow players to run their games on less powerful machines, and thus Diablo III may not be the prettiest game on the planet. But the beautiful design makes up for it, and both environments and characters are incredibly varied throughout. From dark crypts to spider lairs and arid deserts, cold mountain regions, and flowing lava landscapes. Brilliant lighting and an expertly chosen colour pallette also aid the overall impression.
The audio stays true to the predecessors, but often there are sounds that cut through the familiar sound with a sharpness and distinctness that hint at the progress technology has made in twelve years. The sound effects associated with the bugs the witch doctor sends out are particularly wet sounding and wonderful. On the other side of the coin there is the music that stays fairly anonymous throughout, which is a bit of a shame. Especially considering the fact that the original Tristram theme is one of the most iconic pieces of video game music, perhaps only eclipsed by the Super Mario theme.
The voice acting is decent, but I get the feeling that the actors were held back by the script. I've got a bone to pick with the narrative, but first let's dig into some of the other weak points of the game.
Despite the many good decisions with regards to the skill system, there are a few design choices that I simply cannot agree with, and they also seem a step back compared to the previous games in the series and the many Diablo clones. When you needed a break in Diablo II, you could return to town with a portal and close down the game, and when you rebooted the game the portal was still in place and you could continue right where you were. That's not the case in Diablo III - here you have to continue from the latest checkpoint, and everything you've killed on the site is brought to back to life and any exploration on the side is also reset. It seems like a turn for the worse, especially considering the fact that there is a ten second countdown to log out outside of town - much like in World of Warcraft.
Another annoying thing is that your map is wiped every time you log out. If you've explored all the nooks and crannies of an area, you will find it prestine and unmapped (save for waypoints) when you return to the game. This also seems like a step back, especially when considering that less levels are randomly generated here when compared to Diablo II or games such as Torchlight.
And that takes us to the story, and sadly it comes in at Blizzard's usual level. I don't want to delve to deeply into the specifics to save you from spoilers, but when you look at both Starcraft II and Diablo III, it becomes apparent that Blizzard might want to hire some new writers. There is too much cheesy dialogue and a few too many clichés here, and every major point of the story is beaten into the skull of the player repeatedly. Courtesy of a massive warhammer.
It's a shame, especially considering the brilliant narrative of Diablo II. Hopefully, this can be salvaged with the inevitable expansion. Because I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed as the last few of the visually overwhelming cutscenes played on my screen.
However, it doesn't keep me from firing up the game again and continue my adventures on Nightmare difficulty, just as I finish up writing this review. Because Diablo III delivers that gameplay that has kept us playing throughout the entire night with previous chapters - and it does it incredibly well. So it really isn't the end of the world that the story falls short, as these monsters are begging for a beatdown, as evil makes it way back to our desktops once again.