Diablo 3 review as it happens
Tom's complete Diablo 3 review is now online. Go there for his final verdict.
A mere 12 years after the last game, Diablo 3 is here. We're aiming to get our review up at the start of next week, and until then we'll be writing our impressions up here.
I've just finished the game, and you can read my spoiler-free thoughts on Acts Three and Four here. Act Two is here, or you can start from the beginning below.
2 hours in
I'm playing Wizard, and I've just finished the first big story quest, which was as far as the beta went. Before I delve into the unknown, here's what's struck me so far:
- Combat: still incredibly satisfying. Frost Beam! I get Frost Beam almost immediately! This was a high level skill in the beta, one I never earned, and it's as frosty and beamy as I could have hoped. With this, I will stop the world.
- The new skill system is bizarre. Even as someone who played the beta 10 times, I find the mess of different windows, menus and categories bewildering at times. They've tried to make it simpler for new players by telling you which slots you should put certain skills in, but they've done it in a way that makes it hard to get an overview of what you have access to. You can turn off this restriction, but it still presents your skills as if they're in these mutually exclusive categories.
- Case in point: how do I, er, attack with my weapon? I could do it at level 1, but now that both my slots have skills in them, I have no 'attack' ability to put anywhere. If you're using Magic Missile, it's not too much of a problem: that does 110% weapon damage and costs no energy. But if I'm using Charged Bolt and Frost Nova, neither of those skills can hit something far away. I have a bow in my hand and no way to fire it.
- Good news, I've found a way! Bad news: you have to turn of the skill category restrictions, then put a skill you already have equipped into the wrong category for it, and the old slot will default to 'attack'. But you can't use it yet, because skills have to cool down after you change them around. And now your other skill is in the wrong slot. Yaay!
- In practical terms, I realise I won't often need my weapon with all these powerful, no-cost skills to choose from. But it really does underline how much less interesting loot has become in Diablo 3. For my Wizard, weapons are literally just numbers. A battleaxe that does 12 damage is identical to a bow that does 12 damage. Later, the Wizard gets a skill called Magic Weapon - maybe that'll help.
- The first runestone you get as a Wizard is the most unexciting runestone. It adds a percentage damage to Magic Missile, the skill that's already almost identical to firing a wand.
- The third runestone you get is phenomenally cool. It makes enemies killed with Charged Bolt explode with an electric blast, killing more enemies with charged bolt. This means chewing through a mob with it sometimes triggers this spectacular crackling chain-reaction that fries them all. I also love how slotting a runestone subtly changes the sound effect for the skill, so my charged bolt has this portentous little pre-crackle before it fires now.
- Whoa, actual difficulty! I whined a lot about how easy the beta was, even for an opening chapter. Final game has teeth. I ran into a boss mob of Wretched Mothers: a whole crowd of ultra-fast hags who vomit zombies onto the ground, spawning a horrific tide of undead it was genuinely tough to plough through. At this level none of my skills penetrate enemies, so it was like an advancing wall of dead flesh I had to smash through with my Frost Beam to get to the horrible things spawning it all.
- Charged Bolt stops working. Frost Nova stops working. The zombie I'm fighting keeps groaning and flailing his arms at me, but nothing happens. We're both impotent. I run around and nudge some other zombies, also moaning but also unable to strike. My first disconnect!
I alt+tab out to check my net connection, and it's working fine. When I get back in, the game's quit to the main menu with an error saying there's been an error - it has a number but no specifics. When I try to get back in, it throws up another error that says to make sure all of my party is ready. I'm playing single player. In a few minutes I'm able to log back in and play again. I've lost all my progress through the current zone and the world has reset and repopulated with monsters, but my character, items and quest status are intact.
There's a lot to say about the fact that this can happen even in single player, but I'll keep it brief: this is utter bullshit.
3 hours in
- God, it's nice to be in an area I haven't played through ten times already. As you stray further from Tristram, the environments get much prettier too: I'm in autumnal orange fields, mossy green temples and burning red villages now.
- The monsters are cooler here too: huge trees come to life and start punching me, huge four-legged beasts scrape the earth with their hooves before ramming me violently, and bleating mobs of goatmen make meaty Frost Beam fodder. Yes, I'm still using Frost Beam.
- For the sake of experiment, I decide to do the thing I suspect will make the game less fun: go on the auction house, find the highest damage weapon I can use at my level, and buy it. As I suspected, the best weapon anyone has found for a character of my level does nearly twice the damage of the best thing I've found, and it's cheaply available. The buyout is 6,000 gold - I've found 8,000 just lying on the ground, I haven't even sold anything yet. It's an axe, and it's called the... er... you know, I'm just going to take a screenshot of what it's called.
I don't think that means what they think it means.
- My new, um, gash, makes a big difference in combat, but since I've just entered a tougher area, it doesn't render the game trivially easy. But it does do what I feared: it renders all other items irrelevant. An hour after buying it, nothing I've found even comes close in damage - nor does anything the Blacksmith can craft for me. Buying from the auction house basically bypasses the game's loot system. I don't recommend it.
- I'm not generally playing a Diablo game for the plot, but it's worth noting that it's hilarious this time. Sample exposition: "Of course! Just as the dead rose around the [X], the [Y] drove the goat men to madness!" That explains it!
Their endless attempts to justify why you need the umpteenth McGuffin rely on such obtuse logic that the only storytelling device they can think of is to have Deckard Cain say, "I believe ARBITRARY ITEM will MAGICALLY SOLVE our CURRENT PREDICAMENT. I will not state why! Expect the process to consist of a small swirl of yellow light and me saying 'Of course!' or 'It is as I suspected!' a lot."
- I have found some Knuckles of the Angels. That doesn't really give me a lot of faith in their suitability for punching people in the face.
6 hours in
- It's getting tougher, and it makes a big difference. It adds a degree of strategy to the combat that I never really got from the beta: suddenly I care about where a health globe dropped, and I'm planning when to grab it. Not yet: I'm low on health, but my Diamond Skin ability is about to recharge, which gives me a moment of invulnerability. My health potion's ready too, but that's a longer cooldown and I don't want to waste it until I have to. That kind of stuff.
- An elite mob of those ramming beasts pummels me. I've used Diamond Skin, the health globes are all gone, and my potions aren't ready yet. I run. They follow. I keep running, and they keep following. Eventually I find a house in the middle of the field and hide inside. A merchant lives there, so we casually trade while I wait for everything to recharge, then I charge back out.
I die. First death!
- Relatedly, I'm really enjoying my character now. I've ignored the game's category rules and taken two defensive spells: Diamond Skin and Frost Nova. And I've got a runestone for Frost Nova that changes everything: Shatter. It means if I kill someone while they're frozen, they have a good chance to trigger another Frost Nova, freezing everything all over again.
- My tactic is this: Frost Nova, then Electrocute three times, then Wave of Force. Three Electrocutes is as many as I can get in and still have time to cast Wave of Force before the Frost Nova wears off. And Wave of Force is the quickest way to do 200% damage to everything around me. Which in turn is the quickest way to kill something while it's still Frost Nova'd, which is the best way to guarantee at least one thing will trigger a repeat nova.
When it works, it's incredible: huge crowds of cultists become icy statues, then pop one by one, re-freezing each other before they can thaw.
- New area: soft grass, old stone, and- ooh, is that THE rainbow? It's the rainbow! The rainbow shown in an early video that made a bunch of hardcore Diablo fans dismiss the third game as "WoW gayness" for not being dark enough. Unfortunately, physics.
- It finally happened: I found a weapon better than the one I bought on the auction house. That's just over an hour of playtime that the, er, Evoker's Gash outclassed all found, buyable and craftable loot. I equipped my new icy dagger, and promptly put the Gash back on the auction house. Friends in the EU server: purchase now to avoid disappointment! Only 6,000 gold buyout! "Categorically makes the game worse!" - PC Gamer.com
- I'm still using Frost Beam.
- If this quest is to find your head, lady, I swear to god...
- Act Two! More tomorrow.
The start of act one is slow, and over-familiar to anyone who played the beta, so the oddities of Diablo 3's skill and loot systems really stood out. But it picks up: you start to unlock enough skills to experiment with really specialised builds, the environments get more diverse and artistically cool, and every new monster type adds something interesting to the combat. By the end of it, you're ploughing through these huge hordes of cultists and unspeakable freaks of flesh and bone, and it starts to feel properly hellish.
Diablo 3's greatest achievement, so far, is making you feel spectacularly powerful while still giving you dangerous things to fight.
- It's desert! I'm so excited! Traveling from the rainy moors to the bright sands in Diablo 2 is one of my favourite gaming memories: that tingling sense of a whole new country to explore. You totally get that here.
- God, it's gorgeous. The craggy rocks seem almost like a new art style, and cut sharp lines in the soft-focus sands. The town is on a high rock overlooking a vast city, and the view is spectacular. Another zone is all moonlit pools and weird vegetation.
- The enemies here are new, scary and tough. Lots of them have nasty ways of getting a hit in before I can react, which means my Frost Nova is no longer the reliable defense it once was. Some can create walls of rock, leading to cool situations like this:
- Levelling up is still fast, and I get an embarrassment of new slots, skills and runestones each time now. I enjoy the steady trickle of new things to try, but I have to say, not much works better than what I've already been using for a few hours.
- Explosive Blast, in particular, seems almost completely redundant. After a 1.5 second delay, it deals 205% damage to everything around me. Wave of Force does that instantly, and also stuns people and knocks them back. It costs slightly more mana, but since both are on cooldowns, you'll regenerate it long before you can use it again. Maybe it gets more interesting when I unlock some runestones for it.
- In the plot, someone is confident they won't be betrayed by the lord of lies. Pleasing me enormously, my character points it out: "He's the lord of LIES!"
- In general, too, the story is more fun in Act Two. It's still 90% arbitrary lore guff, but the city and desert are full of interesting characters and places that make it more interesting.
- Some of the 'events' you stumble on randomly in the world are fantastic fun, and I'm encountering those on a regular basis now. They'll often be a frantic holdout against a massive tide of enemies, or a small group of insanely powerful champion monsters with weird special abilities. Some of them are nods to Diablo 1 and 2 characters. I find myself scouring whole zones, not to grind my character up, just to see what I find.
- Much of the voice acting is hammy to the point of hilarity, but I really like my character's performance, the female Wizard. She's not a conventional game protagonist: she's not constantly asking everyone for help and information, and she's not attempting some action-movie travesty of 'laconic'. Instead, she's an asshole.
In the first town in the game, she calls the mayor an imbecile. She insults almost everyone she meets, and when the Scoundrel companion flirts with her, her putdowns are merciless. Her young, preppy voice gives all that a weirdly endearing character. So every time some new evil makes an echo-voiced threat, her response isn't to vow to protect this world. It's some effortlessly confident variation on: "I'm going to end you now." Which makes it all the more gratifying when she does.
- This whole chunk of the game is beautiful, exotic, fresh and exciting. Every new zone has a distinct look, and all of them are gorgeous in their own way - even the wastelands are pretty, strewn with the curving bones of giant things long dried out.
- I clicked on a bloated corpse. It burst and noxious gas came out. I don't know what I was expecting.
- The monster design is a constant joy: vultures that circle untouchably overhead until you're busy fighting something else; snakemen that vanish as they slither towards you, so you're never quite sure when the fight is over; and weird flying things that spawn slow-moving but unstoppable streams of flying insects towards you, forcing a change of position.
- I clicked on another bloated corpse. Eels came out.
- Every level up triggers a craze of experimentation - ooh, can I use this new skill with that old one I shelved, and make a boss killer build? Can I take all the skills that have cooldowns, and the passive one that reduces cooldowns? The answer's always yes, but I never quite find a radically different build that works better than my nova-heavy Frost Beam one.
- You know, I think I'm going to stop clicking on bloated corpses.
- A common problem in RPGs is that a player wants the sturdiest helmet for protection, but doesn't like to obscure the face of their character. Diablo 3's solution is great: one of the dyes you can colour your armour with is an invisibility dye, so you can choose any pieces to visually eliminate. I'm now wearing an invisible magic fez.
- I'm playing with other journos now, Christian Donlan and Oli Welsh. It is conspicuous that all three of us have chosen to play women. Chris's ladybarbarian is a storm of rage and fire: the earth shakes, hammers slam, everything sets alight and then it's all gone. Oli's demon huntress is a backflipping blur, pausing only to spit glowing streams of rapid-fire arrows that cut through mobs.
- For my part, I've finally settled on somewhat new build. Teleport lets me zap right into the center of a mob before I take any ranged damage. Frost Nova is still my opening move, but now I use Arcane Orb, with an Obliteration rune, to pound the frozen mob with intense splash damage. That tends to trigger a few more Frost Nova's, and when I'm out of energy, I shoot Charged Bolts into the survivors while I recover. If I get in trouble, Diamond Skin makes me invincible and is free, and if I can wait until my energy's recharged to use it, it reduces the cost of expensive skills like Arcane Orb while it's active. That means one final onslaught: five or six glowing balls of death that detonate bosses and minions alike. By then, of course, Frost Nova and Teleport have recharged.
- This really, really works. It feels almost entirely skill-based: if I actually pull each stage of it off, there's almost no limit to how much I can kill. And I find I'm almost role-playing my arrogant, power-hungry Wizard. Her defining trait is absurd overconfidence, and I catch myself intentionally wandering off from my allies to take on a megamob solo. Enemies are tougher in co-op, by a lot, so I do occasionally die trying. But when it works... I worry a bit about how much I like it.
- I usually hate boss fights, but Diablo 3's manage to be tough without being dull: they're not just pools of hitpoints, most of the challenge is about moving fast enough to stay alive while you deal your damage.
- No specifics, but we got wiped out during one boss fight. Before attempting it again, we each tweaked our builds, loadouts and tactics, then chewed through its first few phases in seconds. In the first try, Chris and I died first, and Oli managed to save us before we all got wiped out. This time, Chris and Oli went down almost simultaneously. Diamond Skin saved me: I was able to make myself invincible just before starting the revive process, so I brought them both back and we threw everything we had. It was spectacular.
- I'm not going to say anything about what happens at the end of Act Two, but I would like to make a special comment on the end of Act Two: holy shit, the end of Act Two!
- Wow. I won't spoil it, but it is DRAMATIC. Here's an Act One shot instead.
- I've never really seen a top-down game do cinematic events like this - it's as spectacular and ridiculous as a set-piece driven action game like Modern Warfare, but... it's Diablo. It's really rather exciting.
- Diablo 2 had the odd environment where the level area was a platform of some kind, and you could see a sheer drop or background beneath it. Diablo 3 absolutely goes to town with these. Every time you can see what's beneath your feet, it's something jaw-dropping, unique, and beautifully done. It gives your first run-through a fantastic sense of discovery.
- Earlier, I said the enemies were getting hellish. Seems that was just a taster. In Act 3, they start vicious and get worse fast, and some of them are outright gross. Some go beyond what you'd normally call enemies, so vast that you initially assume they're an untouchable part of the scenery.
- All that jibes well with your character's increasingly ridiculous power. Progression is repeating alternation between "New skill! New runes! Man, if I mix THIS with THIS, what can possibly stop me!" Followed by "Oh right, that."
- The game gets MEAN. If you haven't invested heavily in Vitality, a lot of boss mobs can kill you in one hit. And since the monsters are diverse, you're often fighting things you've never seen before, or variations on them with abilities you've never faced. Most of the times I died, I didn't know I was in danger until it was all over, or I was already hitting my potion or invulnerability power but couldn't see why it wasn't working. It's not unfair, exactly, but it's hard to avoid. I wouldn't suggest playing a Hardcore character (who can't respawn) until you've played the whole game through at least once.
- That said, the really tough bits are much better in multiplayer. The ability to revive each other gives you a bit of a safety net when something unexpected kills one of you in an instant. There's not much of a penalty if you fail: a player can respawn at the last checkpoint and teleport to his friends almost instantly. But it's still fun to try to survive without that crutch.
- The plot is getting a lot more entertaining. It's still driven by random magical logic, but actual things are happening now. Almost every character gets some major development, and even if you don't care about them (I don't), it's fun to see.
In the last leg of Act 3, I hit level 30. That's not the level cap, but it's the point at which you've unlocked every active skill. All that's left to earn are passive perks and runes for your active ones.
Every class gets something special at 30, and the Wizard's is... pretty goddamn special. You can transform into an Archon, a hovering energy being that can pound things to oblivion in melee, cut through them with a devastating beam at range, and send everything near you flying with a powerful nova.
It's wildly overpowered - almost nothing is a threat. But the time limit makes it work. You only get fifteen seconds, but that's extended by one second per kill. Activate it in a normal fight, and it'll soon run out and you have to wait 2 minutes before using it again. But activate it in the middle of a massive onslaught, and you'll be racking up dozens of kills a second. That lets you build up a huge duration, which in turn lets you make it to the next big fight before it wears off.
The mechanic gives you a genuine bloodthirst - you don't care about loot, you don't care about danger, you don't care about your friends. All that matters is how soon you can get to something fresh to kill, and how many of them you can kill at once. It's the embodiment of the Wizard's arrogance, ambition and power. It matches both your character's personality and your own playstyle, which is all about hungering for bigger and bigger mobs to chew through. And it's really, really fun to use. A perfect finish to a fantastic class.
- Again, I won't say anything about what's in it. Act Four is short, beautiful, and intense. But until the final boss, it's not terribly hard. The enemies continue to get more huge and more horrible with every quest, but by this point my character is just unstoppable. Rather than a desperate last stand, it felt like a victory lap. I solved Wizarding, guys! Now I get to show off.
- I'm finally using a properly different build. I've kept Frost Nova and Diamond Skin, but I finally shelve Frost Beam. My main attack is now a Chaos Nexus Disintegrate: it cuts through everything with a powerful main laser, and the rune causes weaker beams to zap everything else around me as I fire. It lets me do what I naturally want to as a self-important Wizard: ignore the imp stabbing me in the thigh and focus my power on the longest line of most powerful enemies I can melt. And I've specced my passive skills to give me so much Arcane Power that I no longer need any Power-free skills. I leave out the whole 'primary' skill set, which feels like finally taking the training wheels off.
- Until the boss. The boss is hard. Maybe too hard. It's mostly an endurance test: how many different ways does your character have to protect or heal herself? If it's less than four, you will die. If it's four, you will die most of the time. If it's five, or you're playing co-op, you'll probably be fine.
- What was fun about it was having to re-spec. I quit in frustration after one death that felt unfair, and found myself constantly re-strategising in my break. Could I use Archon mode as a defensive measure? Do I actually need Frost Nova for this? Disintegrate's been disintegreat, but is it actually the most power-efficient skill I have for a single target?
- I came back and completely reworked my character, gearing everything towards survivability and power-efficient single-target damage. And the centrepiece of it all, which eventually won me the fight: Frost Beam.
- Which I now notice is actually called 'Ray of Frost'.
That was ridiculously good. The opening chapters of the game give you no clue about the sheer wealth of incredible things you're going to see, hideous things you're going to find, and dazzling things you're going to do. It's one long love-letter to power, a set of the most ridiculous abilities Blizzard could think of, and the biggest possible army of monsters to obliterate with them.
Loot is ruined. Permanent choices are gone. Stats are effectively reduced to damage and health. But what you get instead is something Diablo has never given you before: an experimental playground for mixing and testing a vast wealth of powers. It's a magical murder lab, perfect for the tweaker, the hacker, and the optimiser in you. And on an immediate level, it just feels endlessly satisfying to play.
I'm starting again now, on Nightmare mode, from the beginning that I've played through 13 times. And I can't stop. I'm in love with the character I built, and dizzy at the thought of trying out the other four.
That's what I'm doing next, along with a bit more Nightmare Mode, and experimenting with the seedy world of the auction house. When I'm done, I'll write up my final verdict in a more considered review.
One part of this write up will carry over, though: having to be online to play a single player game is utter bullshit.
About The Utter Bullshit
In three days of fairly heavy play, Blizzard's servers booted me off twice, and I experienced unplayable levels of lag three times. It's worth noting that I had the luxury of playing throughout the day - I may have hit more problems if I'd only played at peak times. Anecdotally, it sounds like the US servers had a lot more login problems than the EU ones I was playing on.
Even if Blizzard's servers had performed perfectly, it's still bullshit. I'm almost always downloading something on my connection, and doing that makes Diablo 3 unplayable. And yet it's a fantastic single player game - in fact, it feels like it was built for single player. It's much more story-driven than any previous Diablo game, and its systems for handling those scenes in multiplayer just suck - if one person skips some in-game dialogue, it's skipped for everyone - no vote, no warning, and in most cases no way to get it back. (With cut-scenes and events, there's a warning but no way to vote.)
The decision not to include an offline mode was an incredibly damaging mistake.
Thanks to everyone already sharing their experiences in the comments - keep them coming. Particularly interested in whether you're hitting any lag or connection issues, since that may be different for each of us.