Diablo 3: First Thoughts and Impressions

These are my first thoughts and impressions about Diablo 3 after ten days of release (May 2012). I've played a single character class, the Wizard, through Normal difficulty and well into Nightmare. I've also had a chance to play co-op online with other people a little bit, and experience enough of the crafting system to get a good idea of how it works. Although I've only scratched the surface of what D3 offers in total, I should be in a fair position to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.

Let me start by providing a little detail on my experience with past games in the Diablo franchise. I experienced the original Diablo as a teenager when it released, purchasing the game in 1997 and spending a lot of time with it. Diablo was one of the first games that I ever played online, through a dial-up modem that tied up our family's telephone whenever I signed onto Battle.net. For this very reason, I was somewhat limited in how much time I could spend online, and Diablo's unrestricted Multiplayer was somewhat of a disaster anyway, with ramping cheating, hacking, and player-killing (PK) taking place. Nevertheless the game was extremely fun to play, like a live-action role playing game of a sort that I had never seen before. I played a lot of Square's RPGs during the 1990s, and Diablo was something completely new and interesting to me. I didn't have the time or resources to be a power gamer for Diablo, not discovering things like Jarulf's Guide until much later, but I did have a lot of fun with Diablo and looked forward to the inevitable sequel.

Diablo 2 was an instant purchase for me when it released in 2000, and I spent my first year at university playing the game almost exclusively. With a high-speed Internet connection and plenty of free time on my hands, I had the chance to dive deeply into Diablo 2's gameplay and poke around with different character classes and builds. While D2's gameplay was much more poorly balanced than its predecessor, in particular shafting melee characters very badly and making ranged builds vastly easier to play, the game was unquestionably much faster-paced than the original Diablo. It hit the zeitgeist at the right moment, just as online gaming was starting to become mainstream, and D2 became a huge success far beyond the first game. I enjoyed playing Sorceress characters the most, just as I had liked the Mage class from the original game. I loved the Cold tree in particular; slowing and freezing enemies just seemed so cool, something that I had never really seen in another game. Over time I shifted my main gaming focus over to the Civilization series, but I often found myself coming back to Diablo 2 for a change of pace from turn-based strategy. I had the chance to join some of the Realms Beyond variant teams online, and formal teams of players working within variant restrictions proved to be enormously entertaining. It's a shame that everyone didn't have the chance to experience the same sort of camraderie - public games with random players are in no way comparable. Towards the end of D2's lifespan I amused myself by running some Hardcore variant characters, taking several of them into Hell difficulty without dying, although I never managed to find the time to finish any of the characters completely. As game after game released updates, Diablo held out without a Diablo 3 announcement. Year after year, still the wait continued. Finally, we did hear that D3 was coming, and then it spent another four years in development. Twelve years in total for a third sequel to Diablo is an eternity in gaming circles... but this is Blizzard we're talking about, after all.

How then does Diablo 3 match up? Was it worth the wait? The short answer is that yes, it does: everything that I've seen thus far suggests that D3 will be a treasured addition to the franchise that everyone will be playing for years yet to come. The long answer will take several thousand more words, so keep reading if you want to hear more.

I'll start by talking about the skills system in play for Diablo 3, which has been the subject of some controversy. Every class has 30 skills to choose between, out of which any six can be active at one time. You are almost completely unrestricted in which six can be used, and they can be rebound to any combination of keyboard keys that the player desires. Each skill then can be further modified by five runes, which change the initial starting skill in some way to produce a different effect. Some of the rune effects are relatively minor, and some of them create an entirely new and different skill. To a certain extent, this means that each character can have up to 150 different skills, which can be chosen in any group of six, and then there are passive skills to pick from as well... In other words, there's a lot of freedom for customization here. You can also have some fun doing wacky variant builds, as some of the skills are downright silly in their effects. Characters can also be re-specified on the fly, swapping over to a completely different skillset with only a minor delay. This is the blessing and the curse of this system: there's a huge degree of player choice and freedom, but the downside is that any character can be instantly rebuilt into another character altogether. Imagine if in Diablo 2 your Hydra/Frozen Orb Sorceress could pause for 10 seconds, and then become a Blizzard/Meteor Sorcie, complete with maxed out skill points and full damage. It's awesome and fun, and yet it can be boring in a way too. I approve of this from a design standpoint, and I think it was the right way to go - no more penalizing players for putting points into the "wrong" skills. How many times did a new player in D2 stuff a bunch of skill points into Firebolt, only to have them all be completely useless two acts later? This is a way of letting players experiment with every skill at no penalty, and prevent them from making mistakes. Still, it also does lead to a great deal of homogeneity between characters. I think on the whole that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but it is a real issue nonetheless.

There's also the way in which skills work in D3, which is one of the more clever innovations that Blizzard has done. Every skill scales off of something called "weapon damage", with skills dealing damage based off of the stats on your weapon. It's somewhat illogical to watch your Wizard equip a new sword or axe and have the damage from their magic missile skill increase, but the mechanic works quite well in practice. By having every skill scale off of weapon damage, Blizzard has made it so that every skill is potentially viable for use throughout the entire game. You can use magic missile in Act I Normal, and you can also use it in Act IV Inferno, because the damage it deals is based not on the assignment of "skill points", but scales off of what weapon you have equipped. This is generally a good thing, since the scaling allows for a vast array of potential variant builds. You can literally build a character around just about anything and have it work. It was really silly how casting characters in D2 could get their damage free from skills, while melee characters absolutely had to turn up a good weapon of some kind. The one downside is that having a strong weapon is now ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL in Diablo 3. Everything scales off of weapon damage. Everything. If you get a good weapon from a drop, the difficulty level of the game goes way down. If you can't get something good to save your life, the difficulty goes through the roof. This is ameliorated somewhat by the crafting system, but it's important to keep in mind. Someone who is twinking gear or using the auction house heavily will literally not be playing the same game as someone who is using only the weapons that drop normally in the game.

Like the skill point system, the stat point system has almost entirely been done away with in Diablo 3. You no longer assign stat points on leveling up - they get distributed automatically by the game. I wasn't a fan of this idea, since it would seem to limit player choice for no real reason, however it really doesn't matter much at all. The free stat points that characters get on leveling up are completely overshadowed by the stat points that get assigned from equipping gear. You'll see your character get five or six stat points when you level up, and then you'll equip a single piece of armor that adds 100 points to a combination of stats. There's really no meaning to the stats from leveling up; Blizzard could have just cut that entirely and had all stat points come from gear. I suspect that they will likely do this if they make a Diablo 4, and the current game is simply a way of weaning players off of the old system.

The four stats are extremely important, even if you no longer assign points into them. All four have a primary function and a secondary function, and none of them are ever bad to have. Each class has a primary stat which increases the damage that they do: 1% extra damage for each point in their primary stat. This is Strength for barbarians, Dexterity for monks and demon hunters, and Intelligence for wizards and witch doctors. You always want to stack a lot of your primary stat because it increases your damage significantly. These stats also have the aforementioned secondary function as well: Strength increases armor rating, Dexterity adds dodge chance, and Intelligence adds a small amount to all resistances. All of this stuff is useful for everyone, and while Strength won't do much for a wizard, you still get some small benefit from having it. Vitality simply increases health - the more Vitality you have, the more health that you have. I haven't seen any +life gear, only +Vitality instead. For most classes, you want to stack a lot of your primary stat and a lot of Vitality. There's tons of other useful stuff to get as well, but stacking straight statistics is one of the most important thing in character building.

You can customize your character by choosing where these stat points from gear end up going, and this is one of the main ways that character building takes place in D3. For example, if you want to play a melee Wizard, you can stack a lot of Strength to get armor rating from it. This would be an underpowered build but it would be at least somewhat viable (maybe not in Inferno!) A nice side effect of all this is the total lack of Strength and Dexterity requirements on items, which were always a major pain in Diablo 2 and confusing for newcomers. Items have a level requirement, and some are class-specific, but otherwise everything is usable at all times. D3 has some other incredibly useful improvements to the user interface that make item hunting much easier. All magical (blue) items have the properties visible instantly - no more carting them back to town or having to fiddle with identify scrolls. While this is definitely a dumbing-down of the gameplay, especially compared to the original Diablo, it's an absolute godsend in terms of saving time and I approve of it immensely. Rare items can be identified by channeling for a few seconds, which then displays their properties as well. The interface also will show how good or bad an item is compared to your current gear by mousing over it. It will show the comparison in terms of damage, health, and armor - is this item better or worse than what you already have? This system isn't perfect, especially when comparing the damage from a two-handed weapon against a one-handed weapon and off-hand item. Still, it's pretty darn useful and a massive assist in going through drops quickly, separate the piles of useless crud from the few gems in the rough.

Speaking of gems, there's an elaborate crafting system in Diablo 3 that is much better designed than the one used in Diablo 2. No longer do players have to search online for hidden crafting recipes for their Horadric Cube; everything is now clearly displayed in-game at the two crafting merchants, the blacksmith and the jeweler. The blacksmith is basically this game's version of gambling, where you can salvage magical and rare gear for a chance to craft potentially useful items. This is much better than the version of gambling in Diablo 2, since you can focus on exactly what type of gear that you want. No more refreshing the merchants a hundred times until a circlet pops up. You can also craft the Nightmare and Hell improved gear, instead of having a miniscule chance to see it appear via the gambling system of D2. Overall, this seems to work decently well from what I've seen thus far. The downsides include having to manage a lot of salvage materials, collect tons of blacksmithing/jewelcrafting pages (a definite pain), and upgrade the blacksmith about a hundred times. At least you only have to do this a single time for each account.

I like the way that the jeweler has been handled even more, although it too requires a long and tedious upgrade process. Instead of cubing gems into higher forms, they are upgraded at the jeweler in much the same fashion. There are sockets everywhere on gear in D3, and you use gems to fill those sockets, runes having been incorporated into the skill set and not appearing as items in Diablo 3. The best part about this system is that the jeweler will de-socket items for a minimal fee, so you can use and re-use gems over and over again at no penalty. You never "waste" a gem by socketing it. I always hated that about Diablo 2, how you had to waste gems any time that you put them into an item. Now you can always remove gems when you find new gear, and use them again and again. There's no reason not to use the best gems you have at all times, then remove them and upgrade them and use them again. I've found this part of the gameplay to be a lot of fun, and my characters so far have been constantly trying to manage their gems for the extra stat points. This is a really nice system, and a giant upgrade over the old crafting method.

Once all of those items are in place, it's time to go out and fight some monsters. D3 is far superior to its predecessor in this regard as well, presenting lots of diverse challenges from the monster mix, especially in the later acts. Diablo 2 was extremely biased in favor of ranged characters, shoving all of the worst threats in the face of melee characters while allowing most ranged builds to sit back in relative safety. This has been done away with in Diablo 3, as there are tons of enemies with gap closers and blink abilities. You are most definitely not safe as a ranged character in this game after getting out of Act I. Even wizards and demon hunters need some armor in this game, or the gap-closing enemies will pick apart your character in short order. The balance in D3 is therefore infinitely better than in D2 in this regard. Monsters have a lot of different animations and some very interesting ways of getting onto the screen. This is taken to the point of cheapness at times; sometimes a group of enemies will just be on top of your character with no warning, because they came up through the ground or climbed down a wall where you couldn't see them or something like that. You cannot rely on enemies walking in from the side of the screen and having time to deal with them. This does a lot to make the game more challenging.

The boss packs are another source of strength for D3's monster design. Now called elites, they have all sorts of cleverly designed abilities to make your life miserable. It appears that the creators of the game went back and looked at the boss abilities from Diablo 2, and cut out some of the useless stuff that no one particularly feared (Spectral Hit, I'm looking at you). D3's elites are far more interesting. Instead of something bland like Fire Enchanted, there's the Mortar bosses that bombard the player with fiery death from a distance. Instead of Cold Enchanted, there are bosses with genuine Frozen abilities that can lock your character in place and prevent them from moving with icy cold. (In D2, you could be chilled but never outright frozen.) Then there are the elites with crowd control abilities: Wallers throw up walls of earth that can trap your character next to a mob of enemies. Knockback bosses throw your character back a looooooong way. Vortex bosses suck you next to them, deadly in all sorts of ways. Nightmare bosses put a terror effect on your character, making them run in a random direction during which you cannot control their actions (Nocturne and Fiddlesticks say hi). Then on higher difficulties these elites start getting more than one ability, combining them in nasty patterns. The crowd control stuff is just a great idea, adding in the kind of abilities that genuinely threaten players in a way that "Stone Skin" doesn't. Instead of adding raw damage, the elite abilities change the gameplay of the elite mobs and makes the encounters completely different from normal critters.

The bosses in this game are also much better than in Diablo 2. There are multiple bosses in every act, with their own unique animations and attacks. For the most part these bosses are relatively fair, with memorizable patterns that can be learned and planned around. Most bosses also are fought in their own little arenas, with enough room to maneuver around and fight fairly. The one exception to this is the fight at the end of Act II, which is done on a tiny platform and Blizzard should be ashamed for another blatantly unfair sardine can battle. With that one problem area aside, the rest of the fights are well designed and generally pretty fair to the player.

The environments in D3 look outstanding, with one of our posters at Realms Beyond comparing them to the masterwork of a Renaissance painter. Blizzard wisely chose to ignore the lure of 3D and instead make an isometric 2D game, then concentrate on making those 2D landscapes look extremely pretty. There are a lot of varied environments to traverse in this game, with Acts I and III being the best in my opinion. Act II is certainly the weakest, featuring a lot of dull desert and sewer areas. There are also some uninteresting parts in the indoor sections of Act III, but this is made up for by the incredible action taking place in the outdoor areas, where the game goes a long way with its scripting to make you genuinely feel like your character is in the middle of a huge battle. The plot of the game is nothing special, and can be somewhat tedious at times with the endless fetch quests that you are asked to carry out for the latest plot token of the moment. I will say that there were a few surprises along the way that I was not expecting, and it kept me entertained enough while playing. I liked the inclusion of the lore books scattered throughout the game, and unlike Diablo 2, this game actually does a good job of incorporating the plot of the original Diablo. (D2 raped the story of the first game. D3 tries to tie them all together into some sort of larger narrative, with mixed success. There are definite plot holes here.) I don't sweat the story elements too much - if you are looking for some kind of great plot in a Diablo game, you're looking in the wrong place.

Online co-op play seems to work relatively well. You have a friends list that tells you who is online at any point in time, and it's very easy to join the games of your friends. It's almost too easy, since you have to pick a setting to prevent people from popping into your games if you don't want to run co-op. It's easy to teleport to the location of your friends by clicking on their banner in the town square, no need to fool with portals or waypoints. By far the best addition to Multiplayer is the way in which loot is handled, with separate items dropping on each player's client. There's no competition for gear that falls on the ground, since you can't even see what's dropping for everyone else. Tremendous improvement on Blizzard's part. However not all is peaches and cream when it comes to the online elements of the game. Single Player has essentially been removed from the game entirely for security reasons. Even when you're playing by yourself, you still need to sign onto the online client, and you are effectively playing an online game without other players. This is a real shame, since there is definite lag while playing and during peak hours it can get pretty bad. I don't even want to create a Hardcore character, because there's a real chance of dying due to a lag spike. There were also horror stories all during the first week of the servers going down, and no one being able to play the game that they had just bought. It's a real shame that players can't choose to play in an offline mode and avoid some of this nonsense if they so choose.

Blizzard also added the auction house to Diablo 3, which gets a mixed reception from me. The obvious intention here is to monetize the trading done between players, so that Blizzard can get a cut of items being sold with real money, which was rampant on Ebay with Diablo 2. The auction house doesn't require trading in real currency though, as players can also buy and sell items using the in-game gold currency. I can see the obvious advantages of this system: players have always done a lot of trading of items in past Diablo games, and this makes for an easier way to carry out the transactions. No more sitting in a game lobby spamming in chat that you want to trade gear. You can list it on the auction house and sell what you don't want quickly and easily. The downside is that the auction house has a very real warping effect on the gameplay. You can find much, MUCH better gear for sale in the auction house than you will get playing the game normally, and because there are so many millions of people playing the game, buying stuff online is relatively cheap. Someone who uses the auction house frequently will quickly find themselves playing an entirely different game from someone playing in pure fashion. For example, I could more than double the weapon damage of my wizard character through use of the auction house. If I do that, the difficulty of the game would drop enormously. There's also the very real question of fun factor. You could stack gold find gear on your character and then buy whatever you need online via the auction house. But... would that actually be fun to play? I think that Blizzard has outsmarted themselves to a certain extent here. They've made it so easy to buy and sell things online, that they will end up removing much of the fun factor of searching for the best gear, therefore shortening the life of the game for the player base. Then again, players were going to be doing this stuff anyway. Should we blame Blizzard for making it easier to engage in the same sort of self-destructive behavior that players would have done anyway? I'm not sure. As I said initially, I think the auction house is a mixed bag. It's not something that I plan on using much, if at all, for my characters. I just think the game is much more entertaining when each character has to find their own items, and work out the shortcomings and limitations that this entails. When you can get anything that you want on demand, the game ceases to be interesting.

Overall then, I'm very positive about the future outlook of this game. There are definitely things that I find irritating about Diablo 3: the online hassels, issues with the auction house, the cheapness of certain types of enemies, and so on. However, I see these problems as being more than outweighed by the merits that D3 has to offer. The mechanics of this game are far superior in their design to the ones in Diablo 2. The skill system allows for a vast array of variant builds to be potentially viable, limited only by the creativity of the player. The elite mobs are clever in their design and present new and interesting challenges as the difficulty level increases. The in-game economy is vastly improved, with gold having real value and the crafting system mostly working well while being less punitive about socking stuff. The auction house can be ignored for pure characters who get by on their own gear. I've seen nothing to indicate that this game won't be played for many years yet to come, and I'm looking forward to exploring the gameplay in full detail over that span. I can hardly wait to put together the first solo variant characters, and variant teams for online play. Already have some ideas along those lines which should be a lot of fun. Where exactly all of this will lead I don't know, but I think that this game is a definite keeper.