It was always my intention to write a review of Diablo III as soon as I finished the campaign on “Normal” difficulty. It has been more than a month since the game’s release, and while I can certainly say my time for gaming is limited between work and my girlfriend, it is not so limited that I should not have been able to easily finish what is actually a very short story mode. The short answer is that I have not been motivated to play. Which may be the most damning thing to say about a game – and a game company – founded on addictive gameplay.
When I played Diablo II ten years ago (and yeah, thanks Blizzard, for making me feel old on top of everything else), I had never been so captivated by a video game. If one held my attention long enough for an entire play-through, it was a damn good game, but actually inspiring me to go back and play it again? I did this for the first time with Diablo II. I couldn’t get enough. The simple-but-satisfying combat, the progression, the little thrill of watching your hero get better and better gear and looking a little fiercer with each level, Deckard Cain’s inexhaustible supply of exposition. It was not – as some rosey-glassed Diablo fans believe – a tour de force in storytelling, but that part was serviceable. Mostly, it just kicked ass as a game, like Pac-Man and Galaga did back before games could technically bother with story.
And while much ink has been angrily spilled over Diablo III‘s always-online limitations, far fewer reviews have touched on what I feel the game’s biggest failing is…it’s simply not addictive.
I thought at first that it was me. Maybe in the last decade, I had matured past the point where mindlessly click-killing and comparing weapon stats was still “fun” to my twisted brain. Maybe my three years as a World of Warcraft player had made me wise to Blizzard’s ways, to see the carrot-and-stick approach for what it really was. But I still love Galaga, and I fall in love with simple, stupid games like Monsters Ate My Condo.
Lord knows the gameplay in Diablo hasn’t changed. Yes, there have been some tweaks to the skill system, but the core click-click-click [pause to compare gear] click-click-click is still solidly in place. So what’s the problem?
Blizzard has turned the carrot-and-stick into a whip. They are no longer content to let you amble toward your goals, they want you racing towards them, full-tilt, and they make no bones about the fact that you will play the game again. Whether you want to is irrelevant.
Three things contribute to this marked shift in tone. One is the auction house. And just the regular, fake-money house. Diablo II had no such feature. You made do with what gear you had, and you were thrilled when you found something better. And the game generally gave you something better and scaled organically with the increasing level of difficulty. Higher-end items could be traded through Battle-Net, but these were luxury items for the ultra-hardcore and largely invisible to the more-casual player. But with the auction house, you are made fully aware of what’s out there – what you do not have. More than anything, this encourages the most despised practice in all of gaming: grinding for money. Turning games into jobs is no one’s definition of fun, regardless of what they may have deluded themselves into thinking.
The second is actually a combination of things, but it basically boils down to the expectation that you give the game multiple play-throughs. This is not only presumptuous and arrogant, it also speaks to ludicrously flawed game design. As I said earlier, the game’s real story is pretty damn short. But to achieve the level cap of 60 on a character, you will have to play through the campaign again on a higher difficulty setting. So once again, grinding. You’re not advancing the story, you’re simply advancing stats, increasing numbers.
The third is easily the most annoying, and is a function of the always-online nature of the game. Checkpointing. No longer can you simply portal back to town and save your game when you want to take a break. Now you must fight until you happen to stumble across unlabeled checkpoints – generally just before major events or battles take place – so that all your progress isn’t lost. It is a system that takes all the control away from the player regarding when and where they start and stop playing. Instead of wanting to play for hours on end, Diablo III tries its best to force you to.
But what else happened in my month with Diablo III…oh yes…my account was hacked, my items and gold stolen, Blizzard took a week to restore my character, and I had to defeat Belial in Act II twice because of it. I now have to use this ridiculous “authenticator” to keep my account secure, which means I have to have my iPhone around just to log into a damn video game. Yeah, my Battle-Net account is now technically more secure than my bank or credit card accounts. I mean…what the fucking fuck?
Honestly, though, if Blizzard had made a game worth playing (and playing and playing and playing), even that wouldn’t matter. The hacking, the glitches, the downtime, the ludicrous greed of the Real Money Auction House, the fact that I can’t play a single-player game offline…none of that would matter if the experience was worth it.
As it stands, Diablo III spent too little time polishing a genuinely fun and addictive experience, and far too much trying to shove it down my throat.