The long-awaited third entry in Blizzard Entertainment's seminal dungeon-crawler franchise caused uproar when it launched last week.
Fans were furious that they needed a constant Internet connection to play this decade-in-the-making title – in which players slowly hack their way through one monster-infested dungeon after another – even in single-player mode. The studio said the measure was vital to Diablo III's integrated online features, but most gamers recognized it as an increasingly common and unpalatable tactic in publishers' ongoing war on piracy.
Compounding matters, the game's servers proved unable cope with the millions who tried to logon simultaneously on launch day. Players were frequently and unceremoniously kicked from their games, leading thousands to give Diablo III deeply negative user ratings on influential sites like Amazon and Metacritic (a practice known as "review bombing").
Admittedly, the game earns a demerit for requiring a constant Internet connection, an inconvenience that prevents paying consumers from playing where and when they like. But it's been a week since launch, technical issues have been rectified, and those with reliable Internet connections (just about everyone) are now able to do their hacking and slashing uninterrupted. I suspect most will find the experience well worth the trouble.
Diablo III's accomplishment isn't one of innovation. Anyone familiar with the decades-old formula of placing pointer on monster, clicking to kill and then collecting loot from its corpse will note the recipe stays largely unchanged here.
Instead, the game is an achievement in elegance and refinement. Everything about it has been polished to a gleaming, almost magical shine.
Nowhere is this truer than in its art direction. The game hardly pushes any technical boundaries, but the intricacy and depth of each level is at times astonishing. I found myself lost in lushly detailed and dynamic environments that often have the look of living paintings. Decrepit ruins crumbled as I passed by, snakes and scorpions scurried away when I drew near. Assuming you can stomach the gore, which is presented with equal devotion to detail (expect some elaborately flayed monster carcasses), it's an enchantment for the eyes.
Happily, this sophistication goes beyond the visual. Smart, accessible design lures players into exploring every facet of the game. For example, instead of being lulled into complacency with a few powerful, practical attacks, we're gently but regularly prodded to try new abilities and enhancements as they become available. While playing as a witch doctor – a devilishly fun new character class – I found myself perpetually experimenting with fresh, smile-inducing powers, such as throwing exploding frogs at enemies and raising zombie giants to fight for me.
Looting – arguably the heart of any dungeon crawler – remains as compelling as ever. Searching every nook and cranny of the game's labyrinthine maps for rare items can bring on weirdly satisfying bouts of OCD-like fixaction in almost anyone. Plus, we can now trade our precious plunder with other players in online auctions. Just two weeks after launch Blizzard will begin allowing players to sell their booty for real world money (a controversy for another story).
There's little denying the save-the-world-from-Hell tale is clichéd, or that its voice acting – particularly that of series mainstay Deckard Cain, an aging scholar whose croaky wisdom is too theatrical by half – is a bit melodramatic, but this campy vibe is just part of the game's charm.
Diablo III is, at root, a delightful throwback to an age of simpler games garnished with trimmings afforded by modern technology. It's too bad that one of these happens to be an intrusive anti-piracy tactic, but it's an inconvenience worth enduring to experience the expertly crafted action role-playing game that lies beneath.
Platforms: Windows PC (reviewed), Mac OS X
Developer/Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Release: May 15, 2012