I know I don’t say this very often, but this game is way too easy.
I am not against easy games! If you want to appeal to a more laid-back and casual player, or if you want to go for accessibility, that’s fine. But as I’m playing the game in May of 2017, I get the feeling the game isn’t working the way it’s supposed to.
There are lots of interesting game mechanics here. Some foes telegraph a rush attack that you’re supposed to dodge. Some foes bombard you with mortar style attacks to encourage you to get in and engage at point-blank range. Others create zones of fire or poison around them, so you’ll want to engage at a distance. Some bosses have moves to pull you in close so they can use their most powerful attacks. Some foes attack you from all sides, so you’ll need to be creative and alert if you don’t want to swarmed. Some maps have traps like falling rubble or magical landmines so you have to watch your step.
These are all great ideas. These features should, in theory, make the battlefield a dynamic place that forces you to adapt to an ever-changing landscape of threats. Sure, one dungeon hallway is much like another. But facing mortar fire in a narrow hallway is very different from navigating around fire in a narrow hallway, which is different from navigating around fire in an open area where you are surrounded on all sides, which is different from facing clustered foes on the opposite side of a narrow bridge. Your opposition impacts the shape of the environment just as much as the placement of the randomly-generated walls.
The problem is that all of this is a waste of time. I played as a wizard, which one would assume is a pretty fragile class. At the start I was careful to dodge telegraphed attacks and watch where I stood, but after a while I noticed the game wasn’t really punishing me when I messed up. At first I thought I’d accidentally lucked into some super-broken character build. Or maybe I had better gear than was expected?
But no. By the end of the game I was simply holding down the attack button and walking forward. I strolled through traps, stood in lava, and allowed distance attacks to land on my head. I stood toe-to-toe with bosses because it was easier than trying to keep them at range. Wizards have a shield spell they’re supposed to cast from time to time, but I only remembered to do so when facing a boss. It didn’t matter. I rarely saw my health go below half.
In the latter stages of the game, it seemed like I’d stopped taking damage completely. I’d yawn my way through a boss fight, standing in his pool of fire and holding down the right mouse button. He’d die in under ten seconds, and then I’d look down to see my health hadn’t budged. No matter how sloppily I played, I never felt like I was in serious danger of dying. Not only did I get through the entire game without dying, but I made it all the way to the end of the game without ever needing to drink a single health potion.
This can’t be the experience the designer intended. If the game had behaved this way at launch then the fanbase would have revolted. I have no idea why it works this way now. Maybe all the patches and expansions have tweaked the gameplay for the benefit of people doing end-game loot grinding, and as a side-effect it trivialized your first playthrough? Maybe this is like World of Warcraft, where they deliberately trivialized the early-game leveling because most of the player base is at the endgame? Perhaps at this point in the life cycle of the game, that first play-through is seen as little more than a formality? I have no idea, but it really does make the game a snooze.
Shamus, maybe the game is designed for multiplayer and the single-player experience is of secondary importance?
I suppose that’s possible. Although Diablo 2 managed balance both multiplayer and singleplayer experiences, so I’m not sure how this justifies the wonky design we see here.
Actually Shamus, the first play-through is really the tutorial. You can’t complain about the tutorial being too easy!
If the tutorial is a dozen hours long, then yes I think it’s totally fair to complain if it offers an uninteresting experience. More importantly, if this is supposed to be the tutorial then it’s a spectacular failure. It’s doing the opposite of teaching you how to play. If it was working as a tutorial, then it ought to be doing something to teach the player the mechanics of the game. Stuff like “Standing in fire is bad” and “Here is how to recognize and avoid mortar fire”. As it stands, the first playthrough is not just boring, but it teaches you bad habits you’ll need to un-learn once you get to the “real” part of the game. Wherever that is.
More importantly, this kind of backwards power curve works against the sense of empowerment the game is trying to create. The feeling of being an invulnerable murder machine should be something you strive towards, not something you begin with and then lose as you level up. If you’re grinding away in the late game, you should feel like there’s something greater ahead of you, not that you’re working your way back to feeling as strong as you were in that first trip through the game. As it stands, no matter how hard you work you’ll never feel more potent than you were during your first ten-ish hours. I mean, if you start with “You’re nearly invulnerable and you can clear a room in one effortless sweep” then what is there left to strive for? The numbers might get bigger, but the tactile difference between killing twenty zombies in one attack and overkilling twenty zombies in one attack is going to be pretty slight. It’s certainly not the kind of thing I’d spend weeks striving for.
But wait, doesn’t the Diablo series use self-balancing gameplay? Can’t you fix this by simply skipping sidequests and hurrying into the harder areas of the game? Sadly, no. In Diablo 3 they dumped the normal progression system. You don’t have level 1 foes at the start of the game and level 30 foes at the end. Instead they implemented an Oblivion-style system of auto-leveling where foes are always your level, everywhere in the game, always and forever. Not only does this remove the ability for the game to adapt to different skill levels, it also renders the entire leveling system entirely pointless! You can’t get the visceral thrill of going back to the start of the game to plow through foes that were once formidable for you. You can’t sneak ahead and see how far you can push into high-level areas. The whole world is one big soup of same-level opposition.
Leveling is nothing more than a way to unlock skills and equipment. You need to be level 20 before the game will allow you to wear the level 20 hat. Which is pointless anyway, since enemies won’t drop a level 20 hat until you’re nearly level 20. You need to reach level 20 to unlock the level 20 powers, but with such a nonexistent difficulty curve there’s no reason to choose one power over another except as a matter of taste.
Worst of all, there just aren’t any decisions for you to make. Choosing gear comes down to picking the item with the highest level + quality. If two items are of the same level and quality, then the differences between them are so slight that it doesn’t matter which one you use. You’re not going to be juggling any complex trade-offs. There are no skill points to spend at level up. You don’t choose what powers to unlock. They just unlock at predetermined levels. The most complex decision you get to make is where to put your abilities on your hotbar.
This game is bursting with sensory stimulation, but it’s almost completely lacking in terms of mental stimulation. Blizzard made a game where you can’t do anything wrong by making a game where you can’t do anything at all.
Yes, I’ve read that the game is more interesting once you’re near the level cap. Then you can work towards one of the established, well-known builds for your character. Ability X + Gear Y + Strategy Z = WIN. I’ll allow that I can see why lots of people would enjoy the long process of working to put the proper set of gear together, since that ties into the well-tuned looting mechanics. But it takes a long time to reach that point in the game, and “It gets good after the first 20 hours” has never been a very good defense of a game.
Yes, you can turn up the difficulty. I tried it. It was awful. I still didn’t feel like I was in danger of dying from playing sloppily. Turning up the difficulty just gave everyone more healthThe game claims they have 150% health, but it felt like fights took four times as long. I didn’t mess around with it long enough to figure out why that was.. It was as boring as ever, except now fights took five times as long. That’s not a solution to the problem, that’s just adding another problem. I can choose between a mode where I’m durable and the foes are trivial, or the mode where I’m durable and foes are also durable. The game can be effortless, or a dull slog. I suppose if I turned it up high enoughThere are four base difficulty levels and then thirteen additional levels intended for end-game grinding. I’d finally be fragile, but by that point fights would take forever. There doesn’t seem to be a way to play this game as a challenging, fast-paced action title, even though it feels like that’s what it’s supposed to be. The “kill streak” mechanic in particular seems to suggest a game of frantic brinkmanship that never actually materializes.
In any case, I think it’s fair to assume that normal difficulty should represent intended experience the game designer has in mind, and as it stands the intended experience is a fundamentally uninteresting exercise in holding down the right mouse button and ignoring everything to do with damage avoidance and mitigation.
No matter how you look at it, the gameplay did not offer me interesting choices and it didn’t encourage me to engage with the mechanics. Diablo 3 was probably a lot more interesting at launch, but at some point it’s been “streamlined” into a shallow experience of cheap sensory stimulation.
It’s Not ALL Bad
I do like some of the changes Diablo 3 made to the base mechanics. In the previous games you had to load up your belt with potions and spam the “drink potion” hotkey. Maybe in the middle of a fight you’d have to open up your inventory and move a bunch more potions from your knapsack to your belt so you could continue chugging & fighting. When you finally ran out you’d portal back to town, buy a bunch more potions, and repeat. There was no upper limit on how many potions you could guzzle per second. It was kind of lame, it broke the flow of the action, and it introduced a little too much interface-juggling to the action. If you run into a foe that’s too strong for you, you can often overcome it through brute-force potion abuse.
In Diablo 3 you simply have a “drink potion” hotkey, and it has a fixed cooldown. The inventory hassle is gone and it feels more like a feature and less like an invitation to engage in a tedious exploit. Who knows, maybe if I’d stuck with the game long enough I would have found something so challenging I needed to actually drink a potion.
The loot-hunting is better than ever. The game itself makes a big deal when something good drops. There’s a sound and a ray of light to let you know you’d just won the loot lottery. Sure, that means the game is basically a slot machine that eats time instead of money, but if you’re okay with that then it’s a pretty good slot machine.
The individual powers are more fun to use. Yes, the skill tree is now simplified to the point where you don’t have any decisions to make when you level up and that’s really not a good thing, but the kinesthetics of using your abilities on the enemy horde are top-notch.
Every class has their own style of energy use. They each have their own form of “mana” that throttles their ability to use their most destructive abilities. (And some classes even have two different kinds of “mana” to manage.) In some cases this power is replenished over time. For others it’s filled by damaging the enemy with lesser attacks. If you’re careless you’ll find yourself running dry just when you really need the power, and if you’re too conservative then you’ll be slowing your progress for no reason.
This power management is one of those “easy to learn, difficult to master” things, and it works really well when combined with The “kill streak” mechanic, which rewards you for killing large numbers of foes in a short time by granting bonus XP. This encourages you to really pay attention to power usage, and perhaps tempts you to take more chances than you would otherwise.
Diablo 3 feels good to play, but it also feels like it was something far more interesting before someone “streamlined” away the most interesting parts.
Next time I’ll wrap this up by looking at what they decided to do with the story.
 The game claims they have 150% health, but it felt like fights took four times as long. I didn’t mess around with it long enough to figure out why that was.
 There are four base difficulty levels and then thirteen additional levels intended for end-game grinding.
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