Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Diablo 3 Review: Part 1

When a game has been in development for 10 years, reactions about its release are bound to be interesting. When said game is the next Diablo, the amount of buzz and excitement is cacophonous. Back in 2008, Blizzard announced it was coming… someday. Until now, fans have been getting gameplay videos and a beta to sate the thirst to play the next action-RPG in this popular franchise. Like Duke Nukem Forever, Diablo has a wide fan-base that loves the franchise.  Now that the game has been released, does the game meet the enormously high expectations gamers placed on this, a game 10 years in the making? To continue this in-depth look at Diablo 3, I’ll be looking at a player’s first play-through and review the game as a whole. As for the rest, you’ll just have to wait and see.

Your first experience after creating your first character is an amazing cutscene that could be in a movie. Not only does the cutscene effectively set the stage for the first part of your epic adventure, but also everything from the facial animations to the embers erupting from a fire look stunning and are nothing less than Blizzard’s best cinematic work. While there are very few cutscenes in the game, each one looks just as impressive and moves you from act to act. The story begins with an angel falling to earth and your character searching for the fragments of his holy sword to restore his memory. In that, you’re introduced to the city of New Tristram and the characters therein that will come to shape the story.

Like in Diablo predecessors, the story is separated into acts with major cutscenes. Unfortunately, the story does not flow that well from act to act. Within each act, the world is fleshed out well with plenty of NPCs to talk or listen to. Out in the dungeon-filled areas, there is a plethora of lore and side quests providing insight and details behind the massive universe of the Diablo series. Even better, almost all of the lore, side quests, additional text and details, are voiced. Since there is so much history in the Diablo universe, conveying 90% of the story through spoken word gave the plot a voice that you want to listen to. Instead of spending time catching up on light reading, Blizzard made a great move by letting newcomers to the series, and action-RPGs as a genre, spend their time grinding levels and killing hordes of monsters while listening to the history behind the land of Sanctuary your character explores. However, although each act is successful in conveying a riveting plot, they do not blend well together as part of a larger story arc. As soon as you finish an act by fighting a boss battle, your character talks to the NPCs once or twice and then on to the next act in another part of the world. While the cut scenes do some work in smoothing over the transition, it still feels a little odd playing in a desert city, then moving to cold, snowy mountaintops in about 5 minutes.

When you start the dungeon-crawling, the NPCs really shine. Many major NPCs, like your Artisans for crafting and Followers, who accompany your character on you quests, have several side-stories and conversations regarding the finer details of Sanctuary. Not only that, but they can also lead to cool revelations and side quests for more loot and rare items. And unless you’re prepared to wiki the story of the previous games, there will be some details and characters that may not be fully appreciated because of the lack of knowledge of the back story. Overall, I felt the story was too short and ended abruptly. All four acts feel like they could be one or two acts in an RPG. While the story has a distinct beginning and end, it seemed way too short. Maybe they could have added more quests and side stories in each act or crated more acts to spread out the story more. Either way I felt like there was a portion of the game that had been cut out for whatever reason. Also, the story is the same for any class you choose. While I understand that each character class couldn’t have a full story on their own, a unique starting area or class-specific sidequests would have been a good variation. Considering the fact that most of the replay value derives from going over the same story on harder levels or with friends, additional, class-specific content added later on could go a long way in encouraging multiple playthroughs. The thought of having to play the same story, even if it’s on a harder level with better items and more money, seems a little boring without some extra incentives. Either way, the gameplay itself is still a fun and engaging experience.

The gameplay of Diablo 3 feels both addictive and polished. Random dungeons and rare loot kept me exploring every part of every area for more and more items that I could either sell or use. And when I use “random” that applies in almost every way. Every time you log in, you could go to the same dungeon 4 or 5 times, and find new loot and a new layout every time. Blizzard made the exploration and leveling very appealing with various random events, shrines, dungeons, and loot to find every time you go through the lands of Sanctuary, and that same addicting quality of grinding to the next level or doing just one last dungeon makes replaying it on higher levels even more alluring. At the same time, I feel like it has all been done before. While everything in the game is polished, upgraded, and overall feels great, there isn’t much in the way of innovation or original ideas within the series or even the genre. The old cliché seems to fit – “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” Yet with 10 years and mountains of money invested in this game, I expected some new or original ideas to be peppered in with the standard RPG elements. Either way, every aspect of the gameplay from dungeon-crawling to crafting is solid and fun to play for both an RPG veteran and someone new to playing a PC action-RPG.

Blizzard made a few concessions on either side of the casual-hardcore line when it comes to gameplay. In Diablo 3, your character levels ups and gains access to new skills and abilities at each level. Depending on your class, the game automatically increases stats, Dexterity or Intelligence, based on what class you chose. Each new spell you unlock also has runes to customize the strength and versatility of said spell. Yet, each unlock is predetermined based on the game, instead of being based on how much time you spend using a particular spell. I appreciate the fact that some people do not enjoy spending time figuring out the math behind each point in a Dexterity statistic, and would rather find a set of spells and abilities early on that suit their needs and focus exploration and demon-slaying. Blizzard made the right move by essentially making the first playthrough, on normal difficulty, a tutorial. A lot of the normal RPG aspects and gameplay elements are introduced very slowly so a new player would not be overwhelmed by all the new things he/she has to understand. For hardcore gamers, the challenge comes on the second playthrough – in Nightmare difficulty.  Using the same character you played with the first time, you must battle enemies who are much harder because they are the same level you are. For RPG veterans, the first playthrough might seem a little boring, but it doesn’t take that long to get into the subsequent playthroughs that are truly challenging.

 One of the aspects Blizzard definitely tweaked to suit a more casual play style is the crafting and follower portions of the gameplay. In most RPGs there are artisan systems in some form where you invest money to make better armor and weapons as the game progresses; specialist NPCs like a blacksmith, jeweler, and maybe a tanner or hide specialist produce these goods. Usually, you’ll also gain a sidekick or two to accompany you on your grand adventure. Generally your sidekick, called a Follower in Diablo 3, is a lot like your character, with skills and spells to choose from as well as weapons and armor to customize. In Diablo 3, your Follower (a choice between an Enchantress, a Scoundrel, or a Templar Night) doesn’t have as much customization as you do, but they are meant to fill a more thematic role. For example, if you play as a Wizard, then a Templar Night might suit you better since you could use a meat shield to tank damage while you sit back and sling spells. Each Follower has their own side story you can listen to throughout the game and even have special items that can be found during your loot searching. However, the Follower isn’t as functionally useful as you’d want him/her to be. The Enchantress and Scoundrel aren’t nearly as useful as the Templar, since he’s the only one with a heal spell, and their customization evens out around level 20. While they can be leveled past that, the Follower doesn’t get any new spells to learn or any new armor slots past each hand, 2 rings, an amulet, and special Follower-specific item. If you’re playing through Diablo 3 for the first time, then you should take one along for the story and fun banter thrown back and forth. But past that, you’d be better off inviting a friend to your game and slaughtering the harder foes with him/her. Thankfully, the Artisans are much more useful.

The Artisan NPCs in Diablo 3 consist of a Blacksmith and Jeweler. Both can be leveled up through investing gold, and as you do, you’ll be able to craft better armor. In the higher levels, you’ll find recipes and sets for Legendary Armor that your Blacksmith can craft if you have the gold and your Blacksmith is at a high enough level. The Jeweler is just as important, as the more loot you find, you’ll notice that the more valuable stuff has a “Socket” attached to it. The Jeweler can combine common jewels, like a Flawed Topaz, to make rare jewels, like a Flawless Topaz. Even better, when you try to separate a gem from a piece of armor, you don’t destroy it, something done in almost every other RPG I’ve seen. Just like the Blacksmith, you can dump your gold into the Jeweler to increase his level and gain the ability to craft rare gems. The best part is that the levels and gold acquired through crafting and selling armor and weapons is persistent through every character you make. If your level up your Blacksmith on your first playthrough as a Barbarian, when you start a Wizard at level 1, you will retain all the gold you had when you last used your Barbarian and your Blacksmith will be at the same level. This means that you can buy and craft all the best armor, which is now cheap in comparison to level thirty armor, for your low-level characters and get through the early stages of Diablo 3 quickly. Blizzard toned down the crafting and focused in on these NPCs, giving them a back story that you can hear more and more of as you progress, as well as enough leveling and crafting options to make investing money in them worth it. And in case you were wondering about the details of each character class, and the armor, weapons, and spells that go with them: Check here for my guide to the classes of Diablo 3.

Verdict: In everything that I have experienced in Diablo 3, I have felt the work, polish, and enthusiasm that was put into making this game great. And it is truly amazing. Blizzard has made a great example of an RPG with a lot of traditional RPG elements that would normally scare away people who haven’t played this genre before. While doing so, they still included aspects of gameplay that are challenging, interesting, and fun to the more hardcore audience that has been playing Diablo since 1996. I think fans will be satisfied with Diablo 3 as a whole. Although there is a lack of variety or new ideas, Diablo 3 is still a game worth investing in. All in all I would recommend this game for anyone. Even if you’ve never played an RPG before and have no clue what a Diablo is, or if you know every detail of the previous Diablo games, I would say pick this game up and give it a shot. Diablo 3 is well worth the investment for all the fun and entertainment you get out of it.
Check back on Friday for my second part of this review where I go into detail about the subsequent playthroughs, Levels 31-60, multiplayer aspects, the Auction Houses, and much more! Happy Looting!

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