It was difficult at first to take seriously the rumors that Blizzard would be returning to the console front. After all, it’s been years since they’ve focused on titles like The Lost Vikings, and their last announced console game (StarCraft: Ghost) is essentially vaporware at this point. Yet, here we are talking about the first Diablo console entry since the original graced the PlayStation in 1998.
Diablo III is a significant choice for a console port for a couple of different reasons. One is the insane sales numbers for the PC version. It sold 12 million copies last year with almost a third of those taking place within the first twenty four hours. Though with the large sales numbers came a large amount of dissatisfaction with the DRM and always online requirement for the game. A console release is a sort of fresh start, as it were, allowing Blizzard to reach a new console demographic while simultaneously addressing the criticisms of the original release. And while they did succeed on that front, it’s still not the earth shattering follow-up to Diablo II that was worth waiting twelve years for.
Like its predecessor, the story of Diablo III is split into four acts which each one taking place in a different locale. It picks up twenty years after the conclusion of the previous game, with your character(s) arriving in the town of Tristram to investigate a fallen meteor that seems to be causing corpses to rise from the dead. Once there, you meet with series veteran Deckard Cain and his niece Leah, as they investigate the site of the original game to learn of an impending prophecy; one that your protagonist unwillingly has a hand in.
The first act serves as something of a nostalgia trip, reuniting characters and enemies from series past for last last hurrah before venturing into new material. It’s successful in this regard, as it conjures up reminders of some of the more memorable moments of the original game. However, the experience is two fold, as it also calls attention to one of its main flaws even before you start venturing into “new” locales: this doesn’t feel like a Diablo game.
To further elaborate, the first two games were dark and creepy. They had a substantial amount of lore that built on this, from mountains of backstory in the included manuals along with various texts hidden in the game. And all of this built upon a world portrayed to be incredibly disturbing. I remember when I was younger how terrifying the descent to Diablo’s floor actually was in the original game. The CG cutscenes that narrated the second game were also rather eerie. It feels like an odd thing for someone like me to criticize, especially since I’m not really a fan of horror, save for the occasional zombie. But it feels right for a Diablo game, and I felt none of these things in Diablo III. Even Diablo himself doesn’t look all that threatening (and if you think that’s a spoiler, you’ve forgotten the name of the game you’re playing). This isn’t to say that the game’s story is bad. It’s not. But it’s not particularly good either. It’s there to carry the experience, and to that end it does its job. I just didn’t feel particularly invested in what was going on. Even some of the character deaths that should have had a significant emotional impact just weren’t well delivered.
If you skipped out on the PC release, the console version of the game plays very much like Champions of Norrath or any of the Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance titles. You get to pick between one of five different classes. The Barbarian builds up fury while inflicting damage to enemies, which can then be used to activate its innate skills and will degenerate over time. Monk is another melee based class, except its a far quicker class that is able to cripple enemies. For range attackers, there’s a Demon Hunter that wields a crossbow and can throw bombs at foes, as well as the Wizard whose spellcasting prowess is reminiscent of the Sorceress from the previous game. Finally, there’s the Witch Doctor that can summon monsters and curse enemies. Overall, it’s a good mix of play styles that complement each other well during co-op play. I was quite disappointed that there still isn’t a way to customize your character’s appearance beyond their gender, though at least your equipped gear will alter your appearance.
Despite their differences, each one follows the same basic control scheme which one might think would be extremely limited on account of there not being a keyboard, but it works extremely well. The left analog stick controls character movement, while the right analog stick can be used to evade incoming attacks. If you take too much damage, health potions are hotkeyed to L1. Some of the more common functions, such as town portals or accessing the map are tied to the directional pad. Otherwise, nearly every other button on the controller is tied to a character skill. At first, only a couple of those buttons are active, but as the game progresses and your character levels up, more will unlock. It struck me as a limitation at first (though not nearly as much as on PC), but I found it really helps with learning the skill sets among the different classes. In fact, after some time spent with the game, I found that I preferred the console control scheme over that of the PC.
In addition to the active skills, there are passive skills that can be unlocked upon level-up that depending on the chosen class can do anything from increase running speed to multiplying your armor. There are also runes that unlock for each of the skills that improve upon them in some way, so your Barbarian’s cleave skill may not function the same as your friend’s all of the time. Despite this, compared to the skill tree in Diablo II as well as the ability to freely assign stat points, there’s actually less customization this time around, leaving the experience feeling a bit more watered down than it could have been.
Adding to that simplicity is the lack of mana potions in Diablo III. Depending on your class, the meter used for character skills will recharge on its own, so the only potions left to manage are the ones for health. And what an abundance of those there are. Health drops like candy, so you rarely have to visit town to resupply. It’s as simple as slaying an enemy, watching the health pot drop, and then walking over it. You don’t even have to USE the item. If you do manage to eat it during a battle, you don’t have to worry about dropping all of your gear. You can revert to a previous checkpoint or even respawn in the same place you died should you choose.
One overhaul I did approve of was the follower system. Rather than hired help that not only cost money, but were expendable, you are now given party members of sorts that have their own backstories and can be equipped with gear to a limited extent. They can’t be used in conjunction with other players in co-op play, though they’re rather helpful to have around if you find yourself playing solo.
If you want to craft items, there are artisans that specialize in both blacksmithing and jewelcrafting that can be upgraded using any available funds that you may have. As you invest money into improving their craft, new items open up to you and can be constructed using items gained from melting down any loot that you pick up in dungeons. Very rarely can you make anything more valuable than what you find at random, but it helps if you have an aging piece of gear that needs replacing in the interim.
Maps are randomly generated each time you enter the game, so the layout of each of the dungeons will vary from time to time. The sidequests that you have access to will change up each time as well, so no two playthroughs are the same. And if you want to reach the level cap of 50, expect multiple playthroughs, with harder difficulty settings being the most lucrative in terms of gear and experience (and you’re going to want to try some of the harder settings, as the normal difficulty is cake). If you hate yourself enough to watch hours of progress wash down the drain after one unfortunate mishap, there’s also a Hardcore mode that effectively ends the game for you after a single death.
While Diablo III isn’t exactly a hardware hog when it comes to system requirements on the PC version, the characters and locales still looked pretty sharp and continue to do so in the console port. Perhaps my favorite part of the presentation are the many destructible objects you happen across during your quest. Nearly everything can be shattered to pieces with the click of a button and there’s a strange satisfaction to watching the destruction careen around every direction. I was also impressed by the quality of the CG sequences that played in between acts, though they did delve into the uncanny valley territory on a number of occasions.
There was an impressive amount of spoken dialogue in the game considering the amount of lore you are bombarded with over the course of your quest. Every log and diary you pick up acts as something of an audio log, plus every conversation you have is a different voice depending on the class and gender you chose at the beginning. Then of course there’s the voice of Deckard Cain, who deserves an award all his own for essentially being an icon for the franchise.
At the end of the day, it’s still the same game that you may have played on the PC, so if you didn’t like the core game then, this probably won’t change your mind. That being said, both the always online connectivity and the auction house were removed for the console versions, which were arguably the two worst aspects of Diablo III. Between that and the streamlined-for-console interface, this is the best version of the game that you can play. It supports couch co-op for up to four players, plus you can go online with your friends as you could before (plus LAN play!). The trade off for playing locally is having to share loot as well as the inconvenience of waiting for each player to manage their gear separately. Still, as someone who enjoys dungeon hacks in a multiplayer environment, it’s an absolute blast, and worth checking out if you can get together a full stable of players.
Short Attention Span Summary
The only thing Diablo III is guilty of is having the burden of trying to impress those that were enamored with its first two entries. Despite a twelve year gap since the last one, round three can hardly be called revolutionary and does little to advance the genre. That being said, it is still a fun, streamlined experience best enjoyed with friends either locally or online. No longer is there an always online requirement or a balance breaking auction house to contend with, plus the interface has adapted well to the controller. It’s the best console port that Blizzard has ever done, to the point where I actually prefer it to the PC release. If you enjoyed other console dungeon hacks such as Champions of Norrath, it’s worth giving Diablo III a look.