The headline hints at my initial impression of Diablo III.
It is certainly, from my perspective, a mix of good and ill.
The first two installments of the Diablo series pre-date World of Warcraft by a few years and did, in fact, influence the design of Blizzard’s first MMO. Certainly not in lore nor in the graphic style, but the mechanics of the game show Diablo’s hand clearly if you care to look close enough.
More than a decade later, the shoe is clearly on the other foot. WoW dominates Blizzard as sure as the sun dominates our solar system. There is no escaping it. It intrudes everywhere.
Like everything else, this can be viewed as good or bad depending on your own baggage. I tend to like WoW, but I still find some of the intrusions annoying.
Anyway, in order to put some structure around my first night impressions, I will divide them, like Gaul, into three parts, which, because they are long and meandering, you will find below the cut.
The space intentionally filled with words you can ignore to push the actual important stuff into your field of vision. Damn cut mechanics.
I am putting atmosphere first because it is, for me, the essential element of a Diablo game. Diablo games are grim and dark for the most part.
And atmosphere issues were certainly one of the big issues that the Diablo community went after four years ago when the first screen shots were displayed. There was outrage because it was felt by some that there were too many bright colors.
Well, in the few hours I have been able to play, I have decided that I need not have worried on that score. While the graphics have been updated to a smooth and modern level, the world is still as subdued and grim as ever.
I was a bit worried about how the world would shape up. Initially you are on what is a pretty narrow path, with no place to wander. This is not how a Diablo game should be. But as the game progresses, the zones open up into the more traditional wide open spaces of the past. The narrow path was there to guide you through the initial instructions.
I rolled a barbarian because traditionally only the melee classes have held my interest in the game. I will no doubt roll a monk as well, but in the original I only ever played a warrior and in Diablo II I spent most of my time as a barbarian or a paladin.
And the barbarian works. His strong melee attacks impart a feeling of visceral power as he pounds his enemies down. I like the barbarian, he feels right and at home in this world, a heroic character destroying all who oppose him.
All, however, is not perfect.
Music helped set the tone in the past games so strongly that it is inseparable in my brain. I cannot play a Diablo game with the sound off. But so far in Diablo III, the music has been washed out and bland. Rather than being an active participant in setting the mood, it seems to be over in a corner patiently waiting for somebody to take notice. I am not that far into the game, so there is time for the music to stage a comeback. But for now, I am disappointed.
And then there is the lighting. As a reminder, this is how dungeon lighting looked in Diablo II. The video is only 14 seconds, watch it.
A master work of light and shadow, where foul creatures were often hiding just outside of that circle of light around you.
In Diablo III, the circle of light is gone. Instead dungeons seem to have had their own special indirect lighting system installed. No doubt some sort of monster version of OSHA getting themselves into the middle of things.
That picture does not show what I mean as well as I would like, but it is the best one I have at the moment that doesn’t have some other element I want to discuss.
Now, on the plus side, things are still dark, and certainly much darker than Torchlight, whose happy glowing dungeon helped defeat the atmosphere its music was trying to build. But there is nothing hidden on screen. Everything is lit with a safety lamp glow coming from an unseen source. There is certainly no need to worry that your torch might go out and no need to seek equipment that improves the radius of your light source. Everything has been lit for your protection.
Diablo games have always followed a story. You spent a lot of time in dungeons and in wide open fields battle random foes, looting gold and equipment, and following up side paths that had nothing to do with the story. But in the end, it was about killing the bad guy.
In the original Diablo it was almost all dungeon with Diablo at the end, with only a couple of side quests.
In Diablo II, the story carried you through each of the four acts, guiding your journey and giving you a few intermediate goals. But there were only, at most, six quests in any given act.
But in Diablo III we feel the full weight of Azeroth when it comes to quests.
Rather than being given a simple objective, kill Bloodraven or find Charsi’s hammer, and sent off to figure out how to get things done, you are now fed quests in bite sized chunks. And there is a quest tracker there in your UI to make sure you don’t forget what you are up to.
So in that picture (like most pictures I embed, click on it to see the full size version), you can see the quest tracker. One of the quests was completed, so it has a check mark in its box, along with a green (1/1) next to it. Then there is the word “COMPLETED” in bright text next to it. And then there is a window that pops up at the bottom letting me know that a quest has, indeed, been complete.
So, there should be no question about the status of that quest!
The lack of subtlety gets some coverage in my next section, but clearly quests have taken a few steps up in importance. Rather than the approximately 20 quests of Diablo II, I suspect that I will be following hundreds of quests throughout the game with the requisite NPC interactions that go with it. And so far, none of them appear to be side quests.
Even in Diablo II, with its comparative paucity of quests, there were a few in there you could just skip and still move on with the story. But so far, Diablo III seems to insist on a quest driving every movement.
Yes, this is an effective way to feed the player story in bite sized chunks, but it feels like a bit too much of a good thing.
Again, I am only a few hours into the game and have been indulging in my usual need to fill out all blank spaces on the map rather than chasing quests full time, so it could ease up a bit as things go along. I am only in the early, and thus presumably narrative heavy, part of the story. And the story itself is of the same simple nature as before. Evil is back, in force, and you have to do defeat it.
Game mechanics tend to get attention only when they get between me and my fun. I complain even more here.
The first and most painful mechanic so far is being online all the time. Blizzard’s choice to save all your character data online has a few benefits… if you care about people hacking their own local characters… and the huge drawback of the servers having to stay up in order to play. I have moaned about this in the past, but it clearly isn’t going to change. Blizzard needs to get their act together on this because we all just want to play their shiny new game. The need to consult a server status page when I do want to play solo strikes me as wrong. (Though if your big anti-Diablo III argument is “it’s a single player game,” you look like a troll in my eyes.)
Bad (at least in the short term) client model aside, the basics of the game are the same as they ever were. I chose the barbarian in part because it is a carry-over class from Diablo II and the click to pummel mechanic works the same. But beyond the very basics, the changes creep in.
Potions, in another example of WoW influence, now have a significant cool down, something I learned the hard way.
I could have run to the little glowing red drop, which is a Super Mario health power up, but I stood my ground and hit the Q key, which is now your health potion default, only to find that my Diablo II habit of rapid potion consumption had been nerfed.
Death itself puts you back at the last checkpoint you passed with all your stuff. Death penalty officially nerfed. It now has about as much sting as dying in Portal… unless you are playing with the hardcore perma death option.
Checkpoints are different from waypoints, the travel locations spread through the various major locations in the story line, and which werea key feature in Diablo II. How often did I say I would play just until I got to the next waypoint?
Checkpoints are basically save points, and like so many other things in the game, are clearly indicated when you reach one.
The in-game map is very good, showing just enough detail and following the tradition of areas remaining blank until you visit them, driving my obsessive need to fill in the whole map.
However, Blizzard did not feel the map was enough and felt the need to include a mini-map in the upper right hand corner as well. This I do not like and immediately went looking for a way to disable it. I was not a successful search.
It is a fine mini-map (highlighted above with a red box around it), and shows detail and quest tracker information. I just do not feel I need it. Or, at best, I need it infrequently, and so would like to be able to turn it off (along with the quest objectives, which you can at least hide). But it appears I am stuck with it for now.
The game is full of data. Some of it is useful. You can see a lot of detail about your character.
And some of it I am not sure what to do with.
There is also an achievements and statistics page, though I was annoyed to find that my real name was printed in big letters there. One would think that after making a character name and a battle tag, that they would not feel the need to throw my real name on the pile as well. I will have to check to see if that particular page is visible to others. If so, that pretty much kills any multi-player plans outside of a circle of real-life friends. Bad Blizzard. I don’t want to be a part of your Real ID crap, so please keep my real name out of your games!
Other things are good. I appreciate not having to click on every pile of gold. I am happy enough with the old-school Diablo inventory management and constant equipment drops that you have to compare.
I even gave crafting a try, though that seems to me to be yet another WoW-like intrusion into the game. Did we really need crafting?
At least there does not appear to be any need to level up crafting as, technically, it appears to be giving you access to somebody to craft things for you. And this crafting does give you the incentive to at least pick up magic items on your travels, and you salvage them for raw materials for crafting.
The auction house seems to be completely superfluous at this point however. With all the items that drop, along with what the vendors have, plus the ability to craft even more, having yet another source of equipment feels like overkill.
But I am early in the game.
Later, at higher levels of difficulty, I guess the need to find just the right piece of equipment could drive you to the auction house. And there certainly seemed to be a lot for sale in the gold only section. But I am sure that those best-of-class pieces will all end up on the real money tab and will thus remain invisible to me.
Summary So Far
The game itself is good. For all my gripes I am enjoying it very much. It has enough of the Diablo franchise vibe to be fun and engaging.
I will undoubtedly play through the whole thing and give the other classes a try as well. And I will at least team up with Potshot for some multiplayer adventures. However, the four player limit on group size means that we cannot take the instance group into the game unless somebody wants to opt out.
The best aspects of the game reflect its Diablo heritage. It is dark and brooding, the combat is active and compelling, the controls are are as responsive as any game I have ever player, and there is the simplicity of the whole package.
The worst aspects seem to come from the looming presence of World of Warcraft at Blizzard. Treating the game as essentially one step shy of an MMO seems to me to have done at least as much damage as good to the Diablo franchise.
People carried on playing Diablo II for years after its one and only expansion. Back when X-fire ran monthly top-ten lists, it was always amongst the top ten in the “other” category. People hacked it. People modded it. People even worked out unauthorized patches to try an update it to do things like run at resolutions greater than 800x 600.
Will Diablo III, with its mix of new and old fare as well?