Being a console gamer means missing out on some great games. I've never enjoyed Battlefield's 64 player matches, Starcraft 2, or a million Steam sales. It was looking like Diablo III was destined to make that list, but this year's console port allows it to reach a whole new audience while earning its place as one of the best dungeon crawlers out there.
Lost in Translation
PC ports to consoles are notorious for losing things in translation. Sometimes they are minor details. Other times, it's the game's heart and soul like RTSs with poorly mapped controller layouts and multiplayer that's limited to four players.
The Spice of Life
There's a great deal of variety in Diablo III. Even characters within the same class can be tweaked to different gameplay styles, allowing players to choose which attributes, skills, and abilities to focus on. Skill unlocks are unfortunately linear, meaning you will always have the same skillset at level X no matter how you play, rather than crafting your own skill tree as you progress as in previous installments. It's a minor disappointment, and the freedom to equip your skills as you see fit makes up for it. The option to map abilities to any available button, rather than restrict each button to one "class" of attack or pre-set ability, makes it easy to mold your character's skillset. Runes enhance each ability or attack, allowing for further possibilities.
Gear with sockets allows players to add valuable gems to their equipment and further bolster stats like Strength or Dexterity. The gem crafting is a nice, but with only four gem types, it's limited in its possibilities. I would have loved to see more variety in the gems, and the abilities you can boost with them. Allowing players to enhance weapons with elemental damage or adding mana regeneration would have been great additions to an already extensive list of gear bonuses.
Let Me Tell You a Story
What surprised me most about Diablo III was a storyline that drew me in the further along I went. I was prepared for a throwaway plot that I could simply ignore, ready to assume I was somehow involved in the ultimate battle between good and evil. Yet, as I progressed I found myself more interested the world around me, and stopped skipping through cutscenes and dialogue. It’s not Oscar worthy material, but it's a well written story, even if it ultimately takes a backseat to the solid gameplay.
Randomly generated dungeons and quests return, and they help expand on the main story. While they are completely optional, dungeons almost always contain at least one rare enemy mob, so those looking to grind for XP (and fantastic loot) should consider exploring off the beaten path. Achievements tied to some of these optional quests encourage players to explore every cave and crevice, as well as return for multiple playthroughs. In addition to the more basic incentive of experience points and the promise of better loot, these self-contained missions are nicely woven into the fabric of the overall storyline. They may not be crucial cornerstones to advancing the plot, but they offer subtle little glimpses of the deeper world of Sanctuary. Where other games flesh out their worlds with books or audio recording for the player to passively experience, Diablo offers forgotten crypts and caverns that tie into the legends of the land, for the player to actively discover and experience.
As Pretty As It Is Hectic
Death is only temporary in Diablo III, unless you're playing Hardcore mode with perma-death. Upon revival, players are given the choice to spawn at their corpse or back at town. At lower difficulties the penalty is simply a short wait until you're thrown back into the fray; on higher difficulty settings, your gear suffers a durability penalty. Die too many times and your armor breaks, forcing you travel back to town to have it repaired. Thankfully, items and gear are never permanently lost, and repairing them amounts to little more than time spent not killing monsters and a token fee in gold paid to the blacksmith. The relative lack of consequences is not unwelcome, as even on lower difficulties it's possible to die without knowing you were in trouble.
Hordes of enemies and flashy graphics makes it easy to lose track of the action. I could, at any time, have my healing aura active (placing a rune around my monk,) a whirlwind active (surrounding me with swirling fire,) attacking with "crippling blows" (more swirling runes around my monk) and have a blessing active (light shining down on my character.) That's a lot of lights and colors for just my monk. Throw in glowing enemies, colorful attacks and spells, mini-boss auras, and it's hard to tell if that glow is a soul leaving a defeated skeleton or a molten enemy about to kill you with its postmortem explosion. Most of my deaths weren't the result of a fair fight or a mistake I made, but rather the inability to tell which visual flourishes were associated with enemy attacks and which were just for show.
I didn’t get the chance to try local co-op, but the online co-op is fantastic. Matchmaking is a wonderfully streamlined process, allowing players to search for open games, filtered by a handful of parameters such as chapter being played, or the host's language choice. Unfortunately, the matchmaking can be a little too eager to place players in games, and there appears to be no way to filter games for difficulty or the host's character level (you can only see the later in the lobby after joining, but before entering the game.) This means that you may very well be placed in an open game where monsters are 10 or 15 levels above you (as the monsters scale to the overall party and not any one player.) There are few things as humbling as repeated visiting the blacksmith after a fight with a boss monster than can one-shot you all day long.
Playing with friends you know who are close to your character's level is the way to go, and the game does its best to scale enemies to the number of players in your group while offering some choice incentives like increased XP or rare loot drop rates. The variety is great and some pairing of classes will obviously have great advantages, but there's no hindrance or drawback to having the same class as your teammates. Melee heavy classes such as the barbarian always have at least a few abilities for ranged combat, and ranged characters such as the witch doctor have skills to de-buff, immobilize, or otherwise hinder monsters from doing too much damage if they get in close, or prevent them from closing in on you altogether. Using a ranged character to weaken or slow enemies so a melee character can do massive damage makes for great teamwork, and will allow you to carve a path through the unholy hordes that much more quickly, but it's hardly a requirement for success.
Not since Dungeon Siege III have I been able to sink time into a good dungeon crawler with some friends. Diablo III hits all the right notes, in the right measure, and is one of the best in the genre I've ever played. Despite the frustration of dying for what might sometimes appear to be no reason at all, it's still an absurdly fun game. The loot, gear and crafting systems are enjoyable and everything in the game, from item rarity to enemy difficulty, scales well. Randomized dungeons, quests, and loot add replay value, while online and offline co-op and multiple difficulties offer players plenty of reason to keep coming back. The game is a blast with or without friends, and the entire package is wrapped up in a compelling storyline. Fans of the series, or the genre in general, should make a point of giving this one a shot.
This game was reviewed on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version.
- Solid single and co-op gameplay
- Enjoyable loot system
- Deep character customization
- Matchmaking is sometimes flawed
- Occasionally hard to tell what's happening on-screen