Diablo 3"Stay awhile and listen."Those immortal words of Deckard Cain have become iconic to Diablo fans who have spent many, many hours collecting the "phat loot" of Diablo 1 and Diablo 2. Sadly,...
Beautiful graphics, mindless fun, no AH
Boring and bland itemization, terrible voice acting, poor economy.
"Stay awhile and listen."
Those immortal words of Deckard Cain have become iconic to Diablo fans who have spent many, many hours collecting the "phat loot" of Diablo 1 and Diablo 2. Sadly, Blizzard has jeopardized future good memories by trivializing Deckard Cain’s
Warning: Spoiler!(Click to show)
death with some new "unknown" antagonist in Diablo 3.
Now normally I save "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" for summaries but in this case there are just too much to discuss to summarize the key issues. I compare and contrast Diablo 2 PC (D2), Diablo 3 PC, and Diablo 3 PS3 to provide a frame of reference to understand the context.
= The Good =
Blizzard has always had a unique interesting style. Mixing "High Fantasy" with the "Cartoon" (black outlines) look is difficult to do well, let alone pull off keeping both styles in balance without one "blowing out" the other. Diablo 3 uses a more softened dark-pastel look with hints of it being almost watercolors and it looks _fantastic_.
Looking at the early screenshots before all the artwork was completely redone we can see the "classic" dark gothic look is quite fitting for dungeon crawling. However, over the years I think we've all gotten a little bored with its overuse. In this case I am glad that Blizzard decided to take a break from the "norm" and push the boundaries in artistic style and rendering technology. True, the mood and atmosphere loses it "grit" from the earlier series but again this is a casual game for casual gamers and the graphics reflect that.
While world interaction and immersion still doesn't hold a candle to the Ultima series, or Skyrim, at least it has been given a makeover. The inclusion of physics for when you smash objects and kill monsters will surely put a grin on the gamers face as he watches the last monster he killed have the corpse go flying -- even off screen -- by the sheer force of impact. While this is purely a cosmetic effect it never gets boring and it is fun as heck.
The entire game looks *amazing*. Certain areas such as "Leoric's Manor" and "Highlands Crossing" in Act 1 and "Dahlgur Oasis" in Act 2 are definitely some of the prettiest scenery I've ever had the pleasure to see from Blizzard. The physics of the bending oasis grass blades are nice touches that help with world immersion. Who knew that "The Cursed Hold" jail could actually look inviting!?
It is a shame that players are forced into linear exploration of the world. Gone is the ability to jump from Act to Act like in Diablo 2. You WILL play the game like god (the developers) intended. Heck, even the world "layout" has the same formulaic recipe from Diablo 2: Wilderness, Desert, Hell, North/Heaven.
Speaking of Heaven: While the soft blue flowing waterfalls and baby blues trees with their falling leaves look absolutely beautiful in the "Gardens of Hope" cognitive dissonance unfortunately also rears its ugly head:
* Where does the water from the waterfall go?
* Why are there trees in heaven?
* Why are they blue in the first place?
* How do they regrow their leaves if they keep falling off?
These first few can be dismissed as simply the fallacy of falling for the "Red Herring of Realism" (yes, even game designers can still fall for it) but when you have:
* Why am I breaking vases in heaven to collect gold???
Which so blatantly and bluntly breaks world immersion -- it stands out like a sore thumb and reminds me that I am just playing another game of 'Gimme. Gimme. Gold grind.' *sigh*
Cinematics of course uphold Blizzard's high quality standard and are a joy to watch -- It almost makes you wonder why they just don't release a dedicated full "movie"? -- although they did hit the "Uncanny Valley" in a few shots. :-( Sadly though there is more cognitive dissonance after watching the beautifully rendered photo-realistic cinematics only to be placed back in the pastel game with your "tiny" avatar and its medium polygon count. This effect wasn't AS pronounced in Diablo 2 -- partially I believe because of the pseudo-cartoony look of D2 gameplay augmented the pseudo-realism of the Diablo 2 cutscenes. In Diablo 3 you end up with this juxtaposition that just "clash". I wish creative directors and game designers will come to understand the importance of consistency: Please have the cutscenes use the SAME in-game engine as gameplay to maintain to a single *unified* look instead of two inconsistent ones. "Mirror's Edge" I am looking at you ...
Boss battles go through phases or stages that World of Warcraft (WoW) pioneered. It breaks up the monotony of having only an obnoxious huge enemy life bar by augmenting it with a little AI at least.
= The Bad =
Music and Sound Effects (SFX) are all masterfully done. From the "tense" flames in the burning Wortham village, to the calming desert music, to the sinister pseudo-metal music of Cydaea's lair, to the ominous sounds of Heaven the mood conveyed is perfect. One can even hear the guitar of the original Tristram if one listens in the right places.
Voice acting however is all over the place.
On of the one extreme we have the hyper-sensual Cydaea's voice that just *oozes* pure sexiness wrapped around the essence of evil. If Hell is the epitome of suffering it would be hard to know it here! I'd do almost anything to hear that sweet, sexy, sensual voice for eternity. It is a good thing we can’t sell our soul because her voice would have long ago claimed mine.
And on the other we have one of the worst dialogues ever written and spoken. Listening to Diablo taunt you is like trying to listen to a 5 year old having a temper tantrum. Seriously, you would have more "fun" with a real kid because at least you would be developing useful skills in communication AND the child would eventually be quiet. Diablo just makes your ears bleed.
Lord of Terror? There is _nothing_ scary about some antagonist that is supposed to be a Lord of it. More like Lord of Pre-Adolescence Screaming. Even Diablo 1 was scary. In Diablo 3 it is more like "Can you just shut up and die already? Gimme my phat loot!"
Voice lines for NPC followers share the same chaotic fate of being all over the map.
Kormac the Templar has some really great voice lines written and his commentary is well done. Listening to his well told backstory is surprisingly engaging at the intellectual level. It will take a while to get though all his voice lines but after you finish the game you will definitely want to listen to his tale. You can feel for him, for his decisions, and most importantly, relate to his questions about morality and how he applies his philosophy to his religion.
And on the other hand we have this:
(in high pitched voice) "Oh, look, footprints!"
Someone PLEASE put me out of my misery so I don't have to listen to this "airhead" Eirana the Enchantress. Ever. Again.
Leah hold's Deckard Cain in high regard and the backstory between her, Adria and Deckard Cain is mildly interesting as they each disclose part of it but it feels all slightly out of place – maybe because it is such a shock to learn that Cain was a father which breaks his old, sage archetype? Sadly her dialogue by the end of the game mirrors that of Tyrael: "Here, let me open that gate."
Tyrael starts off as an interesting "story-hook" but by the time he gets to Heaven he wears thin as a forced plot device. More cognitive dissonance as you wonder "Why don't you actually _help_ me fight Diablo, Tyrael?" Instead Tyrael too has been delegated to "Unlock door duty." Oh, how the mighty have fallen from archangel with beautiful transparent wings in the Worldstone Chamber. http://diablo.wikia.com/wiki/Tyrael?file=Tyrael.gif
At least Itherael got to keep his cool wings even if he does drone on in a monotone-put-me-to-sleep voice. Bueller? Bueller? Sorry, he took the day off to have some actual fun.
Most of the characters feel like cardboard cutouts with little to no character development that just makes one-self question "Why do I even care again about these people again? These characters are (mostly) _boring_ as hell." (Pardon the pun.)
= The Ugly =
Take everything great about the past Diablo series, flush it down the toilet, give the new game to a bunch of inexperienced game designers and you would effectively end up with Diablo 3. It sounds harsh but sadly I’m not the only messenger.
It is like the designers couldn't even manage to understand the ONE word that summarized Diablo.
Or in the more modern gaming vernacular:
There are numerous problems with the game play of the Diablo 3; I will only discuss the 4 biggest ones ones:
1. Items are bland and boring.
This uber graphic summarizes the problem that when you only care about 1 or 2 stats on an item -- it leads to item blandness.
In Diablo 2 players would come up with new builds completely based around _one_ item! The promised Loot 2.0 next year _might_ change that but we will have to wait-and-see if any patches can address the fundamental problems. Of course the die hard fans will say "But Diablo 2 didn't start off great either -- it wasn't until the Lord of Destruction (LoD) expansion that it really took off." I would argue "The _foundation_ of Diablo 2 was good to begin with! The LoD expansion just expanded upon that." With Diablo 3 PC all my gaming friends quit the game for good after 3 weeks. Myself, I played Diablo 2 for over 10 years. You know a game has to get _something_ right to hold the ADD-gamer mindset for any length of time, especially for _years_. Diablo 3? Epic FAYUL.
So if itemization is half of a good foundation then what is the other half? In three words: Multi-Tiered Economy which is just a fancy way of saying “wealth diversity.”
2. Lack of a Tiered Economy.
One of the things that made Diablo 2 so interesting was that there were multiple tiers to the economy. No matter how rich or how your poor you were you could always advance to the next tier (given enough time.) Roughly from poorest to wealthiest the economy had this progression:
* Chipped Gems (until a patch nerfed the Cruel Colossus Blade)
* Perfect Gems (pgems)
* Set Items
* 33 Runes
* Base open socket items
* Charms - small, medium, and grand granting a +1 skill.
* SoJ (Stone of Jordan) until runes replaced this +1 all skills.
* Unique Items
* Keys (Hate, Terror, Destruction)
* Organs (Diablo’s Horn, Mephisto’s Brain, Baal’s Eye)
* External Currency (dedicated players used D2JSP’s "Forum Gold" as a medium of exchange due to being limited to only a 40 cell trading grid.)
The astute reader will notice that gold is *nowhere* on that list!? That’s right - gold was almost completely worthless in Diablo 2! You couldn’t accrue enough of it due to artificial low limits based on your character level. Only high level characters, such as a Gold Find Barb, would actually max it in a few gaming sessions then gamble it all away hoping to get a unique ring or amulet. Understanding the in-game economy is a key tenet to a great game. Path of Exile has taken it to the next level by completely removing gold from their game (!!) by making items be the base currency! Even better yet players can socket their items (for a cost) AND then try to link all the sockets up for even great power. That is the power in indie games -- not afraid to try new things. In contrast with Diablo 3 gold is the sole focus -- all the cool options we had before? Gone.
For example, in D2, the new player could collect 40 pgems and trade for mid-level items, runes, or uniques. Enough for one to get through Nightmare and get started in Hell difficulty. The SoJ was useful to every character class and only took up a 1x1 space. Runes replaced it due to have limited availability, useful Runewords such as Enigma that every character class could use, and still maintain the 1x1 trading space. The lack of diversity with valuable low-level items (such as set items) and multiple valuable high-level items makes Diablo 3 extremely bland. Gems in D3 are one of the few end-game items upgrades worth pursueing -- if you can stomach the grind.
There will be those that say that Diablo 2 had no end game but keys, organs, and Uber Tristram (which were added in a late LoD patch) prove otherwise. Players raced to find ways to build the perfect build that could solo these uber bosses. In contrast the "end game" in Diablo 3 resorts to Paragon Farming. At level 60 you start the XP grind yet again where you raise a "sub-level", your Paragon Level, from zero to 100. You still gain primary stats along with Magic Find and Gold Find. Translation: "Instead of rebalanced monster levels and zones we just made one long grind fest even longer instead."
For some reasons the designers thought the original arbitrary World of Warcraft level 60 cap was a good range. But by adding sub-levels when at the end the day you still _effectively_ have a Character level 1 to 100 range. i.e. Initially gamers calculated you only needed to kill ~6,534,000 Inferno Hulking Phase Beasts to reach Paragon 100 ! Instead of making the game more interesting when you level up lets make it as boring as possible. *Yawn*
Some players criticize Diablo 3 complaining that Blizzard had 12 years to "get it right." That is actually a fallacy. The original creators, Blizzard North, was disbanded in 2005 after internal development of Diablo 3 didn’t live up to expectations. (Those developers left to work on Hellgate: London and eventually Torchlight.) The point is the number of years between a sequel is irrelevant if your replace an experience design team with a novice design team making fundamental game design errors as listed above ALONG with amateur UI mistakes such as not shipping with the ability to block spammers let alone the ability to actually report spammers when World of Warcraft already had that functionality for _years_. True, those issues were later addressed and the console versions shares those rewards but the typical Blizzard "polish" was severly lacking. The original PC version was rushed out the door and it showed. At least the console version is taking baby steps to correct some of the issues but the larger issues still remain.
3. Auction House
I told one of my colleagues that I'm loving the free "indie" Path of Exile because I no longer have to play Auction House (AH) simulator! After his lit face up grokking the reference and epiphany he was given he then hung his head in shame realizing and admitting that he spent far more time on the AH then actually playing the game. It was one of the saddest days in my life when I realized what I just did to a fellow gamer after seeing him shake his head saying "You're absolutely right. You're absolutely right." The Truth can be painful at times.
Gamers play RPGs for one sole reason:
The illusion of power.
(The narrative is just a back drop so men can justify their virtual doll house playing and digital genocide of monsters.)
Now this is a delicate dance to balance – give the players too much power and they will get bored. Don’t give enough and the players will hate the "grind." The balance is making the player work for the rewards where: perceived effort equals reward.
So what was all the fuss about the AH really about?
In Diablo 3, farming for items is about as fun much as watching paint dry since you no longer could just farm boss monsters for decent drops like in D2. It is easier to just get the instant gratification of buying items off the Auction House (AH) in the PC version. This instant gratification completely destroys the social aspect of haggling with the buyer that is common in other RPGs such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Diablo 2. It encourages a "Pay-to-Win" mentality. I call it Fast-Food-Gaming. Sure you get your item now but there is no lasting satisfaction because it just another piece of gear that will be eventually replaced with a new shiny with slightly bigger numbers. B-O-R-I-N-G. In Diablo 2 items could give unique skills from other player classes! Ah! Now we have interesting choices for players.
At least the AH has been removed from the console version so you could argue that Diablo 3 on the console is a "different version." However, the PC version has BOTH the AH and Real-Money Auction House (RMAH) as now confirmed to be eventually removed next year with the latest email Blizzard sent to players "Diablo III Auction House Closure":
"We are writing to tell you about an important change to Diablo III: we're going to be removing the gold and real-money auction house system from the game."
"But after much review and player feedback, ... it ultimately undermines Diablo's core game play: kill monsters to get cool loot."
Well, no kidding Sherlock! Gamers have been saying that from day one! Players farming vases for gold was the first clue that something was messed up but the typical Blizzard reaction as to "fix" the symptom instead of addressing the real problem:
The bad drop rate and extremely bland items.
With the eventual removal of the AH it should mean the drop rate on the PC version should significantly go up. Next year will be interesting to see the effect of what this has on the PC community - namely if Blizzard is able to restore faith in the gamers. At least on the console versions the drop rates are already much, much better. Partially due to offline play. (Something PC gamers have been petitioning since Beta and fallen on deaf ears.)
Thankfully this criticism point about the AH can be removed in the future.
4. Combat is boring.
Sid Meir has mastered game design because he understand one of THE prime fundamentals about games:
"Give the player interesting choices."
The keywords are: interesting, and choice.
Other games (such as the classic Baldur’s Gate on PS2) allow manual block with timing. Blocking is automatic in D3 with no ability to increase block chance like one could in Diablo 2 by simply putting points into dexterity via stats or gear. In Diablo 3, and in World of Warcraft, every class gets the exact same preset stats per level that makes every player feel generic.
In D3 there are numerous monster modifiers that enhance their abilities that add variety to the endless cycle:
* Kill Monster, and
* Get loot to make it easier to kill more monsters
There are almost no counter-attacks available for each monster trait across all the player classes like great classics such as Soul Caliber has so what ends up happening is that the player is "trapped" into just soaking up the damage (and hope they can survive the initial ganking.) People even today still complain about the broken monster affixes. The typical knee-jerk response is to just "get more effective health" but statements like this just highlight the adolescence overtones: "There is only one way to do things -- mine! Options for players? Ha! Outwit your opponent with superior tactics and or skill inspite of poor weapons? Inconceivable! Be gone fool! I’m a bad-ass because I can just take damage!" is the Diablo 3 mentality. Yeah, that was fun in the '90s. Would it actually kill anyone to be given the option for a more cerebral combat? No, Diablo 3 is just mindless combat and a button masher. Ironically on a console with a gamepad this type of hack-n-slash gameplay actually feels more at "home" so I’ll cut the console version SOME slack. After a hard day there are times when you just want mindless violence. Diablo 3 has that part down.
Gamers are like water flowing downhill: they take the path of least resistance to maximize the reward and minimize the risk. They are like living "Newton Iteration" algorithms converging to the local optimal solution. Now when game developers just 3 weeks after the game's original PC version was released (May 15, 2012 to June 8, 2012) has to micro-manage players from "farming" vases simply because it was the most optimal way to collect gold -- you know the design is off to shaky foundation.
"• Pots of ashes in Act I and vases in Act IV will now drop less gold when destroyed"
Hey, if someone wants to farm vases over and over again, more power to them! How about instead of fixing superfluous issues the designers actually fix core issues so we ALL benefit?? Nah, that would take too much work. Much easier to nerf _vases_ then to take a look at why the AH buy-out costs were quickly spiraling out of control.
= The Neutral =
= User Interface =
The console’s new UI works well. The current target is highlighted in red is very nice touch as is the ability to "target lock." The circular selection system shows a good understanding of Fit's Law. The ability to quick-select the last few items picked up is a great idea althrough it is hard to tell if the item is an upgrade or not.
The UI is clean and well laid out for the most part. Surprisingly I don’t have any real complaints with it aside from one minor one: Having to walk to pick up gold feels archaic. Really? We can’t automate this in RPGs in 2013?? Oooh, 2 gold! Yeah, that is "real" satsifying to waste time picking THAT up. That's the WHOLE point of computers -- to automate all the boring stuff for us! I still miss the cute tiny golem from Dungeon Siege running around picking up my drops for me as it freed me up to focusing on just having fun: Slaying evil monsters. I strongly encourage game designers to PLEASE pay more attention to "momentum" or "game flow" -- it is one of easist low-hanging fruit that helps from breaking immersion.
Most UI experts would frown upon the main stash and inventory using skeuomorphism but as an UI/UX expert I actually _disagree_ with my peers. Skeuomorphism, like seasoning, is fine when it is used _sparingly_. I find the facade of the fake leather tabs gives a nice personal touch even if it doesn’t exactly mesh 100% with the rest of the UI.
Sadly the gamepad has one hard-coded button layout. It looks like the day designers realize that some gamers actually have myalgia and need a fully customized gamepad layout are still years away. All console developers & designers: Please stop giving us "N" hard-coded gamepad layouts and focus on user experience.
"We currently have no plans to support controllers for the PC version, which was designed with mouse and keyboard in mind. The same logic applies to the console: The PS3 & Xbox 360 version of Diablo III was specifically tailored to be played with a controller and does not support mouse and keyboard controls."
It is a shame that PC players are constantly ignored from the *streamlined* design & input of a gamepad. Diablo 3 is one of the few games where mouse+keyboard isn't a huge advantage over the gamepad. I say that as a testament for how well the console UI developers did their job. A tip of the hat to you.
Strangely on the console the NPC conversations are limited to 2 visible text lines. If there are more text lines, the text will auto-scroll up but I don’t know why the UI designers just didn’t increase the text box to be 3 lines tall to cover the majority of the cases.
On the PC when you have a resizable chat window years ago from WoW falling back to a fixed one-size-fits all for Diablo 3 is a total step backwards. The lack of a combot log so you can get _feedback_ for what _actually_ happened to you so you can learn is also missing.
The 720p PS3 resolution looks OK compared to the nice 1080p high resolution of the PC.
Thankfuly, load times on the PS3 are quick. Optimizations like this are always greatly appreciated.
= Multiplayer =
When there are 5 character classes but being limited to only 4 players in a party from the 8 that Diablo 2 provided it feels like a step backwards. (WoW, and Path of Exile allows for 6 people in the party.) I run a custom co-op L4D with 16 players. With that many players it definitely can get hectic and chaotic to say the least. The point is when you have a bunch of friends online all you want to do is ALL play together. On a console this isn't a big deal since limited to 720 would hurt the frame rate but being "down-graded" to only 4 people on a PC is a direction I wish the entire gaming industry would stop going. Give us the *native* option to play with 8 or 16 people. Yes, we understand the game difficulty needs to ramp up and needs to be "balanced" but just do linear difficulty scaling so we can PLAY with more then 4 friends. If I had a dime for everytime we had 7 of us online at once ... I guess it is off to Team Fortress 2 or L4D so we can "hang out".
When was that PvP option coming again? It has been over a year and we are still waiting ...
I didn’t see any rubber-banding issues on the PS3 the plagues the PC version but that could be my high speed internet masking it. We need a larger sample size of one to see if this issue has been fixed or remains at large.
Unfortunately the user-experience is still rough in other areas too. PC and console versions can’t play together. There is no _technical_ reason why but nevertheless this not an option probably due to obvious reason of the older PC players having access to the AH and would "twink" their console friends. Keeping the console economy on "equal" footing without any advantages (even though who cares -- it is JUST a game) seems to be the likely reason. Unfortunately this artificial fragmentation in this case has a negative effect: The PC players are probably not going to re-buy the same game again at $60 on a different platform after being so badly burned. If they could play together you would likely see PC players returning to play the game with their console friends.
On the positive side there is a free demo to play that lets you get to the Skeleton King. On the negative side people with the full game can't play with those on the free "trial." Again, extremely poor user-experience. How am I supposed to get my friends to buy the game if I have to "downgrade" to the gimped trial edition when I've already bough the full game?? Just block the ability for all trades and call it even.
= Conclusion =
The adolescence nature of Diablo 3 sadly continues meta-game in the real world. Blizzard was showing off Diablo 3 for the PS3 at E3. Behind Josh Mosqueira talking was a scantily clad Demon Hunter emphasizing her cleavage. Really? You still have to rely on boobs to sell Diablo 3? When is the gaming industry going to "Grow UP!" ??? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo_5R0mruU4
Originally I was going to conclude that:
"You can polish a rock all you want, but you still won't get diamonds."
But in the process of the review I’ve changed my mind due to comparing and contrasting the console version with the PC versions:
One, is that I wasn’t prepared to "actually like" the console version having suffered the PC version. I was actually surprised to learn how much had actually changed with the console version, and it is for the better.
Two, there may be other gamers, like myself, who had totally written Diablo 3 "off", and playing the console version reminded that me "Darn, the game STILL looks great, even at 720p. Why did I quit playing again? Oh yeah, gameplay. Bummer."
In spite of all its flaws Diablo 3 IS _slowly_ getting better. I remaining hopeful and by honestly discussing what works and what doesn’t it won’t leave players with incorrect impressions and false expectations that are no longer valid. They can see what has changed, and why.
With that said, if Diablo 3 had come out 4 years ago then it might have had a chance of being shown in a more positive light, however with the free Path of Exile embracing the spiritual essence of Diablo 2 and taking it new directions (such as the ability to buy more tabs, 6 socket linked items, skill gems, HUGE skill tree) Diablo 3 plays like a game from last millennium. It is just another me-too hack-n-slash with no innovation. Looks beautiful but has no soul.
Graphics: 5/5 – Beautiful; a true work of *Art*, Ebert.
Audio: 3/5 – Absolutely terrible voice lines in places.
Gameplay: 1/5 - boring items; future changes look promising.
Multiplayer: 3/5 – STILL waiting for PvP over a year later, archaic 4 player limits.
Final Score: 3/5
Genre: 3D Action RPG
Similar Action RPG games: Castle Crashers, Borderlands 2, Dungeon Hunter: Alliance, Path of Exile, Torchlight 2.
Platforms available on (alphabetical): OSX, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Platforms reviewed: PC and PS3
PC specs: Hand built gaming rig: nVidia GTX Titan, Intel SSD 128 GB, 16 GB RAM, AMD 4-core CPU @ 3.5 GHz.
Bottom Line: Thumbs Down. Save your money. Rent it if you must.
About the author: Michael has shipped numerous games on DS, PC, PS1, PS2, PS3, and Wii working on almost every aspect of games from engine architecture (rendering,audio,UI), tool pipeline, game design, and art. He has been an avid gamer and programmer since the early 80's. His book "Fundamental Properties of Game Design" is forthcoming.
Edit: Fixed loses typo, added cons summary, fixed rough typo, PoE linked items., dup living, indented block quotes, spoiler for Cain, bold and italic highlights, clarified life bar, resizable window..