My index finger is beginning to cramp. At least it feels like it is. For the last three hours, I have done nothing but test my mouse and said finger by subjecting them to a clickfest that they haven’t experienced since 2000. In other words, I have been playing Diablo 3.

Twelve years is a long time to put into any game. Usually, the longer the development cycle is, the more expectations rise and the higher the chances of disappointment (I’m looking at you Duke Nukem). Before devoting your precious time and money to Diablo 3, it would be wise to ask yourself what exactly it is you are expecting.

In the unlikely event that you do not know anything about the franchise, Diablo is pretty much the reason that the term ARPG (Action Role Playing Game) exists. The only reason I mention this is to make it clear to those rare few who do not know anything about the Diablo universe that this is definitely not an RPG. That “A” in the beginning is what defines all Diablo games and D3 is no exception. The reasons are many and if you must know the difference between a true RPG and ARPG feel free to read this. The second point I must mention: and this bit is important, is whether you are looking for a solely single player experience or not. D3 has been designed from the ground up to be a multiplayer game. The single player campaign is satisfying and robust (I finished the campaign playing solo for the most part) but reminding yourself of that little fact is probably the only way to swallow the bitter pill of having to be online at all times. Apart from being a crap form of DRM (something I’ve ranted about before) in D3’s case, it is necessary due to the “real money auction house”. Regardless, it is a major bummer. As I mentioned in my initial impressions, it led to occasional lag spikes even while playing solo. The log in problems experienced on launch day are no longer an issue however.

Anyway, on with the review.

D3 is played from a 3rd person isometric view that is typical of the ARPG genre. The world is rendered in 3d but the view is fixed, i.e., the map cannot be rotated. Back when blizzard announced the game, die-hard fans screamed bloody murder at the change of art style. Whereas D1 and 2 were very dark and gothic themed, the initial videos and screen shots seemed to suggest that D3’s art style would be a lot more World of Warcraft (WoW) inspired. In other words, cartoony. I can safely say this is not the case. Though the character models have lost the old school look, this is hardly a cartoon world. The Gothic theme is very strong and the character models are fantastic and though one can see Wow’s influence in places, it still fits. The game wears its “Mature” rating with pride. Artistically speaking this is undoubtedly a Diablo game through and through albeit, a tad “brighter”. I love it.

A word about the engine, pretty as the game looks; it does seem a little dated. Blizzard has always been particular about releasing games that run well on old hardware. This is part of the reason WoW still has 10 million players. D3 continues that trend. I would describe the graphics as “adequate”. Not bad by any means, but nothing special by 2012 standards. To be perfectly honest, I would have liked the camera to be placed a little higher, or have different levels of zoom. As it stands, there is just a close up feature that is only good for looking at your character when not engaged in combat. For all other purposes, the ability to zoom in so close is useless if not suicidal.

This brings me to the meat of the game. Combat. Diablo has never really been about story or characters. Though the success of the series has led to popularity of certain figures such as Deckard Cain, the games have always been about killing near endless waves of demons. And loot. Definitely the loot. In this, D3 quite simply, excels. Right from the get go, there is an immediate sense of feedback. Every skill you use, every click of the mouse, results in something impressive on screen. It’s a subtle thing, but key to making the experience so much more fun. Physics is used in very entertaining ways. Baddies get zapped, frozen, burnt, pummeled, eaten, blown up, falcon kicked, disintegrated and otherwise killed in spectacular fashion and it never gets old.

The sound effects complement this. D3 has some of the most impressive and atmospheric sound design I have heard in a while. Monsters sound convincingly demonic and creepy; every visual effect the player unleashes has a perfectly matching audio component. The attention to detail here is staggering. The music, as expected from anything out of Blizzard’s stables, is of the highest quality. Old fans will rejoice at the triumphant return of the iconic 12 string Tristam theme. Russell Brower and his team continue to impress.

I dare say, games like these scratch some primeval gamer itch.  On the surface of it, there is very little substance here. The story is a bit of a joke (though it does pick up towards the last third of the game) the characters are utterly forgettable. But before you know it, that half hour session you promised yourself has turned into 3 hours. All because you just want to see what that next monster has on its corpse. Randomization was a key feature of Diablo’s continued popularity. Every time you went into the game, the levels would be randomized. The monsters would be different and so would their loot. The same applies here. This randomization can be a double edged sword when it comes to crafting though. You hero/heroine will be accompanied by an upgradeable blacksmith. This dude can hammer out some top quality equipment with one small catch. You guessed it, the stats will be random. It sucks when you gather enough material to craft that master level weapon only to see that its stats are of no use to you. Oh well, at least there is no shortage of stuff to salvage raw materials from. Most baddies in the game are loot piñatas. If nothing else, you do have the option of auctioning the unwanted item.

This “never knowing what’s around the next corner” aspect is effective bait for most people. The game seldom gives you pinpoint directions about where to go and incentivizes exploration. Even when find you the entrance to that dungeon you were looking for, you do not really know how many levels the thing has. For the most part, this is fine. What can throw a spanner in the works is the save system. For some reason, Blizzard decided to stick to the old archaic checkpoint system. This is always a sore point for me in every game that employs it. It is especially bad in a game like this. If your connection drops out for any reason, the game quits. This means not only have you lost all the progress you made, the area has also reset. It sucks. Suddenly the idea of going through the same mobs again becomes annoying and totally kills the mood. Throughout my entire play through, I had this happen just once but I can see how the game could quickly become unplayable for those with connectivity issues of any sort.

But hey, if you are fortunate enough to be online all the time and have an ISP that’s dependable, the benefits of such a system become apparent.  For one thing, the randomness of the crafted gear can be offset by accessing the online auction house. It’s a slick system and like everything else in the game, it is simple and just works. People put up their stuff for sale, you go in and bid on an item using in game gold. For those with cash to burn, there is also a “Real money” auction house which as the name suggests, allows for the purchase of items using actual real life currency. Blizzard has pushed the date of implementation of this feature to the 22nd so I have not been able to check this yet. To be honest, I don’t think I ever will. Using in game gold is fine, but micro transactions of any sort have never sat well with me.

The real reward of being online though, is the co-op. I have to hand it to Blizzard here. The act of jumping into a game with a friend is effortless and works like charm. You can drop in and out any time and the game auto adjusts the difficulty of levels according to the number and level of people in the game. Quests are automatically shared as well. It is quite literally as easy as clicking a button. There is no question of loot drama as the player gets to see only that which drops for him/her. If the single player is fun, the co-op is quite simply fantastic. Seeing armies of demons being decimated by a mage and barbarian combo is a sight to behold. I will undoubtedly be spending more time with friends doing precisely that.

Character development is interesting. The devs have done a good job of rewarding the player at each level up. This may be via unlocking a new skill/spell or unlocking a rune that changes the way an existing one works. Its a nifty little system and is by far the most innovative thing Blizzard has brought to the franchise. It really gives every class a lot more freedom than I thought it would. In the first act, I focused on an ice laser that made quick work of most mobs. In act two, I played primarily as a kamikaze mage. My usual strategy was to strap on a heavy shield (yes mages can do that) go right into the middle of mob and unleash a few devastating spells centered on my person. Key to this method was a rune that modified my electric attacks to make creature explode when killed. Act three forced me to change tactics again as the opposition got tougher. This time I focused on survival, using runes and skills to help me teleport around while pew-pewing (builds can be changed on the fly and at no cost). Each time it felt like playing a new character and was extremely rewarding. I could go through the whole game multiple times just as a mage and have a different experience each time. From a design stand point, that’s not an easy thing to do. The fact that Blizzard has pulled this off in such style is nothing short of amazing.

I did mention that the story is not all that impressive. Being the kind of game that this is, it really does not make much difference. That being said, what little there is, is presented well. One feature that deserves special mention is how lore is dispersed. Clicking on a journal for example, starts an audio log of sorts, allowing you to continue killing stuff while listening to quest details if you so want. Think of it as the tape recorders spread around the Bioshock world. The player never has to read a single line of text if he does not want to. The characters in the world do not have much in terms of personality and are generic to the core. It’s a good thing then, that the Blizzards FMV teams are the best in the business. The videos do a fantastic job of bringing the most important characters to life. They are truly spellbinding.

You can pick up a companion if you so wish but do not expect anything more than repetitious comments by way of banter. As support characters they do suffice. If nothing else, they make good cannon fodder. Though companions do have their own back stories, these are strictly optional. There is absolutely zero reason for one to care. They generate no side quests or rewards and the voice acting will turn most people off from the idea of talking to them anyway. I’d call this a missed opportunity but then, as I mentioned before, this is not an RPG.

So there it is. At its best, Diablo 3 is a slick combat oriented loot fest to be enjoyed with friends. At its worst, it’s the exact same game we played 12 years ago. Only this time it’s polished to an almost absurd degree. But then, considering how terrific that old game was, that’s not bad at all.

Imma go ice my finger now.