Adam Brereton gives his take on Blizzard’s long-awaited latest release.
Diablo III, more or less a remake of its predecessor, is a polished game in true Blizzard style – addictive, well balanced, easy to pick up with a savage difficulty curve (if that’s your thing) and immensely popular. But like most other pop-cultural products at the moment it gleefully slides down the cliché waterslide to splash with a grin in the kiddy-pool of its own recent past.
I’m not going to review D3 – it’s been done to death and I like zapping monsters as much as the next reasonably unattractive twenty-four year-old nerd. Yes, the game is tremendously fun in a pavlovian sense – kill monsters, get loot etc. Yes, the server issues were unacceptable for a company that runs the world’s biggest MMO. What I can’t help but wonder is why Blizzard, whose executives must drink the tears of WoW ragequitters from jewel-encrusted goblets, can’t strike out a bit and do something truly innovative, like they have in the past.
In the time I’ve played so far, I haven’t been grabbed by the throat and made to keep playing, not in the same way I was by the Mass Effect series, indie smash hit Bastion or the best game of all time, Planescape Torment. Or even Diablo II, for that matter.
Nostalgia’s a bitter draught to swallow because it seduces us into idealising past experiences while shying away from the risk of creating something new. In the first act of Diablo III players fight both the Butcher and Skeleton King minibosses from the first game. Playing the first Diablo as a child I remember being scared shitless by the Butcher, an experience Blizzard can’t replicate, making his appearance fall flat. Why couldn’t they have introduced a new big bad to fight? In any case, neither boss is that evocative to begin with – the once-proud king transformed into a hungering skeleton is a meme so tired it should be sent back to the grave for good.
D3 rehashes plenty of material from the second game too. The player returns once again to the ruins of Tristram, with yet another reference to Griswold the blacksmith, and sneaking through the achievements list, some other part of Wirt the peg-legged boy’s anatomy also makes an appearance.
Likewise, in D2 the character travels East into the desert on a caravan for the second act, following the possessed Dark Wanderer and his compelled servant Marius, the unreliable narrator who foreshadows the plot in a genuinely interesting way. Who didn’t love those excellent cinematics in the second game?
In the remake the same journey takes place, although with a little less explanation as to why – apparently Tyrael, the fallen angel (another worn out trope), just knows there’s some bad shit going down out there.
Even Deckard Cain, the tedious old fart whose catchphrase “stay awhile, and listen”, was his whole character, is stretched out as an object of bathos; he dies suddenly, before new players are really given any opportunity to care about him, or his annoying niece Leah – with an eye-rolling funeral cinematic to boot.
And don’t even mention how much they’ve pilfered from D&D.
All this is to say that the big, allegedly lore-rich world of Sanctuary Blizzard created isn’t so expansive – it’s another rehash of old fantasy tropes and content from the first game. Is this a problem? If you’re only playing for the RSI inducing combat then perhaps not, but the major advantage games have over other forms of visual media – film etc. – is that they’re only constrained by their creators’ imaginations, which post WoW seem to be atrophied over at Blizzard HQ.
Did we have to return to the Tristram of 1996? Couldn’t we have fought our way down into the volcanic crater of Mount Arreat, encountering the degenerate remnants of the Barbarians in the wake of Tyrael’s destruction of the worldstone? Or blasted out of hell itself, freeing our heroes’ eternal souls which have been forever tainted by their encounters with Diablo and the other prime evils?
Nope, too hard. Instead we get to click our way through yet another zombie level. None of this detracts from the game mechanics – smashing up monsters is always fun – but games have come a long way since 1996. Planescape Torment gave us a floating skull as a party member in ’99, Vampire The Masquerade made it possible to play as a schizophrenic bloodsucker and a few years later Fallout III put us in a 1950’s Virtual Reality as a pint-sized murderer; now we’re right back where we started. Nostalgia’s a shallow pool for sure.
Adam can also be found at The Nose.