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Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Judging by the server-melting demand that hit Diablo 3 the second it went live, Blizzard's dungeon crawler is one of the most-anticipated PC releases in recent memory. For a sequel with so much riding on it, the title didn't get off to the best start. While some hiccups are to be expected with a launch of this calibre, the scope of the problem revealed that Blizzard was ill-prepared for the volume of traffic at hand.
The obvious drawbacks of relying on an ever-present internet connection were highlighted by the launch debacle, but more on that later. Whether Diablo 3 is worth the 12-year wait once you actually get into the game is surely a more pressing concern. The answer to this is very much dependant on what you're after. The basic gameplay and core mechanics have barely moved on from the 1996 original, but that will be its greatest strength to many.
For anyone unfamiliar with the series, Diablo's stripped-down approach to role-playing gave rise to an entire sub-genre. Its focus has always been streamlined combat and unabashed looting, and the latest edition to the fold doesn't deviate far from this.
Players' first port of call is character creation, and there are five classes to choose from. Barbarians are the masters of dual wielding, while Demon Hunters combine projectile weaponry with trap-laying skills. Monks possess martial arts and healing abilities, Witch Doctors conjure curses and summon creatures, and Wizards are pretty much self-explanatory.
Like with most of Diablo 3's role-playing elements, the levelling up component is a bare-bones offering. You'll find no in-depth talent trees here. Their branches have been stripped away, so all new skills are unlocked at the same time. This makes the game highly accessible, ideal for anyone deterred from the RPG genre by number-crunching, though the purists may consider it dumbing down. Each character class has a basic primary attack, and a more powerful secondary attack tied to a power gauge. Other specialist abilities can be upgraded by gathering runes.
Players acquire new powers upon hitting the next level. Some of these are devastating attacks designed to mow down multiple enemies, while others are passive skills such as a speed boost. These bonus abilities are tagged onto a World of Warcraft-style powers bar at the foot of the screen, and activated with a single click of the mouse or a designated keyboard shortcut.
The battlefield is littered with new weapons, armour and items in the wake of a good clash, so you'll always have new opportunities for character customisation. This is where the essence of Diablo 3 lies. While it's entirely possible to coast through the solo campaign with auto-equip activated, to do so is to miss the point. Your avatar is a blank canvass for players to make their own through weapon enchantments and a crafting tool. There's even an in-game auction house where crafted items can be bought and sold for the gold you've accumulated. The option to fund these transactions with real currency will be added at a later date.
The hack 'n' slash gameplay translates extremely well to co-op multiplayer, and the random nature of team-up adds an air of unpredictability. Working as a unit is rewarding and mutually beneficial. The classes have been carefully tailored to work in harmony, so your wizard can cast an ice spell to freeze a room full of demons, so your friend's barbarian can come and smash them to pieces.
Diablo 3 may be somewhat ephemeral the first time around, but it was designed with replay value in mind. The layout of each dungeon changes when you start afresh, with enemies and loot randomised, so a level you've played through in co-op may be radically different when you tackle it on your lonesome. Then there are the higher difficultly settings, including the new and much tougher addition of Inferno. Playing on a harder level doesn't just increase the number of foes or make them harder to kill, it hands them new powers and provides you with new loot, radically altering the game.
Where visuals and presentation are concerned, it's not all dark forests and bleak dungeons. The backdrops grow steadily more impressive as the game progresses, and the animated cutscenes are of blockbuster proportions. Enemy sprites aren't especially detailed, though this was the sensible option to go for given how many of them need to be on screen simultaneously.
Diablo 3 has all of the ingredients of a fan-pleaser, but the disastrous launch and subsequent Battle.net issues might leave it stamped with a black mark in the minds of some. While Blizzard has its reasons for insisting on an ever-present internet connection, it's the fans that end up suffering from the drawbacks of this system. Those with no interest in online multiplayer were made to wait for extended periods to access a product they have paid top dollar for, and this is inexcusable.
Sever issues aside, players who approach Diablo 3 expecting a definitive dungeon crawler won't be disappointed. The basic formula is largely unchanged, but comes highly polished and bolstered by robust character customisation and strong co-op support. If hacking your way through hordes of demons and gathering loot hold any appeal, you won't find a better alternative.