How Diablo III's Solo Experience Reveals A Hollow Game
Repeat Until Unfunny
My companions have stopped following me. The map has suddenly blanked out. The dungeon doors aren't opening. And despite my just having cleared out a two-storey dungeon for the second time, there hasn't been a checkpoint in over a half an hour. If I quit out to fix it, the entire area map will be reset yet again (a previous quit to see if there was any way to raise the difficulty had already done this to me once, and is how I discovered the dungeon wasn't checkpointing), so in total an hour's play time lost, and, well, here's the thing: Diablo III just isn't brilliant enough to warrant this.
Diablo III is mostly very slick. It's a very decent game. The first three hours are very gratifying, a sense of having everything done right. It's an aRPG born of decades of experience, streamlined and minimalist to the point of diamond-like perfection. But much like a perfect diamond, it bears a lot in common with a bit of glass. That all-encompassing need to Just Keeping Clicking is there, the sense of continuous, satisfactory progress is in place. You're never not improving your equipment, skills and crafting abilities. It's the concept of Diablo, and of a decade's Diablo clones, refined. But with absolutely nothing new.
As I explore Act II, I'm still bewildered as to how they could have taken so long to make a game that adds so little. The engine is pretty enough, lavishly detailed, it does the job, but remains extremely dated in concept - there's no analogue zoom (you can uselessly zoom right in on your character, which is great for screenshots and not a lot else), you can't rotate the camera, you can't interact with the world while the map's on screen, the inventory covers up the map, and the tool-tips for loot seem completely arbitrary as to whether they'll show up or not. No, rotating cameras aren't necessary. But it's important to keep in mind how relatively primitive the game is, when then taking into account its failings.
And they all come in the form of the always-on DRM. Yes, people are sick of the topic. But that doesn't make it something that can be ignored. It was because the connection dropped in the solo game I'm playing that all those events in the first paragraph took place. Eventually, about fifteen minutes later, it admitted the connection was gone, and restarting yet again put me back at the last checkpoint, one dungeon and an entire map ago. And nothing - absolutely nothing - interesting lies between me and where I've reached twice before.
These failings, the DRM-based brokenness of the game, breaks the spell. While you're able to just endlessly progress, endlessly improve, endlessly move forward, the illusion is cast around you and there's enormous fun to be had. But in repeatedly forcing you to pointlessly repeat swathes of the game, it reveals just how little there really is.
Right, but quickly, here are some things I am loving about the game. That seems fair. I love how loot bursts out of chests. It's so rewarding. I adore how much of the scenery can be smashed, and how satisfactorily it crumbles apart - and especially that it then awards you a bonus for doing this. I love that you can, on occasion, use the environment in fights, albeit infrequently and mostly ineffectively. I love how much care has obviously gone into so much of this stuff - nothing crucial to how the game actually plays, but the set dressing, that belies a love for the sheer act of creation.
But what does Diablo III actually add to the franchise, and even to the genre it created? The skills are made more simple, but in doing so actually end up feeling restrictive. Switching off those limitations only seems to confuse things. The inventory is less of a Tetris-frustration, but in that regard just means you portal to your base, sell all, return, and it plays no meaningful factor. (And the Act II base is hopelessly poorly laid out, meaning running to the one merchant is a bore, and the nearby town a chore.)
Monsters don't attack in interesting new ways. While what almost everyone wanted was a click-fest, it would have been nice for there to be a reason for having those extra skills. I forget they're there until I reach the toughest bosses, and then just hammer randomly. I think I've died four times thus far, playing solo, and try as I might can find no way to increase the difficulty to anything halfway interesting. I mean, I've 87 health potions in my inventory - what are they even for? The game drops so much health in every fight that it's mostly impossible to get hurt.
The only novel enemy attacks I've noticed are the waspy dragonfly things, who just fly away from you, meaning if you're not playing a ranged character they're just tedious to fight. And there's the beasts that cast fear on you, constantly taking away your controls, which has been fun in this many games: none.
The other huge problem is loot and shops. I've bought almost nothing from a merchant, since their goods are always generations poorer than anything I've looted. And worse, weapon drops haven't meant anything since the merchant I helped out in Act I sold me weapons literally twice as powerful as I've found since. The balancing here is utterly dreadful, and that's perhaps the most crucial thing for an aRPG to get right.
Of course, people will argue that to solo Diablo is to miss the point. Two responses to that. Firstly, the game does offer a solo game, and is designed to be played that way, so it's absolutely vital that it be balanced and worthwhile. And secondly, and perhaps more crucially, of all the points above the solo aspect really only affects the difficulty levels - the rest remains an issue no matter how it's played. Oh, and if you've not had server issues, others have, and that doesn't make server issues okay - kind of a crucial one to remember there.
And yet, all these gripes, all these issues, I'd likely have just clicked past were the game not so woefully and deliberately broken. It's fascinating to realise just how important the spell is to Diablo, and quite how damaging it is to have it broken. What's revealed is a hollow game, that in no way fills in the gaps with the frankly abysmal writing. Of the three companions so far, none is even tolerable, and my monk is a sanctimonious moron. My NPC accompaniment repeat their lacklustre lines of nothingness with the sadness of a dementia patient, half the time talking at the same time as a book I'm reading. And as I face repeating the same damned map for a third time, watching my characters stagger about trapped in lag despite my strong, steady internet connection, I just start thinking about Grim Dawn and Torchlight II, and how much I can't wait to see what they add to the genre. Because as far as I can tell Diablo III, as fun as it is when the spell lasts, has added little more than wantonly stupid DRM.