Ever wanted to play a real dungeon crawler but got held back by the possibility of a carpel tunnel syndrome? Did Diablo 2’s skill tree make you dizzy and the hard decisions on where to dump attribute points net you an increased blood pressure? No more, with Diablo III: Diablo for Kids! Cruising through the killing fields by the press of a single button. Forget health potions, character builds and scouring dungeons for loot. It’s all made much more accessible and fun to play. At least, for those who didn’t know what Diablo really was like, before version 3. With Diablo III’s Eternal Collection arriving this week on the Nintendo Switch (what? A Blizzard game on a Nintendo Console? That’s right!), I take a look at my all-time favorite clickedy-click game genre and try to bring back some fond memories.
I failed. Miserably.
There is of course no clicking involved in a console version of Diablo, and let’s start with the good parts: it runs extremely smoothly, even with a bunch of stuff happening on screen (like, say, exploding bodies on lightning-enhanced enemies). The revamped inventory screen and UI to match a console button layout is overall well-done. It’s easy to walk through the world and through the screens, and it gets the job done. I of course prefer a full inventory screen instead of a list I need to scroll through but I understand the limitations of two analog knobs. Skills are assigned to face buttons and I never felt the need to use a shortcut to quickly switch between them, as you had to do in D2. There are more buttons than the 2 skills you had back then, so that might explain something.
On to the fun part: character building! Or rather, what seems to be completely absent in D3. Why are my skills automatically unlocked? Why are runes a subset of skills now? Why can’t I dump points into skills? Where is the tree in “skill tree”? Where are the attributes? I’m starting to feel like the Angry Video Game Nerd here. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Diablo 3, and I hate myself for doing so, but all the complexity that was so amazing and an integral part of the predecessor now seems to be completely vanished… Locked in a soulstone, perhaps? I know this is a 6-year old discussion, but now I’m finally starting to understand Diablo 2 fans, as I am one. I spent more than 200 hours creating “WW bars”, “CE necros”, doing Mephisto runs at 3 AM. Good times. But what made those times so great was my own decisions and the permanent impact I made on my character. Diablo 3 seems to play with me instead of the other way around: it feels like cruising on auto-pilot. All skills are automatically unlocked at level 70 and you can switch between them as you see fit. In D2, you had to start over. That might be harsh, but that was part of the fun.
Venturebeat talks about the fun factor of D2 thanks to it’s skill tree choice system:
Despite the linear structure of skill trees, the system was deceptively open-ended in a way that the first game’s freeform, one-class-fits-all spells were not. One summer vacation, I hauled my computer over to a friend’s house so we could spend a weekend playing Diablo 2. We each rolled a Barbarian, but our characters were dramatically different. He specialized in the character’s War Cries, buffs that did things like increase our skill efficacy and dig potions out of monster corpses. I chose to concentrate on combat disciplines. I was the heavy hitter, while he boosted our efficiency in battle using various cries.
Why would a game like this, completely built around the concept of “runs”, automatically make choices for the player? That defined the previous Diablo games! That is hack & slash. Take a look at Path of Exile, for example. The screenshot below illustrates my attempt at explaining the endless possibilities of character builds. And no, these things are not unlocked if you level up. My Corpse Explosion necromancer with Bone Spikes doesn’t need “Corpse Devour”, as CE turns corpses into bombs. It’s just ridiculous. When my character levels up, I shrug my shoulders. When my character levels in Diablo 2, I’m super excited as the game gives me a chance to crunch the numbers.
Another part of the fun was “MF runs” (magic find) - in Diablo 3, rare items drop at exceedingly regular rates. I can’t remember ever wearing something blue (“simply” magical, instead of yellow “rare” or orange “unique”). Unique drops are still exciting though. Speaking of loot: runes seem to be gone forever, embedded in the amazing skill tree. The activation of a rune will slightly modify a skill, for instance enhancing it with frostbite or doubling corpse explosion range. Damage might be altered too, but in mysterious ways. I can’t see what damage what skill does, and in Diablo 2 this was essential: do I put one more point into this skill or do I wait until the next subtree is unlocked and I switch from flesh to fire golem? Now, the Necromancer only has one “Golem” skill, which he can spice up using runes. Simply awful. What were they thinking?, I can hear the Angry Video Game Nerd saying.
It’s in fact quite an accomplishment that I still like the game, for some reason. The World of Warcraft-like graphics don’t hold me back as much as I feared, and they’ve done a decent job at trying to integrate the story into the main game run by sprinkling auditive notebooks into the world here and there. I’m however not excited enough to do lot’s of runs and will now say that I’m not interested in doing this online in any way, but local co-op play looks pleasant enough. My wife looked at me while playing it and said “that seems like a very repetitive, boring game”. Indeed, but Diablo 2 was also very repetitive, that’s the core of the game. I don’t mind, but I do want choice and I do want to think about what I put where. Now, I feel like Blizzard thought younger gamers can’t seem to think and make good decisions anymore. My wife asked me about something else while I was involved in a “heavy fight” with some enhanced monsters in a lair. I didn’t even pay attention and just pressed Y (Corpse Explosion, boom headshot!). Not a scratch. I remember being vulnerable and weak in Diablo 2. I’ve never even used one single health potion. Even if this is a “normal” difficulty run, the game should “give” - it should be scary and difficult (well, at least provide a challenge), not be a walk in the park!1
I’m very disappointed with the modern approach to (RPG) gaming2 in general. Diablo 3 isn’t the only case where simplification is one of the main “gains” in a successor: just take a look at Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls or the Fallout series. I find it to be very insulting and I’m convinced that the “younger generation” of gamers3 is still very capable of taking up the challenge and playing intriguing, complex games instead of boring, simple ones.