Funny To A Point – All I Want To Do Is Play Diablo III
Believe it or not, we at Game Informer struggle with the same problem that all gamers do: finding time to play games as much as we'd like to. Everyone thinks that being a games journalist means sitting around and playing games all day (at least that's what every forced small-talk conversation about my job has led me to believe), but in reality we spend 90 percent of our time writing about games. I can say without a doubt that I played way more video games before I started working at G.I., just by virtue of not having a full-time job; turns out you can get a lot of screen time in when the only appointment in your daily planner is, "Save Hyrule in your underwear."
Now when I get home from the office, life takes on the characteristics of a farming sim – i.e., trying to get as much done as humanly possible before the sun sets and I involuntarily pass out wherever I happen to be at that moment. Most of my evening activities involve boring chores like doing the laundry or mowing the lawn, but my video game to-do list is a bit more epic. As we speak, Morgan Yu is patiently sitting in some corner of her inkblot-alien-infested space station, waiting for me to hatch a daring escape plan. I've also got an intergalactic ranch full of slimes who are plorting themselves for their next meal. New heroes have entered the Overwatch arena, and a smattering of intriguing indie games are downloaded and primed to whisk me away on new adventures. And yet when I do get the chance to play video games, all I want to play is more Diablo.
I'm setting out with the goal of writing a shorter column this week, because the more time I spend writing about Diablo III, the less time I have to play it. That's still not going to be easy, however, because I could wax poetic about this game for days on end. I wrote a loving ode to blowing sh-- up in video games in one of last year's Funnies To A Point*, but if there's any modern game that deserves its own lavish praise, it's Diablo III.
As a console gamer, I've had only a passing interest in the Diablo series over the years ("PC gamers have an endless dungeon crawler to be excited about? Hoo-ray for them..."), but all that changed when Joe dropped the last-gen port of Diablo III in my lap back in 2013 (sometimes we do get to play games at work all day). I was a bit wary of reviewing a game with such a long legacy on "the other" platform, not to mention the ear-popping depth of content Diablo offers. But Joe was looking for a newcomer's perspective for the review, and I apparently looked like enough of a golly-gee country bumpkin to fit that bill (to be fair, we hadn't hired Kyle yet).
I spent a few afternoons with Diablo III on PC to get acclimated to the game, as I knew the biggest question to address in the review was going to be whether Blizzard could pull off the transition to console and controller. The answer was evident before my female barbarian even equipped her first legendary bikini – not only was all the depth and complexity still intact, but having direct control over your character transformed the game from a glorified spreadsheet clicker to a real hack-and-slash action game. I wasted no time in calling the PS3/Xbox 360 version the best incarnation of the game, knowing full well the PC crowd would scoff at the claim. I stand by it (well, technically the PS4/Xbox One versions now, but whatevs) – and I also enjoyed watching the mental contortions PC players went through when Blizzard started implementing console decisions into the PC version ("Removing the real-money auction house totally breaks the economy! What? Blizzard is removing it from the PC version too, you say? We told you the auction house was a terrible idea!").
I didn't continue playing Diablo III long after my initial review, but when I returned to it for the current-gen launches, I was amazed by how much had changed. Sure, the campaign still featured the same boilerplate, good-versus-evil story conveyed via conversations and audio diaries that you tap through as quickly as possible so you can get back to pulverizing endless hordes of enemies. But the new adventure mode and rifts provided compelling new avenues for hoarding precious loot (sadly, it took me another three or four story run-throughs before I realized you could jump straight into the new adventure mode – I still lament the time I wasted re-saving Diabloland** a half dozen times over).
Diablo III's use of procedural generation also helps keep things fresh. Procedural generation gets a bad rap because other games have screwed it up, but thanks to its use in Diablo, randomized dungeons fork and sprawl out in unpredictable ways, loot drops with a tantalizingly infinite array of stats and effects, and enemies swarm in with different combinations of abilities (though they all still blow up the same, thankfully). Diablo III's procedural generation provides just enough variation to keep the dungeon crawling from feeling repetitive, even though you are doing the same thing for hours on end. Each session feels new and old at the same time – kind of like Schrodinger's Cat, only you're left with a Smaug-like pile of treasure at the end of the night instead of a stupid undead cat in a box.
Diablo III's steady stream of mindless-but-rewarding action is the perfect game to zone out to. Sometimes too perfect; all of my recent sessions have ended with me falling asleep while playing the game, only to wake up to an exploded character whose armor has been completely trashed. It's an inglorious end for a hero, but from an emergent-story perspective I love the idea of a fearsome narcoleptic warrior who positively decimates his enemies, but is prone to falling asleep in the heat of battle from time to time.
That sense of amazement over how much Diablo III changes every time I revisit it has become a common, Memento-esque revelation over the years. My lengthiest hiatus just came to an end a few weeks ago, and the game I returned to has become utterly unintelligible. Getting back into the swing of a years-old build is hard enough as it is, without all the added layers of new crafting materials and transmogrifying mystics and that weird magic cube that changes all your gear if you can find it during the one random chapter in the game.
Jeff Cork is our resident Diablo III expert, and has done an admirable job catching me up to speed. Every morning we convene at the metaphorical watercooler*** so that I can report my daily progress and he can explain what the hell to do next – while hounding me to play co-op with him even though he goes to bed at 4:00 in the afternoon and I still stick to the vampiric gaming hours of my college years, even if I'm now unconscious for most of them.
Blizzard has added so much new stuff to the game that now I feel a little nostalgic when I recognize a familiar enemy. Oh look! It's the weird goat-men! And the bloated corpses that spew eels when they die – my favorite type of exploding fatty in video games! Diablo III features so many twisted new monstrosities that my first night of playing again felt like I was jumping into H.R. Giger's mind (minus all the phalluses). Every character build I've ever attempted has felt new and unique, but all delivered the same classic gameplay beats – the slow-and-steady incremental climb in gear and abilities; the otherworldly pleasure of chewing a path through a screen full of enemies like you're slowly sinking into a hot tub; the mad rush when you spot a treasure goblin and forsake whatever is actually attacking you in order to pound that walking lootbag as hard and fast as possible. The only thing I don't like about Diablo III is my inability to acquire a freaking pet, which Cork says are easy to find while doing bounties, though I suspect that might just be another ploy to get me to play with him.
The impetus behind my latest return to Diablo was the recent launch of Seasons on consoles, and the new mode provides exactly what the game needed – another new excuse to keep playing! Each season you create new characters from scratch and speed-level them for exclusive treasure sets. I started this season with the newly released necromancer (best job title ever), and found myself once again delighted at all the new, game-breaking abilities at my disposal. Barbarians and demon hunters are cool and all, but they're missing one key attribute: the ability to summon an undead army to fight for you until their corpses slump to the ground and then you explode their corpses which kills more enemies and then you explode their corpses too until you have an ever-powerful corpse-explosion-chain that tears through the entire dungeon leaving the halls glittering with sweet loot. Granted that's a very specific attribute that seems unfairly catered to the necromancer, but who said Diabloland**** was fair?
Controlling your own massive skeleton army ain't bad either
The truth is every character class in Diablo III has their own amazing abilities and combinations that make you feel infinitely powerful, despite the fact that you're also somehow constantly improving. You can't overstate how many great design decisions Blizzard has made – most of them post-launch, no less. When I first logged in last week, the opening scroll of the "What's New" patch notes was as long as the average game's EULA agreement – only I actually felt compelled to read it! Entire systems have been revamped, arbitrary limits have been expanded or done away with entirely, and a staggering amount of new content has been added. The option to select any combination of abilities (you were originally restricted by categories) remains the biggest game changer, and blows the doors wide open for creating unstoppable demigods. In fact, Blizzard's best design decision has been not caring when they break the game – everything has become so extremely overpowered that you're decimating crowds of enemies before your character's level even reaches the double digits. Instead of trying to rein in the experience and keep everything balanced, Blizzard has just added a dozen or so different "Torment" difficulty levels, which in turn dole out more loot! Everybody wins from this fun-first approach – well, except the millions of doomed minions you'll be effortlessly pounding into the ground.
When in doubt, add more Torments!
Ultimately, the biggest foe in Diablo III is the addiction it fosters. There's always more rifts to run, more bosses to slay, more legendary armor sets and weapons to collect, and more pets to never find (seriously, where the hell are they?). I'm not convinced it's a completely unintended irony on Blizzard's part that in a game whose core narrative boils down to "Good versus Evil," you transform into a walking tank of destruction that mindlessly slaughters every moving creature you happen upon in the pursuit of an endless pile of treasure. Who is the real diablo in that scenario? I'm sure there's a thought-provoking opinion piece to be written on what Diablo says about capitalism – but I'm too damn busy enjoying the game to write it myself.
As a games journalist, I always try to remain objective when it comes to games and developers. But as a gamer, it's hard not to love Blizzard – the studio has spent years expanding and improving upon Diablo III (admittedly in part because they screwed the pooch so bad at launch), and besides the two new character classes, all the additional content has been free. Diablo III was one of my favorite games last generation, and it's one of my favorite games this generation as well – and probably still will be when we're all frying our brains on Microsony's Neuro-Play Network. Blizzard has gone above and beyond to make Diablo III a game that you can sink hundreds of hours into. The only thing missing are the actual hours to play it.*****
So much loot, so little time...
*I still don't know how to pluralize this damn thing. (back to top)
**I realize the game world is actually called Sanctuary, but you gotta admit Diabloland has a nice ring to it. (back to top)
***Our desks are adjacent to one another so there's no need to be so formal or cliché. (back to top)
****"Diabloland" is growing on you, isn't it? (back to top)
*****And my damn pets. (back to top)