Diablo 3 – The Hard Truth

This might be the hardest article I’ve ever written. I’ve fallen out of love with Diablo 3. I’m not going to claim it’s a mistake, or that it sucks, or that it’s a terrible game, or that I hate Blizzard, or any of the other hundred superlatives people are using to discuss it on the forums… I just want to give some honest perspective on the game from the point of view of someone who has been thoroughly impressed with and addicted to nearly every Blizzard game released since Warcraft 1.This post is going to focus on a more general take on the game. Diablo being so devoted to the concept of ‘itemization’ and loot, I will touch on that briefly here, but I wanted to give it a bit more attention so I will be at a later date writing an entire post on that subject.

What is Diablo 3?

Diablo 3 is a game that tries very hard to pretend to be a Diablo game… what I mean by this is that it has all of the core mechanics of a Diablo game – an isometric click-to-move action rpg based around loot that is a small party experience – but it just really doesn’t quite cross the gap between ‘isometric click-to-move-ARPG’ and ‘Diablo‘. There are a ton of these games, not so many lately but still a lot… but there have only ever been 2 “Diablo‘s”.  They had a certain feel to them, when playing them there was a certain sensation you got from the game. That sort of combination of being a badass, being humbled, and being taunted with the carrot on the stick of constant loot drops. Not always good loot, but loot everywhere.

Diablo 3 pretends to have these things, but in the end fails at all 3. You don’t really get to feel like a badass, you just get to feel lucky since the majority of the mechanics outside of the bosses have no telegraphing – and on inferno even regular enemies take several hits to kill and make you feel like you’re beating your head against a brick wall. You don’t really get humbled because you never really get to feel like a badass so you’re just perpetually being beaten down. Playing this game just gradually wears you down. As I write this I’m in Ventrilo listening to a friend of mine play the game, there’s no joy in his voice as he plays. Over the course of the past hour since I logged in he just sounds more and more disheartened. And as to the third point, the loot is just not satisfying. You see two colours of loot, and for the most part you don’t even care about it… but we’ll touch on that a bit later on.

So Where does that leave Diablo 3?

It leaves Diablo 3 as an Action RPG with a mediocre story, pretty solid background lore, responsive controls, interesting ability design, fantastic graphic design, and dynamic combat. Sounds like a fantastic game doesn’t it? And it is – until you beat normal. Diablo, as always, follows a cyclical difficulty system where you beat one difficulty and the next one starts back at the beginning of the story with your character continuing where he or she left off. In previous iterations of the series, this has always felt really cool. Why? Because they changed things – you ran into new monsters, mercenaries you could hire had different abilities, and you started getting all sorts of new loot while still getting all of the old stuff dropping, dramatically increasing your chance to find interesting loot – even if not necessarily useful loot for your current character. Diablo 3 does give you new loot, but so rarely that you almost never see anything interesting, and without the ability to still find the cool lower level stuff for new characters. Essentially, once you get past normal difficulty, the game becomes just entirely about seeing how fast you can get to hell act 4 and inferno act 1. The entire 30 hours of gameplay between normal and inferno are completely and utterly boring – and meaningless…

Inferno? What’s that?

Inferno is what is supposed to give this game longevity: the final, ultra-hard difficulty. A good idea, creating a terracing difficulty scheme that people gradually progress through as they get better loot and learn the game better. It should have worked out… but it really doesn’t. One of the key problems with it is the fact that the difficulty is so prohibitive that it actually destroys one of the founding concepts of the game – the concept that builds be based around viable, not ideal. This is a big deterrent, since what I really want to do is play around and find something that’s fun for me. I can’t do that, because if I don’t pick ideal, I’m too weak to progress.

But I think the biggest problem is that the carrot isn’t there. It’s just not. A difficult game is fun if there’s some motivation to keep playing. Some games do it through the satisfaction of using nothing but your own skill to beat something – games like Ninja Gaiden or even Demon Souls rely on this. That satisfaction is heady enough that even hours of beating your head against the most minor of things become worth it when you succeed. Other games do it through catering to our inherent greed through rewards. Most MMOs fall into this category, but so did the earlier Diablo games. They provided you with loot as a reward for everything. You killed a boss and got showered with loot. You’d rarely go more than an hour without seeing something that felt awesome drop – a unique, a set, a really cool rare, or even a rare rune. Things of this type dropped frequently enough that you always felt encouraged.

In Diablo 3… neither of the above lures are there. Skill doesn’t really matter since the enemies that really matter – the rare packs – don’t telegraph so most things aren’t avoidable so it’s mostly either luck or gear that makes you through it. And the loot is so infrequent so as to almost be non-existent. While in Diablo 2 it was possible to play as a purist – the type of gamer who operated entirely on the loot they could find themselves – in Diablo 3 it’s not. It would take thousands of hours to get enough loot to beat Inferno because so much of the loot is so incredibly useless. What it really strongly feels like is the game was designed to push people to the Auction House, when the Auctions should really be more of a supplemental feature. Don’t get me wrong, more loot drops in this game than in Diablo 2. In terms of pure number of ‘magical’ items and higher, there are more. But picking up loot in this game is not a satisfying prospect.

How does that work?

Yes, I know it’s a weird concept – more loot = less fun? No, absolutely not. More loot should be more fun, except that loot means nothing except the amount of gold you can net from it so you can go to the Auction House to buy the loot you actually want. Why? Because there are so many useless modifiers that can exist on loot combined with the fact that loot is useless unless it possesses one of a select few affixes that are so important they actually make or break an item. For example, if you have any weapon that does not have a very high +damage modifier on it, it is actually useless. Not weak, not niche, not interesting – useless. It doesn’t matter if everything else is perfect on that weapon, that one affix not being present turns the item from amazing to utterly useless. This is not good. When you add to that the fact that the affixes just aren’t interesting and that the ‘special’ loot – Legendaries and Set Items – virtually never drop, it just makes the loot excessively boring. And for a game that is utterly based around loot… having boring loot kind of breaks it.

Diablo: No Longer Bite Sized

One of the really cool aspects of Diablo and Diablo 2 is completely gone. In Diablo 2, it didn’t matter how much time you had at a given moment. If you played for 5 minutes before work or if you played for 5 hours in the evening… it was valuable. In Diablo 3, time is of much less value. If you don’t have at least 30-45 minutes, you’re pretty-much wasting your time. Thanks to a system that had a lot of potential: Nephalem Valor. Once you hit level 60 – the level cap of the game – you get a stacking buff called ‘Nephalem Valor’ when you kill rare and champion mobs. This buff gives you an increased chance to get good items and also causes bosses to drop extra loot. Sounds awesome right? Well, ya, except that they neutered the droprates first so that even with a max set of nephalem valor stacks you end up with pathetic droprates on anything decent… and without a full set of stacks, you just sort of see nothing. It’s actually really disheartening. And then you add to it that the Nephalem Valor system actually strongly discourages you to experiment since it is wiped clean every time you switch any of your abilities… it just feels bad. Plain and simple, it just isn’t fun.

I Wanted To Like It

Let’s make this eminently clear. I tried very hard – VERY hard to like this game. I have sunk over 150 hours into it trying to give it a fair chance. And I can’t say I dislike everything about it. The guys who made this game did quite a few things right. The skill system is really fun to play with, and there are a ton of really cool abilities. The concept of having different variations of abilities is just brilliant – sure it’s not entirely new but it’s still fantastic. The concept behind Inferno is another aspect that was a good idea no matter how it panned out. Having a nice, simple, straightforward core stat system – another good idea. The underlying idea of the story was actually really really cool. The problem lies when you get past those things and start looking at the details. And what I see is less a Diablo game, and more a game that tried to fix Diablo and in the process forgot what was cool about it. When I take an objective look at Diablo 3, I see all of the major flaws of Diablo 2 fixed. Things like the really unintuitive and boring stat system, the horrendous mismatch in gear requirements between certain classes, the concept of having monsters who are immune to certain types of damage in a game where many characters only deal one type of damage, the restrictive skill system, etc. It really feels like the dev team for Diablo 3 took a long hard look at what was wrong with Diablo 2. The problem is, in doing so they seem to have forgotten what was right about it. And that made it very hard to like beyond the initial joy of the first playthrough on normal difficulty.

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