Eleven years Diablo slumbered, biding his time until he would wake again and besiege the computer screens of eager fans as the collective U.S. nation finally converged on the realm of Sanctuary. But do not shed hope. A prophecy foretold of a champion's arrival, a nephalem with a fate that would cleanse the world of darkness and bring eternal conflict between Heaven's archangels and Hell's Lords of Evil to an end. You are that champion. The narrative begins in the secluded town of New Tristram, focusing solely on King Leoric's immoral undoing, Deckard Cain's rescue, and a mysterious fallen star. However, the plot escalates quickly, encompassing locations just as integral to the Diablo fiction while the armies of the two surviving Evils, Belial and Azmodan, march against humanity. The world is rich with lore illustrated in vast amounts of audio logs, but for people that want to skip every dialogue box and cutscene, the compulsive looting delivers unmatched hours of clicking, inspecting, and equipping.
Nothing is permanent in Blizzard's fantasy setting, especially lives. Civilians perish due to gaseous meteors and soldiers abandon their parapets in the claws of winged demons. Face it, NPCs exist to be maimed, murdered, and replaced at an indiscriminate point in time. The hub towns and camps retain the same layout, but the dungeons' branching paths – as well as the entrances and exits – alter with each saved game loaded, a fine addition given the faux open-world presentation. The randomization produces a different experience no matter how often you frequent that dusty cellar or medieval torture chamber. Even side quests become available only after reaching the prerequisite difficulty. Perhaps the real, true constant is the frantic click, click, click, run, dodge, click, click, clicking echoing from the peripherals of engrossed minds impervious to the wants of the body's circadian rhythm.
Unchecked amounts of treasure define this demonic trilogy. Sorting rare and magic weapons, researching jewelcrafting recipes, and buying low, selling high at the Auction House provide a hoarding simulator unrivaled by any dungeon crawler competitor. The greedy cha-ching of dollar signs never wanes. For the sake of encouraging multiple playthroughs, many goodies remain unobtainable at Normal difficulty. Expect to sink 60 hours into Diablo III before unlocking the final gem upgrades or legendary weapon drops. Of course, smithing your own tools of hellion manslaughter is an option as well. I won't question the blacksmith's practices, but fashioning enchanted swords from six jars of metal shavings and lizard eyes makes the man as a genius.
Avatar: The Last Bone-breaker
Diablo III cuts away the meaningless gameplay fat, or at least refines that gristle into something worth chewing through. Kiss the aggravating potion and stamina mechanics goodbye. Deceased enemies drop health orbs for instant energy refuels. What about talent points? They're gone too. Now, heroes unlock active casts and passive traits through simple level progression. Accentuating this change is the new rune system, allowing players to shift combat roles after a short cooldown. Take the Wizard's Mirror Image ability for example. He (or she) creates two illusory clones useful for distracting the hordes of Hell. One rune increases the damage the duplicates sustain, while another adds three extra look-alikes to the mix for a total of five, though each of those five takes a cut of the summoner's health. There's no penalty for switching skills during brief downtimes either, as the increasing difficulties mandate contemplation before running headlong into battle.
Possibly the most game-changing of all bonuses is a hidden menu option titled Elective Mode. By default, players assign one ability from six areas of expertise to the number keys and mouse buttons. Elective Mode removes that limitation. Instead, players are free to equip four abilities of the same skill set if they so choose, swapping between multiple armor buffs to modify their plans of attack and permitting better management of otherwise unbearable encounters.
Normal difficulty plays like a fleshed out tutorial that poorly prepares newcomers for the unholy challenge of Nightmare. Expect to die repeatedly. Elite foes bearing a silver or gold embroidered nametag conjure combo attacks absent from Normal playthroughs, and their destructive powers abuse Diablo veterans and ignorant newbies attempting to chip away at the extensive health bars. No moment halted my adventure further than exiting an old worship den littered with dead cultists, spawning several teleporting bats, and dying before I could retreat back inside. I spawned at my last checkpoint and exited the cellar once again. Who should be waiting for me? However, finally slashing that smug smile off an arrogant demon's face, chest, or stomach delivers a cathartic release appreciable by the Dark Souls fanbase.
Losing your champion among the chaos becomes commonplace.
Moreover, Blizzard spent copious hours tweaking each class to achieve the right equilibrium – fun but formidable – of trial and error, creating five very distinct heroes in ideal styles of play. Barbarians eat melee swings and fireballs for breakfast. Demon Hunters dance around the battlefield, ensnaring enemies in traps and unleashing volleys of arrows and explosives. Wizards deal in the arcane, either withdrawing from the front lines to kite victims into frozen traps or closing the distance to deal electrical area of effect damage. Witch Doctors call forth voodoo minions of their own to do the dirty work, substituting as a shield to absorb injuries and dish them in return. The Monk acts as a kung fu paladin, doling out lightning-fast flurries of roundhouse kicks and healing wounded allies.
The character's contrast in more than just cosmetic appearance. The narrative reflects the chosen hero's backstory and personality. Demon Hunters taught to fight as orphans see the world differently than the spiritual Monks that look to gods for guidance. And unlike the MMO genre with a library's worth of kingly biographies, Diablo III centralizes the interactions to a handful of warriors and civilians voiced by an all-star television cast. Three of those individuals also watch your back as battle-tested followers. These pawns differ from the typical grunts you blindly lead into peril. Each companion presents an interesting take on the great goods and terrible evils of humanity.
The Templar, raised to draw the line between justice and iniquity, faces a conflicted past stemming from his honor code. The egotistic Scoundrel, or self-proclaimed “most honest thief you will ever meet,” bears the burden of letting the woman he loved slip away while his brother rots in prison. The wholly naïve Enchantress, awakened from a 1,500-year cryogenic sleep, constantly laments the loss of her sisters and ponders the whereabouts of the Prophet that once saved her. As you progress from chapter to chapter, their feelings change as they warm up to your persona's honesty. Your comrades don't stand idly by the whole adventure, though, with puppy dog eyes waiting to be hired. The sidekicks converse among themselves while you eavesdrop on the conversation.
Meet my personal favorite ability: Disintegrate.
Still, the visuals disappoint gamers strictly seeking the next generation of software benchmarks. Establishing a future graphical standard never fit Blizzard's modus operandi. (Starcraft 2 made an exception.) Whether you own a $2,000 multimedia PC or three-year-old MacBook, Diablo III runs fine if you compromise with the video settings. Players worried about the “colorful, kiddy” aesthetics need not fret, either. Goblins burst into bloody giblets with surprising flare, while festive country fields, volcanic plateaus, haunted graveyards, damp underground chapels, and every demonic void in between fills the world of Sanctuary with falsely welcoming environments – not the least due to enemy forces befitting a Nightmare Before Christmas sequel, janky undead skeletons and patchwork mobs of bulbous fiends included. And that's just the in-game engine. Blizzard's masterful CG cinematics depict one man's fall from grace, a war that will bring a longstanding castle to its knees, and a climactic conclusion of heavenly proportions.
For many mortals not content to revisit Diablo as a pure solo experience, drop-in, drop-out co-op works without fail, but for the purpose of balance and fairness, random matchmaking limit players to games within their champion's level range and quest progression. Friend-based sessions, on the other hand, allow players of all skill levels to throttle wood sprites and goat men by the thousands. Additionally, the competitive aspect of stealing gear lost its way somewhere in the early 2000s. The game distributes loot on a per player basis. No two party members receive identical spoils of war.
The Auction House makes its first Diablo debut. Extorting funds from gamers less knowledgeable of the intricacies of business contains all the appeal of real world stocks without the need to throw away real world funds. Spending virtual gold on fictitious weapons and apparel went off without a hitch, yet the real money auctions succumbed to a last minute delay into the foreseeable future. At a (supposed) max sell price of $250 per item and ten active auctions, daily dungeon raids may not foster a viable living.
Something tells me that all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be putting these minions back together again.
Sadly, DRM plays an unfortunate role in the future of Diablo III. Although online-only servers inhibit the efforts of cheats and pirates, the inability to launch a single-player journey when Battle.net undergoes maintenance is downright unacceptable. Gamers lashed out at Ubisoft for their anti-piracy efforts, but I'm not here to hand out hypocritical cards. While higher-end PCs utterly dominated the undemanding graphic requirements, trying to circumvent latency issues during the stress testing hours of the day choked the life out of the frames per second. It's a disappointing ending to an otherwise remarkable tale, but one unlikely to interfere in the long term given Blizzard's track record.
Speaking as a fresh Diablo addict, Diablo III offers everything that friends and fans told me I have been missing, except for the scheduled server maintenance. Eleven years Blizzard toiled to perfect login issues during a midnight launch, but as the saying goes, nobody's perfect. An easy default difficulty with plenty of loot to amass and demons to vanquish make this the most approachable game in the series, and the most addicting. I look forward to building fond memories over this coming decade. Let's just hope the first expansion arrives before then. Now if you excuse me, Inferno difficulty awaits.
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Release Date: May 15, 2012
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac