PAR plays Diablo 3: this is the anatomy of addiction
Opiates, such as heroin or oxycodone, are addictive due to the way they cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to the opioid receptors in your brain. After a while, you can’t function without the drug. That’s the biology, but you can sit with an addict and explain the physical processes behind their experiences without being able to affect their cravings for the drug. I’m writing this statement with a cup of coffee by my side, and my eyes are red and bloodshot. I’m exhausted. This is what happens when one plays Diablo 3 instead of sleeping.
Like the drug abuser described above, understanding why the game is so hard to put down does little to curb the feeling that I need to keep playing. The core mechanics of Diablo 3 are simple: You click on enemies to attack them, and when they are killed you collect the gold and items they drop. You keep the loot you can use, and sell or salvage the rest. You can trade items with friends. Your character becomes more powerful as he or she gains levels, but the enemies you face also grow in number and power.
The game is a treadmill; you gain more weapons and power to fight more powerful enemies. I know Blizzard is treating me like a rat hitting a button to get my pellet of food, but I’m having too much fun to care. I’m visiting fantastic lands and gaining equipment of increasing scarcity, if that isn’t an oxymoron. There are nits to pick here, and we’re going to pick at them all, but if you enjoy spending time in dungeons and clicking on the gruesome bad guys until they are but smears on the walls… you’re going to have a good time.
The technical issues
Diablo 3 requires the player to be online while playing. There are no concessions made for LAN play or single player enthusiasts; if you want to go on the adventure, you need to be connected to the Internet. This became a problem when the servers couldn’t handle the immense load of the game’s launch, and players were locked out of the game they had purchased. The problems have since been solved, mostly, although getting kicked from a game remains a frustratingly common experience.
We live in the brave new of world of lag spikes that cause slight warping, even during single player campaigns. That doesn’t feel like a step forward.
I was stuck in a loop as the installer attempted to updated the setup files when I tried to install the game, days after its release. The Internet provided a number of ways to fix this, and after an hour or two of trying them all I was finally able to play. There are still a few kinks to be worked out as of this writing, but it’s getting better.
It’s time to admit the idea of video games as services and not discrete purchases isn’t going away, and those services are rarely ready for the rush of gamers at launch. There is nothing wrong with waiting a few days to purchase games that are likely to have issues on the first day, and Diablo 3 certainly fit that description. Publishers are now interested in both managing and controlling our gaming sessions, and that’s even more important with games like Diablo 3 that will eventually feature an auction house where items can be bought or sold with real money, but that control comes at a price: It’s becoming more risky to be an early adopter, not less. Keep that in mind.
The leveling system
The leveling system is where the magic happens with Diablo games, perhaps moreso than the loot-collection aspects of the games. You pick from five classes to create your character—each character class has a male and female option—and you kill enemies and complete quests to gain experience. This experience allows you to gain levels and become more powerful, complete with new abilities and attacks.
In previous games you had to navigate a skill tree to choose your abilities as you gained power, and the leveling system was a zero-sum game: By using one branch of that tree you closed off others. You had to pick and choose what your character could do well, and this created a cottage industry of guides and FAQs filled with best practices to making the most powerful versions of each character. This system offered the player freedom, but the choices slowly solidified into the “right” way to play each class.
Diablo 3 controls what skills you unlock and when they become available. My level five Barbarian is going to have access to the same skills as your level 5 Barbarian, since the game offers a linear progression of skills and abilities. This feels stifling at the beginning of the game when you have very little power over how your character behaves, but the system’s depth becomes apparent as you continue to gain levels and unlock more skills, and then runes to adjust those skills, and then passive buffs that affect your character’s performance. Then you begin to mix and match them all together.
Blizzard didn’t dumb down anything for Diablo 3, they simply put the focus back on the fun of playing the game itself. Think of your skills, runes, and abilities as a toolbox that is slowly filled with a variety of tools for different situations. During one session I played alongside my friend, whose character is a Monk. I went into my skills and we talked through how to set things up so our characters would work well together. The next night I played by myself, and spent a few moments re-organizing my character to excel in that environment.
Each character may progress in the same way and be functionally identical, but each player can use those characters in very different ways. You’re invited to go swimming in the options available to you at the higher levels, and you’ll find some very cool interconnections between skills, abilities, and your gear. The game rewards experimentation and a deep knowledge of everything your character can do, and you must use your skills in different ways to learn what works best. That’s a much better idea than requiring players to agonize over every decision as they build their character; Diablo 3 features a leveling system that’s friendly and inviting. It rolls over and asks you to pat its tummy. It begs to be played with. Who are we to say no?
People will miss the old ways of doing things, and there is a certain appeal to creating a character that feels like it’s “yours” from the beginning, but the skills system in Diablo 3 brings its own charms.
The game itself
Yes, you will click on the enemies until they die, although you can also just hold down the left mouse button to the same end. Weapons and armor are classified by rarity and color coded, which allows you to get excited or bored nearly instantly after every enemy death. Things you don’t need are sold or salvaged for use in the game’s crafting system. There is a story, but it’s secondary, and characters speak in sweeping, clumsy proclamations. Blizzard enjoys adding humor and pop culture references into its games, however, so keep your eyes peeled for any number of good jokes and funny asides.
The backgrounds often look hand painted and, while the game doesn’t have the immediate visual impact of a first person shooter, there will be times where you will be compelled to pause for a moment to soak in the visuals and enjoy a vista or bit of level design. You go to interesting places, talk to people who speak dire words of warning about ancient powers, and smack all manner of flora and fauna with your weapons. There is subtlety in the game’s leveling system as we described above, but the core game remains comfortable and familiar; there are no wheels being reinvented in Diablo 3.
There are many reasons the game is so much fun to play and easy to continue playing deep into the night, but the simplest may be the fact that the game offers a never-ending series of rewards. You find gold and loot everywhere, while higher level and rarer items drop less frequently, but often enough to keep you interested. You level up at a good rate if you continue to move and explore each area. You’ll find a new piece of gear to use, level up your character, progress the story, or gain an achievement every few minutes. The game has multiple reward mechanisms, and at least one of them is always close to rewarding you for your time.
If you die the game sends you back into the action from the last checkpoint after taking 10 percent of the durability of your items, so there are rarely moments of frustration where you feel compelled the quit the game. My first session ended only due to the fact the game kicked me out due to a glitch, and it felt like a bar closing down in the middle of the night. Diablo 3 often feels like a frat brother, telling you to do one more shot, chug one more beer, or do one more line even though your body is about to give out. There is a relentlessness to the game’s need to be played, enjoyed, and consumed.
There are also the intangibles that work together to show you the amount of care and craft that went into the game. Listen to the sounds of the attacks, and watch the animations of the fly bodies and weapons. If the core game play is simply clicking on enemies until they die—and as you play and begin encounter tougher enemies it becomes more complicated—Blizzard made sure the clicks and killing felt wonderful. There is a kind of beauty to wandering around the wide open areas and slaughtering big groups of enemies; my Barbarian’s ax sounds like a gunshot whenever it hits something. The game’s campaign may only have 20 or so hours of content, and I haven’t beaten it yet, but as you change difficulties you get access to even better loot, and you’ll want to replay the core game with multiple character classes. There are weeks, if not months, of content included in the box if you’re hardcore about seeing, doing, and collecting everything.
I understand all the tricks the game uses to get me hooked, and I can clearly see how effectively I’m being manipulated as I play. I may be able to quit if I wanted, like every good addict likes to say to themselves, but the truth is I don’t want to quit. Not yet.