Diablo III (Review)

I don’t know what to write. I hate to open a review by saying that because you’re here for my opinion on this game, but I truly have no idea how to go about reviewing Diablo III. This is a game that is so hard for me to describe my feelings for. When I’m playing the game, I think it’s a lot of fun and I don’t want to stop… but when I’m not playing the game, I pretty much have nothing but bad things to say about it. I’ve never felt so conflicted about a game before! With that said, if you are reading this now, then surely I came to a decent conclusion about this game that I felt was worth expressing. Let’s hurry up and cut to the chase, shall we?

Diablo III is the third installment in Blizzard’s sixteen year old action RPG franchise. It’s hard to believe that the Diablo series is so old now with only three games to its name, but keep in mind that the original Diablo III would have happened over half a decade ago if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate demise of Blizzard North. Twelve years have passed since Diablo II and, in that span of time, one would expect Blizzard to come up with a lot of exciting and innovative ideas for the next game. To put this span of time into perspective, the time that passed between Diablo II and Diablo III was greater than the time that passed between Super Mario Bros. on the NES and Mario 64 on the N64. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Even more so hard to believe given the severe lack of innovation in Blizzard’s latest outing. Irvine, California based Blizzard definitely played it safe with Diablo III, believing that sticking to what they knew, rather than pushing the envelope, would be the key to Diablo III’s success. Why do I say that Diablo III isn’t innovative and that Blizzard played it safe with the development of the game? Unfortunately, it’s because Diablo III is pretty much just a 3D version of Diablo II with several features stripped away or dumbed down. For each step forward this game takes, it then takes a dozen steps back.

An absolute mess of a skills menu.

Remember socketed gear in Diablo II? Don’t even think about seeing it until midway through the game’s second act. Socketing works the same as it did in Diablo II, though there are not as many kinds of gems available and the socketing rewards are not as exciting. You see, since Diablo III also removed stat point allocation, the process of distributing additional stat points has been placed upon gems and socketing. Gems now increase strength, dexterity, and other stats rather than offering additional bonuses like in Diablo II. The whole socketing meta-game feels a little cheapened in Diablo III, but there is one definite feature which I welcomed with open arms. You are now able to remove gems from items and reuse them again. While I like this feature and find it to be incredibly handy, I will admit that there is a definite disadvantage to it. Without having to worry about permanently socketing an item anymore, the risk of losing gems or using them on something that will soon be obsolete no longer comes into play. There’s no risk and reward gameplay involved in socketing anymore, removing the aspect of gemming that sort of felt like a lottery at times. Plus why bother hunting down new gems when you can just take out the old ones from your previous pieces of equipment?

The greatest change, aside from stat point allocation going the way of the dinosaur (which I’m fine with), is the streamlining of player abilities. This is a feature that I’m glad to see, but it was implemented horribly and is an awful mess. Rather than choosing which skills to learn and refine via skill points that you gain as you level up, players now learn new abilities upon each level up. It’s not a bad system because it allows players to try out everything and figure out what works best for them rather than playing what I like to call “skill point lottery” by sinking a bunch of points into skills that may end up being garbage later on. All abilities scale with your level, so they’re all viable throughout the entire game. Combined with runes, which are performance changing modifiers that you unlock as you level up, each class has dozens of different combinations to play with. Now, what makes this a horrible mess? The ability menu does. It’s clunky and not at all user friendly. It feels like something I’d expect to find in a children’s game, as everything it tucked away into little categories that you have to click to access. The game practically recommends what abilities to use and in what slots, which takes away from the player’s independence a bit and really holds their hand. Thank goodness for elective mode, which lets you place any skill into any slot on your hotbar.

Scrolls of identify and town portal have vanished as well. Players can now use town portals whenever they want, but the spell to cast a portal must first be obtained from an early quest in the first act. As for identifying items, almost everything already comes identified for you. Rare items must still be identified, but this is simply done by right clicking the item and waiting a moment for your character to identify the item in question. Pointless feature, I know. If identifying no longer costs money or requires Deckard Cain, why even have it in there? The cost of identifying items has become three wasted seconds of your time.

I want those precious seconds back too, Hans.

I’ve also noticed that Diablo III is very light on randomization. Outdoor areas are no longer random at all (though they do contain random dungeons and events) and are entirely static. As for quest dungeons, they all seem to feel the same to me each time I visit them. I’ve seen people claiming that the game does randomize their layouts, but I can’t help but feel like I’m running the exact same path through the Tristram cathedral each time I play, which I attribute to the fact that there are very few set pieces used in randomization. Expect to find the same rooms and hallway layouts almost constantly in this game. There’s very little in the game world that is any bit interesting to look at or explore and, since nothing appears to ever change, I can’t think of any reason to thoroughly explore any given area on additional characters. Unlike the world of Diablo II, Sanctuary is a very static place in the newest installment.

Gameplay thankfully feels a lot like Diablo II. The AI has been improved significantly and the newer game engine allows a lot of interesting things to occur during important boss fights. The only part about the gameplay that feels a little off is the graphical presentation. Diablo used to be a dark, gothic 2D adventure. It’s now a semi colourful 3D experience, so a bit of the game’s personality has been lost and it is felt during gameplay to an extent. Everything else in the gameplay is pretty much the same as before, right down to spell properties and how certain monsters behave in battle. Fallen shamans still resurrect the dead and the barbarian’s whirlwind still annihilates everything in sight. This is the same ol’ Diablo experience that we’re used to but, as I said at the start of the review, Blizzard played things too safely. This is pretty much just a colourful Diablo II with new classes.

I mentioned elective mode a few paragraphs back. This is a feature that you can enable in the game’s options menu which allows you to place any skill into any slot on your hotbar. Without enabling elective mode, you are stuck putting certain skills of one category into a sole slot on your hotbar. So, if you have two offensive abilities that fall under the same category which you really like and don’t have elective mode turned on, you can’t use them together. Elective mode makes things a lot nicer and allows users to fully customize their hotbar, but I still have one beef with it. You have to unlock slots on your hotbar, and you won’t have them all unlocked until around level 20. This is because certain slots on the hotbar were designed to be used by certain skill types only by users without elective mode on. I can understand the reasoning for this, but it really gives users of elective mode the shaft. If you have four skills that you want to use early in the game but only have three hotbar slots unlocked, you’re screwed and have to deal with it until you unlock the next slot.

I’ll also take a stance against the bosses in this game. While they are all very well designed and are loads of fun to fight, they’re simply far too easy. Players are extremely unlikely to be challenged by any of the game’s major bosses on normal difficulty, and even on nightmare they’re still relative pushovers in comparison to what you’ll face in the wilderness. The unfortunate truth with Diablo III is that random monsters can pose as greater threats to you then the leaders of Hell itself. This isn’t terribly evident in normal difficulty, but once you move onto the harder difficulties you will encounter champion and unique monsters that have pretty terrifying affixes that are designed to make them more challenging than they would normally be. These affixes give monsters some pretty scary passive abilities such as poison clouds, molten magma trails, and magical arcane beams. Every single one of these affixes is designed to either harm you severely or lock you in place. On nightmare and above, the combinations that some monsters are given are just downright frightening. They provide great challenge and are fun to fight, but I really do take issue with them being more challenging than the big boss fights of the game. For example, I’m yet to die on the game’s final boss, but I died to an amped up champion or two on normal difficulty. The contrast between bosses and lowly champions grows even larger once you hit nightmare difficulty. It’s a pretty strange anomaly, and I hope Blizzard buffs the bosses considerably. They should be evoking apprehension and fear into the players but, at the moment, they’re just not doing that at all.

I don’t recall ever saying “I want to be a witch doctor” as a little boy.

I don’t want to knock on the game’s visuals too much because I know that Blizzard designed the game to be able to run on a wide variety of systems (a feat that is easier in 2D than 3D without sacrificing visual style), I can’t help but shake that the WoW influence in the visuals is extremely worrying. Diablo never used to look like this at all. Models all have jagged, pointy edges along with very colourful but simplistic textures. At times, this game seriously looks a lot like WoW from an isometric angle with slightly better graphics. Looking like WoW isn’t really a bad thing, but it’s not the visual style that a Diablo game should possess at all. It just doesn’t fit and it makes the game feel like an imposter parading around in Diablo’s skin, which is a bit of a role reversal since that is usually Diablo’s specialty.

It’s also worth noting that there is some visual inconsistency in the game. Characters and NPCs look fine for the most part, but the are several varying styles in Diablo III’s monster designs. For example, the two Lesser Evils looks pretty Diablo-esque while other models, such as the Butcher or Maghda, give off serious “designed for WoW” vibes. Other monsters don’t look like they belong in Diablo or even Warcraft, such as the huge exploding zombies and the suicidal fallen demons that blow themselves up. There is also one enemy type appearing in the third act that I can’t immediately recall the name which looks downright cartoon-like in nature. This visual inconsistency in the game’s monster models is very disappointing and unfortunate when you take into consideration how consistent and detailed the game world itself is. One last note on the visuals. The cinematics in this game reminded me that Blizzard really needs to make a movie. They have the talent to do so, and it would certainly be a gorgeous film to watch… but the story would probably be something worth worrying about for sure.

That was a pretty good segue so, next up, the story. It’s pretty bad. Without spoiling anything, Blizzard can only rehash the same formula so many times before people know what’s going to happen to every character in their games. There are twists and turns in Diablo III, but they are all very predictable and anyone who has played Starcraft or Warcraft will know what to expect. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this game, but the actions of one character did bother me slightly at one point in the game. Also, as if a poorly crafted story wasn’t bad enough, the writing is pretty lousy as well. Outside of Cain, Leah, and Tyrael, I cannot think of a single character with good lines. To make matters even worse, the games two big baddies Belial and Azmodan, frequently appear and taunt you in a manner I’d expect from a high school jock. It’s just so juvenile and silly. It’s beyond evident that Blizzard North’s writers were in a league of their own when compared to the current crop of writers employed by Blizzard.

What to say for the sound effects and music? Very generic, really. None of the sound effects are particularly satisfying and the music is entirely forgettable. I don’t even have the music on anymore when I play because I never notice it anyway. I just play my own tunes now or put Diablo II music on loop instead. The voice work isn’t any better. I love a few of the voices for the playable characters (the male monk is just awesome) and a few well known talents such as Dominic Keating and Jennifer Hale do a good job in the game. Other characters (mostly NPCs) sound absolutely dreadful, and don’t even get me started on the voices of the antagonists. Are demons supposed to sound like Saturday morning cartoon villains? Azmodan, buddy, I can’t take you seriously with that voice!

Jennifer Hale's awesome voice brings Leah to life.
Jennifer Hale’s awesome voice brings Leah to life.

I didn’t even touch upon the fact that you have to be online to play at all times and that everything occurs server-side. This is a pretty terrible system that prevents you from playing the game whenever you want and it makes progressing through the game a real challenge when you have to log out of the game before you can complete an objective that you’ve been on for a good amount of time. It will all reset unless you hit a checkpoint. There’s also the issue with inevitable lag spikes which are completely out of the player’s control. This can make playing a hardcore character extremely risky. Would you be okay with permanently losing a hardcore character to a lack of skill or a lapse in judgement on your part? Sure you would, it’s to be expected. Now, how does it sound to have your character die for good due to an unexpected increase in latency that results in you being unable to respond to monster attacks in a timely manner while also being hit by melee creatures standing halfway across screen? Not very good, right? Not at all, and I learned that the hard way with my own hardcore character that I lost due to a random lag spike. Hardcore characters are now very risky to play. Given how you can now lose your character due to factors that are out of your control, it definitely does raise the question as to just how good of an idea it is to play a hard core character, especially for those who may already have existing connection issues.

Diablo III is a good game, but it is littered with many flaws and minor issues that hold it back from true greatness. There were just too many questionable design choices made during the development of this game and they really do harm the overall quality of the product. Fortunately Diablo III excels where it matters, and that’s hacking up dozens up dozens of monsters while fighting for your life. The combat-heavy dungeon diving is a sheer blast in this game and serves as a nice counter to all of Diablo III’s surprising shortcomings. Make no mistake, this is a very good game. Diablo III simply isn’t the masterpiece many people expected due to Blizzard’s hesitance to raise the bar and push the boundaries of the action RPG genre. This game is light on new features and some aspects of the game fall short, but the overall gameplay is certainly right on the money.

Final Score

8.1/10

Pros:
+ Cinematics are absolutely amazing to watch and are satisfying conclusions to each act.
+ Classes are quite varied and there’s at least one here for everyone.
+ Gameplay is still fast paced and a lot of fun for those who enjoy action RPGs.

Cons:
– Requirement to always be online to play means you will not be able to play whenever you wish.
– Story almost feels like it is over before it even begins due to the four acts being very short.
– Very little innovation in the game, if any at all.

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Soulcalibur IV (Review)

SoulCalibur IV. It’s been out for quite a while now, so why am I writing a review for it now? The first reason is because not everyone has played the game, and second? SoulCalibur IV is just flat out awesome.

I don’t have much experience with the Soul series. The only prior games I played in the series were both in the arcade and they were the first game, Soul Edge, and SoulCalibur II. What do I remember from them? Well, I have a distinct memory of being weirded out by Voldo in Soul Edge, and I recall playing with Yoshimitsu in SoulCalibur II, but beyond that? I remember nothing else.

Before release, SoulCalibur IV wasn’t even really on my radar. So what drew me in and made me purchase the game immediately after the street release date? I hate to admit it, but Vader and Yoda sucked me in. I wasn’t even a Star Wars fan at the time, I was just lured in by the premise of two sci-fi characters being thrust into a fantasy fighting game. It seemed completely insane to me and, after hearing about the character creation system as well, I was sold. To this day, I’ve played SoulCalibur IV for about 90 hours and love it immensely. It’s only fair that I talk about a game that I hold in such high regard, so here we go.

Click to enlarge.

When SoulCalibur IV was released in the summer of 2008, it had stunning visuals for a fighting game. I maintain my belief that it is still the best looking console fighting game available on the market, though that may change next month when Mortal Kombat hits store shelves. Character models look absolutely fantastic in SoulCalibur IV. Aside from having beautifully rendered faces, each character looks absolutely unique and all their own. Characters such as Siegfried will impress you for their incredibly detailed armor, while others such as Seong Mi-na will warm your heart with charming and realistic smiles. The stages are equally as detailed. The lighting is breathtaking in almost every arena and everything is modeled and textured brilliantly. My favourite stage is without a doubt the pirate ship stage that thrusts fighters onto the deck of a pirate vessel that has been snapped in two. The atmosphere is really wonderful, and it’s a joy to fight on that stage along with a few others. Unfortunately, there are one or two stages that lag behind the rest and aren’t particularly good.

SoulCalibur IV is also a huge treat for your ears. Every music track in the game is vibrant and full of energy, which assists the flow of combat brilliantly. Sound effects are also very pleasant to listen to, even though a lot of the sounds you’ll hear are typical clangs and smacking noises. The voices are worth mentioning, too. While the announcer for the fights may say some pretty unusual pre-fight lines (“Slashing through the shadows, she defeats the evils that lurk behind history!”), the actual characters on the roster all have pretty good actors behind them and they deliver great lines. Tira, voiced by the extremely talented Jennifer Hale, is an absolute treat to listen to as she shifts back and forth between her cheerful and dark personalities.

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The actual gameplay is very solid and enjoyable for just about anyone. Each of the game’s characters comes with a weapon and that is what they fight with. Characters such as Nightmare or Siegfried will attack with giant two handed blades while smaller characters, like Talim, will assault you with small elbow blades. Each character feels one hundred percent unique and unlike anyone else on the roster, though I felt that there were a few similarities between Cassandra and Sophitia, but this is understandable considering they have similar fighting styles and are sisters.

There are only three actual attack buttons in SoulCalibur IV, which may make the game sound shallow, but this is far from the truth. The attack buttons are horizontal attack, vertical attack, and kick. The fourth button serves as a block, while your shoulder buttons are used for combining attacks together, executing throws, and performing critical finishes. The critical finish is a new mechanic in SoulCalibur IV that, when the opponent’s guard has been crushed, you can finish them off with a single attack. This may sound overpowered, but the requirements required for executing a critical finish are archaic at best and are seldom reached in most fights. Critical finishes are extreme rarities and, in my honest opinion, are utilized so infrequently that they may as well not even be in the game as they just feel like a useless feature that Namco tacked on to make the fighting system feel a little deeper.

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And what of Darth Vader and Yoda? They’re both extremely cool to see in the game, though I find Yoda to be a bit of a pain to use since his movements are very awkward. Vader is a lot of fun however, so Star wars fans should have a blast using him. A third Star Wars character, The Apprentice, seems to be the most technical of the three and is possibly the hardest to master.

In terms of game modes, there isn’t a whole lot to do in the game. There’s your basic arcade and story mode, online versus, character creator, and Tower of Lost Souls. Arcade and story are pretty basic, with the former just being straight fights that are meant to simulate playing on an arcade machine, and story mode is just a few fights that tells you a barebones story (honestly, it’s even less than barebones) and awards you with ingame currency. The online versus is pretty decent, though I found that there were very few match options and the net code seemed inferior to pretty much every other fighter out there.

Tower of Lost Souls is a new mode introduced in SoulCalibur IV that pits players in a series of bizarre challenges that are often incredibly unfair if you are using stock characters. In the Tower of Lost Souls, each challenge pits the player against a series of AI characters who have, literally, unfair bonuses such as dealing ridiculous amounts. To defeat the enemies in these challenges players will have to unlock costume pieces to use in the character creator. Various costume pieces will give created characters all sorts of bonuses to their attacks or defenses. Setting up your character in the right way is essential in clearing the Tower of Lost Souls.

Click to enlarge.

As for the character creator, it’s one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had the pleasure of using in a fighting game. The only one that was nearly as fun was the one in Mortal Kombat Armageddon. SoulCalibur IV’s character creator allows players to choose a character’s complete costume from head to toe while choosing any colour imaginable for each costume piece. Players can then choose their weapon style, voice, physique, and much more. There’s a lot to do in the character creator and, when everything has been unlocked in it, one can spend dozens of minutes coming up with a character.

SoulCalibur IV is without a doubt one of the best fighting games of this generation in terms of just being flat out fun. Any fan of the Soul series who hasn’t checked this game out should really do so, as should any fighting game fans in general who have avoided SoulCalibur IV all this time.

Final Score

8.9/10