As a die hard fan of the Diablo series (played Diablo 2 for almost 10 years straight) I couldn’t be more excited about the release of Diablo 3. I even postponed buying a new computer several times in anticipation of the hardware specs for the next Diablo being published eventually. Diablo 1 and 2 had something magical, the ongoing promise to loot something epic anytime, applying value to a purely virtual item.
After playing the latest addition to the series for about three weeks, I can safely say that this feeling got lost, at least for me. These are the main reasons why that magic feels gone:
Somehow this has never bothered me that much in World Of Warcraft, but in Diablo 3, the auction house makes my looting experience feel like its worthless. Whatever drop I found, chances are that I could get a similar or way better item in the auction house for a reasonable price. Over the last years I went from “hardcore” to “casual” player, as ideas turn into jobs and eventually companies and the time I could invest into a game got cut dramatically. So I could never compete against the loot found by those who spent the whole day playing the game. And the auction house lets me know that.
Ironically, I think the real money auction house could solve that problem to some extend, adding a real money payout value to the looted item. That way I might not care about the others but more about my personal joy of being able to make some profit with the item. The virtual currency just can’t compete on that level of satisfaction.
When the first screenshots of an early Diablo 3 version got released some years ago, they were shaking up the community quite a bit, given its less dark and dirty look when comparing it to the prequels. After the initial bad feedback, Blizzard turned the style a bit darker, but overall, the artistic direction remained unchanged. But in my opinion the main reason why the look feels less fitting is because of the much better graphics capabilities. Diablo 1 and 2 had prerendered characters in 2.5D environments. The resolution was 640*480 (later ramped up to 1024*768) and there was only so much you could squeeze into the screen. This resulted into a noiser pixel style, dark, rough. But just because of the reduced amount of visual detail, it left enough space for imagination to fill up the gap.
Diablo 3 has crystal sharp graphics that show every character as the polygon model it actually is. I now can clearly see that it’s just textured objects (and the repetitive default animations don’t help creating a better illusion). It’s the uncanny valley dilemma - the better the graphics are, the less our reception is willing to accept them as real. That’s why we are fascinated by the facial animations in L.A. Noire and creeped out by them at the same time. And in terms of rough & dirty versus clean & sharp, just compare the spaceships of Star Wars IV to VI to the digital counterparts in I, II and III. They seem to be a good digital replica of the real model ships, but somehow something is missing.
The ingame sequences shift my viewing point from 1st to 3rd person, putting me out of control, reducing me to a video game player, not the hero I was a second ago. When a cutscene starts, I get thrown out of my character for some time. I can’t move anymore and I have to watch my avatar having a conversation that might not be the one I was going to have. There’s a reason why Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo almost stubbornly refuses to give his video game heroes a voice. He wants the player to have that voice in his head, to complete the dialoge with his own words. Although it doesn’t always pay off, the reason behind that is purely for immersion with the character and the world he’s in. The first two Diablo games didn’t have any dialogues (just monologues) and cutscenes are only shown as a reward between the Acts.
This is a minor issue, but I personally liked the fact that items could have very different amount of space they take up in the inventory. Weapons could go from 2 (daggers) to 6 (big axe etc.) slots and the player had to decide which item to drop if he didn’t want to travel to town to sell the loot. Like in most good games, it’s the restrictions that set the boundary for good gameplay. They add value to player’s smart decisions. Imagine a Resident Evil without a limited inventory or even with unlimited ammo supply. It would immediately turn from survival horror to just another action shooter. Unfortunately that seems to be the direction Resident Evil is taking in the future according to Capcom’s statement that the survival horror genre is too small to attract enough customers.
Players can now assign runes to predefined skills, modifying the basic skill with an extra component. While it’s fun to get new runes to try out with every level up, I find it totally demotivating that choices I make are not permanent but can be changed whenever I like. On the one hand this gives me freedom of trying out different character builds, on the other hand it destroys part of the fun of creating a character that is unique and unlike the avatars that others play, giving it some personality. Now it’s all about the gear, much like in World Of Warcraft. That game changed its skilltree a while ago from fixed to variable, which was a questionable choice as well. For a game I play that long and very unlike an eight hours action shooter, I want to make choices that are permanent, that give my avatar personality, even if there are flaws in the build because of sub-optimal skilling. It helps a lot getting emotionally attached to the character.
There are other, more minor design choices I can’t understand after playing for such a short time, like the ability to unsocket gems, which makes them feel less precious, or the boss fights, which, at least to me, feel less epic than in the previous title.
I’m aware that Blizzard probably has the best game designers the industry has to offer and that they have invaluable knowledge of what players want from almost a decade of support for Diablo 2 and eight years for World Of Warcraft. And I know that hardcore players might welcome many comfort features like the changed inventory or the big treasure chest that works for all created characters instead of heavy muling (creating stub avatars to use their inventory storage). But I’m simply not so sure if making everything easier for the player is always making the game experience better on the same level. As I said before, gameplay is always about overcoming restrictions or dealing with them. I adds value to the players choices. That’s priceless.