The Diablo series and the many games that seek to recreate its formula have never really appealed to me. Despite how much I like the combat and exploration of third-person action games and the customization offered by Western RPGs, Diablo's mixture of these two genres has never really clicked.
My partner loves Diablo, though, so there's a copy of the game installed on my computer. Bored and unsure of what to play, I booted the game up. Despite an introductory couple of hours that were as numbingly dull as I remembered past entries in the series being, my opinion began to change around the time I completed the first act of Diablo III.
I feel like I've finally dug into the Diablo experience far enough to understand what always seemed mystifying to me.The excellent sound design is probably what enticed me to keep going past the bland introduction. While many players may gloss over the role sound plays in enjoying a game's presentation, preferring instead to judge the quality of visuals, well executed audio can go a long, long way toward creating a more enjoyable experience. My barbarian lady, Blooderella, may be lazily voiced by an actor whose range extends from uninterested monotone to slightly excited monotone, but the sack-of-bricks thud that accompanies each instance of her laying into an enemy demon with a powerful attack is undeniably excellent. Diablo III is packed with these kind of rich sound effects. The roars of unearthly creatures, the jingle that comes from a splash of coins: it's all designed to reward the simple actions involved with killing hordes of adversaries. What Diablo III lacks in complex combat mechanics, it makes up for with its sound. Clicking and hotkey spamming a wave of monsters to death isn't rewarding, yet combat packs a narcotic effect that comes from wanting to hear the pitch-perfect audio design play out again and again.
This attention to the game's presentation extends through to the visuals. The extraordinary amount of effort that Blizzard clearly spent in crafting the environments pays off, the repetitive dungeons becoming more interesting to explore not by virtue of their design, but due to the little touches lovingly put into the game. The fall of snow over castle parapets and the meagre fires burning within its crumbling keeps make Diablo III's third act demonic siege feel appropriately desperate while the cobwebbed stone dungeons and willy-inducing desert snakes also add to the impression of a truly lived-in world.
All of this isn't to say that Diablo III is a truly great game. Blizzard's decision to create randomized dungeon layouts, while fantastic for players who love to endlessly grind for loot to upgrade their characters, comes with major level design sacrifices. Getting lost in an expansive dungeon map is frustrating and clearly the result of algorithms instead of design. Certain players will likely never experience this kind of annoyance because, when collecting loot provides the central draw for a play session, there's really no such thing as getting lost — aimless meandering just provides more opportunities to happen upon a group of enemies or a chest packed with weapons and armour. For me, though, the lack of direction made many hours of the game feel like homework rather than fun.
The story is also abysmal. Blizzard, for all of the time it spent in crafting an aesthetically impressive world, apparently cares very little about creating a similarly remarkable narrative. I couldn't bring myself to invest much in the intricate machinations of the lazily written cast of pseudo-Abrahamic religious tropes and, for all the game's attempts to describe it as such, the final showdown seemed almost inconsequential. Once again: the appeal of murdering monsters and managing an inventory full of equipment is meant to compensate for the paper-thin plot and weak characters (also; is it just me or is the depiction of that Fu Manchu stereotype of a jewel vendor sort of racist?), but, to me, the writing just came off as sloppy and careless.
My time with Diablo III was a mixed bag. While I was certainly impressed by its presentation and came to understand some of the appeal of its systems — a 12 year development cycle almost makes sense in light of how incredibly polished may aspects of the game are — I definitely won't be returning to it anytime soon. Rather, I feel like I've finally dug into the Diablo experience far enough to understand what always seemed mystifying to me: the deep love (and incredible patience) that Blizzard's fans demonstrate for the company's products.