This review might be late, but Diablo III isn’t a game you rush through. I wanted to play enough to be able to talk about the endgame. Diablo III has been out for almost a month now. Only a week into the game’s life, a few teams had already beaten the game on Inferno (the fourth and hardest difficulty) through marathon play. As of this writing, two prominent players are sinking countless hours into the task of farming high-end gear in order to beat the game’s third boss on Inferno, in hardcore mode (meaning that a single death would delete their characters). The game is still rotten with lag spikes, crashing servers and extended downtimes during weekly patches. PVP still hasn’t been implemented, but on Tuesday the controversial Real Money Auction House reared its head.
Diablo III is a game that, despite having no competitive element, is still topping the charts of popular streaming sites like TwitchTV. It is a game wherein, this week, a non-trivial number of people began dropping up to $250 in order to buy a single piece of “perfect” armor. Yet, after a month of playing this damn thing, I have no idea what to think of it.
I’ve now spent over 60 hours on my main character, a softcore Demon Hunter, who is currently trudging through the game’s fairly linear world for the fourth time. I’ve also rolled a few other characters, trying out each class and dabbling in hardcore mode. Most of the time I play by myself, but I’ll join public groups for certain bosses that give me trouble as a ranged character. I kept going because of the allure of Inferno, which purportedly had given even Blizzard’s QA team a run for its money. Whenever a pickup group of mine had trouble on a group of special enemies, someone would tell us that Inferno was going to destroy us. We were no good, and Inferno was going to make us quit video games forever.
I couldn’t believe that the endgame’s difficulty would live up to this insane amount of hype. After all, groups of professional gamers had already theory-crafted or otherwise brute-forced their way through the thing weeks ago. But when I hit Act 2 on Inferno, everything about the game changed. Basic mobs killed me in one hit, despite heavily building for vitality. I learned that Demon Hunters need to go for pure damage at this point. The game essentially becomes a bullet hell shooter for a ranged character. This would be an excellent experience if it weren’t for the large amount of downtime that you need to farm for gold in between attempting progress through the game. Apparently a patch is on the way to change this a bit, but it’s hard to recommend the tens of monotonous hours of killing the same bosses for the small excitement of moving incrementally forward.
Backing up a bit to the game before Inferno, it’s clear that a few things that made Diablo II a unique and exciting experience just aren’t in the mix anymore.
First, punishment for death has been severely reduced; instead of being forced to retrieve your equipment from your fallen corpse, you’re slapped with a small respawn timer and a gear durability loss. This is a bizarre decision, because having your gear left on your corpse essentially presented a situation that would scare and entice you despite the fact that you could almost always retrieve it. Second, town portal scrolls have been replaced by a spell with an extended casting time. In previous iterations of the game, you could quickly spawn a portal back to the safety of a town hub while in the heat of battle. This was an “easy” out of many sticky situations, but the fun in it was the anticipation you felt when contemplating your chances of survival upon re-entering the dungeon. Now you just respawn at ever-present checkpoints whenever you get into trouble.
The most damning change is the presence of a region-wide auction house. It’s worth noting that these auctions, a crafting system and the low cost of death are the only game elements that Diablo III inherits from World of Warcraft. A ridiculous amount of loot drops in Diablo III. The selling cost of non-special items (white or gray) has been reduced to nearly nothing, so it’s altogether weird that it’s still in the game at all. And most of the magical or rare items you get, which drop by the bucketload from mini-bosses and roving packs of special enemies, are completely worthless to your character. The crafting system is a similar crapshoot, with the added insult that it costs far too much to try. Until you hit level 60, you can basically buy any gear upgrade you want for 2000 gold in auction buyouts. Then, all of a sudden, the price of decent gear rockets into the hundreds of thousands.
Now, it might be argued that the sheer amount of random loot is a huge part of the fun. These countless slot machines are what keep us moving forward, regardless of the payout (a “near miss” registers as a win in the brains of gambling addicts, after all). And, you could say, the auction house is a practical solution to the crap loot that weighs down your inventory. But what the auction house kills is the hugely enjoyable experience of cruising public games for trading opportunities. This was the meat of the previous Diablo games’ player culture. You’d wander endlessly, flitting in and out of trading rooms looking for marks to screw over with a imbalanced trade. Sometimes, you yourself would lose countless hours of progress to somebody who switched out the item you wanted at the last minute. The weirdness and danger of these countless casual encounters was the point of playing.
It’s true that hardcore mode is where the “real” game is now. The auction houses and player stashes are kept separate here, and the specter of permanent death makes every moment all the sweeter. While I usually spend lunch spectating matches of League of Legends, I’ve legitimately enjoyed my time watching high-end Diablo III players trudge their way through sections of Inferno for the first time. But, once I inevitably clear Inferno on softcore myself, is hardcore something I really want to sink my time into? I’m officially sick of the dungeon maps at this point, which seem to have even less randomness in them than did previous Diablo games. And many players report that their hardcore deaths come at the hands of lag spikes rather than the armies of Hell.
The answer is that I don’t really want to, but I will anyway. It’s not like I’m good enough at the game to make it to Inferno’s long slog on a hardcore character anyway (apparently fewer than 4 percent of players can hack it). There are still so many group compositions and skill load-outs that I haven’t tried, and I want to be geared up when PVP finally arrives. A lot of the social joys of the series are gone, but the feeling of taking down a nightmarish group of special enemies remains unmatched. And now that the real money auction house is implemented, I’ll try my hand at Blizzard’s new idea of making every player a gold farmer. The fact that some people are potentially going to end up spending over a thousand dollars on gear is stupefying, but it’s reassuring to know that the Diablo series can still turning us into slavering zombies after all these years.
Simon Ferrari is a doctoral student in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s a game critic and designer, and his current research is on the development of expert performance in digital gaming and eSports. He figured out how to make six bucks in two minutes in Diablo III but if he wrote about it then everyone will know how to do it.