Diablo 3 (v2 & Reaper of Souls)

Updated for Patch 2.4.

look at my Battle.net profile will make it obvious that I’ve gotten plenty of mileage out of Diablo 3.

It’s not complicated. It asks very little of tactical or strategic ability and is casually accessible, but it is detail-heavy. Honestly, I prefer games on the other side of that spectrum, where my ability as a player is challenged and my skills grow universally, rather than working out some combination of powers and items by luck and then playing the game from there mostly on autopilot.

But let’s assume you know what kind of baby game Diablo is, and that it’s exactly the sort of game you’re looking for. Because glacial clicky games help you relax. Or because you’re a social animal and your friends can pick it up easily after a long time away. Or you want something to do with your hands while you listen to a podcast. How does the game fare at that?

We’ll overlook the story, too. You should have zero expectations from a game about killing Evil Demons of Doom. It’s farcical. You can’t even walk into a barrel without inferring that it is or was used to torture people. You were hoping for a drink of water? You can walk to the river, pal. We’re so focused on being grim here that our only commodity is suffering. Diablo’s target demo grew up in a group home and rainbows make them uncomfortable, after all. On the bright side — pun not intended — as of Reaper of Souls, once you’ve seen each of the beautiful pre-rendered cutscenes once, there is no reason to ever go into the story mode.

D3 has changed a lot since the original release, and while there are still some vestigial traces of the soul-crushing MMO grind in its achievements and elsewhere, it now tends to feel like you’re making progress every time you log on and put a few hours in, at least until you’re so strong that you’ve only got a couple Ancient Legendaries worth replacing and your returns start to diminish, and by then a new season is probably on the way. Gameplay isn’t fulfilling per se, but there’s some appeal in having wild effect combinations on legendaries and set bonuses, and (at least until you have the best items) skill builds are largely about doing the best job with the few item powers you have access to, rather than simply doing what everyone else is doing, or doing 4 gazillion damage per second instead of 3.8 gazillion.

It’s obvious that the game could stand to diversify. The most complex and interesting system in the original game was the auction house, which was ultimately removed as part of a plan to fix the game’s ecosystem. That worked out well enough, but sadly, auctioning–appraising items, cleverly filtering results, exploiting arbitrage, and winning a bid by a second–was more exciting than clearing out a floor on some bounty grind. Whenever I find myself lamenting this absence or getting frustated by the tedium, it pays to remember that, again, Diablo is for babies, and it’s time to piss off for a while until I have a podcast backlog again.

As of 2.3, various mechanics, systems and items have really started to tie together well. They added Kanai’s Cube, and before that, the Mystic. Now, to create the best item, I might start by crafting a rare sword at the blacksmith, upgrading it to a legendary in the cube, rerolling one of its stats with the mystic, and using the jeweller to liberate my old weapon’s gem. The balance is never perfect–there’s always some shortage of Death’s Breaths or legendary essences or too many gems or too much gold–but it’s a whole lot better than it used to be, when I never crafted anything and essences just took up valuable storage space.

It’s clear that the developers have continued to work hard on Diablo 3 long after release. They’ve made an honest effort to incentivize fun across the board, letting players discover skills for themselves without being penalized with wasted skill points, and providing legitimate choices instead of skills or sets nobody would want to use. Kanai’s Cube provides a real sense of progression by allowing players to complete a checklist of legendaries. 2.4’s Set Dungeons provide another long-term challenge.

In any case, there are still issues and changes that might make the game better, ranging from “pie-in-the-sky fantasy” to “good idea for the next patch”. Ignoring very specific and transitory issues with specific items or set bonuses, there are a number of others:

Goals, needs, instant gratification. Constantly having a lot of goals to work toward is good. When goals are vague or limited, it’s easy to get bored or discouraged. One of the reasons I first wanted something like Kanai’s cube, a reason to destroy legendaries, was to stave this problem off, so that’s great, but you also now see a dozen crafting recipes explode out of a box every time you finish a bounty, and after doing 5 or 6, you end up with every recipe. It’s as if they decided that recipes had been a bad idea to begin with, and wanted players to get through it as soon as possible. Instead, I think they should have added a checklist menu showing all the recipes you were missing, and added a variety of ways to find them. Kill specific elite monsters. Ones that force you to solo a certain boss bounty on Torment X. Recipes wouldn’t just have to be for lesser legendaries, either. How about a recipe for cheap yellow items, used for upgrading rares in Kanai’s cube? How about a Variant legendary recipe that forces an item to spawn with a certain affix, if you add a specific type of crafting material or gem into it?

Achievements often give direction to play when a player doesn’t know what they should be doing, but in Diablo, achievements are incredibly discouraging. They fall into the categories of “things you should never work toward but might one day after several years complete by accident” like Savior or Survivor, “things that are extremely pointless and hard to set up” like With Friends Like These, and “things that will make your soul wither and die” like Irreplaceable You. A checklist of Unique enemies to kill could’ve been a great means of measuring progress, if you could deliberately spawn those uniques by clicking on specific rocks or totems while holding some sort of consumable crafted item or whatever. As it stands, these achievements instead require the sort of luck and dedication that lottery winners would balk at.

Triviality and busywork. When D3 first came out, the campaign wasn’t so trivial. The forums had posts like, “Belial is too strong. What level should I be before I take him on?” After it shifted to level-scaling, it became unimaginable that you could lose a fight on Normal difficulty. Moreover, levels 1-69 are a waste of time. They might as well have done away with levels and created a system where you unlock sets of skill runes the first time you finish a bounty, or kill your 10th elite, or beat Diablo on Expert Difficulty–kind of like what Seasonal Journies do now for cosmetic rewards. Or go back to a non-scaling difficulty setting in a newly enhanced, less-trivial Campaign mode, rewarding players for completing it with a free Ramaladni’s Gift or something.

Fun. For starters, bounties are not very diverse. Kill 100 Guys, Kill Your Way Through To One Guy, and Kill The Guys Around An Object You’ve Gotta Interact With are all mild variations on the same theme, and when the maps have to be randomly generated from a few modules, it’s even less fun than if you just made players run through one hallway configuration a thousand times. If Westmarch Commons was about recognizing a bounty name and remembering that they could take the eastern street to get to the door before the map ping shows up, that would be satisfying. Greed’s Domain doesn’t change and it looks super cool, with elevation changes, but the procedural generation isn’t complicated enough to make places like Westmarch anything other than tedious. The campaign also has numerous fixed areas, like the path to Belial or the winding staircase down after The Butcher, and they’re always far more memorable.

There are a couple unique Bounty Events, like the one where you hide behind angel shields in Act 5 while a wide AoE is going off. The thing in the Sesheron tileset where you have to keep enemies off a glowing platform for a set amount of time is also a step in the right direction, but the sky’s the limit. How about one where you have to take a special shrine effect from Point A to Point B before it wears off, like an Olympic torch bearer? Or there’s a specific enemy champion who only runs away from you and drops slowing effects behind itself, and you have to catch up to it? Or there’s a scary slowly-encroaching enemy you can’t let touch you, or you instantly die– err, get warped back to town?

Bosses are one of the more fun things in D3, currently, but that doesn’t extend to rift guardians or uniques. Sure, any enemy where you can increase your survivability by watching for telegraphed attacks and ground AoE warnings is better than nothing, but what I’d be more interested in seeing are more bosses that exist as a part of their environment, like Belial, only less trivially easy, where you’d have defensive and offensive phases during the fight, and certain ally-protecting skills might be especially handy.

Gems. Maybe get rid of non-legendary gems that just boost one number or another altogether. Add in socketable runes that have various effects such as shifting your damage to a certain elemental type, and which have combo effects when more than one are used together in a piece of armor. A piece of gear shouldn’t always be non-optimal, in all situations, if it doesn’t have a certain stat or socket.

Clans and communities. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could go to a clan hall, a customizable zone with no combat that didn’t have a 4-player limit? It’d be really cool if you could painlessly donate a rare item with a naturally perfect “level requirement reduced” affix for someone else in a community to use, or if the grace period for giving away legendary items was extended to clanmates, as long as they were already part of the clan and on your friends’ list beforehand. Having objectives for clan-to-clan competition, not unlike the current Seasonal Journey tiers, would be great too.

Corpse runs! I would love to see a “mediumcore” character mode, where characters have to go retrieve their equipped gear when they die. A few systems would have to change to accommodate this, such as the problem of closing a rift with someone’s corpse still inside, but I think it’s definitely manageable. Something that might be worth considering as an improvement over Diablo 2 is the option of teleporting a corpse back to town by touching it, instead of re-equipping your gear on the run, and allowing other players to send your corpse back to town for you. It’s also possible that teleports would entirely ruin the fun of it. But corpse runs are a very core part of what Diablo has been, and there should’ve been a bigger effort to make them work. I’d suggest that teleporting directly to other players should be disabled if you have a corpse in the region already, and that the corpses should persist until claimed, rather than being erased forever, in case a disconnect ends the session prematurely. In closed rifts, they might just be locked away until you re-attempt another rift at the same difficulty level. Likewise, you wouldn’t be allowed to lower the difficulty and expect to reclaim your corpses there.

PvP. Show off your wins and losses, record the gear and build you were using at the time, have leaderboards, 16-man tournaments with spectators, everything. Award the winners with legendaries that don’t drop elsewhere. You could even separate these tournaments by character class to avoid balancing issues, and award items specific to the class. Have a new type of rare shrine that guarantees a legendary to one of the first two players to touch it–to the winner, after they duel. Obviously there are adjustments to be made; there are skills that would be absolutely unfair in PvP, because they would one-shot players if used the same way they would work against monsters, or because you might spec for Fire Damage and a player in the tournament has made themselves totally invulnerable to that element. MMOs have basically solved this problem already by having skills that do one thing in PvE and another in PvP (“Freeze enemy on hit” becomes “Slow enemy on hit”). It’s a lot of work, but it’s the sort of lot of work that justifies buying another expansion.

It’d also be great to see some cooperative competition, like an MVP award after completing rifts. Why not track a player’s damage, kills, buffs, debuffs, heals, and deaths, and work out some measure of how useful they were?

I think Diablo could be made a lot more fun and interesting. But I doubt it could ever be a sophisticated or meaningful experience. It’s a fun game to play with friends, but so’s any. Magicka’s spell combos were more delightful than anything Diablo 3 has done, and Payday 2, when at its best, requiring attention and coordination, has thrills commensurate with the risks and challenges, which just aren’t a thing in Deebs. Sure, it’s mildly satisfying to barbarian-leap into a crowd or to pin down and beat up a treasure goblin, and there’s a sense of reward when uncommon drops appear. I also seem to like it marginally more than competitors Torchlight 2 or Path of Exile.

But let’s be clear: if I never felt the need to put my hands toward some pointless, endless progression while listening to music or podcasts, I would probably hate Diablo. I hope it continues to grow into a better game, but when it comes to the niche of looking to endlessly and thoughtlessly busy yourself with nothing, Diablo 3 is already as good as it gets. And you can put that quote on the box.

MMMV. The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.
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