Diablo III review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Action

Diablo 3 review image

After playing through Diablo III in Normal mode, Nightmare mode and Act 1 in Hell mode (as a Barbarian) I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to review the game…

Before I begin I’d like to point out that if you want a more generalised description of the game please check out my Diablo III First Impressions post – I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here.

Right off the bat I’d like to state that in Normal mode Diablo III isn’t much of a challenge. Normal mode is analogous to riding a dinky with training wheels, albeit a stylish looking dinky with chrome plated grips and ape-hanger bars…

If nothing else Normal mode provides an opportunity to get a solid handle on the basic gameplay mechanics, character skills, Boss abilities and which mobs you will need to treat with a modicum of respect later on when you play through Diablo III in the harder difficulty modes. And if my experience with the game is any indication, you probably will want to play through it again at least once…

Diablo III image gallery

Storyline

One of the benefits of Normal mode is that you are rarely in any real danger of dying so you can wander around gazing at the scenery and, if you’re so inclined, absorbing the many titbits of lore imparted by your NPC companion (of these the Templar is probably the most chatty) or from the many satchels you’ll find scattered around the gameworld.

Without wishing to provide too many spoilers Diablo III’s storyline encompasses everything we’ve come to expect from this venerable PC game series – bloodshed and mayhem caused by demons and their lieutenants, lots of pessimistic foreshadowing by familiar characters like Deckard Cain, unexpected alliances, betrayals and of course Big Red himself…or possibly herself – but I’ll say no more on that front…

While it certainly adds a colourful backdrop to proceedings, Diablo III’s storyline takes second place to reams of non-stop action and the sort of fluid and insidiously addictive gameplay we have come to expect from Blizzard.

Gameplay

The folks at Blizzard are masters at creating gameplay which at first glance looks simplistic and repetitive, but soon proves to be great fun and very addictive. Diablo III is no exception and you’ll soon find yourself gliding through the game’s gorgeous environments clicking on a dead villager here, knocking down a dusty book shelf there, chasing the odd Treasure Imp, collecting loot and annihilating never-ending waves of monsters.

Like its predecessors Diablo III’s gameplay ebbs and flows in a masterful fashion. Just when you may be in danger of losing interest your character levels up and you get a fancy new skill to try out or you pick up some nice loot and…bam, the game has engaged you again.

Diablo III uses a checkpoint system which automatically saves your progress at regular intervals and veterans of the previous two instalments will be gratified to discover that the Town Portal spell has been made into a zero cost character skill – so you no longer need to waste precious gold stocking up on scrolls – you can blow it all on Health potions instead… The bottom line is these two features (along with the teleport stones in dungeons) mean that tedious backtracking is kept to a bare minimum.

Skill System (prepare to be slightly confused)

Diablo III’s skill system is elaborate and consists of 2 mouse-controlled primary and secondary skills, 4 action bar skills and 3 passive skills.

As you level up you unlock new skills and eventually you have a choice of 3 for your primary skill and 4 for each of the others. Put simply if you level up high enough you will have 23 available skills, from which you can choose 6 at any given time. But that’s not all…

Each of these 23 skills has 5 associated skill runes which also unlock as you level up. Skill runes affect how abilities work and you can only enable 1 for each ability. For the Barbarian a skill rune may cause an attack to do extra damage, generate more Fury, improve armour or increase the likelihood of items dropping during a fight.

And finally, as you level up you also get access to a pool of 16 passive abilities (though only 3 can be toggled on at any one time) which imbue your character with a variety of passive buffs. For the Barbarian these may consist of improved critical hit chance, resistance to stun effects, faster attack speed and so on.

While the game does include a short cool down period whenever you change skills or runes, the whole system is obviously designed to allow maximum flexibility and players will inevitably be switching back and forth between skills to better suit certain Boss fights or to try and counter randomly generated elite mobs they may come up against.

To make these choices easier Blizzard has even included detailed descriptions on elite mobs to warn players of what to expect.

In my view the whole system works pretty well and the longer I play Diablo III the more I come to appreciate just how much thought Blizzard has put into it.

Combat, Difficulty Levels & Game Balance

Strategy and tactics don’t really kick in until you play Diablo III in Nightmare mode. In this second tier difficulty level the mobs have a lot more health and pack a much meatier punch. Furthermore they start to exhibit certain abilities and traits which can be brutal to say the least. This gets taken up another few notches in Hell mode and I shudder to think what Inferno mode is like…

As the elite mobs you encounter are randomly generated it is possible to come up against a really horrible combination like my personal road block in Hell mode Act 1 – a group of vampiric, teleporting, fire chain wielding Berserkers which killed me in about 4 seconds. This brings me to an interesting point…

I’ve noticed that in Hell mode, I frequently come across random elite mobs (blues and yellows) which I cannot possibly beat. Their combination of stuns and ridiculous damage output makes them virtually impervious to my character’s attacks.

This is in stark contrast to the Boss encounters which, while being much tougher each time you go up a difficulty level, are definitely winnable.

So I can only conclude that the higher the difficulty level the more unbalanced the random elite encounters become. In my view this is a big flaw in the game as a whole, especially for hardcore players. Let’s hope Blizzard fixes it.

Loot

In Normal mode I came across no less than two Orange legendary class items – unfortunately they were relatively low level and were rapidly superseded as I progressed through the game.

After playing through the game again in Nightmare and (partially) in Hell modes, I was expecting the loot to be much better quality. While you do pick up slightly better gear once in a blue moon, the majority of it is inferior or totally irrelevant to your character class.

Furthermore, while there seemed to be a slightly better chance that elite mobs or bosses would drop a Yellow rare quality item – there was no guarantee. I was extremely disappointed on a number of occasions where I succeeded in a boss fight only to get the usual array of inferior or irrelevant blue loot.

This disparity was further illustrated when I actually found one of my best Yellow 2H weapons by looting one of the many random “Dead Adventurers” lying about a level map. To me this best illustrates the unbalanced risk/reward loot dynamic in Diablo III. In my view Blizzard needs to tweak it a bit more so players can have a reasonable expectation of better loot from tougher boss fights. In its current state the loot tables feel too random.

If I were the cynical type I may even suspect that Diablo III’s erratic loot system was intentionally designed to encourage trade on the soon to be active real money auction house…

Update June 14 2012 – I’m now about a third of the way through Act II in Inferno mode and I felt that I should mention the “Nephalem Valor buff” which kicks in at Level 60 whenever you kill elite packs. This buff stacks up to 5 times and increases the likelihood of better quality loot dropping (the buff lasts for 30 minutes but is refreshed with each new elite pack killed). I have also noticed (and I am speaking from personal experience) that with a stack of 5 Nephalem Valor buff salvaging a rare item can occasionally give you “Fiery Brimstone” (which usually only comes from salvaging legendary items). So for hardcore players this gameplay mechanic does help guarantee a better quality of loot dropping from tougher opponents.

Crafting

While some degree of randomisation may have a place in Diablo III’s loot system – its use in the game’s crafting system is nigh on unforgiveable. Anyone who has played the game in Nightmare and Hell modes will appreciate just how hard to come by Blacksmithing pages and tomes are, along with other required crafting materials (obtained from salvaging magical items).

Considering you have to spend hard earned gold and a fair amount of these valuable materials each time you make rare armour and weapons, it would be nice to have a guarantee that the crafted item will actually be of use to you.

In Diablo III crafted items’ stats are randomly generated during creation. This means that the rare armour you just spent a fortune to create may actually turn out to be totally useless to you!

I guess you could either scrap the item in disgust or perhaps put it on the soon to be active real money auction house. Hmmm, there seems to be a pattern emerging here…

Game Performance

As most of you would know, Diablo III’s DRM (digital rights management) requires that you be logged in to Battle.net in order to play. This means that even though Diablo III is essentially a single-player title, it exhibits exactly the same set of restrictions and requirements that a MMORPG like World of Warcraft does.

In my view this is a very bad thing.

As you’ve probably gathered by now I have already spent a fair bit of time playing Diablo III and in that time I’ve experienced – high latency spikes which have got my character killed during Boss fights, numerous occasions where I could not log into the game at all due to mysterious errors (see my Diablo III – Error 3003 Arghhh! post) and long periods of server downtime where I could not play when I had the time to do so. Furthermore I have had to put up with numerous idiots and gold farmers spouting their nonsense on the general chat channel (which won’t seem to let me permanently leave it).

Is this right or proper for a single-player game? I don’t think so and it has certainly reduced my overall enjoyment of the game.

Review Summary
Score: 84%
Info: It’s been a long time coming but Diablo III has (for the most part) been worth the wait. If Blizzard can sort out the issues mentioned above then Diablo III will rank right up there with their finest offerings.
The Good: Generally speaking I have had a ball playing Diablo III – the fluid gameplay, lavish visuals, great level design and epic combat all exemplify Blizzard at it its finest.
The Bad: The game’s performance issues (stemming from its always on DRM), its dubious randomisation of loot and crafted items and a lack of gameplay balance at higher difficulty levels are all serious issues which need to be addressed. Here’s hoping Blizzard do so.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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