Critical Consensus: Diablo III
The servers are struggling, but what about the game? Has Blizzard delivered a product worthy of a 12 year wait?
Is it possible to write an appraisal of Diablo III without including a passage about teething problems that, in all likelihood, will be a hazy memory within a few weeks? Certainly, very few critics fortunate enough to call barrelling through Blizzard's latest behemoth their day job have managed to resist the urge, and more power to them for doing so - there's really no better time.
Is Diablo III's always-on internet requirement about creating a seamless multiplayer experience and cracking down on the cheaters and pirates, or is it more to do with lining Blizzard's pockets with pennies skimmed from its real-money auction house?
"I love it when a developer does this. I love it when a developer has the confidence, experience, vision, competence, and balls to not listen to us"
Tom Chick, Quarter to Three
Is Blizzard attempting to leapfrog into the future with an unrealistic demand for a game that shouldn't be asked to shoulder the burden, or, frankly, is the world's wealthiest developer simply past caring about waiting for fans of Diablo to catch up to a stipulation that 12 million WoW subscribers have no problem meeting.
One thing is certain: Blizzard fumbled the final days of a process that took 12 years, and Diablo III will have to be nothing shy of a masterpiece to justify so much effort and, ultimately, heartache.
For veteran game journalist Tom Chick, it does so against expectations. In a four-star review for his blog, Quarter to Three, Chick admits that the game's beta had left him cold. He balked at the changes Blizzard was making to its fundamental systems, and beat a sulky retreat into his cherished Diablo II.
"Now that Diablo III is out, it turns out Blizzard was right and I was wrong," he says."I love it when a developer does this. I love it when a developer has the confidence, experience, vision, competence, and balls to not listen to us."
Indeed, Chick's key gripe from the beta proved to be the very thing that made the none-too-progressive Diablo III stand apart from its predecessor. Instead of the this-or-that, skill-tree based character-building of yore, Blizzard opted for a fluid system that offers myriad ways of tweaking the skills and attributes for each class.
"Diablo III instead pushes every character down the same rail... A witch doctor, barbarian, demon hunter, monk, or wizard of any given level will have the exact same skills and attributes as any other witch doctor, barbarian, demon hunter, monk, or wizard of that level.
"The simple fact of the matter is that Blizzard was right to unfurl class skills in a set order and to instead give us the option of equipping any six at a time (hello, Guild Wars!). And to furthermore let us modify each of those skills with runes to tweak how they work, and then passive skills to further tweak how they work.
"After 22 hours and 11,000 kills I'm barely past the starting gates of Blizzard's latest far-reaching descent through the multi-layered dungeons of Diablo's latest hellspawn"
Martin Gaston, Videogamer
"Diablo III is built for people who want to tinker rather than people who want to just cop out and decide. Tinkering can be every bit as effective a hook as deciding."
To some degree, this is the sole aspect of Diablo III that matters at all. Most critics agree that Blizzard has crafted a detailed and visually rich (though somewhat linear) world to explore, but, as Chick pointedly remarks, "Also, water is wet." Conversely, the cloth-eared dialogue and wafer-thin plot are the subject of a few cutting remarks, but nobody plays a game like Diablo for the story.
As Videogamer's Martin Gaston points out in his 9 out of 10 review, Diablo III is a game, in the truest sense of the word, and unmistakably proud of it. The most relevant measure of how well Blizzard has honoured the series' legacy is whether the player greets the closing credits with an ecstatic cry of, "Again!" In this respect, Gaston can barely restrain his admiration.
"Diablo III...positively delights in being a gamey game...This is, essentially, a quest for numbers - keeping yours high, augmenting them with number-riddled items, and whacking everybody else's to zero. There are four acts, five classes, and after completing the game in 22 hours and with 11,000 kills I'm barely past the starting gates of Blizzard's latest far-reaching descent through the multi-layered dungeons of Diablo's latest hellspawn.
"For erstwhile aficionados, this is a game that begets multiple playthroughs, as characters advance through Normal, Nightmare, Hell and (the new) Inferno difficulties. In this sense the game becomes a fairground ride, as players run back to the front of the game for another go, and Blizzard's design focus is clearly to welcome back its players time and time again with open arms. As the risk ramps up so do the rewards, and the addition of Inferno difficulty should help calm expert players incensed by Blizzard tailored tweaks that initially render the Diablo III experience a complete doddle."
Like his peers, Gaston takes a few sentences to describe the couple of occasions Blizzard's servers coughed an error message at his screen when he was expecting an elaborately named warhammer, but he also takes the time to note that the always-on internet connection is, "at the very least capable of impressing." The "speed and ease" with which you can transition into a co-op game - where Diablo III is apparently at its best - is most welcome, while the auction house is just as seamlessly integrated and, to Gaston's surprise, a gratifyingly simple way of further customising your character.
"There are times when everything gelled nicely, and there are times when we had to be restrained from throwing the Diablo 3 disc out the window"
Having said that, Gaston believes that Blizzard has an unrealistic impression of how stable the internet is for even those with high-speed connections, and the UK magazine GamesTM is right there with him. The mandatory introduction of Battle.net affords the sort of social features and updates to your friends' progress that will make Diablo III even more difficult to put down, and leaves it, "only a half-step removed from World Of Warcraft."
"The benefits of such a setup for Blizzard are obvious," the 8 out of 10 review reads. "However, the limitations of the online-only platform have become pretty clear since launch. It has resulted in moments in which every enemy on the screen has simply frozen, then abruptly sped up, as if caught in a time warp. We've lost progress (and yes, gear) to blips in the server connection.
"There are times when everything has gelled nicely - as when we opened up our game to the public and got a nice pick-up group together for the final boss battle - and there are times when we have had to restrain ourselves so we don't throw our Diablo 3 disc out the window.
"Indeed, as long as we're complaining, we're also disappointed that Blizzard is continuing the age-old PC tradition of promising a feature, then patching it in later. Both the 'real money' auction house and player-versus-player combat are much-hyped features that missed the game's launch. It feels strange to be playing such a finely-tuned machine of an RPG, but to know that certain parts are missing from under the hood."
Ultimately, then, Blizzard has made a Diablo game, one that adheres closely to the randomly generated template it helped to create. And once the furore over internet connections and creaking servers has died away that will be more than enough to satiate the fans that have waited, patiently or otherwise, for a dozen years.
For critics, however, it is unclear whether all that hard work has truly paid off. Did Blizzard labour for so long expecting 8 out of 10s and four-star reviews? At the very least, that seems unlikely, but there is a sense that the product of Blizzard's perfectionism is a more refined and polished Diablo II, when we perhaps expected it to emulate Diablo II's achievement and redefine the entire genre. Rock, Paper, Shotgun's John Walker is certainly thinking along those lines.
More reviews will emerge next week, written by those who believe it takes a lot more than 30 hours to get the full measure of a game like Diablo III, and in investing so much perhaps they will discover the perfect scores that once seemed so inevitable. Then again, perhaps they will only return with what they set out to find in the first place.
Or could it be another manifestation of the frustration over Blizzard's misguided thinking, a point or star lopped off for crossing the finish line with such leaden feet. I'd prefer not to believe that of my peers, but the sentiment is there, in every review.
"It's a sad reality that too many of us have accepted DRM with gritted teeth and open wallets, so this is likely the price of AAA gaming for the foreseeable future," Tom Chick states with his usual eloquence. "Us sheep get what we deserve, which is a Diablo III, a fine game for playing solo, with all the pitfalls of an online game.
"So I reserve the right to replace this review with an angry screed if I ever lose my hardcore character to lag."