Gamers waited more than a decade for it to arrive, but when Diablo III finally burst onto our screens, it wasn't quite the way many had invisaged the grand return of the Lord of Terror. The launch was plagued by errors, server downtime and reports of phishing and hacking attacks. Blizzard was heavily criticised for its choice to make the single-player campaign require an always-on internet connection, particularly when the game's authentication servers hardly met the requirement themselves, and buckled under the strain of millions of anxious fans.
Whether or not it's fair to let these apparent "teething problems" colour the overall view of the game is one question. When it seemed the issues were a Day One problem, we grumbled, but tried to let it slide. Now that Diablo III has been on the virtual shelves for several weeks, and we're still having issues connecting, staying connected, or feeling that our progress is unlikely to be mysteriously wiped through a server reset, it's becoming apparent that mentioning these issues is not only "fair" but also "important", as they more than colour the game's overall experience. So: Take heed - while the gameplay is great, you will have to work for it.
There are - as always - two schools of gamers itching to get their hands on Diablo III. One has been waiting impatiently for a decade, while the other has only come onboard in the past year or so, swept up in the slick Blizzard hype machine. The challenge for the publisher, then, was trying to balance the Lord of Terror on the knife-edge between the two: How to keep the die-hard, long-time fans happy, while welcoming new gamers who may not yet be familiar with the joys that come with endless hours of mouse-clicking. While one camp may have been kept satisfied with effectively a re-release of the original games, perhaps with some HD tweaks, a few new monsters and a couple of online features, that wouldn't have attracted fresh blood - and it certainly wouldn't have kept 'em hooked.
So Blizzard changed things, and Diablo III attracted controversy from the first moment it was announced. Armies of long-term fans were up in arms over the proposed changes: Colour! Gendered characters! Differences! ...in the four years since the game's Big Reveal at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in Paris, however, most people have learned to accept, if not embrace, the new features - and the newcomers are happily lapping them up (indeed, after spending a little time with this newest incarnation, many long-term fans find it difficult to return to the clunky, unintuitive mechanics that make up Diablo II).
For the most part, Diablo III is everything you'd expect: Click click click click click click click click click. Click to move, click to attack, click to allocate skill points. And then - the unexpected: Click to allocate skill points to a different skill, to see how they match up with the choices you made earlier. Blend, experiment and switch up your gameplay style as you proceed, in a stark contrast to the original game where your early decisions locked you into one particular path for the rest of your adventure.
Out of the (virtual) box, the five provided classes are variations on a standard theme. Gamers who like to bash their way through everything pick the red-headed brutal Barbarian, while melee fans with slightly more refined tastes may choose the monk. The strikingly-designed Demon Hunter brings ranged combat expertise (and a pocketful of explosives), the Wizard specialises in magic at a distance, and the somewhat-scary looking Witch Doctor prefers poison and summoning creatures, insects and the dead. These don't match perfectly with the classes of the original two games, but after spending a few levels, favourites will quickly shine through. (Further teething problems relate to the balancing of each class - early reports of the game being "too easy" all seem to have come from gamers who chose the Barbarian...)
Story-wise, Diablo III may well leave you wanting - but nobody's really playing for the story. They're playing for the endless click-click-click, which this has in spades, and they're playing for the eye-candy. Blizzard doesn't disappoint here, either. The characters, NPCs and monsters are well-designed, with a hefty dose of violence and "mature content", but the true joy comes from the CG cut-scenes which punctuate the plot. Jaw-dropping animated sequences push the story along and guide you to your next destination - the problem is that at some points these look so good we were left wanting to play a whole game based on that glorious, cinematic art style, rather than resorting back to the overhead third-person camera of Diablo III.
The game has been clearly designed to get you hooked - with Act I providing a gentle way of easing new gamers into the series, as well as reminding old schoolers of just what they loved about the game (while introducing the new tweaks and changes). Upon leaving the dungeon for Act II however, Diablo III really starts to show off just what it's made of, in terms of stunning locations, greater atmosphere, and, of course, swarms of ever-more challenging monsters.
It seems Blizzard has gotten quite comfy on that knife edge. There are many new, enhanced and redesigned elements, but the game itself stays very true to its roots. Sure, to the purists, the game is certainly more "pick up and play"-able, but on closer inspection, it's no less challenging to master. Traditionalists who can get over their reservations are rewarded with a rich, detailed experience that was arguably worth the wait, while newcomers are given an absolute treat in one of the best hack-n-slash dungeon crawlers we've seen since, well, Diablo II.
Jimmy the Geek