For a PC-only game built on well-trod swords-and-sorcery territory, Diablo III is generating a surprising amount of buzz from not only serious PC gamers, but also more mainstream and casual gamers. That's good for PC gaming, as this may be the biggest thing to happen to that field since Minecraft.
But will Diablo III be able to capture hearts and minds the way its two predecessors did, starting back in 1996? PC gamers Dan Ackerman and Rich Brown debate the relevance of this action RPG.
This is an important question to ask, as having played the Diablo III beta, it's clear that the basic gameplay ideas have not changed much since those earlier games. Despite the new (and quite fancy-looking) 3D graphics, the game has the same isometric view, and the same click-to-attack combat system. There's nothing inherently wrong with that -- it's been in service, in a broad sense, going all the way back to Gauntlet. But I have to wonder if Diablo III has evolved enough from previous incarnations.
Therein lies the problem. What responsibility does a big-budget, high-profile project such as Diablo III have to move the needle in terms of new ideas? There are a few to be found, but ones that operate mostly behind the scenes. A new auction house system for trading found items with other players, using real-life currency, is being generally welcomed, while onerous online-connectivity requirements, even for single-player games, have been less warmly received.
That real-currency auction house is probably the most interesting new development. Similar to the gold-farming problems that have plagued MMOs for years, third parties buying and selling in-game items in an unregulated way can ruin the economy of a game world, make online gaming a spam-filled hassle, and expose players to potential fraud.
By fully embracing the fact that players will want to combine real-life cash and virtual transactions, even in a non-MMO game, Blizzard becomes among the most forward-thinking of game companies. The brilliant part is the real-life transaction fee attached to every transaction, plus the additional fee if you ever want to withdraw money from your in-game account. Put one way, it's the gamification of the online auction experience. Put more cynically, it's Blizzard taking a Vegas-style vig off the top.
That commerce engine -- Sanctuary Tycoon, anyone? -- is something I'm looking forward to exploring. My concern comes from the rest of the experience. Of course, pointing and clicking in an isometric view to kill monsters and collect loot is fun -- always has been. But is it still enough for a major blockbuster game?
In the more than 10 years since Diablo II, that style of gameplay has been distilled and arguably perfected in games such as Torchlight, Titan Quest, Dungeon Siege III, and even games from other genres, such as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. [Rich: "I'd call very little about Dungeon Siege III perfected." Dan: "Point taken."]
It feels at this point in the evolution of interactive entertainment that this gameplay style may be better served by bite-size games such as Torchlight or Dungeon Hunter, boiling the hack-and-slash dynamic down and serving it up as an experience that can be enjoyed on the go, or in easily digestible bursts of action.
Of course, there are just as many arguments one could make about why gamers should skip buying a new copy of Madden NFL or Call of Duty every year, but that doesn't happen. Similarly, I've heard from friends and acquaintances who I would never think of as gamers, much less hard-core PC gamers, who are coming out of the woodwork to buy and play Diablo III. So, if you measure relevance in terms of consumer hype, in another 10 years or so we may be back here talking about Diablo IV.
Here's Jay Wilson, game director for Diablo III, in a video interview with Games On Net, addressing whether Diablo III's isometric camera is modern enough:
"A camera is not a technology choice, and [there are] more than enough first- and third-person games out there. Camera has such a huge impact on gameplay that I consider it a gameplay choice."
With a first- or third-person camera, all of a sudden you have a different view of the gameplay world. Monsters and game environments must then appear larger, demanding more PC performance and likely minimizing the number of enemies on screen at once. Technology plays a role here, but the camera choice ultimately dictates gameplay. A Diablo game without swarms of enemies? Unthinkable.
The isometric camera also makes the game more tactical. If you can see enemies coming at you from all directions, you can react with more strategy in mind than you can through a more limited first-person or third-person point of view.
What Blizzard does best, though, is design games that satisfy both casual and dedicated players. Anyone can pick up a Blizzard game and progress through it, but if you have the patience to dig deeper you typically find complex, difficult-to-master gameplay mechanics.
Here's how I'll be judging Diablo III: Does each character class offer a distinct gameplay experience? Do the different character skills, weapons, and abilities complement each other well, and do I get to make meaningful decisions about how to use them? Do the monsters and boss fights require me to think and use different tactics? Are the interface and in-game information systems accessible? Has Blizzard minimized the pain of joining and playing in a multiplayer session?
I don't think any game has handled all of those facets perfectly. Until that happens, there's room to advance the action role-playing genre.
As for the real-money auction house, yes, it gives Blizzard a new source of revenue. It also gives players the opportunity to earn money, as well as the chance to track down hard-to-find items without endless grinding. You don't need to participate in the auction house, and it offers no new narrative content. It might complicate the game's multiplayer aspect, but I can think of more odious strategies for monetizing a player base.
Dan and Rich have both played the Diablo III beta and preinstalled the final version of the game. Activation servers, required for even single-player games, will go online at 12:00 am PT / 3:00 am ET on May 15. Check back for our hands-on analysis of the game next week.