It has been almost a week now and I feel as though I have enough of a handle on Diablo 3 to give a fair review of it thus far. Currently my highest level character is 33 and I have finished the game on Normal, played a little on Nightmare. I know Hell and Inferno are a whole new ballgame and I'll address those another time. As is my custom I am not looking to attach some 1-10 score to the game...I am going to point out my opinions of what works, what doesn't work, and what nags at me as I play.
Warning, there are some spoilers ahead but I will try to keep them minimal and vague.
The last 12 months have been a rough time for any game with a "3" in its name...Mass Effect 3 being the first that comes to mind, but Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 also did not seem to live up to expectations. The number of sour or disappointing sequels that has come out lately did not bode well for Diablo 3. Thankfully this is not the case here, Diablo 3 is not the disappointment some other games were (and frankly I do not think Mass Effect 3 was a bad game, it just had some serious story flaws).
So without any further procrastination let us get to the meat of the review.
Suffice it to say the game is good, I think its a fair assertion to made; some might have expected a perfect remake of Diablo 2 or the second coming of gaming, but this is neither. However, it is a fantastic game which bears the polish one expects from a Blizzard title. I think one of Blizzard's strengths has always been getting the "little" details perfect, while still providing a high quality and entertaining product.
The Classes and Skill system
Believe it or not Blizzard knows how to make classes and make them fun, despite what one might assume from reading the WoW forums. Even though the game is relatively simple (*click on enemies, collect loot*) each class is distinct. They've moved away from the uniform health/mana system to a system in which each class has its own resource, and each handles it in a different way. The Barbarian has Rage which she earns fast by attacking and spends just as quickly. The Monk similarly generates Spirit by attacking but it comes more slowly and seems to have a larger effect when spent. The Demonhunter has two resources; one for defenses and one for damage, the former recharges slowly and the latter quickly. The Wizard has a relatively small pool of Arcane Power which makes her feel very front-loaded, capable of dishing out a lot of fast damage but it comes back quickly. The Witch Doctor has a large pool of mana that tends to sustain a little longer. These are of course generalizations and within each class certain playstyles will slightly alter those rates.
Even though each class is different, they play intuitively and I did not find any of them to feel awkward to pick up and start playing. That is not to say there weren't bumps in the road; a few of the classes had some places where they felt a little weak; usually due to missing a certain ability or not having a level appropriate weapon.
However, the shift in the skill system is part of the brilliance of the game and I hope it becomes a mainstay for other games of its type. In Diablo 2 you created a build as you first leveled...and unless you consulted a guide you probably built yourself "wrong" the first time. This certainly added replay value when a person would remake a character to retry their build, but I consider this an artificial inflation of replayability. Instead, D3 allows you to change your skills on the fly with a short cooldown put on any skill swapped. This encourages experimentation and there are plenty of combinations to try; not only that but on higher difficulty levels certain elite monsters may require a change in strategy to overcome. Suffice to say at some point your build WILL be the wrong build, but rather than forcing you to restart the game, you can swap out abilities and try something new.
I don't miss the 5 stat points per level. Don't get me wrong, I am all for the idea of making strategic choices in a game; but typically those choices can be fixed relatively simply. A bad strategy in SC2 is fixed on your next game. With Diablo 2 a bad "strategic" decision could remain invisible most of the game then come back to haunt you rather suddenly (how many unfortunate Barbarians took plenty of ranks in whirlwind only to find that Andariel was immune to physical in Nightmare/Hell?). The remedy was to try and find a weapon that did the right elemental damage or you started over. In the age of checkpoints and quicksaving, I don't regard "reroll" as a legitimate resolution.
Diablo 3 is one of the few games I have played these days that has required an initial playthrough on the easiest setting to unlock the higher difficulty levels. Some games have required a playthrough on a harder level to unlock the most difficult, but Diablo is still the only one that forces you to start at "easy" and work your way up. I personally think that this is perhaps not the best way to handle things as it did start to get a little agonizing to be left-clicking my way through Act 4-5. However the very design of Diablo 3 is around this progression. I find this perhaps to be one of the few TRUE flaws, but at the same time I am not sure how best to fix it while preserving the feeling of Diablo.
Diablo has always been a series about mood; even for a top down game it was able to invoke certain feelings of apprehension in me when I was much smaller.
When the earliest screenshots were released there was criticism from fans that the new appearance was too cartoony and that the "grimdark" feel of the original two games was lost. Some of that is true, the lighting has changed to become more diffuse. In the example below we have lighting from Diablo 2; dark shadows and a bright light on the character. This lead to there being darkness around every corner and a feeling of being the lone adventurer against the darkness, and behind any pillar could be a group of skeletons ready to strike. D3 still has the pop-in of monsters that become visible from around a corner and yet it doesn't quite have that feeling of darkness.
I also feel like there was some change in storytelling between D2 and D3. In some ways D3 felt "grander" than D2...certainly both stories involved a hero confronting the powers of hell but somehow D3 felt a little more towards the "epic" fantasy of WoW than D2 did. Still it resolved the storyline, I am not sure we'll see another Diablo game unless they take a page from the Bethesda book and set it far into the past/future. Offered more closure than Mass effect 3 did and didn't leave a sour feeling, but at the same time I got the same feeling I often do from Blizzard games: our characters weren't really there. I suppose it's not the worst thing in the world, but there is a feeling that they told a story about their characters, you just happened to be the one facilitating.
This is topic I could elaborate further on but I'll save a more lengthy discussion for another post.
There could be plenty of spoilers here so I will try to keep things light, but D3 does a good job of introducing strong female characters that pass the Bechel test. There is still ground to cover but they made positive steps.
As far as the classes go I found it more annoying that the male Barbarian, Witch Doctor and Monk had to be older men than that the females of the classes were younger women. Yet all five female characters have distinct personalities and differing body shapes (they aren't all Blood Elves) that fit the job they have. In the future it wouldn't hurt to offer a tiny bit more customization to each character (old/young perhaps).
The armor actually works well despite Blizzard's history with breast-windows and arbitrary midriff exposure. Each character starts out in their underwear but quickly picks up something that is more substantial and even the lowest level armor looks like it its. Sure it suffers from fantasy-armor arguably feasibility but none of it is due to random skin exposure. By level 20 all of my characters (female) are fully clothed and look the part of their class (albeit some of the helmets are downright silly but that's not a gender problem). The witch doctor is the least clad, but the same is true of the male so I find it hard to complain. All in all the armor passes the "Nightclub" test that my friends and I use, I'll do a post on that sometime in the future but the short version is: If the armor looks more appropriate for a nightclub than a battlefield, you might want to rethink it.
At one point I had an exchange between my Monk and the enchantress follower which basically summarized to:
"In this place only men can be warriors, silly isn't it?"
"Yes it is."
Lighthearted, but so far as the setting has shown either gender is equally capable of knocking skulls or throwing fireballs, so it seems perfectly natural that a society that ignores that might be odd. The Scoundrel follower is clearly a womanizer from his background, but rather than high-fiving him and calling him a stud, most of the NPCs in the game treat him with the mild-contempt one might show a disobedient dog. Even he starts to improve over the course of the game, and we learn that his ways are in part due to his past.
As for that Enchantress follower...she is perhaps the only character I was not too fond of, something about her felt too naive and too innocent for the setting. Given the horrors one is constantly around it seemed odd to have this beacon of innocence that was more or less untarnished.
There are plenty of other avenues of the topic I could discuss but I'll end things here and save it for another post.
Blizzard is making this game the flagship of the RMAH but I already feel as though it is doomed to fail. First this is because gems are going to proliferate rapidly, they are going to be painfully common and I expect within a few months even casual players will have the Radiant+ gems to socket their alts into godhood.
At this point the community hasn't quite decided what items are the "valuable" ones just yet and so everything is in flux, Blizzard was wise to hold off activation of the RMAH for a few weeks (this also lessens the effect of certain people trying to rush ahead to have the best gear to sell early on, thereby profiting by being first).
I am not certain but I do not believe items bind to anyone currently, so I am concerned that items will continue to go into the economy but are never taken out (BoE's in WoW bind so they can't be resold). If this is true I see prices rapidly racing towards the bottom through undercutting.
One of the weaknesses of D3 is that the randomization...is VERY random in some places and not random in others. I personally feel like the zones and dungeons are not random enough. Eventually you realize that each zone maintains more or less the same "shape" through each playthough...mob placement differs, but the events and dungeons are always in the same few possible places. Even the dungeons tend to be predictable after a while, as each tends to be: Level 1, Long cave. Level 2, short cave with named mob and chests. This tends to make things a little predictable. Oddly enough I don't mind it too much as the game is still fun to play, but I suspect after a few more runs through Normal/Nightmare/Hell that it will start to grate.
Then there is the loot...and this is where the game gets very random. Items roll their stats twice: first they roll to see which stats they get, THEN the value of those stats based on the item's level. So a piece might roll up "of the hawk" meaning it will have dexterity, then it rolls up how much dexterity. That value will be in a range determined by the items level, but it is a wide range; dozens of times now I have seen items with much higher item levels (10 or so) have far fewer of a stat than even lower level ones (for example, a level ~25 helmet that had 1...yes ONE strength on it). This applies to rares and Legendaries too, so really now you are fighting two RNG's when trying to get the best possible gear.
It will also mean that Rares (the equivalent of Blues or so in WoW) will be the ideal pieces later on, as their stats can be randomly rolled to be better than even the highest level Legendary items. I have not had much experience with Legendaries in D3 but in D2 they were the peak and I enjoyed them because they often had some unique effects. I do not miss the idea of legendaries being the only items sought at high level, but I think I will miss them being extremely good for their level and slot.
Worth EVERY PENNY of the $60 even if it was down the first day (and frankly I think the people exploding over it might be over reacting), but full disclosure requires I state that I do not think the game will have the same staying power that D2 did without some sort of content updating.
Thought of the day: If David Serif wasn't in Deus Ex Human Revolution, it would have been Sans Serif!....ok I'm done.