Email from my cousin before Diablo season:

Apologies in advance! You’re the only person I know who can appreciate my pain, so here goes (feel free to disregard this entirely, turns out in my anger I had more to say than I bargained for!)

So Blizzard made the Diablo 3 Beta open to the public this weekend, ending on Tuesday.

Needless to say, after the fit of squealing and jumping had subsided I promptly stopped all my other precious downloads (a full HD rip of L.A. Confidential and the new episode of Game of Thrones), hurried to my PC and started installing it.

It was a 5GB install, and to be fair it actually finished in record speed – impressive considering I must have been one of literally millions of people downloading it off Blizzard’s servers at the same time. With a sense of excitement like I cannot actually describe, I double-clicked on the desktop icon and clicked through the obligatory launch-screen.

A seriously swish title screen pops up, requesting that you log in to Battle.net. Turns out you need to be actively signed in to play, even in single player… delightful. Apparently a lot of Diablo 3’s code runs in the cloud, so the developers can fix bugs and game balance issues in real-time without having to release a patch (which is interesting I guess). Anyway, turns out I already had a Battle.net account and was able to sign in and get going pretty quickly. A small price to pay for access to my beloved birthright.

To my surprise, despite the big-ass download, the Beta didn’t come with the opening cinematic. As a result, I was plunged straight into the game, with my character going on about some “fallen star” – no idea what he was talking about. Whatever, let’s go kill something.

I must have played it for about 5 hours in total. There were crashes every now and again, which had to do with the Blizzard servers being overloaded. There were also times when the servers were down completely, resulting in being unable to play at all. I hoped these were just Beta-related issues.

But as I played, working my way to the end of the Beta (essentially the first “Act” in Diablo 2 terms), an uncomfortable, whispering voice started in the back of my head. It grew louder and more insistent as time went by. I tried to dismiss it as sleep deprivation, or the crack-cocaine, but eventually it was loud and clear: The horrible, blasphemous realisation that Diablo 3 simply isn’t any good.

Gasp!

I tried to deny it at first (surely they wouldn’t betray me like this?), but it slowly dawned on me that Blizzard had, in fact, just raped my childhood.

Where to begin?

The gameplay
—————-

Wow. Those first screenshots all those years ago made us fear that Blizzard was turning it into a kid-friendly “World of Diablo” type game with big armour, big glowing swords and talking pandas. If only we had known then that the graphics were going to be the least of our problems.

The gameplay itself has been the most affected by the WoW design philosophy. It’s like they put on a pair of big, pink, fluffy kid-gloves to make sure that no player could face even the slightest challenge of any kind, or to be burdened with the mental trauma of making a decision.

There are those mind-numbing tutorial messages everywhere, grabbing your attention and making sure that you know how every aspect of the game works at all times. There’s nothing to discover, or to try out. Gone are the days of fiddling with socketed items to see how they work, trial-and-error crafting systems or the sense of reward you get for figuring something out on your own. They spoon-feed you every step of the way.

Every 12 clicks or so of the mouse, you are greeted with a big shiny “Achievement Unlocked” message of some sort, usually for some completely asinine accomplishment – “Destroyed 6 pieces of the environment!”, “Killed two Elite monsters!”, “Sold 1000gp worth of crap!”. I absolutely loath that fake, gamifying tribute to MMOs. This is about being the lone fighter against the hordes of chaos, not collecting “badges” for the furniture that you broke.

The combat was pretty cool at first – the enemies flying around, great animations, lots of “impact” and “oomph” when you beat the living (unliving) crap out of a monster. However, the physics quickly became silly – using any sort of special ability makes the monsters fly kilometres of the screen.

Eventually however it became apparent that Blizzard was dead keen on removing any semblance of challenging combat from their new baby – we live in an age of auto-healing, auto-targeting and auto-saving, after all, and Blizzard is by no means the exception. Enemies now drop health-orbs which heal you on touch (how they justify that setting and realism-wise is beyond me – imagine how ludicrous a dropped health-orb would be from a monster in Diablo 2 – those monsters wanted to KILL YOU, not leave you parting gifts of health) rendering healing potions very much useless. The difficulty scales up so incredibly gradually that you’re more than fully prepared at every new location. In D2 it was easy to get cocky and suddenly be absolutely obliterated if you weren’t careful – here you cockiness goes unpunished, and if anything is completely justified. It is just too easy… and boring as a result. And, of course, following the 2012 gaming design mantra, absolutely nothing bad happens to you upon death. At higher levels your items need to be repaired if you die (awww) but there’s no loss of gold, XP, items or dignity when dying.

But the worst part, the one thing that makes this unplayable, is the character progression:

You get absolutely no say in your character’s abilities, other than the equipment he’s using. Literally. When I first levelled up, it came up with this message saying “You’ve received an increase it abilities! +2 Str, +1 Dex, +2 Health…” etc. I thought this was pretty cool at first – auto-assigning ability points for you meant no need to juggle meaningless numbers and potentially break a class that wasn’t designed to have, say, nothing but high Willpower. Cool.

But the problem is this extends to skills as well. You get a new skill point, as usual, but it is for a specific skill – you can’t use it anywhere else. So you go to the skills menu, click the skill they want you to click, and it unlocks. You’ve got to wonder why they even make you bother clicking through the menu – why not just a message “You got the X skill!” or whatever. The skill “tree” is an illusion – the branches don’t represent choices at all.

So you literally get new skills thrown at you, which are even automatically assigned to the hotbar and fixed in place. You play the class they designed, to a play style they intended, using the hotkeys they want you to use! This seems designed to prevent you from wasting skill points on skills you don’t use, which is admirable, but the approach is completely castrating. Heaven forbid little Timmy makes a bad skill decision and writes an angry letter to Blizzard.

Pretty much no customisation is present, other than inventory. And even there, each class has class-restricted items that you would be stupid not to use.
So now, not only is levelling-up a completely unrewarding affair (you don’t actually get to make any choices, it’s just a meaningless on screen message that throws a new skill at you) but there is no longer an element of “looking forward” to specific skills and attributes – no planning needed to get a specific skill or item to work.

No sitting on that item that needs a certain strength score and then finally getting the attribute points you need to use it (items are now only level or class dependent). No waiting to unlock a skill you need further in the tree. You just take what they give you. It has become completely and utterly linear. There is nothing satisfying about levelling up anymore – contrast that with D2, Titan Quest or Torchlight to see just how fail this is.

The only progression-rewarding part of the gameplay is loot, and even that has become as unexciting as possible: magic items are auto-identified so there’s never any mystery, gold is picked up automatically so there’s nothing satisfying about collecting it, and there just simply isn’t, for reasons I don’t understand, that same sense of excitement when you see a blue/green/gold item pop out of a monster. It feels pointless just collecting gear when all your character is, is a walking loot-repository.

I have no doubt that the dumbing down of the character levelling system is in part designed to put more emphasis on items, which can be bought and sold for real money in the online Diablo 3 Auction site, where Blizzard makes a % cut off every sale. Surprise surprise.

The graphics
—————

Without harping on about them, those initial screenshots confirmed the fears – the graphics are definitely, absolutely WoW inspired. Big armour, big swords, shiny and glowy everything. Quake 2 style lighting – coloured lighting of every sort gives the environments a Rainbow Pony Land feel, not a twisted-corrupted-cathedral- tainted-from-the-bowels-of-Hell feel.

Items on the ground blaze like the sun, emitting bright blue or green particles even for the most mundane item – you’d be forgiven for mistaking that “Cracked Club” for a particularly awesome magic item.

I totally “get it”, in theory – since the days of Diablo 2, there has been a revolution in game design with regards to helping the player see the points of interest on the screen, using shape, text and colour theory to draw the eye to the most important parts of the game window. But this is ridiculous – it’s hard to be drawn into a supposedly gothic horror, gloomy setting when the “Inferior Leather Pants” are sparkling blue particles. To add insult to injury, they’ve kept the “Hold ALT to see the items on the ground” feature. Surely that would have been enough? If someone misses the item on the ground because they weren’t looking, or because they didn’t use the ALT button, surely they deserve to miss it? Can’t that be part of the challenge, and of making items a little more special? Again, I suspect the Item Auction has something to do with this – when these things are worth real money, you can’t have potential profit just lying around uncollected.

The monsters aren’t scary. In Diablo 2 (or even better, Diablo 1) the monsters were terrifying – they looked real, threatening and the bosses very much aligned to the whole gothic-horror, Lovecraftian “unknown monstrosity” ethos. In Diablo 3, the monsters are nothing but temporary-loot-carriers. It’s very hard to be scared by mosters that glow and sparkle, and bosses who are just scaled up minions with huge glowing armour and giant anime-style chunky weapons and cartoon-character colouring.

This may not seem important, but it really is – in D2, if you were surrounded by a horde of creepily realistic, blood thirsty monsters, you FELT this “triumph of good over evil” thing when you managed to scrape your way out of it. There is no conflict, no fear and no real separation between you and the monsters.

Sigh.

Sound
——–

Great! 5 stars. 😛

Story
——

Even more obscure and harder to follow than ever. Deckard Cain is, strangely, sounding younger than ever… Which is weird, because this game takes place AFTER D2…

So in summary, biggest disappointment known to man. And I saw it coming, if I’m honest. Diablo 3 has more in common with Torchlight than it does with Diablo 2 – they sold out so, so hard it actually hurts. The creative director on this thing needs to be shot.

Never thought I would say this, but after almost a decade of waiting I will not be buying Diablo 3.

That is all.

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