Tuesday, September 2, 2014

REVIEW - Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition.

Diablo III launched on PCs in 2012 to general critical acclaim and more than a handful of sour grapes.  There was the need for the game to be always online, for example, which resulted in lag while attempting to enjoy the game as a single-player pursuit - ridiculous.  There was a real-money auction house where players could sell the phattest loot for your cash money, permitting gamers to buy their way to awesomeness - controversial.

It is pleasing, then, to advise you that Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition is not the game that Blizzard launched in 2012.  I don't say this as one who's consumed each iteration of the game, but as someone who sat back and waited.  I didn't touch the game on PC.  I didn't touch the game on PS3.  I waited for its PS4 version and man, I'm glad I did.

This is a game that's had all its rough edges worn down under the sands of time, its sharp spots smoothed out by twenty-four months of play testing from millions of gamers across the globe, with nary a distressing thorn of bad design to be found.  It's both classic Diablo, for those of us who enjoyed the first two games back in the day, and a title that's well-informed by modern efficiencies of design.  Every design choice, here, feels like one that was intelligently made in the player's favor. Whether that's the result of the razor-sharp minds at Blizzard or two years of iteration, I cannot say - but I can tell you Diablo III is a beautiful riff on old-school gameplay, to compelling, absorbing effect.

Its formulae is simple, classic, pedestrian.  Explore dark, atmospheric and procedurally-generated dungeons, and kill things there.  When you kill those things, you will obtain a letter opener or pair of cufflinks that may be slightly or significantly better (statistically speaking) than the letter opener or pair of cufflinks you currently sport.

Ahead of you lie more randomized dungeons, teeming with nightmare creatures that will likely hemorrhage yet-awesomer loot - and, for killing them, you can be assured you will become more awesome, yourself.

That's an... addictive proposition.  That plugs in to way too many pleasure centers of a gamer's brain, and almost-instantly, you'll find yourself tumbling down a rabbit hole that maintains all the comfy familiarity of the adventures you had around the turn of the century with Diablo II, madly clicking away on a mouse button as you thrashed the armies of Hell, and enjoying the absolutely gorgeous presentation of a world-class developer bringing their impressive visual talents to bear on a humble, isometric view.

The game has a simple hook.  It has an ancient perspective - but it's still so good-looking, by way of its sublime art direction alone - and Blizzard's legendary cutscenes and a pleasantly operatic storyline, led by some of the best voice actors in the biz, lend the whole affair a dazzling veneer of polished presentation.

To their credit, Blizzard have done away with nearly all of the classic classes, retaining only the Barbarian and Wizard.  The Monk is a powerful melee class with righteous mantras at her disposal, the Demon Hunter is a pure ranged class with massive damage and clever traps, and the Witch Doctor is weird as all get out.  You can throw jars of spiders at your enemies in Diablo III.

In a significant departure for the series, Diablo III's character customization is a bit more designed than fans are used to.  There are only four different types of skills you can assign to your basic attack, X, for example, and each of those skills have five associated runes which significantly affect their behaviour, which you'll unlock as you level up.  You can have one rune activated at a time, so the Wizard's standard arcane projectile can be turned to fire, or have its damage increased, or turned into enemy-seeking missiles and so on.

With each face button and two shoulder button having an action assigned, and each of those having between three and four available skills, and each of those having five runes, that means each class actually has about 110 different skills to choose from and about twenty passive abilities on top of that - a vast ocean of customization to dive in to, if you're the type who enjoys fine-tuning your abilities and taking advantage of how they interlock (and I am).

So I invested in the Wizard's passive skill which lets her basic attack stack charges to the point that her next non-basic attack will do +60% damage, and I take the Glass Cannon skill which makes me do +15% damage overall, and the lightning-damage variation of the Arcane Orb, which adds damage to my next lightning spell for each enemy touched by its crackling tendrils of energy as I toss it over a crowd.

I zap something five times with a lightning bolt, and tap triangle, sending out a shockwave of electric force that increases the susceptibility to lightning of to any enemy it touches.  I fling an Arcane Orb out, zapping a few more with chain lightning before its impact, and watching Arcane Orb's damage buff climb to 20 before laying down another shockwave.  Boom. Northing survives this.

I laugh maniacally as I do it.  I see a room of crowded enemies and grin like a crazy person.

And this is probably not a "good" build.  This isn't something the lifers on the Battle Net would brag to their friends about - it is simply what brought me joy.  And there is joy to find, here.

My awesome sorceress.

The game's combat is never tactile.  This isn't an action game in the vein of DmC or even Guacamelee - games with a snappyness to their combat - but it is tactical.  It's a game of quick gambits and massive payoffs, of careful planning and explosive victories - of mental skill, more than reflexes.

It manages to satisfy in the same way - pleasing the same parts of us that love juggling enemies in Bayonetta with profoundly different-feeling combat.  For my part, I indulged in the game's somewhat retro sensibilities by way of the Wizard, and my paramour found herself attracted to the mighty blows of the Barbarian.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great game to play alone (and I took no small pleasure grinding a few hundred monsters in her absence, as she was constantly out-leveling me).  Wandering its lonesome wastes and caverns solo, diving in to cackling waves of demons is a pleasant, potent thrill - but Diablo III was designed for co-op, and it does it beautifully.

My Wizard on the left, Kayla's Barbarian on the right.

A lot of its design is beautiful, to be honest.  When I first picked up Diablo III and began punching dudes with a Monk, I was mashing the X button - like you used to have to mash the mouse button in Diablo III.  Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap.  Then, after ten minutes or so, I realized I could simply hold X, and my onscreen avatar would do the mashing all on her own.

Well, that's... how it should be.  That's like if Ubisoft finally got rid of the "freerun" button in Assassin's Creed so you don't have to hold R1 for the entire game.  That's just prudent, and such sagacious choices can be found throughout the game, from how the player navigates its challenges to how the game presents them - regularly in new, interesting ways.

Stop an area halfway through exploring it, and the next time you boot up the game, that area will have randomized itself again. As you brawl your way through it a second time, you'll find little side-quests, little events that never even existed in the area, the first time you played it.

It's excellent. It's beautiful, it's classic, it's modern, it's crazy-addictive and it's very fun.

If you're the least bit attracted to the game - if you have fond memories of its predecessors - I suggest you take the plunge.  It's one of those games that, when you beat it, you just want to keep right on playing - and Diablo III, prudently, has a lot of options for doing so.

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