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BE WARNED, I AM AT WORK AND THIS WILL BE SUPER LONG WALL OF TEXT
Let me preface this by saying that I had extremely low hopes going into D3. Very rarely if ever do games this hyped live up to expectations, and I wasn't exactly waving the fanboy flag while leading the charge into prepurchase valley. The beta (when it actually ran) didn't exactly fill me with eagerness to play either. It seemed dull, linear, and the skill system seemed to be the restrictive pre-built path I feared it would be.
However after actually playing the game up through Hell difficulty I can say that I was wrong, it is in fact a very good game. I will go into this review from the perspective of a long time Diablo 2 player, since whatever I said would be tainted by that bias anyways.
Graphics - D3 does not have the most modern looking graphics, but it does have the distinctive painting type aesthetic that can be found in most of Blizzard's fantasy setting games. I believe the developers stated that going for this stylized look was on purpose, and I agree with this decision. When you shoot for graphical fidelity in a game you hope will last as long as it's predecessor, you are setting yourself up for failure. The same principle was used for WoW: If you aim for realism advancing technology will quickly make your game look like crap, but if you go more artsy it will almost always age better. To this end Diablo 3 looks very good. Enemy models are interesting, character models are detailed (although gear skin variety is not as high as you might wish), and skills have satisfying effects. The main complaint I will make here is that in a party in later difficulties the amount of shit flying around the screen makes it extremely difficult to see anything.
Sounds - Very atmospheric in my opinion, well done overall. It does what D2 did, using a minimalist approach to background music to the point that it fades out of your awareness as anything but ambient sound. Skills sound like they should, with varying abilities sizzling, exploding, impacting, or what have you. Over all it is more gameplay focused than immersion oriented like a traditional RPG, with most sounds and music serving functionality rather than epic orchestral scores or the like. It is however not as dark and moody as D1 or D2, but take that as you will.
Skills - Originally I was leery on the whole skill system, but it has really won me over. People who say it limits creativity and makes all characters cookie cutter, just stop because you are making yourself look silly. The ability to swap your build for that elite mob pack that wiped you or to get past a certain boss encourages you to make decisions on the fly with what you want to use, especially in Hell difficulty and higher. Admittedly the skills are not balanced but I challenge you to name one game where all the abilities are equally viable.
Look at it this way, say in D2 you made a Meteorb Sorc for Hell farming. Ever since the 1.10 patch added synergies you have been pigeonholed into a cookie cutter build way harder than Diablo 3 could ever dream of. The multiplicative benefits of putting all your points into 2-3 skills and their synergies was so powerful that doing anything else really gimped your build. You ended up casting 1 point wonder skills (augmented by +skill level gear) and spamming two, maybe three damage skills for the entire game. There was never any variety in tactics or skill use because dumping all your skill points basically eliminated your other options, that is why the immunity system D2 used for Hell mode was so effective in increasing difficulty level. Now in D3 you are free to use any skill/Rune at any time. Because players haven't sunk their gear/skill point choices in builds, Blizzard can easily rebalance skills in the future in case any particular builds become too strong or popular. Overall I found myself using FAR more skills on my Wizard than I ever used on a single Sorceress build in D2. The people complaining that D3 has less skill customization baffle me, since D2 set you onto cookie cutter builds FAR more due to gear state requirements, synergies, and skill points.
Gear - Of course in the end Diablo is all about the gear. I actually like the system they came up with, with a few caveats. They shifted the focus onto rares from Uniques, and I REALLY support this decision. Anyone who played D2 extensively knows that from the moment you made a new character you knew EXACTLY what end game gear you where going to wear., to the point that you would plan out your attribute point allocation accordingly from level 1. The fact that Uniques and Runewords with set stats where so much stronger than the alternatives made it so end game grinding was mostly for a 'perfect' version of the same item you where using with 1-2% more damage mod or something equally trivial. To combat this Blizzard has done several very interesting things:
1 - Randomized statistics and smaller prefix/affix pool. In D2 : LoD rares became worthless in large part due to the corruption of the prefix/affix pool. Useless things like 2% chance to cast chain lightning when hit and charges of level 3 firebolt ruined the vast vast vast majority of rares for endgame gearing. That is why end game uniques/runewords with no wasted stats where basically the be-all end-all of equipment. In D3 they have removed most of these worthless attributes (not all though, looking at you gold pickup distance) and made it so every item you pick up gives you the small skinner box thrill of "is this item better than mine" rather than the D2 "oh this isn't a Windforce so it's cube fodder".
2 - Gold scaling. With an Auction House implemented, gold scaling has been reduced heavily in D3. Whereas you could sell a single item in Act 4 normal D2 for about 500x the value of an Act 1 equivalent, in D3 you get marginally more gold going from act to act. What this means is that gold will stay relevant as a common currency, which is key with something like the auction house being a huge focus of the game, and that inflation will be kept down. In terms of gameplay this means that even into higher difficulties you will be picking up everything you can since gold still has value, whereas in D2 you basically used it just to rez your merc.
3 - DPS. This could go either way depending on how Blizzard treats the game going forward. The fact that all skill damage has been bound to a few stats (your primary stat, weapon damage, etc) makes it much much easier for players to understand and more importantly for Blizzard to balance. Before when you tweaked a skill in D2, you had to think why. Was the synergy with amplify damage charges too strong? (Early Sorcs). Was a runeword making this skill too strong? (Enigma). Was reaching a certain Faster Cast Rate breakpoint making some fights trivial? (Teleport). Did a certain piece of special gear synergize too much? (Buriza with Multishot), etc etc. The possibilities where endless because the amount of stats was endless. On one hand this makes for an extremely hardcore game, on the other it makes for cluttered gear choices. Blizzard had to eventually give up on specific balancing and just do blanket changes to hell mode like flat physical immunity %, then give players options like charms and runewords to shore up the resulting gear deficiencies. A clear cut stat system will remove some of the hardcore number crunching appeal, but will hopefully make for a much more balanced game in the future if Blizzard takes good care with how they approach it.
While I agree with most changes they made to gear, there are a few things that I feel should have been added.
- Weapon specialization, if not directly then through attribute pool selection. My wizard spent most of nightmare/hell with a bow then a katana, kind of silly. If you are going to have staves and such, at least prioritize them for caster stats when they are being rolled so I'm not lugging a 2-handed mace around for the damage.
- More gem variety. Why the hell are there so few gems now, this seems ridiculous considering how there are no runes for sockets and a huge focus on crafting. I am assuming they will add more in the future. (Maybe jewels?)
- Upgrade system. In D2 if you found a nice item you liked, you could cube it into the next highest tier of the same item. Would be nice if there was some way to amplify that rare you got with a nice stat selection into the next tier so it doesn't get immediately doomed into obsolescence after 60 minutes of play. Maybe work it into crafting somehow? Would really help make crafting worthwhile to level.
Difficulty - While the gearing and skill systems may have been simplified and made easier to access, they made up for it with sheer difficulty. This is not the clever kind of difficulty where you coordinate and use special tactics to win, this is the sheer balls out you better have top gear and ultra reflexes on TOP of a plan to do anything kind of difficulty. Monsters have insanely hard combinations of skills in Hell and Inferno and hit like trucks no matter what gear you are wearing. I would be surprised if one in a thousand players could beat any act in Inferno without cheesing their way to the boss while avoiding 99% of elite packs. They have replaced hardcore spreadsheets with hardcore gameplay. And while I did so love my Diablo 2 damage spreadsheets, this was probably a better way to go about it.
Normal Play - For those of you who bought this game to play through on Normal as a regular ARPG, Diablo 3 is by no means bad but not really legendary or anything. The length is an acceptable 15-20 hours, the story is a bit linear and corny but not cringe worthy, and you'll basically get as much out of it as you would most $60 dollar release games nowadays. If you plan on going through nightmare and up (and nightmare is kind of a joke tbh if you are any kind of dedicated player) you'll easily find enough challenge to keep you going for a long time.
Other Considerations -
Online Required - I'll be honest, I am so used to this now I didn't really get bothered by it. Like it or not this is the future, and you can complain about it or just accept inevitability. The lack of offline or LAN play is probably a two fold effort against piracy and to push RMAH, and honestly who the hell needs a LAN anymore. Routers are 20-40 bucks and any non-dialup connection can support a few players banging out a game of D3.
RMAH - Basically an alternative to DLC's and Cash shops to generate revenue. After seeing the longevity of the Diablo 2 community, Blizzard cleverly decided to use RMAH as a long term revenue generator. I am not really for or against this since it's entirely optional and definitely safer than previously popular methods like certain 3rd party sites. Hopefully they will use this to add content for free, but we'll see if this really comes to pass or not
Individual loot - Ingenious. Like Guild Wars 2 this removes the only point of contention between players. Now you have no reason not to jump into a friends game for a run or two, or even a strangers. Like GW 2's removal of mob tagging, this single change instantly changed the focus from "I better be ready to grab that loot the moment it drops" to "let's concentrate on killing shit bud". Definitely a smart move on their part
Overall : I could go on and on but this is getting a bit long even for me. Some people will hate this because they miss Diablo 2 and its impenetrable stat walls, some people will hate it because they never played it before but got swept up in the hype only to be disappointed, some people will hate it because they bang through normal once and go "that's it?" without ever experiencing the actually challenging content. I personally liked it a lot more than I thought, so much that it is the first game in a long time where I actually say into the early AM hours to squeeze in a few more hours of gameplay.
If I had to give it a numerical value out of 10, since that's practically a requirement for reviews now, I'd say it was a 8.5/10 with very good prospects for the future.
Tl:dr: Great game, don't let nostalgia blind you. Well worth the money.