In 1996, when I was still in 9th grade, Blizzard released the first game in the Diablo series, a seminal game which became one of their cornerstone franchises. It was one of the first RPG games where accessibility took precedence over gameplay mechanics. It was essentially a gateway game to explore the RPG genre. It introduced players to RPG concepts such as levelling up your character and outfitting them with a variety of weapons and armour. Combat was basic. The emphasis was on adventuring and beefing up your character and with just 16 levels that got progressively more difficult, it was made to be played over and over again. Diablo 2 released some years down the track, further expanded upon the ideas of the original and made everything bigger with huge skill trees for creating numerous types of characters and a massive world to prolong replayability.
At the heart of the game is the combat which ironically is the most simplistic part of the game. In Diablo 3, left click is attack, right click provides an alternate attack and there are a bunch of hotkeys (numbers 1-4) that…. also attack. There’s no timing of button presses required and blocking is automatic. Yet somehow in spite of what might be perceived as shallow gameplay mechanics, Diablo is a strangely addictive and compelling game. If I didn’t have so many other games to play, I’d happily play this till the end of time besting monsters over and over and finding rare treasures to brag about. So in this review I want to explore how such a mechanically simplistic game can be so profoundly endless in replayability.
But lets talk basics first, Diablo 3 consists of 4 acts, the expansion Reaper of Souls has one very long act, Act 5. There’s a safe haven in each act which is the town where you sell all the gear you find while adventuring and also take a break and talk story with the NPCs. There are artisans where you can teach them to craft various weapons or make new jewellery. You can also socket gems into weapons to alter special magical properties and you can also recover gems too (for a fee). For a while there was also an auction house for in game money (and also real world money), which many gamers complained broke the game which after much debate was taken out of the game.
The main bulk of the game is then adventuring and hack and slashing to a) build experience points and level up your character and b) find exclusive and rare powerful weapons and armour to outfit your character with . In total there are two attacks, one basic on the left mouse button, one alternate on the right mouse button. There are four hot keys which the player can assign a special skill to. These are more powerful than your regular attacks and have a cooldown period so that the player can’t spam them endlessly.
As you can see, its a very simplistic game, however as all the Diablo games have shown, fans have played them for a very very long time. That can’t really be said about other hack and slash games. Having tried a wide variety of them including Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance series, Champions of Norrath, Torchlight, Path of Exile and others, no other series can touch Diablo’s replayability. Why is that? After pondering about this for a while, I’ve boiled it down to three basic concepts that Diablo remains unequalled in the action RPG genre.
1. Flow and Progression – Blizzard more than anyone else understands flow and how that translates to the overall experience. There’s a rhythm to the way the game is played out. Combat, collect drops, visit the town to sell off wares, equip awesome weapons to defeat continually more difficult monsters. This cycle plays itself over and over again establishing a tense environment during combat and a more relaxing tone in the safe confines of the town. It wouldn’t be the same if the game played at one pace over the course of the campaign.
Another equally important part of the flow is the progression of experience points and levelling up your character. Achieving the next level doesn’t take very long at the beginning of the game and this low dangling carrot keeps the player playing just a little longer.
The distribution of the enemies also contributes to the flow of the game. Monsters are separated by their difficulty as follows White (normal), Blue (magic), yellow (rare), Purple (bosses). What Diablo 3 absolutely gets right is the percentage of each class of monsters and in turn the weapon drops. The yellow and purple monsters aren’t actually that rare in the overall scheme of things, which means there are always some fun drops just around the corner. At the same time they are still rare in comparison because monster density for white and blue monsters is high and that makes the regular combat fun. There are stacks and stacks of monsters and you get to plow through them with a beast of a character.
2. Min/maxing – Playing through Diablo is essentially a game purely about min/maxing your character and if you’re the type of gamer that loves doing this then no game does it better. For min/maxing players its all about seeking ways to ‘break’ the game, even for a short period of time until the level of the enemies catch up. Its about outfitting your character to be better than he really should be and Diablo 3 provides numerous ways to do that. With 6 characters and a wide variety of skills to experiment with, there’s a vast number of ways to create elite characters. There’s probably no better feeling than getting a crazy weapon and absolutely destroying everything on the screen.
3. Replayability – What keeps players coming back for more, is Diablo’s superb end game, which with Reaper of Souls is theoretically endless. With the Reaper of Souls expansion pack, there are three difficulty levels available at the start of the game, Normal, Hard, Expert, with a fourth difficulty Master available after beating the game. After reaching character level 60, Torment 1-6 difficulty levels also become available. In Reaper of Souls there’s also no need to play the campaign over and over, as there’s a new adventure mode and players can do short bounties of 15-20 minutes long with a boss at the end to continue levelling up. While characters stop levelling up at level 70, players can increase their ‘Paragon’ level (global) which applies to any character that the player uses. Paragon levels are endless. The rewards for playing on higher difficulties become huge incentives to continue to level up. For example playing on Torment 1 difficulty nets the player 300% XP increase over normal difficulty while Torment 6 gives 1600% XP increase.
Therefore despite some very simplistic gameplay mechanics, what Diablo 3 does so well is to provide incentive for players to keep playing and to continually reward the player. Sometimes its not so much about attaining a level of gameplay skill and knowledge of strategy and tactics to be rewarding, but games can also be fun when they provide reasons to continue playing. There’s as much fun in learning all the moves in Devil May Cry as there is in strengthening your character in Diablo.
Lastly I haven’t mentioned that Diablo 3 is an incredibly beautiful game, especially Reaper of Souls. Technically speaking the graphics are simplistic allowing the game to be run on most machines, however the game wows with a real sense of scale and breathless imagination. In particular in Reaper of Souls the woods, the old Victorian town and the graveyard contain an impressive amount of attention to detail that’s truly astounding.
Overall Diablo 3 with its expansion Reaper of Souls is a landmark game, one that provides an absurd amount of fun in a way that only Blizzard seem to know how to provide. If it were possible to do retrospective game of the year counts, then Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls would get my vote for 2014.
Score: 9 left clicks out of 10