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Although I often berate video game developers for rushing out unfinished products to make a quick buck, I have to say that I wish Blizzard would work a little faster in dishing out sequels for their popular franchises. I suppose they can afford to take a leisurely approach to coding given that World of Warcraft provides them with a steady income of millions every month. Finally, after numerous delays, Diablo 3 is here much to the joy of PC gamers everywhere. It's a title I have been eagerly anticipating as I have been a fan of the series since the first game, which I received one Christmas bundled in a collection with the equally awesome Warcraft 2 and Starcraft. Thankfully for anyone chomping at the bit to take on the minions of hell I am pleased to report that the twelve year wait we have had to endure was well worth it.
STORY AND CHARACTERS
Set twenty years after the last game, players take control of a mighty hero known as the Nephalem. After selecting one of five playable classes you traipse into New Tristram to investigate reports that a falling star has crashed down on a nearby cathedral. Since the incident ghouls have risen from their graves and attacked the populace (which seems to be all the rage these days, as viewers of The Walking Dead will testify to.) The wise sage Cain may hold a clue as to what has caused this plague of undead, but the old codger who was last seen exploring the cathedral's catacombs has gone missing. With that you set off to find his whereabouts, on a quest that will eventually have you trying to save the world from the lords of terror and their legion of demonic servants.
As with the other games in the series the action is presented from an isometric point of view. Using a combination mouse clicks and keyboard presses you move your character about, hacking and slashing anything that gets in your way. My character of choice was the burly barbarian whose Conan like body mirrors my own physique (I wish.) The other characters on offer include a monk, wizard, demon hunter and witch doctor. The monk uses martial arts to feed knuckle sandwiches to his adversaries whilst chanting mantras that buff allies. Demon hunters are archers whose powers are fuelled by their hatred of all things evil. Wizards can nuke down enemies with arcane magicks whilst using other spells to ward off harm. Perhaps the most unique of the heroes on offer is the witch doctor. This warrior from the jungles can summon zombies to do his bidding whilst destroying threats with exploding frogs (Kermit would not approve.)
NEW LEVELING SYSTEM
In a bid to make the game more accessible to new players the level up system for this third game has been tweaked. Instead of allocating points to your stats and abilities your attributes automatically increase upon earning sufficient experience. New powers are unlocked as you meet the prerequisite level. Hardcore players may not be amused at this "streamlining" to proceedings, but I personally didn't mind it. The new system prevents newbies from crippling their characters, via bad decisions, early on in their questing life when they are just figuring out how things work. Tactically speaking it's also nice having access to all of a class' abilities as it allows you to change your active powers on the fly to better cope with any given situation.
The new system doesn't hamper your customisation options either. As you travel through the game you'll acquire different kinds of equipment. What gear you choose to use will have a huge bearing on your hero's play style. I for example opted to use a shield and stack vitality boosting trinkets turning my character into a damage soaking tank. Someone else, also playing a barbarian, could however go for an offensive build by increasing their strength and wielding a two handed weapon. Another thing that differentiates characters are the runes which are affixed to your abilities. These confer special bonuses to your attacks. You could for example make your standard attack deal a little more damage or pick a different rune which gives each blow you deal the chance of stunning a foe.
GEAR HUNTING IN AN ONLINE WORLD
For many the appeal of Diablo 3 is bettering your character by finding more powerful items to equip. Gear can be found in chests and is also dropped by the creatures you defeat. It's also possible to craft your own weapons and armour by investing in the blacksmith located back in camp. I personally didn't craft much equipment as the kit you end up getting is imbued with random properties, which may not be useful to you. In my travels I did however make extensive use of the jeweller. Using his services allows you to graft gems you find to socketed equipment, which boosts its statistics. The jeweller can also combine lower quality gems into more precious stones.
One thing prospective buyers should be aware of is that this instalment of Diablo, unlike its predecessors, makes the need for an internet connection mandatory. This isn't a big deal for me, as I enjoy playing the game online with friends and random players, but if you are only interested in solo play it can be frustrating (especially when server maintenance prevent you from loading up the game.) The good thing about playing via Blizzard's free Battlenet service is that it should prevent cheats from hacking the game and ruining the game for others. This however is scant consolation for those wanting to play alone and having to deal with complications such as internet lag.
I'm giving Diablo 3 full marks as I feel it's great value for money. I managed to complete the main story in around twelve hours, but since then I have invested one hundred more hours tackling the tougher difficulties and trying out the game with different characters. Even if I decide to stop playing today I can say that I have got my money's worth, especially when compared to other titles which I beat once and never touch again. The addictive gameplay is enhanced by a fine soundtrack, good voice acting and a decent story told through stunning CGI cinematics. The in game graphics could be a little better, but I'm not complaining as what we get is decent and plays on most modern hardware as the system requirements aren't too demanding.
My only real complaint is the introduction of an auction house that allows you to purchase items from fellow players. It somewhat cheapens the thrill of beating powerful monsters to hunt for epic loot. Farming levels for gold, to fund shopping trips to the auction house, tends to be more effective but I personally find repeating stages for money to be a chore. I'm also disappointed to see that some features are missing from the game at release. A promised player versus player arena will be introduced in a future patch which is unforgivable. Given that the game has been in development for over a decade I'm not sure what excuse Blizzard can offer for this omission. They certainly cannot complain about not having ample time to make the game.
Still I cannot stay mad at them because the game, even in its current state, is excellent. If you are an action RPG fan I can highly recommend purchasing a copy as soon as possible. It will take over your free time, much how Diablo takes possession of human bodies.