You know what they say: you just can't keep a good millennia-old demonic evil down, but you can keep him dormant for 11 years.
Diablo is, and always has been, an excuse to gobble up loot and click on nasty bad things wrapped in a lore built with sweeping brush strokes; a war of good versus evil, angels and demons, yadda yadda yadda. But what an excuse Diablo III is, smooshing together things like typecast usage of Jennifer Hale and Claudia Black, doing the exact kind of roles that Jennifer Hale and Claudia Black do, with some ridiculously expensive CGI interludes and that unstoppable march of click, click, click.
Diablo III is a very good game, and it's one that positively delights in being a gamey game. More than anything else, Blizzard's latest is a victory for the diligent systems engineers that have pumped the studio's bottomless resources into their unwavering dedication for lean finesse and steady focus, culminating in a sweeping, masterful crescendo of clicks and clinks as mathematical precision meets an army of demons so dense it stretches off into the horizon.
This is, essentially, a quest for numbers - keeping yours high, augmenting them with number-riddled items, and whacking everybody else's to zero. There are four acts, five classes, and after completing the game in 22 hours and with 11,000 kills I'm barely past the starting gates of Blizzard's latest far-reaching descent through the multi-layered dungeons of Diablo's latest hellspawn.
It's a dungeon crawler that simply refuses to crawl, and Blizzard has designed a game so taut it lends itself perfectly to those simple ludic pleasures I sometimes worry the industry is quick to forget. Any ounce of fat on the series' bones has been sheared off, leaving you with a game that places you instantly and permanently within its loops of tight combat and expansive levelling economics. Blizzard's oft-imitated original template gave you myriad hoops to jump through - get a scroll to identify this, make sure you've got enough of that, then spend more time reading up on character builds on the internet than you'll actually spend playing - but Diablo III opts for less restriction and far more flexibility.
A litany of tweaks and changes helps keep your loot, complete with resplendent titles like Socketed Flanged Mace of the Bear, wading through enemies across the game's randomly generated dungeons. There's always teleports at the end of a dungeon, the UI makes scrolling through everything a cinch, and the game is perfectly balanced in a way that perpetually keeps you driving forward as old areas are quickly scaled into insignificance. This statistical precision is achieved, in part, by the game's fixed distribution of statistics as characters level up, allowing the actual dungeons to be crafted with laser-sharp precision.
Players opt for a mix of melee, support abilities and magic across the five classes of Wizard, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter, Barbarian and Monk. Each class has its own meter for special abilities, replacing the traditional mana bar, and each has had its suite of tactics expertly designed. There are plenty of detailed skills across the quintet, with sumptuous accompanying animations; things like forked lightning, teleportation, spinning blades, earthquakes and even a plague of toads. A plague of chuffing toads. Blizzard's focus is to make your characters cool, refusing to compromise on the raw offensive power of fan-favourite series spells, like Meteor, and instead opting to power everything else up to compensate.
Everything is kept purposefully non-committal, and players can reshuffle their action bar at a moment's notice without any penalty other than a brief cooldown. Each skill can also be further tailored with the addition of runes, which can also be swapped around and modify the effects of your abilities; for instance, the Monk's shield, Serenity, can be set to explode at the end of its duration. This versatile range of runes, which are masterfully doled out in pitch-perfect clumps as you progress through the ranks so as not to be overwhelming, are Diablo III's greatest success, and they open up opportunities for customisation that are far more visual, immediate and fun than dumping numbers into a stat sheet or slowly progressing down a one-way skill tree.
So rigorous is this constant loop of unlocks, upgrades and drops that you'll almost always be obtaining or unlocking something and keeping your next upgrade in mind. Even a pair of shopkeepers can be boosted through regular cash (and later item) investments, hinting towards an end game where you forge your own high-level equipment.
For erstwhile aficionados, this is a game that begets multiple playthroughs, as characters advance through Normal, Nightmare, Hell and (the new) Inferno difficulties. In this sense the game becomes a fairground ride, as players run back to the front of the game for another go, and Blizzard's design focus is clearly to welcome back its players time and time again with open arms. As the risk ramps up so do the rewards, and the addition of Inferno difficulty should help calm expert players incensed by Blizzard tailored tweaks that initially render the Diablo III experience a complete doddle.
Variety is also added into these procedurally-generated dungeons thanks to a set of mini-quests that perch alongside the 31 main quests. These help alleviate the frustrations that come from poking through the fog of war and unearthing absolutely nothing, and now your idle exploration is occasionally rewarded with additional lore and events.
This is now Blizzard's most immediately accessible franchise, lacking the accelerated chaos of eSports darling Starcraft II or the terrifying sprawl of World of Warcraft. But Blizzard's seven-year reign of the MMO genre has not escaped Diablo III, and this new, modern Blizzard brings in plenty of recognisable elements from its gaming giant - World of Warcraft's fingerprints are all over this. Immediately noticeable is a slightly cheerier art direction, complete with cartoonish character models, that adds degrees of hue and saturation not found in previous games.
Yet Diablo III is still a tremendously dark game, and by blending these bold colours with rich, busy details, an impressively diverse range of enemies and a lavish focus on background animations Blizzard has produced a visual treat that runs well on even low-spec systems. It's a bit of a shame, though, that the third game is in the thrall of its predecessors; an opening jaunt through New Tristram is riddled with understandable callbacks, but this nostalgic goodwill departs when the second act takes you to an area reminiscent of Diablo II's second act, Lut Gholein. Thankfully the pace (and aesthetic) picks up for Diablo 3's conclusion, but the disappointing second act drags somewhat in a game that is otherwise perfectly executed.
The game's underlying Battle.net infrastructure, which requires an always-on Internet connection, reveals a studio that's now gotten so used to its players being permanently connected that it's wholly unprepared to let go. These interconnected services, when they function, are at the very least capable of impressing - the speed and ease of which you can hop into an online game with one of your friends almost forgives a clumsy and unwieldy BattleTag ID system, and the slick integration of an auction house (which I assumed I'd hate) makes tailoring your hero just how you want them that little bit easier.
Blizzard's argument that Diablo III is a better game in co-op is also true, allowing for more specialised builds against buffed enemy forces, and it's easy to see how the system is a good idea when it works. But it's bloody frustrating when it doesn't, and we've seen the system crumble in launch week, and even days later the game hasn't quite recovered from the initial frenzy. I just don't believe the Internet is as stable as Blizzard thinks it is.
A few threads are left dangling in the game's campaign, almost certainly to be properly tugged in further updates and expansion packs. Right now Diablo III is more refined than it is brave, and while the future might bring the thrill of new additions it is clear Blizzard's current intent is to advance this now-crowded genre by polishing its set of core mechanics until they shine as bright as the sun.
This is not the most adventurous action RPG on the market, then, but its razor-sharp and uncompromising focus on structure and mechanics ensures it's one of the most playable. Diablo III quite simply revels in being a video game, and when a game is this well-executed it's impossible to resist those charms.
Version Tested: PC