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Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems
Diablo 2 is a difficult act to follow. It was a tremendous reworking and advancement of the formula set down by Diablo, and enough of a success that it effectively created a genre, launched a host of clones (none of which were as good), and is still being played today, twelve years later. Of course, that twelve year mark is a big part of the problem for the followup. Most everyone (everyone?) that made Diablo 2 is no longer with Blizzard. The studio that created the game is no longer. All those various clones have brought new features and ideas to the table. PC gaming has changed rather substantially. There's also the burden of twelve year's worth of expectations and build up to deal with.

So now that Diablo 3 has been out for over a week, how does it stand up to its predecessor? Simply put: fairly well. There are some wonderful ideas, and some much needed refinements. There are changes that are just different, rather than good or bad. There are also some major issues with the game that will undoubtedly turn some people off from it completely. As much as this is a refinement of Diablo 2, though, and not a total reimagining, it's also not Diablo 2.5. If you are expecting the exact same experience, only newer, fresher, and in 3D graphics, you will probably be disappointed.

First, some essential facts about Diablo, as a series, that have remained unchanged. It's about leveling up, getting gear, and killing a ton of demons. There will be farming, oh yes, there will be farming. The graphics are stylized and beautiful, and look almost like they're hand painted at times, despite being 3D this time around. The game, being about the demons of Hell and their attempt to destroy both Heaven and the lands of men, is dark in tone, with environments and enemies to match. The sound is well done, the music is good, and the voice acting is quality. The cutscenes are top of the line, and the story is entirely serviceable, though it's as much as is needed, and no more. Diablo is about playing the game again and again and again. It's not really about a once-through plot-based experience.

Also, playing the game solo is a remarkably dull experience. I honestly doubt I would have lasted through the first half of the first act by myself. Somehow, with other people, it becomes a good time. The more there are, the more fun the game is, and the harder and more ridiculous it becomes, though the limit is four here, rather than eight, as was the case in Diablo 2.

Similarities aside, Diablo 3 has made quite a few refinements to its gameplay and formula. It appears that the Diablo team has been paying a great deal of attention to what World of Warcraft has been doing, because - for better or worse - there are a lot of changes from that game in this one. Getting into a group with other people is remarkably easy. All common magic item drops - i.e. blues - are Identified on picking them up. Those that aren't identified automatically you can identify by right clicking on. No more scrolls of identify, and no more scrolls of town portal, either - just press T to go back to town. And while you're back there, if you want to portal directly to another player in your game, just click on their banner. The loot that drops on your screen can only be seen and picked up by you, and there is far less inventory juggling to do, now. Money is meaningful, and in shorter supply - at least initially; I'm sure it becomes meaningless at some point.

Map generation has improved and expanded. Certain quests and events and areas will appear some times and not others, and when you get to the end of a dungeon that forms a sub-section of a level, there's a stone there that will port you out of the dungeon. Once you get to Nightmare mode, the abilities that champion enemies have are new, varied, and interesting. The boss fights incorporate the environment into the fight, and they're fun and interesting. Sure, they're easy after the first pass or two, but your initial encounter with any given boss is probably going to be hard. Also of note, you can easily repeat any quest in the game by selecting it before you log in. Repeating any portion of the game for any reason is nice and simple.

Diablo 2's myriad statistics and item modifiers have been reduced in wonderful fashion, as well. There is no basic attack for any class - only abilities - and to that end, an attack speed increase applies to the use of abilities, which means that it benefits the wizard and barbarian alike. Likewise for critical hit chance and critical hit damage. A two handed sword that's good for a barbarian might be just as good for a wizard.

Your character screen also displays one wonderfully crucial statistic: damage. Damage factors in your attack speed, your critical hit chance, the damage of your weapon - everything relevant, really. No longer will you need to break out the spreadsheet in order to factor your critical hit chance into an equation that also takes your attack speed into account. It's so, so much nicer. And if that's not beautiful enough, when you hover over a new item, it'll compare not just your damage changes, but also your protection and life changes as well. Is the damage higher with this breastplate than this one? Yes, but, I drop 500 life and 1.5% protection. All I have to do now is decide if that trade off is worth it, rather than attempt to calculate the minutia involved as well.

Just as much as there are steps forward, however, there are also steps sideways. The item generator is not quite the same. Maybe it's not as good, maybe it's better, maybe it's neither. There are less garbage statistics, which means you're less likely to get total trash, or to get an item that's mostly awesome, but has a few crap modifiers on it. At the same time, though, it seems like the output isn't quite as interesting as it was in Diablo 2. Things have been streamlined, for better or worse.

The loot system isn't the only place that has seen streamlining, though. Diablo 2 was about two things: getting gear, and building a character. With every level you got a skill point, and with those skill points you could mold you character into your own very unique version of the class you chose. In Diablo 3, every player will have the exact same abilities available as anyone else at their level. The assignment of skill points has been replaced by choosing which six skills to equip your character with, and which runes to modify those six skills with. Number crunching has been replaced by deck building. Fine tuning from level one has been replaced with the ability to switch your character's build at virtually any point. Better or worse? I'm honestly not sure. Some people will love it, some will hate it, and most of us will just note that it's different.

And then there are the things that are worse about the game. Diablo 3 is as internet dependent as an MMORPG. LAN mode, IP mode, and offline single player, which all existed in Diablo 2, are gone, gone, gone. If you cannot get online, you cannot play Diablo 3. If you are disconnected mid session, your game will stop. If Blizzard's servers ever go down, you no longer have a game. This is only an improvement to Blizzard's bottom line; this does nothing to improve the experience for the player. Very much the opposite, in fact. I have a solid internet connection, but I still see the occasional rubber-banding and lag spikes. I cannot imagine playing a hardcore character (if you die, you die, and your character is gone forever) knowing that a latency burst could eliminate my hundred hours of work. I almost did not buy the game because of this alone (I have some serious philosophical issues with what amounts to a $60 game rental), and I am sure this will be a deal breaker for some people. Given the record-setting sales the game posted, though, it would seem that most simply do not care.

The always-online aspect of the game ties into perhaps the other most unfortunate characteristic of Diablo 3: the Auction House. In my opinion, everything about the Auction House (AH) is broken, and it negatively impacts your game even if you don't use it. In quite significant fashion, no less.

The simple gist of it is thus: there is an Auction House, available to all players at all times, on which you buy and sell items for gold. You can also buy and sell items for real money, though that feature is not available yet. I have no doubt that Activision Blizzard's desire to "monetize their player base on an ongoing basis," or whatever other Corporatespeak you care to use, played a significant part in their decision to make the game always online at all times. There the AH is, shining on the hill, always there on the hill, offering you the gear you need to get past the boss you're stuck on, if only you shell out a little money - of which Blizzard will take just a pinch. No one will ever state as much, but the constant revenue stream that World of Warcraft has created is just too big to ignore. So that, right there, is negative impact number one of the AH.

Unfortunately, the Auction House also obliterates the game's crafting system, which is really neat - until you realize it's utterly worthless. You can spend precious gold and other resources to upgrade your two crafters, granting you access to randomly generated gear, or the ability to combine gems into their higher-grade versions. That sounds great, but then you notice that you could spend tens of thousands of gold for the ability to create square gems, and then thousands to create square gems... or you could just buy a square gem from the auction house for less than it costs to combine three lesser gems. You could break dozens of magic items down into their components, spend tens of thousands of gold upgrading your smith, and then spend thousands of golden and components generating a piece of gear over and over again, until you finally get one that fits your character... or you could spend a thousand gold to get the exact item that you want on the AH.

Even loot runs seem pointless now. One of the major faces of the game is getting gear. There's a thrill when a piece that might be good drops, and a bigger thrill when it turns out to actually be good. But now you can just bypass that entire process by getting on the AH. Both crafting and farming have been almost entirely subverted by the AH. If you want to, you can get gear that will blow anything reasonably available to you without the AH out of the water. You can make the game trivially easy with fifteen minutes on the AH. And that's without the real money component in place yet. It's so out of balance that I don't bother using it.

I have a feeling that the game was balanced around the constant availability of the AH, too. By this point in Diablo 2 (the end of Nightmare), I would have seen about a dozen uniques and set items drop. Despite playing with between two and four people at all times, not a one of us has seen a single legendary or set item drop in my time playing. Not one. I get the impression that Blizzard balanced their drop rate around the notion that with ten million people playing, even if there's only a 0.1% chance that a rare will drop in a run through Normal, Nightmare, and Hell, that still means that you'll see a hundred thousand of the things, and thus anyone who wants one can find one on the AH. They balanced to the law of averages, rather than the experience of one person, or of one set of people. Which, again, means that even if you ignore the AH, as I am, you're still being screwed by it.

Perhaps further fitting into the wreck that the Auction House makes of the game's loot system, boss runs have been effectively eliminated. The development team has actually explicitly stated that they disliked the notion of people killing Diablo over and over again for loot. I have no idea at all why they felt this way. I have no idea why they thought eliminating boss runs would be a good idea. That was one of the best parts about Diablo 2. I've never met a player who said they didn't like them. Boss runs were the only thing that made me play Diablo 2 single player, and their absence is a big part of the reason that I don't play Diablo 3 as compulsively as I played Diablo 2.

Instead, all of the good loot has been transferred to champion encounters inside the levels themselves (and to the Auction House), as have all the hard fights. Perhaps this makes some gameplay sense - that you have to try and find monsters worth killing in the levels, rather than running straight to the end and fighting the boss for the fiftieth time. I still think it sucks, but I guess there's some semblance of logic there. Where it breaks down, though, is in game logic. As disappointing as it is that the best loot in the game drops from randomly generated enemy champions, it's even more silly that the hardest fights in the game are, correspondingly, enemy champions. A pack of three champions with arcane and frost are far harder than Asmodan. A champion with mortar and prison poses a tougher challenge than Belial.

Hey, Legions of Hell, this is Diablo, your god and master. I just realized that I'm a huge pussy, and have no right to be running this show. Your new overlord will be Tim from Accounting, who has the vampiric and health mods, and is thus way, way tougher than me, even though I have the power of the seven prime evils inside me. None of those guys were really worth half a shit anyway, so I guess this black soulstone is no big deal. I'll be stepping down now. And, hey, all you guys in the Human Resources department, I know you're rocking some pretty nasty modifiers as well, so if you could please not beat the shit out of me for me making you work overtime five millenia ago, I would appreciate it. Thanks.

I mean, really? No boss runs. Stupid drop rates on uniques and sets. A crafting system so thoroughly neutered that it might as well not be in the game. But an Auction House that will allow you to buy the best gear in the game on a whim. If you play through the game on normal, everything is cool, and everything is fine. But once you get into the higher end of the game, things are completely out of balance. Where Diablo 2 was a complete overhaul of Diablo 1, and redefined (defined, really) the genre, Diablo 3 is just a refinement of Diablo 2. There are some really nice improvements, and some differences, but there are some serious issues at the end game. I am, honestly, worried about the longevity of the game, given that if you have one Demon Hunter at the easily attainable level cap of sixty, completely redefining your character entirely is as simple as a few minutes in the skill screen and a quick trip to the Auction House.

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