The launch of Diablo III was marred by controversy and technical problems, but those have long since blown over. It’s been five years. After an expansion and innumerable patches, the game seems to have settled comfortably into its final form. So now is probably a good time to pick this thing apart and see what Blizzard decided to do with the sequel to one of the greatest PC games of all time.
In this three-part series I’m going to look at Diablo 3 on both a cinematic and gameplay level. But first let’s talk about…
The Legacy of Diablo
The original Diablo came out in 1996. It was so influential that it was seen as the father of a genre. I don’t know if it was actually the first game in this particular style, but it was recognized as such to the point where the others were called “Diablo clones”. I think we’re over that now. Instead the culture has decided that the genre is named ARPG. (See, it’s not like all those other RPG titles. It’s an ACTION RPG.) While I hate to see the already-muddled term “RPG” stretched even further, I suppose this is better than “Diablo clone”.
In any case, Diablo looked almost like isometric survival horror. With its macabre scenery, haunting ambient sounds, smothering darkness, and grim endingThe hero sacrificed themselves to contain the titular demon., it was a tense experience focused on creating a sense of dread. You could argue that maybe the foreboding tone was at odds with the treasure-hunting gameplay loop, but the experience seemed to work for the folks in 1996.
Four years later, Blizzard followed up with the sequel. Diablo 2 was of similar tone to the original, although the visuals weren’t quite as pervasively dark. The scope was larger, the gameplay was more varied, and it seemed to have more of the ingredients that made the first title such a hit.
Diablo 2 was not instantly recognized as a classic when it hit the market in June of 2000. Gamespot gave it 8.5/10, IGN gave it 8.3, and Gamespy gave it 86/100. That’s amazingly consistent by the standards of review scores, and yet surprisingly low given its reputation today.
In 2012 – long after Gamestop had lost interest in the PC and decided they wanted to run console gaming pawn shops – you could still find the Diablo 2 BattlechestThese days it would simply be called the “Game of the Year Edition”. It was the core game along with the expansion. in their stores. Their entire PC “section” was usually half a shelf of AAA titles, but somehow on that tiny shelf they always managed to find room for the 12 year old Diablo 2.
It’s not hard to understand why. At release it became the fastest selling PC game in history, moving over a million units in the first week. Even eight years later it was still relevant on the sales charts as the 19th best selling PC game of 2008.
Diablo 2 was videogame malaria. You’d think you had it beat, but then out of nowhere the symptoms would re-emerge and you’d find yourself clicking away until 3 a.m., to the detriment of your career and relationships. Symptoms would usually last for a few weeks and then vanish again.
In the Diablo 2 postmortem, project lead Erich Schaefer said, “Diablo II never had an official, complete design document… for the most part we just started making up new stuff.” You’d never guess that by playing the game. Diablo 2 had all the hallmarks of a Blizzard title at the time. It was beautiful, smooth, incredibly polished, completely intuitive, and relentlessly fun.
And then they made a sequel.
The Long-Awaited Sequel
Twelve years is a long time to wait for a sequel. Everyone made fun of Duke Nukem Forever for the unbelievable time it took, but the wait between Duke Nukem 3D and Duke Nukem Forever was only three years longer than the wait between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3. There were multiple industry revolutions in that expanse of time, so it’s natural that the long-awaited Diablo 3 would be different from its predecessor. Having said that, I’m kind of surprised at how much they changed.
If you squint you can see the family resemblance, but Diablo 3 does look very different from its grandfather and the two games have vastly different personalities. While there are lots of dead bodies around, Diablo 3 doesn’t have its grandsire’s morbid fascination with impaled corpses and general body horror. The “satanic” imagery is basically gone, and the overall tone has shifted from tension to empowerment. The entire pace of the gameplay is different. In Diablo 1 you might stop and squint at the movement of a single foe at the edge of your torch radius. In Diablo 3 you’ll storm into a room by blasting open the door and obliterate a dozen foes in a single sweep.
I’m not suggesting this change in tone was bad, accidental, or even wrong. Blizzard made exactly the game they wanted to. But it’s a very different game than the one that made the series such a hit.
It’s always hard to revive a series after a decade like this. Change too little and people will claim you’re stuck in the past and clinging to old ideas. Change too much and people will claim you’ve lost sight of what made the series great to begin with. On top of that there’s the problem that Diablo games are a two-headed beast that tries to appeal to two different audiences at the same time.
A Tale of Two Diablos
Much like another famous Blizzard title, Diablo is a game divided between two very different groups of players. The first group is a stream of casual content consumers. They show up, plow through the story content, and then leave until something external (a patch, an expansion, nostalgia, or their friends) lures them back for more story. They choose abilities based on how fun they feel or how cool they look and aren’t inclined to crunch numbers or read wikis to maximize their power.
The other group is here for the “end game” grind. They want to push up against the more challenging content designed for high-level players. They care less about story and more about mechanics. For them the game is a continuous labor of optimization. They’re always looking for a better build, better gear, and fresh strategies.
These are broad stereotypes of course. Not everyone fits neatly into these two groupsBy necessity the second group is largely comprised of people who began as part of the first group.. But in the macro sense it’s true enough. The trick here is that for one group the game ends at the level cap, while the other group views that as the start.
I’ve played through the story once with a wizard and then about halfway through with a couple of the other classes. For the “content consumer” players this is a very thorough exploration of the game, and for the other group I literally haven’t even gotten to the “good part” yet, which is grinding for items to make various specialty builds.
Next week I’ll talk about the gameplay and see what Blizzard decided to do with the Diablo formula.
 The hero sacrificed themselves to contain the titular demon.
 These days it would simply be called the “Game of the Year Edition”. It was the core game along with the expansion.
 By necessity the second group is largely comprised of people who began as part of the first group.
Good to be the King?
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Skylines of the Future
Cities: Skylines is bound to have a sequel sooner or later. Where can this series go next, and what changes would I like to see?
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Diablo III Retrospective
We were so upset by the server problems and real money auction that we overlooked just how terrible everything else is.
Who Broke the In-Game Economy?
Why are RPG economies so bad? Why are shopkeepers so mercenary, why are the prices so crazy, and why do you always end up a gazillionaire by the end of the game? Can't we just have a sensible balanced economy?