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Diablo III Review: Blizzard's Brilliant, Blundering Wreck
Date: May 25, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Diablo III: The Game
Diablo III isn't just a game -- it's a sequel, a social service, and a financial experiment all wrapped up in one. We've discussed the game's structure and balance in our extensive preview as well as its security problems earlier this week. The third part of the game -- the Real (Money) Auction House, or RAH -- won't debut until May 29 at the earliest and therefore won't be covered here. 

Diablo III will likely go down as one of the most polarizing games of 2012. What follows is a detailed examination of the game's best attributes and a frank discussion of its failures.

Diablo III: Graphics, Gameplay, and Design:

Act II's Caldeum, Jewel of the East

D3's gameplay is great. It retains all the addictive elements that made Diablo 2 so much fun, but streamlines and simplifies  cuts down on the frantic clicking (my tendonitis thanks you). The new skill system works and scales well. Users who complain that the new flexible skill implementation results in everyone's Wizard or Witch Doctor being the same, are wearing a blinding pair of rose colored glasses. In Classic D2, poor skill implementation, death penalties, and an inflexible skill point system meant everyone used cookie cutter builds or risked being crippled by their own poor choices farther down the road.

There are disquieting signs of improper balance testing at higher difficulty levels, but the Normal and Nightmare modes are both quite a bit of fun. On a simple, visceral level, Diablo III remains a lot of fun -- when you can play. We'll discuss that shortly.

Anyone complaining that Diablo III's art is "cartoony" or "too bright" are confusing "bright" with "Hey, we aren't limited to 16MB of graphics frame buffer and software T&L anymore!" Diablo II used a rewritten version of the first game's engine and retains the 16-bit color limitation that characterized that title. It was one of the last prominent games to feature 3dfx's Glide API, and looked better in that mode compared to Direct3D. Here's a recent screenshot of Diablo II running in forced 32-bit color mode and a Glide wrapper.

Diablo II, back when global, indistinct lighting was a feature. We barely had to re-size the screenshot.

The last generation Diablo game engine isn't dark because Blizzard set out to make some kind of definitive art statement, it's dark because the underlying engine barely qualifies as a DirectX 7 product. Player characters are just 75 pixels high. The Voodoo 3 -- a great video card for Diablo II -- had a 333 MTexels/second fill rate. The GeForce GTX 580 has a 49.4GTexel/second fill rate comparatively; so you get our drift.

Modern Diablo III. If you like the top one more, great. Go play it.

If you're nostalgic for badly dithered 64K sprites dancing in digital apoplexy, great. Go kill Fallen in Diablo II, and leave the rest of us alone. Alternately, go and visit Whimsyshire.

The secret Whimsyshire level - Like Super Mario on LSD

Yes, Diablo III has a secret unicorn/pony level, created especially for the people who complained about the game being too bright/cartoonish. Things like this are the special touches that normally make Blizzard games great. In D3, they aren't enough.
Diablo III: The Game (Continued)
So, the game play is great. Loads of fun. And while that's always important, it's particularly important in this case, because Diablo III's story is poorly told and terribly executed. As the game progresses, the tension between the ambitious cinematic arcs and the rest of the plot becomes nearly palpable. This is a game plot that aspires to greatness -- and misses, badly

Game plot, like size, matters...
It's absolutely fair to ask how much this matters. Diablo III's story is something that you'll sit through once; Blizzard wants you playing the game ten years from now. Between gameplay and story, gameplay wins. What's notable, however, is that Diablo 3 is the first Blizzard game ever in which the company's gorgeous cinematics and crisp pacing have failed to carry the day. The stories Blizzard tells might be the equivalent of popcorn movies, but that's always been true in the best sense of the phrase.

And there arose a war in heaven, in which celestial fought celestial, for the future of mankind

Not any more. D3 kicks off strongly with a great callback to the first game, but staggers badly in the latter half of the first Act. The designers attempt to invoke the Worf Effect to pump up the credibility of a new villain, but the chracter isn't strong enough to sustain the role. Longtime series fans will be left blinking in bewilderment wondering what Blizzard was thinking.

Act I closes with a strong cinematic and the story rolls along merrily enough through Act II right until the end, when a one-two unveil casually rewrites the plotline of the entire game and scarcely no one notices. Imagine if, instead of stepping out of the shadows with dire portents and some nifty Protoss missions, Zeratul's scene with Jim Raynor had played out like so:

SCENE: The bridge of the Hyperion. Raynor looks out the window, bottle in his hand.

If only I could save Sarah.

(Steps from the shadows)
But you totally can, Jim. I've got a can of Xel'Naga ZergAway right here.

Holy crap, it's Zeratul!
Hey, where'd you get a can of ZergAway? 

I, uh, picked it up at a garage sale on Braxis maybe 8-10 years ago.

8-10 years... Zeratul, that was four years BEFORE we even met! We went through hell together, teamed up to kill the Overmind, and saved Shakuras... and all this time, you had a can of ZergAway in your pants...

Protoss do not wear pants.

Zeratul, she's slaughtered millions of innocent people. Destroyed entire planets. And I was in love with her.

Yeah, I'm really sorry about that. My bad. Let's go spray her with it!

Jimmy, I might've forgot to mention this, but I'm probably totally gonna have to kill her.

Sometimes Michael Bay gives us Transformers, sometimes Transformers: Revenge of the FallenDiablo III is the latter, it's bad even by the dubious standard by which it's fairly judged.

And the Lords of Hell plotted, awaiting the moment to strike...

The difference is all the more noticeable when measured against the enormous amount of work that went into crafting the game's lore. Each time you encounter a new monster, a narrator voices a description of it. The game doesn't necessarily travel to more locations, but the various NPCs and Followers you encounter discuss a much wider range of locations and events. Diablo III takes place in a much wider world than either of its predecessors, but the game's history and storyline don't co-exist -- they fight for supremacy, and we players are the losers.
Diablo III: The Social/Online Game Experiment
The second, equally important aspect of Diablo III is its always-online requirement and the deep bonds of community that aspect of the game is supposed to engender.

The Social/Online Game Experiment
How bad has this launch been? It's easily the worst since vanilla World of Warcraft launched in 2004. Back then, Blizzard had an excuse -- it was launching its first MMO as a much smaller company.

Edge of the world.

Let me put some specifics to my general claims of dissatisfaction. One week out of the gate, I have yet to enjoy a stable play experience after 4 PM. I die from lag 2-4x a night. The idea of playing Hardcore mode under these conditions is a joke; playing with other people makes things significantly worse and over the weekend, the game was utterly unplayable. I've done extensive troubleshooting at every point of my network, swapped out routers, hand-configured TCP/IP and NIC settings, run diagnostic software and traceroutes, and tested two different NICs (which actually helped a bit).

This is a problem. If this was a World of Warcraft expansion, Blizzard would have already offered free time to those unable to play a week after the game shipped. With Diablo III, there's no such recourse. I'm scarcely advocating for a monthly subscription model, but this situation highlights an interesting problem. In WoW, the subscription model gives Blizzard an easy way to redress problems with service. In Diablo III, there's no simple way to reimburse consumers.

The structures for a robust experience are here...
but for some players, the ability to use them is significantly limited

I can't write anything about Diablo III's vaunted social system because I've scarcely seen it. What I can comment on is that features like the Auction House, while clearly still in need of some better search/sorting functionality, are nicely and subtly integrated. If you want a classic Diablo experience without any use of the Auction House, you can have it. If you want to buy and sell items for gold, the option is there. We'll refrain from commenting on the Real Money AH until it's available for testing.

Other features, like having a common stash, the lack of any death penalty besides durability loss, and only having to train one character's crafting all work quite well. Once the game is playable, I look forward to quite a bit of fun with friends -- whenever that is.
There's a lot of good things to be said about Diablo III. Perhaps even more importantly, I trust Blizzard to fix the problems that exist today. I've worked with and known people at the company for 12 years; the programmers, developers, and GMs at Blizz are gamers and players first and foremost. Barring a major apocalypse, there's every reason to think people will be playing Diablo III ten years from now.

Even in a world where bats drop plate armor, bleeding skeletons stand out.

So if that's the case, why am I being so harsh? Simple: Since when does anyone need to make excuses for a Blizzard game? None of the WoW expansions have ever shipped in such a broken state, I've never been functionally unable to play a game 10 days after it shipped, and the company has never before discussed launching a paid service tied to PayPal and other funds without following basic security practices.

WoW's launch woes were understandable; Blizzard had no experience in the MMO business. This isn't 2004, and Diablo III isn't just a sequel -- it's a test flight for a new type of "freemium" business model and a demonstration of the kind of social network Blizzard wants to create. It was an opportunity to revisit a beloved world and tell the next chapter of an epic saga.

The company has never dropped the ball this way before. They didn't just fail to meet abstract, impossible expectations, they've failed to deliver a functional gaming service measured against very concrete latency standards. If you haven't bought D3, or haven't played yet, should you?  Yes. When? Later. When it's fixed. When doing so can send a message to the company that it can't rest on its name. But most of all, buy it when you're guaranteed to get the kind of service everyone else should've been enjoying this past week.

  • Great Gameplay
  • Excellent Cinematics

  • Storyline makes Michael Bay look like Stanley Kubrick
  • Terrible online experience
  • Latency, hacking, and poor security practices

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