"...your time will be spent doing what you've always done in this series: smashing, slicing, burning, and blasting hordes of demons into oblivion in the hopes of click-click-clicking up the delicious goodies that explode from their mangled corpses."
Diablo II, the hack-and-slash RPG that launched a thousand clones, was released over ten years ago and is still seeing action today. As anyone with even a modicum of interest in the threequel can tell you, anticipation and hype have reached absurd levels in the interim. From the moment the game was first announced, every scrap of information and every screenshot has been analyzed, critiqued, and discussed endlessly. With the release of Diablo III upon us at long last, it seems likely that the discussion will continue well into the future, for a variety of reasons.
Diablo III's plot takes place twenty years after the events in II, with the heroic slaying of Mephisto, Diablo, and Baal, as well as the destruction of the legendary Worldstone by the archangel Tyrael having become a distant memory for most. The struggle between Heaven, Hell, and the mortal realm of Sanctuary begins anew when a star falls from the sky and smashes right into the famous Tristram cathedral. Series regular Deckard Cain is separated from his niece Leah and lost in the ensuing chaos. Leah returns home to the town of New Tristram, and it is there that she meets up with you and together embark on a journey to uncover the secrets of the fallen star and whatever dark goings-on it portends.
The story itself is fairly predictable, and the ending, even though it wraps up the overarching plot, leaves you hanging regarding the fate of some key characters. It really feels as though Blizzard knew they would be releasing expansions, and intentionally left things open for later. However, the lore here is rich, interesting, and communicated through various books, letters, and scrolls you can find throughout the world-- all of which are fully voiced. Reading any of the Diablo novels or the Book of Cain will certainly give you a better idea of the scope of the in-game events and referenced characters, as well, though fans of the world of Sanctuary might raise their eyebrows at a few retconned events and characters.
The vast majority of your time will be spent doing what you've always done in this series: smashing, slicing, burning, and blasting hordes of demons into oblivion in the hopes of click-click-clicking up the delicious goodies that explode from their corpses. Progression works much like it did in Diablo II: you'll receive an objective, such as "go find the magic staff that opens the door to this place we need to go," and then run around whichever the next area is, slaughtering monsters, finding loot, and eventually procuring said bauble, which opens up the next area for you to run around, slaughter monsters, find loot, and procure the next bauble. The formula is incredibly addictive, and the promise of constant rewards, both from leveling and from grabbing tons of loot, creates a constant carrot-on-a-stick mentality in the player.
Loot is plentiful, and the pace at which you earn it is maddeningly addictive. However, as you weather the storm and continue through higher difficulties, a flaw in the loot system becomes apparent: there isn't nearly as much variety as there was in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. For the entirety of my play time, I was focused only on equipment that increases damage output and my class (wizard, of course) statistic, intelligence. There are tons of random modifiers that can appear on equipment, but other than damage, class stat, and vitality, most of them don't really seem to matter. Furthermore, the uber-rare gear (legendary/unique and set items) seems grossly underpowered compared to the incredible randomized magical and rare gear that can be found, which takes away much of the excitement of finding it.
The loot system will keep you playing happily to the highest difficulties, but I have to question whether or not the game will be able to sustain itself as long as Diablo II has, without the allure of truly wild item drops to keep players hunting. As it is, there are tons of items to find, and after 50 hours with my wizard, I'm still eager to keep playing, so it definitely works-- but I believe some tweaking might be in order to really give the game the legs of its predecessor.
Each of the game's five character classes (wizard, monk, witch doctor, barbarian, and demon hunter) has a variety of different skills with which to enact grim deaths upon your foes, and the rune system lets you tweak those skills further to your liking. Each skill has five different runes waiting for you to unlock as you level up, and many of them significantly alter the original skill. What this really boils down to is that you will be earning new abilities with each level up, and an ability you had written off ten levels ago could earn a rune that suddenly turns it into your bread and butter. This system works fantastically, and it gives a real Magic the Gathering-like style of mixing and matching powers and runes to see which combinations you like best. It's definitely different and more accessible than the previous iterations of the series, but it manages to be just as satisfying.
Graphically, the game looks utterly fantastic. It doesn't push a ridiculously high polygon count, but the various locales are foreboding and the art design is first-rate. Backdrops behind the foreground areas are filled with detail and give a wonderful sense of scale, and the animations for skills and attacks look incredibly satisfying, especially in tandem with the fantastic sound design. Later acts in the game flood the screen with characters, environmental effects, and special skills, and to see it in action is all the more breathtaking when you realize you are orchestration this grand symphony of chaos. The game also scaled well to both my high-end gaming PC and my five-year-old laptop, so it certainly earns kudos for that as well.
The music in the game is excellent as well-- it is both evocative of but not carbon copied from Diablo II, and tonally carries on the legacy of the series quite well. Voice acting is also generally good, especially for the five protagonists (ten, if you count both genders). However, where the game really shines, aurally, is in its sound effects. Skills have meaty and incredibly satisfying blasts to them, enemies explode in gloriously juicy globs of gore, and even the simple sound of the many, many items hitting the ground have a nice crunch to them, making even the simplest aspects of the game a joy to hear. As a wizard, few things were as satisfying as disintegrating twenty enemies with a single blast, and listening to all of them pop into bloody piles of shiny loot remained constantly satisfying.
In terms of usability and interface, the game is fantastic. It is incredibly easy to swap skills and runes. Determining if a piece of gear is better than something you already carry is as simple as moving your mouse over it-- the game will tell you exactly what effects this new gear will have. Instantly meeting up with your friends in the game world is done by simply clicking on that player's banner in town. There are many other examples of this, but the take-away here should be that this is a game that is utterly friendly to its players.
The contentious real money auction house was not up as of the time of this writing, and the standard in-game currency auction house did suffer from some outages over the course of my playtime. However, the interface for it is similar to what you might expect from Blizzard, and when it works, it works well. The economy hasn't yet stabilized, but the new auction house certainly seems as though it may diminish much of the item-for-item commodity trading seen in Diablo II-- gold is much more of a useful resource here, for better or worse.
Something all players should be aware of, however, is the game's implementation of DRM and anti-cheating measures. The game doesn't work offline; you must be online at all times, even to play single player. This means, quite simply, that if the servers are down, you will not be playing Diablo III. I personally experienced no issues beyond launch day, but it is undeniable that many others are having persistent lag and connection issues, so be sure to temper your expectations before purchasing the game, and realize that even though Battle.net's multiplayer and social functionality is fantastically implemented, there may be server downtime that prevents you from playing altogether.
Much has been said and will continue to be said about Diablo III. The game is fantastically playable, and utterly addictive. It is engineered from the ground up to minimize tedium and game-breaking character-building. It is a different beast altogether from Diablo II, but it retains enough of its predecessor's best features to ensure it feels like a sequel. It's certainly worth the dollars spent, and I have no doubt that many players will get tons of hours of enjoyment out of it. However, with the lack of variety in the loot system as it currently exists, and well as the removal of traditional skill-building, I have to question if the game will be able to last as long as its legendary older brother. Blizzard already has a massive user-base, and the framework is undoubtedly present for an incredible and long-lasting experience. With a little work, and new content added to keep things fresh, Diablo III should be thrilling players for many years to come.