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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.