Diablo III is out. (In the UK and Asia, at least, with the US version unlocking in about four hours.) Words that still don't make sense when you look at them. So after the struggles of server issues all experienced at the start, I finally settled in to spend three very late hours with the game. A game which is, at least so far, action RPG perfection, worryingly troubled by the requirement of its always-on DRM. This is the tale of my first three hours, joyful and infuriating.
There is an itch, on that part of your back you can't quite reach, and then just too far below the surface. You know it's there. But there's a way to scratch it.
Diablo III enters an odd market - one where the genre its predecessors previously defined is now busy with so many similar projects. For years such games were called "Diablo clones". Now with their being so numerous, they're known as Action RPGs, the grandfather's name shaken off. Diablo III has the indignity of being one among many. But it knows that itch so very, very well.
It's funny, the game almost feels minimalist at this point. Because not only have ARPGs learned so much from Diablo, but so have almost all MMOs. The genre lines are now so blurred that Diablo's straight-to-the-action approach is at first jarring. "Hang on, aren't you supposed to have 90 people wibble on at me about the ancient dangers that are destroying the lands and how I'm their only hope?" Instead Diablo III just barks that at you, and then tells you to click on stuff. And it's this directness, in a smooth, deceptively simple presentation, that makes the game quite so good at scratching.
Everything about Diablo III is a masterclass for other developers. Whichever game you pick up, you think, "Why didn't they just assume I'd want the inventory to do X?" and so on. Diablo III thought of it. It's all the tiny things, the little details that annoy when they're missing, that are all in place. Naming them seems trivial (the inventories close when you walk away from a store, the same shortcut that opens a window closes it, the controls are exactly how they should be, long dungeons have entrance teleports at the end...), but their presence is tangible. It's a game that wants to be played, played endlessly, and it's going to make that as easy and streamlined for you as is possible. The only possible criticism is its waiting a couple of hours before giving you your town portal, meaning there are a couple of dungeons where you have to leave stuff behind. No biggie, but it's telling that such a small thing stands out in the smooth experience.
But there's a lot of detail too. In those first few hours you'll unlock access to a blacksmith whom you can level up too, letting you craft weapons and armour. That means there's a greater incentive to gather loot, other than just to exchange it for coin. Oh, and if you're me, then you'll be uncontrollably pleased that almost everything you encounter can be smashed to bits, mostly for no reason.
It's also much more personable than I was expecting. While the world is mostly serious, lots of people in dire straits, calamities occurring, the dead rising, and everyone losing loved ones all over, there's also the occasional grin. The presence of Lore means even the solo game is accompanied by frequent chat of cartoonish voices telling the backstory to their and the wider situations. And I've only soloed so far, partly because I'm playing it at 2 in the morning while sensible compatriots are abed, and partly because I hate playing games with stupid other people. Which brings me on to the moment where this turns sour.
After a terrible first post-launch hour, with players unable to access the servers at all, then tantalisingly let half way in before being booted, the installed and released game was unplayable. And since, ridiculously, there are frequent server drops, instantly throwing you out of the game and back to the login screen. It is, without question, ludicrous.
Blizzard have argued that Diablo III's requirement of a connection is not about DRM, but about improving the player's experience. If people could play offline, there'd be no way to prove they hadn't used cheats, and thus it would be unfair if they could then transfer those characters online. Oh, and their profit-generating auction houses would be inaccessible to such players. That's all true, but none of it is a reason to prevent people from playing offline anyway. Sure, you'd not be able to transfer your character into an online game, and perhaps someone might want to change their mind after a long time building a roll, and be frustrated by their being kept out. But with that made clear from the start, it's a person's choice. A person who's paid their £40+ for the game could choose how they want to play it, accepting that caveat. It's simply disingenuous to suggest that enforcing an always-on connection is necessary for the players' benefit. And that's ignoring the vast numbers of people who just can't play at all because of the lack of a permanent connection.
And the server drops tonight have shown exactly why it's a bloody stupid thing in the first place. An error message pops up, and then you're back at login. And worse, progress is actually lost. It only happened to me the once in my first two hours (others have reported more), but a series of small dungeons I'd cleared out in a graveyard were instantly unmapped, as well as a huge stretch of above ground location I'd fully explored. Blank maps aren't quite the apology you'd be looking for after your game had stopped working for no good reason whatsoever.
And even without those delightful moments, there's the frequent presence of lag. It's not the end of the world to have to run the same few steps a second time, but it's bloody idiotic to be experiencing it when playing solo.
Always-on was a predictably stupid thing to enforce, and no matter how it's dressed, it's DRM, and tonight it's proven itself to be game-breaking DRM. Which when you take into account just how splendid that game is, breaking it is a damned shame. It's bound to smooth out soon, especially when demand on the servers calms a little as people's play spreads out. But it isn't going away.
The chances are, this is the sort of game where people are going to endure the crap either way. It's certainly good enough, at least in the first few hours, to warrant some determined patience... Oops, went back in to take some screenshots, and it's 45 minutes later.