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On how Diablo III fails to live up to the Diablo legacy

[Edit: I’m now halfway through Act II, and everything I say stands – and, in fact, the problems have become even more obvious]

Diablo III just got released this week, to a spectacularly catastrophic launch day in which almost nobody could play. But once the server loads normalized and the initial hype died out, a surge of furious comments started to take over Twitter and Metacritic (where it has the wonderful User Score of 3.6). What went wrong? In my opinion, Blizzard has slowly been taking away everything that made Diablo excellent, and re-worked it into a far more generic (and perhaps marketable, they expect) experience.

It got to the point where I was almost quitting the game in disgust several times, but I tried to endure – until I saw King Leoric – a character who, in the original game, would greet you with “The warmth of life has entered my tomb. Prepare yourself, mortal, to serve my master for eternity” – brought back as a pathetic parody of its former self, in a ridiculous context, spitting out boring lines, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I will probably go back to it, and maybe eventually beat it, but it will never be anything near the first two Diablo games.

For a game that actually has a reasonably solid gameplay, it’s peculiar that such things would bother me so much. But they did, and I think that understanding why is important, so here’s my best attempt at expressing what I felt. This might resonate with your own experiences, or you might have had completely different feelings. If so, please share in the comments.

Let’s recap.

Mood

Diablo (and by that I mean Diablo I) was a dark, moody, atmospheric game. I don’t feel that it’d be a major stretch to call it a horror game. The soundtrack was unique, powerful, memorable, and very, very creepy. The sound effects were of excellent quality – possibly better than in Diablo II and III, even. The scenarios were dark, and you couldn’t see much. Your character was initially very weak, and through most of the game, a bad mistake would cost your life (which was a far worse punishment – you’d drop all equipment to the floor, leaving it vulnerable to be stolen, and making it harder to kill whatever killed you). The game intro set the perfect tone for the game:

Then along came Diablo II. Instead of being confined to maze-like dark dungeons, you were thrown into open, bright worlds full of creatures that posed less of a real challenge. The music was unremarkable, and failed to add to the atmosphere. Worst of all, you felt POWERFUL. This was no longer about a mad heroic journey – this was just hack and slashing. This is the same reason why Amnesia is genuinely scary, while Doom 3 and Dead Space are nowhere near as much – you just have too much power in those games, compared to the defenseless protagonist of Amnesia. But Diablo II still tried to be dark and horror-ish, and in many senses, it succeeded. The cinematics certainly preserve the feel of the original game. Let’s look at the intro:

And then comes Diablo III. It took the same changes Diablo II had done, and amplified them. I see no hint of horror in this game. All I see is generic adventuring. This feels like D&D. This feels like Torchlight. This feels like WoW. It feels like many things… unfortunately, Diablo is not one of them. Here’s the intro:

The progressive change of mood in those intro videos is fairly telling of what’s going on with the series, I’m afraid.

Story

This is where the game really stroke a nerve. I’ve been under the impression that all of Blizzard’s writers were either fired or driven to incompetence after the release of the original StarCraft. From Brood War onwards, the quality of the text and storylines has decreased significantly, and Diablo III is the most telling example.

Diablo I had little in-game plot. You just returned to Tristram, which has been overran by a mysterious dark force coming from the depths of the local church. As you slowly descended through its dungeons, you got a few more hints of what was going on, until you finally came face-to-face with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. But that’s not to say that it was bad – first of all, it strengthened the atmosphere of mystery in the game. Second, what little was told was superbly well written. Third, the manual itself had excellent backstory, explaining the events preceding the fall of Tristram in a compelling and believable way. Here’s a sample of in-game dialogue:


It’s said that Tolkien was once asked why didn’t he wrote about all those distant mountains he would talk about on his books. His reply was supposedly “I could talk about them, but then I would need even farther mountains”. Part of making the world believable is to have a lot more to it than just what’s immediately visible to the player. The team behind Diablo I understood that well… but in Diablo II, they made a terrible mistake. They systematically went through the backstory in the Diablo manual and, as if holding a checklist, made sure that everything they encountered there would be directly relevant to the story of Diablo II. Andariel, Duriel, Mephisto and Baal. Archangel Tyrael. Tal Rasha. Even Izual and the Hellforge. Very little was added to make up for the losses, and what little it was was of far inferior quality. The game world had completely lost all its depth. A world in which you can see for yourself EVERYTHING ever mentioned in any form of Lore might be suitable for a massive MMO where you can actually travel the whole world – but just makes everything seem very shallow when you stride across a handful of small towns and just happen to run into every legend there ever was. Dialogues were plentyful, but very bland. In every way, they had managed to lose the magic of the game’s story. In a way, it felt like a fan game – eagerly consuming any elements it could find from canon, while making very predictable and boring additions.

When I thought that it couldn’t get any worse, Diablo III managed it. Do you remember how, in Diablo, your character (now called “Aidan”) was the elder son of King Leoric? No? Well, neither do I, but it has been retconned to be that way by Diablo III. Very peculiar that nobody in Diablo recognized him as such, and that he would say “Rest well, Leoric, I will find your son!” after slaying his undead body. The installer presents an avalanche of slightly tweaked events, written with pompous adjectives and going as far as pausing mid-sentence to name Tyrael’s sword – as if that had ever been relevant. Do you remember Adria’s daughter, Leah? You know, Deckard Cain’s niece? No? Also, people sure do like Tristram, going ahead and building a “New Tristram” right next to where one of the three Prime Evils came back not so many years ago (I assume so, anyway, as Cain was already old in the first game and has managed not to kick the bucket yet). Speaking of Tristram, can we decide whether the whole incident took place in its church (D1), monastery (D2) or cathedral (D3)? But now I’m stepping into nitpicking territory – although this sort of inconsistency only shows how little they care about making it coherent.

Gameplay

I would normally argue that gameplay is the most important thing in a game, but Diablo III makes me wonder to what degree is that true. There’s nothing really WRONG with the gameplay – it has been simplified from Diablo I and II, certainly, as it is now much more forgiving and “casual-friendly”, but that doesn’t bother me too much. I prefer more complex RPGs, but this is hardly what’s stopping me from playing.

It does have to be said that the new system does make me feel like a versatile, powerful character, which, as I mentioned before, is the exact opposite of what a Diablo character should ideally feel like. But I suppose that role-playing a cool and powerful character that spits pseudo-witty lines to coward mayors is very popular with most players, and setting be damned.

There is one thing, however, which is unforgivable. In an attempt to stop cheating and piracy, Blizzard has forced everyone to ALWAYS be playing online, through their servers. If their servers are down, or if your connection is unstable, or if you’re in an airplane – you can’t play. It doesn’t matter if you just want to have some solo fun – you’re STILL playing multiplayer, for every technical purpose. This is the worst form of DRM, and the only reason why anyone is willing to put up with it is because of Blizzard’s history of excellent games. Unfortunately, as of late, I can’t even say that they still make excellent games. Speaking of Blizzard’s history of DRM, do you remember how Diablo I would let you install a semi-demo copy (“Spawned version”) on a friend’s computer, so he could play with somebody who had the full version, subject to only a few limitations? And how the game didn’t even have a CD-key? From that to THIS? How long you’ve come, Blizzard.

I might not buy another Blizzard game, but this hardly matters – I’m sure their profits will continue to escalate. By making “popular art”, they sacrifice the exquisite quality that their games always had, but profit even more. Jonathan Blow said that you shouldn’t try to do what the audience wants – instead, you should make something great, and the audience (or, at least, some of it) will want that even more than what they originally thought they wanted – and I agree with that sentiment. I don’t think that many others do, however.

A shame, too. I WANTED to love this game.

36 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Cindy

     /  2012-05-17

    So, the best thing about Diablo III is that it made you write a nice article about it? xD
    I loved this post, I can agree so much with it… I mean, I haven’t played the earlier Diablos, but I recognize the importance of mood and setting to make a good game.

    It’s too bad newer games seem to forget that and just go for the “let’s make a game where you feel all powerfull and badass” that appeals so much to teenagers, which people still seem to think is the major part of gamers…

  2. Paulo V W Radtke

     /  2012-05-17

    Jonathan Blow would rather recommend that nobody plays any Diablo game, not even the first ;). I never enjoyed the game (lack of) mechanics, just a boring game of “click a demon” with barely any challenge, which is even worse on it’s third streamlined iteration.

  3. That is exactly why i fell in love with Demon’s Souls, i always said and will repeat: Demon’s Souls is what Diablo 3 should have been in every way; the game is hard (more like punishing =P), is dark, huge backstory scattered in to items descryptions . A true and complete Dark RPG.

  4. Really excellent points. Diablo 1 was very much a story driven game with a compelling mystery at its core. By Diablo 2, they’d somehow made Diablo (the character) far less menacing. Diablo 3 just repeats the same mistreatment of the story and universe and it makes the flaws all the more obvious.

    The gameplay is still solid. It’s a really fun, casual, multiplayer hack-and-slash but it won’t capture the same storytelling magic of Diablo 1.

  5. Victor

     /  2012-05-23

    It is also worth noting that Blizzard (in So. Cal.) did not create the original Diablo franchise; that was the brain-child of the now defunct Blizzard North (in Silicon Valley.) I suspect that you, Mr. Monteiro, are more qualified than I am to investigate this (should you elect to do so) and comment on the problems within Blizzard at the level of corporate culture.

    It seems that, with the demise of its sister company, Blizzard has become one gigantic “bad idea” machine. So very sad but seemingly so very true. :(

  6. Ray

     /  2012-05-23

    Victor beat me to it. Check out this page. All the best people _did_ leave Bliz, and they have not been the same since, in much the same way that SquareENIX can’t put out a blockbuster game the way Squaresoft could.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blizzard_North

  7. Jer

     /  2012-05-23

    All very valid points that I have seen happen as Blizzard has “evolved” into what it is now.
    I played Diablo (1) when it was new, the spawn version you mentioned was awesome because it was the whole reason I even got into computers and video games!
    Starcraft was wonderful as well with the spawn, we could have LAN parties (we called them Starcraft parties) because there werent many other things we could play (6 of us) over a big network in our parents basement for a weekend! That and Starcraft was a great challenge with well though out design.
    Ill throw Warcraft-WCIII into that mix also because it was a great single player game.
    I played WoW when it was first released…and was slave to it until 2008 (too long I believe) and saw that change also to “what the players wanted” and focused more on the “casual” player. Which isnt all that bad, but there are plenty of single player games out there if you want to go off and solo-play.
    D3 has been long anticipated because of the successes of the past…but with the release of SCII (I wasnt that impressed, though there are alot of nice features that I do believe they did well) I have been hesitant to jump at D3.
    I appreciate your review, and this being an Online world has definitely changed games (usually for the better) but they could have made D3 to follow the original a little better because they have the huge following of WoW.

  8. Paul Baker

     /  2012-05-23

    How can you properly review a game when you haven’t even played pass the first sub-boss (Skeleton King)? I mean seriously. You literally have only experienced 2% of the game. Get off your high-horse and actually experience the game before flambéing it.

  9. mike

     /  2012-05-23

    Fair enough review, watching all the trailers to D1/D2 geeks me out and flashes me back to some really fun times. Im on the fence about D3, I was super close to buying but the recent security stuff made me retreat, but then realized its probably just kids being kids and not being careful.

    Anyhow, the only that made me go hmm in this article was this:

    “This is the worst form of DRM, and the only reason why anyone is willing to put up with it is because of Blizzard’s history of excellent games. Unfortunately, as of late, I can’t even say that they still make excellent games”

    You can’t say they still make excellent games? Im not a blizzard fan boy, but they have the best game library any game company could ever really hope for…D3 has it flaws but here we are, talking about it, and its hanging around at #1..

    Blizzard north/south/east/west..whatever..they still know how to make game and they know how to tweak/support it.

    thx for the article, its more food for thought, Im stuck on the $60 to ‘rent’ the code..per se.

  10. I’m sure it’s just the nostalgia talking, but I totally agree with your assessment. After waiting for years, I was very excited for Diablo III, but after playing through the stress test content, my excitement faded. The contrived story elements (hello George Lucas!) and “lite” gameplay (i.e. you have a permanent town portal, no permanent stats/skills) made me end up not buying the game.

    Diablo was genuinely creepy, and pretty difficult (unless you were a high level mage). I’d love to play a game like it again, but it definitely won’t come from Blizzard.

  11. Michael

     /  2012-05-24

    mike.”You can’t say they still make excellent games?

    By that he means that you knew, before this, purchasing a Blizzard game was guaranteed to be an excellent product. That trust, the same trust that allowed it to start charging $60 and force you into a permanent online state, has now officially been abused.

    The storyline was the real killer for me; retconning my favorite Blizz universe just to fit the hack-y, dull and badly written story they hocked up for this one is almost unforgivable, especially on the heels of Pokemon Panda.

    I’ll still play it because I think the gameplay is pretty good (and hardcore leaves you the challenge of surviving, at least), but Blizzard has lost my launch day trust.

  12. Basically, what I get out of this is that you are butt hurt over the new direction that Diablo has taken. Guess what. Too bad. Since you don’t run Blizzard you have no right to say what should be in their games. They are the deciding factor, and ultimately we are at their mercy. I’m not lauding them by any means. Yet it remains; Diablo III is a very popular game, heck I love it. It’s not the same I know, but what does that matter really? If you want old Diablo, then play the first Diablo with it’s absurd beginners difficulty. Also, if you beat the game and play on Nightmare mode or higher then I guarantee you will be happy with how difficult it can really be. So stop complaining.

  13. Owen

     /  2012-05-24

    Very interesting points about the story being shallower. I particularly like the Tolkien quote.

    I saw a post on reddit that claimed the online-always aspect was more to make sure the auction house(s) could not be gamed. From that perspective it seems less egregious, but I would agree with the disappointment in your conclusion.

  14. I agree with all the things that you mentioned.. And I strongly think that even the new-people from the Blizzard design-team did play the original Diablo 1 once in a time..
    Man, that game has the Sound fx’s, has the coolest Musics and has the creepy Graphics that the gamers has always felt the clostrophobia, macabre, horror, fear… The atmosphere was cleverly designed, the concept was moody and dark, I mean the whole Artistical-Design was so high that we always shut the lights of our living-rooms to play this game…
    The scenario is too-creepy that in the end, we see that our character has sold his soul to Diablo itself.. ;))
    On Diablo 2, that horror-game was gone, what is left is an action-thriller game.
    But scenario was okeyed, becouse we knew that we are chasing after our old Diablo 1 character who choses to became the Diablo..
    But now, I see the Diablo 3 on my friend’s computer…
    And I think “the magic is gone..”
    The game I see (Diablo3) is not an Horror Game once we knew, ..what only left is a cartoon-game for kids…

  15. David

     /  2012-05-25

    I mainly agree with the review. Diablo 3 is a shallow experience. It feels like they tried to take parts from the previous games that were memorable and mix them together with a bad ( although very subjective ) story. Act 1 feels like a mix of Diablo 1 and Act 1 of Diablo 2. The desert was in Diablo 2 as well and Act 3 feels like a mix of Akt 4 & 5 of Diablo 2. Diablo 1’s dark atmosphere is almost completely missed and the lonely feeling that Diablo 2 gave me is shattered by constant chattering of annoying npcs. The story feels like it is written by M. Night Shyamalan and George R. R. Martin: Shallow twists and the most memorable character gets killed off in the first act….

    If they had just made a “new” Diablo 2 i would have been happy: Diablo 2’s story was good, the combat was fine, it had talent trees and gave you freedom to fail in creating a character. It didn’t have the atmosphere of Diablo 1 but nothing is perfect.

    Btw: The monastery from Diablo 2 has nothing to do with the church/cathedral from Diablo 1. It was the rogues’ monastery who guarded the gate to the east. :)

  16. Dominik Pich

     /  2012-05-26

    I agree 100% with the article… and Im really ‘sad’ to see this great series (as so many others) take a turn to the mass-market generic casual-style mess

  17. xiaomao

     /  2012-05-26

    I wasn’t even aware Diablo series had a story…

    It’s true they dumbed everything down, but I think it’s understandable given how gamers are more “mainstream” these days and probably wouldn’t appreciate things like permanently messing up your character’s build because you misallocated one stat point or something.

    The mood could be darker, but not really anything important for me. So far Inferno feels much harder and more rewarding than D2’s endgame without having to do boss runs all day. I’ve always treated Diablo like an MMO, so DRM’s not that big a deal for me.

    What I’m disappointed with is Blizzard’s stance towards PVP. They keep saying it’s not important, they wanna focus on PVE etc. Really wanted to a see serious and competitive ranked PVP, Starcraft style, but they seem hellbent on NOT doing that. And why no clan support? Where’s the lobby?

  18. echo

     /  2012-05-28

    I do agree with this article, but I also want to add something more.

    It’s about gameplay, you say that “There’s nothing really WRONG with the gameplay “. I’d like to say… that’s precisely what is wrong with it! It’s too perfect, too seamless, too polished, too balanced, too intuitive, too easy, too obvious. All that in the end just makes it have no depth, no potential for exploration, no way that players “will want that even more than what they originally thought they wanted”.

  19. Duffman

     /  2012-06-07

    “How long you’ve come, Blizzard.”
    Easy to understand, they have been bought by Vivendi Universal and merged with Activision.

    Just look at Vivendi’s shareholder part of the site. There is a presentation saying that they have a lot of licence from blizzard to generate a lot of cash …

  20. Roland

     /  2012-06-07

    I’m glad you’re not a game reviewer.

    You played half way through Act1 on Normal difficulty and you’ve already concluded that the game is too easy? Followed by an edit saying you’ve now played through Act2 and feel the same to justify your earlier premature verdict?

    Normal is a warmup, you should be able to do it with your eyes closed. They’ve designed the game such that you will need your ~level 30 character to even begin Act1 on Nightmare. But of course, you’ve got your eyes closed and your ears plugged, telling yourself it’s Diablo 1.

    If you wanted a game exactly like Diablo 1, then you can play… Diablo 1. Time to let go, Diablo 3 is a different game. You’re not required to like it, just give it a chance, appreciate it for what it is and not what you want it to be.

    As for the Mandatory online presence, nobody is thrilled about that. The number consideration was no doubt, DRM. However, if you had played a game a bit more, you would have found the auction house. Every item and all gold that drops is tracked and verified to legitimize auction house transactions. The problem compounds when those items and gold are worth real money. Not saying I like, just explaining why it’s there.

  21. Daniel Walley

     /  2012-06-12

    The argument that ‘Diablo 3′ is its own game does not excuse the way it has changes the series for the worse, and how mediocre it is to what it *could* and *should* have been. Some of us just have a little imagination and then are disappointed at how short the actuality has fallen.

    A good sequel preserves what was great about its predecessors and also takes it to a new level. Being happy with a sequel that does the opposite just shows you had little appreciation for the series to begin with.

  22. Vito

     /  2012-06-12

    Excellent article. Unfortunately with the youth of today I believe the marketing and cost savings ideas forced the trilogy to go after more youthful gamers. Not to say it’s a bad marketing move but the fact that the game had the guts, gore, horror, atmosphere etc. when they began, and now?….It’s like a cartoon. Kids would still have their parents purchase a dark and violent game nonetheless. It’s just unfortunate to see such a successful trilogy dwindle down from an old school point of view. I watched my buddy play a bit and it reminded me of warcraft 3 just without buildings to construct. Ah well things happen, if it comes to console I may try it, if not blizzard can shovel it. (And yes I said shovel not shove). Just sad to see such a legacy fade.

  23. Viridian

     /  2012-06-13

    Diablo has and always will be a slot machine. That is its legacy.

    You’re saying you’re disappointed with the sound effects and the flashy lights of this new slot machine.

  24. Yup, Diablo III is an utter total disappointment. No challenge, just mindless clicking and no story either…

  25. Trithemius

     /  2012-07-31

    I played over 400 hours. The game became boring rather quickly. I stayed to defeat Diablo on Inferno and try grinding elites to see if my horrendous drops were flukes or representative of a flawed itemization.

    I agree with this review. I also agree with most of the other criticisms that have been raised elsewhere about this failure of a game.

    Blizzard may have historic sales, but they lost me as a trusted fan. It is unlikely I will ever buy one of their products again.

  26. fg

     /  2012-08-03

    I find diablo 3 has no game-play lacks story lacks foundation lacks overall quality , A dumb down version to appeal to 10 year olds and casual gamers without any real talent in the traditional RPG area . This is a simply another action players game not a role playing game and people need to stop associating the two genres of games .

  27. Bloodshot

     /  2012-08-04

    Nice article. The worst part about this is that they basically ripped the franchise apart to accommodate a larger audience, which is something you should never do for a SEQUEL, especially one as popular as Diablo. They took what blizzard north did, all the care they put into everything, and shit on it. It would have been more acceptable had this been a reboot – but this was a continuation, and Diablo 1 and 2 are in a league of their own compared to D3. Why though? The story in either games weren’t amazing. It was the story telling that made it so great, especially true about diablo 1.

    Diablo 1 was just an amazing game, everything about it was immersive and creepy. It’s probably the only “scary” isometric game I’ve ever played along with Fallout 1. Diablo 1 was a masterpiece on many levels, and Diablo 2, despite lacking some of those things, still took what Diablo 1 did and expanded it in logical ways. D3’s improvements are minimal at best, and they fucked up so hard on everything else it’s not even funny. Diablo was already a streamlined gameplay franchise – but Condor/blizzard north streamlined it to good effect, while all the current developers did was dumb it down.

    Again, all this would have been okay if they didn’t tote it as a direct sequel, as sequels are supposed to be consistent – that’s one of the reasons they HAVE fans. If you go in a completely different direction that defeats the entire purpose of making a sequel.

  28. Rafael

     /  2012-09-02

    Diablo II was a game, Diablo III is a ‘persistent experience’. I wish Blizzard went back to making games where I as the player have control over what I want to experience.

  29. Sistance

     /  2012-09-19

    Personally I don’t think they should have even tried to continue the Diablo line. What they basically did was charge for a downgraded version of World of Warcraft that, in the end, would not be nearly as entertaining for as long. What’s sad is, from this review, it sounds like it doesn’t even meet the standards set by the original game.
    I do have to applaud them for one thing though… marketing. They probably got a lot of people to buy the World of Warcraft Annual Pass with the free Diablo 3 offer… 12 months of Warcraft costs around $180. Sure, a lot of those people are already die-hard players of World of Warcraft, but I wonder how many people will actually play out that whole year? I guess Pandaria will tell us.

  30. Agreed-
    I wrote a series of articles about this very subject (how atmosphere in games is constructed/destructed, and particularly how showing *everything* kills it) here – might be of interest to you:
    http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/MatthewBentley/20130615/194399/Atmosphere_in_Games__Part_1__Atmosphere_introduced.php

    I’ve name-dropped diablo vs diablo 2 several times in the series, for similar reasons to the ones you’ve given.

  31. Jmababa

     /  2013-12-12

    diablo 3 is not good if you want a good same style online game just play RAN instead almost same style but for horror just go play Resident evil its better that playing diablo 3 or just find a good diablo 2 mod on the net. There are a lot of better online games out there than diablo 3 like ROSE online, The Last Stand, and of course the mostly fav game of most Filipinos is DOTA2 but play this in Garena. I also want them to make offline version for Diablo 3 so the experience will be great not crappy. What I hate mostly about Diablo 3 is that overpricing in the shop if he or she only one selling that item and also harder to upgrade items I hate that I want cube style upgrade back it’s easier to upgrade items that way.

  32. andy

     /  2013-12-12

    yuck they made Diablo 3 same feel as playing RAN online and now I can’t even upgrade my items the right way what the hell

  33. Michael Pohoreski

     /  2014-09-04

    I wrote a review of my Diablo 3 completely failed to deliver:

    “Looks beautiful but has no soul.”
    http://www.avsforum.com/forum/dbtreview.php?do=view_review&id=4435&ri=review

    The spiritual successor to Diablo 2 is the free Path of Exile.

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  35. James T. Oudvoure

     /  2016-03-27

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