By Michael "Sullla" Soracoe / Originally published in two parts on Sulla's Website on June 1 and June 7, 2012
PART I: FIRST THOUGHTS AND IMPRESSIONS
These are my first thoughts and impressions about Diablo 3 after ten days of release (May 2012). I've played a single character class, the Wizard, through Normal difficulty and well into Nightmare. I've also had a chance to play co-op online with other people a little bit, and experience enough of the crafting system to get a good idea of how it works. Although I've only scratched the surface of all that D3 offers, I should be in a fair position to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses.
Let me start by providing a little detail on my experience with past games in the Diablo franchise. I experienced the original Diablo as a teenager when it released, purchasing the game in 1997 and spending a lot of time with it. Diablo was one of the first games that I ever played online, through a dial-up modem that tied up our family's telephone whenever I signed onto Battle.net. For this very reason, I was somewhat limited in how much time I could spend online, and Diablo's unrestricted multiplayer was somewhat of a disaster anyway, with rampant cheating, hacking, and player-killing (PK) taking place. Nevertheless the game was extremely fun to play: a fast and furious 2D ARPG of a sort that I had never seen before. I played a lot of Square's JRPGs during the '90s, and Diablo was something completely new and interesting to me. I didn't have the time or resources to be a power gamer for Diablo, not discovering things like Jarulf's Guide until much later, but I did have a lot of fun with it and looked forward to the inevitable sequel.
Diablo 2 was an instant purchase for me when it released in 2000, and I spent my first year at university playing the game almost exclusively. With a high-speed internet connection and plenty of free time on my hands, I had the chance to dive deeply into Diablo 2's mechanics and poke around with different character classes and builds. While D2 was much more poorly balanced than its predecessor, in particular shafting melee characters very badly and making ranged builds vastly easier to play, the game was unquestionably much faster-paced than the original. It hit the zeitgeist at the right moment, just as online gaming was starting to become popular, and it became a huge success far beyond the first game. I enjoyed playing Sorceress characters the most, just as I had liked the Mage class from the original game. I loved the Cold tree in particular; slowing and freezing enemies just seemed so cool, something that I had never really seen in another game. Over time I shifted my main gaming focus over to the Civilization series, but I often found myself coming back to Diablo 2 for a change of pace from turn-based strategy. I had the chance to join some of the Realms Beyond variant teams online, and formal teams of players working within variant restrictions proved to be enormously entertaining. It's a shame that everyone didn't have the chance to experience the same sort of camaraderie — public games with random players are in no way comparable. Towards the end of D2's lifespan I amused myself by running some Hardcore variant characters, taking several of them into Hell difficulty without dying, although I never managed to find the time to finish any of them completely. As game after game released updates, Blizzard held out without a Diablo 3 announcement. Year after year, still the wait continued. Finally, we did hear that D3 was coming, and then it spent another four years in development. Twelve years in total for a second sequel to Diablo is an eternity in gaming circles... but this is Blizzard we're talking about, after all.
How then does Diablo 3 match up? Was it worth the wait? The short answer is that yes, it does: everything I've seen thus far suggests that D3 will be a treasured addition to the franchise that everyone will be playing for years to come. The long answer will take several thousand more words, so keep reading if you want to hear more.
I'll start by talking about the skill system in play for Diablo 3, which has been the subject of some controversy. Every class has 30 skills to choose between, out of which any 6 can be active at one time. You are almost completely unrestricted in which 6 can be used, and they can be rebound to any combination of keyboard keys that you desire. Each skill can then be further modified by 5 runes, which change the initial starting skill in some way to produce a different effect. Some of the rune effects are relatively minor, and some of them create an entirely new and different skill. To a certain extent, this means that each character can have up to 150 different skills, which can be chosen in any group of 6, and then there are passive skills to pick from as well... In other words, there's a lot of freedom for customization here. You can also have some fun doing wacky variant builds, as some of the skills are downright silly in their effects. Characters can also be re-specified on the fly, swapping over to a completely different skillset with only a minor delay. This is the blessing and the curse of this system: there's a huge degree of player choice and freedom, but the downside is that any character can be instantly rebuilt into another character altogether. Imagine if in Diablo 2 your Hydra/Frozen Orb Sorceress could pause for 10 seconds, and then become a Blizzard/Meteor Sorcie, complete with maxed out skill points and full damage. It's awesome and fun, and yet it can be boring in a way too. I approve of this from a design standpoint, and I think it was the right way to go — no more penalizing players for putting points into the "wrong" skills. How many times did a new player in D2 stuff a bunch of skill points into Firebolt, only to have them all be completely useless two acts later? This is a way of letting players experiment with every skill at no penalty, and prevent them from making mistakes. Still, it also does lead to a great deal of homogeneity between characters. I think on the whole that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but it is a real issue nonetheless.
There's also the way in which skills work in D3, which is one of the more clever innovations that Blizzard has come up with. Every skill scales off of something called "weapon damage", with skills dealing damage based off of the stats on your weapon. It's somewhat illogical to watch your Wizard equip a new sword or axe and have the damage from their Magic Missile skill increase, but the mechanic works quite well in practice. By having every skill scale off of weapon damage, Blizzard has made it so that every skill is potentially viable for use throughout the entire game. You can use Magic Missile in Act I Normal, and you can also use it in Act IV Inferno, because the damage it deals is based not on the assignment of "skill points", but scales off of what weapon you have equipped. This is generally a good thing, since the scaling allows for a vast array of potential variant builds. You can literally build a character around just about anything and have it work. It was really silly how casting characters in D2 could get their damage free from skills, while melee characters absolutely had to turn up a good weapon of some kind. The one downside is that having a strong weapon is now ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL in Diablo 3. Everything scales off of weapon damage. Everything. If you get a good weapon from a drop, the difficulty level of the game goes way down. If you can't get something good to save your life, the difficulty goes through the roof. This is ameliorated somewhat by the crafting system, but it's important to keep in mind. Someone who's twinking gear or using the auction house heavily will literally not be playing the same game as someone who's using only the weapons that drop normally in the game.
Like the skill point system, the stat point system has almost entirely been done away with in Diablo 3. You no longer assign stat points on leveling up — they get distributed automatically by the game. I wasn't a fan of this idea, since it would seem to limit player choice for no real reason, however it really doesn't matter much at all. The free stat points that characters get on leveling up are completely overshadowed by the stat points that get assigned from equipping gear. You'll see your character get 5 or 6 stat points when you level up, and then you'll equip a single piece of armor that adds 100 points to a combination of stats. There's really no meaning to the stats from leveling up; Blizzard could have just cut that entirely and had all stat points come from gear. I suspect that they will likely do this if they make a Diablo 4, and the current game is simply a way of weaning players off of the old system.
The four stats are extremely important, even if you no longer assign points into them. All four have a primary and a secondary function, and none of them are ever bad to have. Each class has a primary stat which increases the damage that they do: 1% extra damage for each point in their primary stat. This is Strength for Barbarians, Dexterity for Monks and Demon Hunters, and Intelligence for Wizards and Witch Doctors. You always want to stack a lot of your primary stat because it increases your damage significantly. These stats also have the aforementioned secondary function as well: Strength increases armor rating, Dexterity adds dodge chance, and Intelligence adds a small amount to all resistances. All of this stuff is useful for everyone, and while Strength won't do much for a wizard, you still get some small benefit from having it. Vitality simply increases health — the more Vitality you have, the more health that you get. I haven't seen any +life gear, only +Vitality instead. For most classes, you want to stack a lot of your primary stat and a lot of Vitality. There's tons of other useful stuff to get as well, but stacking straight statistics is one of the most important things in character-building.
You can customize your character by choosing where these stat points from gear end up going, and this is one of the main ways that character-building takes place in D3. For example, if you want to play a melee Wizard, you can stack a lot of Strength to get armor rating from it. This would be an underpowered build but it would be at least somewhat viable (maybe not in Inferno!) A nice side-effect of all this is the total lack of Strength and Dexterity requirements on items, which were always a major pain in Diablo 2 and confusing for newcomers. Items have a level requirement, and some are class-specific, but otherwise everything is usable at all times. D3 makes some other incredibly useful improvements to the user interface that render item-hunting much easier. All magical (blue) items have their properties visible instantly — no more carting them back to town or having to fiddle with identify scrolls. While this is definitely a dumbing-down of the mechanics, especially compared to the original Diablo, it's an absolute godsend in terms of saving time and I approve of it immensely. Rare items can be identified by channeling for a few seconds, which then displays their properties as well. The interface also will show how good or bad an item is compared to your current gear by mousing over it. It will show the comparison in terms of damage, health, and armor — is this item better or worse than what you already have? This system isn't perfect, especially when comparing the damage from a two-handed weapon against a one-handed weapon and off-hand item. Still, it's pretty darn useful and a massive assist in going through drops quickly, separating the piles of useless crud from the few gems in the rough.
Speaking of gems, there's an elaborate crafting system in Diablo 3 that is much better designed than the one used in D2. No longer do players have to search online for hidden crafting recipes for their Horadric Cube; everything is now clearly displayed in-game at the two crafting merchants, the blacksmith and the jeweler. The blacksmith is basically this game's version of gambling, where you can salvage magical and rare gear for a chance to craft potentially useful items. This is much better than the version of gambling in Diablo 2, since you can focus on exactly the type of gear that you want. No more refreshing the merchants a hundred times until a circlet pops up. You can also craft the Nightmare- and Hell-improved gear, instead of having a miniscule chance to see them appear via the gambling system of D2. Overall, this seems to work decently well from what I've seen thus far. The downsides include having to manage a lot of salvage materials, collect tons of blacksmithing/jewelcrafting pages (a definite pain), and upgrade the blacksmith about a hundred times. At least you only have to do this a single time for each account.
I like the way that the jeweler has been handled even more, although it too requires a long and tedious upgrade process. Instead of cubing gems into higher forms, they are upgraded at the jeweler in much the same fashion. There are sockets everywhere on gear in D3, and you use gems to fill them, runes having been incorporated into the skill-set and not appearing as items in Diablo 3. The best part about this system is that the jeweler will de-socket items for a minimal fee, so you can use and re-use gems over and over again at no penalty. You never "waste" a gem by socketing it. I always hated that about Diablo 2, how you had to waste gems any time that you put them into an item. Now you can always remove gems when you find new gear, and use them again and again. There's no reason not to use the best gems you have at all times, then remove them and upgrade them and use them again. I've found this part of the mechanics to be a lot of fun, and my characters so far have been constantly trying to manage their gems for the extra stat points. This is a really nice system, and a giant upgrade over the old crafting method.
Once all of those items are in place, it's time to go out and fight some monsters. D3 is far superior to its predecessor in this regard as well, presenting lots of diverse challenges from the monster mix, especially in the later acts. Diablo 2 was extremely biased in favor of ranged characters, shoving all of the worst threats in the face of melee characters while allowing most ranged builds to sit back in relative safety. This has been done away with in Diablo 3, as there are tons of enemies with gap-closers and blink abilities. You are most definitely not safe as a ranged character in this game after getting out of Act I. Even Wizards and Demon Hunters need some armor in this game, or the gap-closing enemies will pick apart your character in short order. The balance in D3 is therefore infinitely better than in D2 in this regard. Monsters have a lot of different animations and some very interesting ways of getting onto the screen. This is taken to the point of cheapness at times; sometimes a group of enemies will just be on top of your character with no warning, because they came up through the ground or climbed down a wall where you couldn't see them, or something along those lines. You cannot rely on enemies walking in from the side of the screen and having time to deal with them. This does a lot to make the game more challenging.
The boss packs are another source of strength for D3's monster design. Now called elites, they have all sorts of cleverly designed abilities to make your life miserable. It appears that the creators of the game went back and looked at the boss abilities from Diablo 2, and cut out some of the useless stuff that no one particularly feared (Spectral Hit, I'm looking at you). D3's elites are far more interesting. Instead of something bland like Fire Enchanted, there's the Mortar bosses that bombard you with fiery death from a distance. Instead of Cold Enchanted, there are bosses with genuine Frozen abilities that can lock you in place and prevent you from moving with icy cold. (In D2 you could be chilled but never outright frozen.) Then there are the elites with crowd-control abilities: Wallers throw up walls of earth that can trap you next to a mob of enemies; Knockback bosses throw you back a looooooong way; Vortex bosses suck you next to them, deadly in all sorts of ways; Nightmare bosses put a terror effect on you, making you run in a random direction during which you cannot control your actions (Nocturne and Fiddlesticks say hi). Then on higher difficulties these elites start getting more than one ability, combining them in nasty patterns. The crowd-control stuff is just a great idea, adding in the kind of abilities that genuinely threaten players in a way that "Stone Skin" doesn't. Instead of adding raw damage, the elite abilities change the mechanics of the elite mobs and render your encounters of them completely different from those of normal critters.
The bosses in this game are also much better than in Diablo 2. There are multiple bosses in every act, each with their own unique animations and attacks. For the most part these bosses are relatively fair, with memorizable patterns that can be learned and planned around. Most bosses are also fought in their own little arenas, with enough room to maneuver around and fight fairly. The one exception to this is the fight at the end of Act II, which is done on a tiny platform, and Blizzard should be ashamed for another blatantly unfair sardine-can battle. With that one problem area aside, the rest of the fights are well-designed and generally pretty fair.
The environments in D3 look outstanding, with one of our posters at Realms Beyond comparing them to the masterwork of a Renaissance painter. Blizzard wisely chose to ignore the lure of 3D and instead make an isometric 2D game, then concentrate on making those 2D landscapes look extremely pretty. There are a lot of varied environments to traverse in this game, with Acts I and III being the best in my opinion. Act II is certainly the weakest, featuring a lot of dull desert and sewer areas. There are also some uninteresting parts in the indoor sections of Act III, but this is made up for by the incredible action taking place in the outdoor areas, where the game goes a long way with its scripting to make you genuinely feel like your character is in the middle of a huge battle. The plot of the game is nothing special, and can be somewhat tedious at times with the endless fetch quests that you are asked to carry out for the latest plot token of the moment. I will say that there were a few surprises along the way that I was not expecting, and it kept me entertained enough while playing. I liked the inclusion of the lore books scattered throughout the game, and, unlike Diablo 2, this game actually does a good job of incorporating the plot of the original Diablo. (D2 raped the story of the first game. D3 tries to tie them all together into some sort of larger narrative, with mixed success. There are definite plot holes here.) I don't sweat the story elements too much — if you are looking for some kind of great plot in a Diablo game, you're looking in the wrong place.
Online co-op play seems to work relatively well. You have a friends list that tells you who is online at any point in time, and it's very easy to join the games of your friends. It's almost too easy, since you have to pick a setting to prevent people from popping into your games if you don't want to run co-op. It's easy to teleport to the location of your friends by clicking on their banner in the town square, no need to fool with portals or waypoints. By far the best addition to multiplayer is the way in which loot is handled, with separate items dropping on each player's client. There's no competition for gear that falls on the ground, since you can't even see what's dropping for everyone else. Tremendous improvement on Blizzard's part. However not all is peaches and cream when it comes to the online elements of the game. Single-player has essentially been removed from the game entirely for security reasons. Even when you're playing by yourself, you still need to sign on to the online client, and you are effectively playing an online game without other players. This is a real shame, since there is definite lag while playing and during peak hours it can get pretty bad. I don't even want to create a Hardcore character, because there's a real chance of dying due to a lag spike. There were also horror stories all during the first week of the servers going down, and no one being able to play the game that they'd just bought. It's a real shame that players can't choose to play in an offline mode and avoid some of this nonsense if they so choose.
Blizzard also added the auction house to Diablo 3, which gets a mixed reception from me. The obvious intention here is to monetize the trading done between players, so that Blizzard can get a cut of items being sold with real money, which was rampant on eBay with Diablo 2. The auction house doesn't require trading in real currency though, as players can also buy and sell items using the in-game gold currency. I can see the obvious advantages of this system: players have always done a lot of trading of items in past Diablo games, and this makes for an easier way to carry out the transactions. No more sitting in a game lobby spamming in chat that you want to trade gear. You can list it on the auction house and sell what you don't want quickly and easily. The downside is that the auction house has a very real warping effect on the game. You can find much, MUCH better gear for sale in the auction house than you will get by playing normally, and because there are so many millions of people playing the game, buying stuff online is relatively cheap. Someone who uses the auction house frequently will quickly find themselves playing an entirely different game from someone playing in pure fashion. For example, I could more than double the weapon damage of my Wizard character through use of the auction house. If I did that, the difficulty of the game would drop enormously. There's also the very real question of fun factor. You could stack gold-find gear on your character and then buy whatever you need online via the auction house. But... would that actually be fun to play? I think that Blizzard has outsmarted themselves to a certain extent here. They've made it so easy to buy and sell things online, that they will end up removing much of the fun factor of searching for the best gear, therefore shortening the life of the game for the player base. Then again, players were going to be doing this stuff anyway. Should we blame Blizzard for making it easier to engage in the same sort of self-destructive behavior that players would have done anyway? I'm not sure. As I said initially, I think the auction house is a mixed bag. It's not something that I plan on using much, if at all, for my characters. I just think the game is much more entertaining when each character has to find their own items, and work out the shortcomings and limitations that this entails. When you can get anything that you want on demand, the game ceases to be interesting.
Overall then, I'm very positive about the future outlook of this game. There are definitely things that I find irritating about Diablo 3: the online hassles, issues with the auction house, the cheapness of certain types of enemies, and so on. However, I see these problems as being more than outweighed by the merits of what D3 has to offer. The mechanics of this game are far superior in their design to those in Diablo 2. The skill system allows for a vast array of variant builds to be potentially viable, limited only by the player's creativity. The elite mobs are clever in their design and present new and interesting challenges as the difficulty level increases. The in-game economy is vastly improved, with gold having real value and the crafting system mostly working well while being less punitive about socking stuff. The auction house can be ignored for pure characters who get by on their own gear. I've seen nothing to indicate that this game won't be played for many years to come, and I'm looking forward to exploring its mechanics in full detail over that span. I can hardly wait to put together the first solo variant characters, and variant teams for online play. I already have some ideas along those lines which should be a lot of fun. Where exactly all of this will lead I don't know, but I think that this game is a definite keeper.
PART II: DEEPER THOUGHTS — NIGHTMARE REFLECTIONS
With another two weeks passed and Nightmare difficulty completed with my Wizard character, I want to go into more detail about some of the mechanics of Diablo 3. There are plenty of things that I didn't have time to discuss in my initial writeup, or simply didn't notice during my first pass through the game. Seeing everything on a second pass made many of the design decisions that went into the game more clear. By the very nature of the subject matter, this article is going to be more in-depth and somewhat more pedantic than my initial overview. (Hence the title: Deeper Thoughts.) Let me be clear: I still like Diablo 3, and I definitely recommend a purchase to anyone who liked the previous games and remains sitting on the fence. That said, there are some aspects here that are not entirely to my liking.
My Wizard character relied on a fairly standard skill setup throughout Nightmare, which I rarely changed. Magic Missile on primary attack, Arcane Orb (this game's version of Fireball) on secondary attack. Then one other attack skill (Hydra) along with a bunch of defensive/utility skills: Diamond Skin, Teleport, and Energy Shield. I found that having more attack skills didn't really do anything, because I would just run out of Arcane Power and find myself unable to use them. Three attack skills (and Hydra being somewhat of a utility skill itself) proved to be plenty. The real star of the show was Diamond Skin, which I found to be almost mandatory when proceeding through the game. One of the big differences between Diablo 2 and 3 is the problem of avoiding damage. In D2, there are a couple of features that allow you to avoid taking much damage as long as you have room to maneuver. You have the ability to run (which is not present in D3 at all, and it's a good change), which automatically makes you faster than nearly everything in the game. Monsters generally only appear at the edges of the screen, giving you at least some time to react to their appearance (and kite them or whatever). Ranged attacks tend to be pretty dodgeable, whether it's arrows or magical spells or whatever. The Bone Spirits of the Oblivion Knights were so tough precisely because they were one attack that couldn't be avoided, not without waiting for the spell timer to wear out.
All of this has changed in Diablo 3. There's no run toggle at all, and many monsters are as fast as your character — or faster. Bosses also have tons of crowd-control abilities — your Jailer, Waller, Freeze bosses and so on — which forces your character to have some kind of disengage skill. All five classes have something of this sort, and you are clearly intended to make use of them. For the Wizard that would be Teleport, and while I didn't have to use it that often, when I did need to Teleport out of something, I found that I needed it immediately. Another problem is the way in which monsters will pop onto the screen; tons of them will literally appear next to you, from under the ground or out of the sky or whatever. You will often have almost no warning whatsoever before monsters are on top of you and banging away. In one way it's a neat challenge, but in another way it's somewhat cheap and unfair. There's no way I can hear the noise that tells a Rockworm is about to pop out of the ground in the middle of a large fight. My character simply gets popped for X amount of unavoidable damage. Fun, that. I also found that for whatever reason, it's much harder to dodge ranged attacks in Diablo 3. This is partly due to particle speed; the arrows and spears that monsters throw travel MUCH faster than in Diablo 2. I could nearly always walk out of the way of such attacks in past games, but I rarely seem to be able to in this one. Missiles are just too fast. Secondly, due to some combination of hit box detection or server lag, I constantly find myself getting hit by attacks that appear to miss. I swear that an arrow misses me by a good two yards, and then I take the damage anyway. I have no idea quite what's going on here, but it's extremely frustrating and serves to lower the skill cap of the game. Why bother trying to dodge missiles and kite mobs if I just get hit by the projectiles anyway?
My answer to all of this was to rely very heavily on the Diamond Skin, which grants you a temporary shield against damage up to a cap. The closest skill I can think of from Diablo 2 is the Necromancer's Bone Armor, although Diamond Skin only lasts for a few seconds before going on cooldown. Nevertheless, you are practically invincible for the 6 seconds that Diamond Skin lasts, at least in Normal and Nightmare difficulties anyway. It will block all of the damage. I felt that this was somewhat cheap and uninteresting as a skill, but in the end I found myself using it nonstop. It was the only way to prevent myself from taking nonstop damage from enemies. Against anything ranged, it was just impossible to avoid taking hits. Impossible. Might as well throw on the Diamond Skin so that you don't have to rely on health orb drops constantly. It was the same story against melee attackers in the end stages of the game too. Nearly everything has a gap-closer or blink attack at the end of the game, and I simply had no choice but to turn on Diamond Skin in every fight. Impossible to maintain distance and kite against many of these foes. This made the game somewhat one-dimensional, and it was not as interesting as I had initially hoped it would be.
It's been interesting watching different reactions from different players about the overall difficulty level of Diablo 3. I have seen a lot of people claiming that the game is "too easy", which has not been my experience at all. Perhaps their experience is nothing but 4-player co-op, with frequent use of the auction house to outfit their characters in very strong gear. Getting an excellent weapon drop or purchase certainly has a drastic effect on the overall challenge level of the game. Or maybe these players don't consider dying to be a major issue. After all, there's almost no penalty for dying, and you can retry the same fight over again immediately. Repeated dying in an online party of 4 has even emerged as a zerging tactic for advancing in Inferno, from what I've heard. Anyway, I don't believe that Diablo 3 is "too easy" at all, by my definition at least. Playing almost exclusively solo, without a follower and without touching the auction house, I found the later stages of the game to be rather difficult, and I'm not a bad player at the Diablo games. One thing that distinguishes Diablo 3 is the scaling challenge level within each difficulty; Act I is by far the easiest, followed by Act II, and things get significantly harder in the later stages of Act III and IV. The last act is very short, but it's a real pain in the rear from a challenge standpoint. Several of the bosses are incredibly unfair and cheap in Act IV... let me explain in more detail.
My character suffered four deaths in total in Nightmare, in two pairs of two. The first two deaths both occurred in the later stages of Act III, both times against an elite mob of Fast-attributed Phase Beasts. The Phase Beasts are really nasty opponents for a casting class: melee opponents with an innate teleport ability such that they can always close the distance to you. Unlike most other monsters with gap-closers, they have high HP totals and deal very heavy damage; other monsters like the little frogs who latch onto you with their tongues have significantly less of both. So I ran across two Phase Beast elite groups with the "Fast" boss attribute, which means that they are much faster than my character, and they can keep teleporting on top of me, and there are five of them. Instant death, nothing I could do about it. I drank potions, I teleported away, I used Diamond Skin — didn't matter. After the second time this happened, I realized that I needed to come up with a better strategy, or I was going to be dying endlessly whenever this combination appeared.
What I came up with was the cheesiest solution imaginable. I call this the "Doorway Shuffle". The instant that you see a teleporting/extra fast/whatever elite group, run away as fast as possible. See if you can string out the elites and fight them one at a time. (This is much, MUCH harder to do in D3 than in D2, in my experience.) Regardless of whether this is successful or not, keep running until you reach the doorway to this particular area. Fight the enemies at the doorway and deal as much damage as you can, then step out of the door into the previous map. Now you are completely safe, and you can wait for cooldowns to reset and/or regain health. You can go back to town and heal your character if desired. Then when ready, step back through the door again and fight the previous boss group, with the damage you inflicted before still in effect. Rinse and repeat as necessary until they are dead. It's unbelievably cheap to fight this way... but you know what? Elite mobs that can teleport endlessly and swarm you under are also unbelievably cheap. In a previous Diablo game, I could fight that battle by drinking potions off the belt, and do a "whole belt" fight to survive. But nope, not an option here because of the way the potions work. All potion usage on a 30-second cooldown. I actually do like this idea, but there's a crippling problem here: the potions don't restore enough health. They are nowhere near sufficient, because they don't scale up properly with game difficulty. In Normal, you keep getting new potions with each Act that will pretty much take you to full health when used. Awesome. Then at the beginning of Nightmare, I noticed that the potions were starting to fall off a bit, not keeping up with the huge rate at which my health orb was increasing. By the end of Nightmare, this was a complete joke. Potions restore 4500 or 6500 health. My character had 20,000 health. Yeah, that doesn't really help that much, thanks. It needs to be one of two ways. Either we can drink as many potions as we want, even if they are weaker, or potions are on a cooldown and they restore essentially all of our health. One way or the other. Sucky potions that are ALSO on a 30-second cooldown are unacceptable. The current design is really not fair when you have a difficult running battle. It pretty much forces you to resort to cheese like the Doorway Shuffle to survive those really difficult fights. Blah to that.
I've mentioned before that I liked most of the boss fights in this game, and I do enjoy many of them. However, the huge exception to that rule would be the Act IV boss fights, all of which are cheap and unfair in one way or another. The first battle against Iskatu swarms you with vast numbers of little shadow beasts, without any warning whatsoever. This fight resulted in a death in Normal because I had no idea what to expect or how to counter it. It's a dumb battle because it has a few narrow solutions: find some combination of skills that deal area of effect (AOE) damage while keeping you safe. For the Wizard class, that's the Archon skill, which rapes this battle incredibly hard and turns it into complete cakewalk. It's a stupid battle though, a pure variant buster that relies on certain narrow combinations of skills to succeed. I can't say that I like it. Rakanoth, the next boss, has a (nearly) undodgeable teleport attack that hits you from off screen. You're taught from every previous boss fight to keep your distance, and then Rakanoth changes that by tele-attacking you from off screen for huge damage. Very lame. The sad thing is that this battle isn't truly that difficult, merely requiring you to memorize when the teleport attack is coming and react appropriately. It's a pretty cheap fight though, because the whole gimmick is that you don't get to see the attack coming, therefore getting no time to react. You simply have to memorize the pattern ahead of time. That's not where game design should be in this day and age.
The mother of all cheap fights, however, is the one against Izual. I died here in Normal, and my character died here again (twice!) in Nightmare. This is the single biggest bullshit fight in the whole game. Izual slowly lumbers after your character, not doing much of anything for most of the fight. Then he will pull out his charge attack, which is virtually a one-hit kill. I don't know the exact numbers, but my Wizard character was doing well in the battle and had about half of her life remaining. Then I was charged, and I was simply dead. Bam. Half of my life orb gone instantly, 10k health gone in a flash. That kind of nonsense has no place in a game like this. It's another freaking Duriel puzzle, a battle with narrow solutions wherein you get killed if you don't pick one of them. For the Wizard class, the answer is to prevent Izual from ever getting next to you. Use Blizzard to slow and Hydra to deal damage passively and just keep running. Eventually they will get the kill. You can never leave yourself close to Izual, or he can virtually one-shot your character with his charge attack. What a load. This is not an interesting or fun battle, just a cheap trick on Blizzard's part. Now that I know what's coming I can probably survive better, but the battle is so out of character with the rest of the game... Most of the bosses are handled well. They have numerous attacks, which you can see coming and react accordingly. Even Belial is a better fight, although the constricted space there is still pretty unfair. The last battle with Diablo is actually done very well — it's a tough but fair encounter, requiring execution for long minutes on end, but not overly punitive in any way. The rest of Act IV though... meh. I don't think I'll be hanging out there very much. Those bosses are not well designed.
I mentioned before about the issues that I have with the health pots in this game. The real problem here is not the health pots per se, it's rather a larger problem with the issue of scaling. Diablo 3 has a ton of scaling, more scaling than just about any other game that I can remember. The game starts out very easy, and gets progressively more difficult as one goes along. In addition to this, the items that drop and the stats on the monsters continue to scale as well, both from Act to Act and from difficulty level to difficulty level. Your character also scales at nearly the same rate, with Vitality and character life increasing massively as levels go up. (At the start of the game, 1 Vitality = 10 HP; at character level 60, 1 Vitality = 35 HP. That's per point, mind you!) None of this is inherently problematic in and of itself, but the rate at which the scaling takes place can be pretty insane. Check out the stats on an enemy from Act I across different difficulty levels:
Act 1 Ghoul
Normal: 41-82 HP, 43 damage
Nightmare: 339-678 HP, 397 damage
Hell: 2800-5601 HP, 3677 damage
Inferno: 13000-26000 HP, 180000 damage
The game scales up incredibly fast, significantly faster than previous Diablo games. You will find that gear even one Act out of date will quickly fall by the wayside, as new stuff keeps dropping that outclasses what you previously had. The only time that you'll wear something for a long time is if you happened to get a nice drop from a boss with a monster level significantly higher than the normal critters. (Act end bosses on Normal are probably the best example of this, where you are guaranteed to get Rare item drops at a much higher monster level.) When I walked into Tristam in Hell for the first time, I instantly found a weapon in the store that was better than the one I had used all through Act IV Nightmare. What I had was already obsolete. This is a deliberate design decision on Blizzard's part: they want new and better stuff to be dropping constantly, because it serves to funnel people to the online auction house. Something that's good right now will be obsolete five levels later. If you are constantly picking up new stuff online as it gets unlocked by your character level, you keep getting stronger and stronger. If you have to wait for something good to drop, well, sucks to be you, buddy. Blizzard doesn't design the game around you. Not when there's untold thousands of people willing to fork over real money to make the game easier. This is the contribution that Facebook games have made to the world of gaming, and Blizzard has designed Diablo 3 with that system in mind. Pay for power. Now again, this is a Player vs. Enemies game (PvE) so none of that really has to dampen my own experience, right? In a sense no... but then again, in a real sense, yes it does. Blizzard clearly balances item drop rates and difficulty level of monsters with the auction house in mind. They were very open about stating that they crippled the drop rate of rare and set items for auction house purposes. Can't have too many legendary items floating around, then people would be less willing to buy them online! None of this is game-killing, but it is a huge disappointment nonetheless. I was looking forward to finding crafting recipes and making my own legendary stuff. Ha! How naive. The drop rates for that kind of thing are infinitesimally small due to auction house purposes. I'll never be seeing any of those things unless I replay Inferno mode endlessly (and that's not happening).
The extreme rate of scaling has other insidious effects as well beyond the item economy. Because everything scales so incredibly fast as you progress through the game (again, a conscious design decision to encourage frequent online purchases) it's basically impossible to play online with other people who are above or below your character level. A difference of a single Act between characters would be fairly trivial in Diablo 2, at least outside of Act I/II in Normal difficulty. In Diablo 3, being a single Act ahead means that your character virtually enters god mode when replaying previous areas. When going back to earlier areas, your character is unkillable and the game is boring for your friends, since you are so much stronger than everyone else. When venturing ahead into a more advanced part of the game, your character is completely worthless and will be completely ineffective for anything beyond crowd control. This phenomenon is far, FAR more pronounced in Diablo 3 than in the previous games in the series, and it all goes back to the decision to have everything scale so hard. Blizzard uses their online servers to disguise this problem (the matchmaking will automatically put you in games with characters at the same level/location) but I see it as a real problem. It's just hard to play online with friends unless you have characters at exactly the same point in time in terms of game progress. Someone's not having fun otherwise. When I played online with VarisNox, his character was a mere 3 levels ahead, and even that small of a difference was notable. I had more Vitality, but his character had fully 1000 more health, which was a good 10-15% total life, just due to character level difference. He had also found a really sweet Demon Hunter bow and I hadn't been as fortunate, so his character was doing 1800 DPS to my 1000 DPS. The minor difference between character levels and the presence of one good weapon was enough to reduce me to second fiddle status. Maybe not everyone cares, and maybe some people even like this kind of thing — it's easy to godmode characters past challenges by using more advanced friend accounts. I see this as a real issue, however. Too much gap. If your characters aren't VERY closely matched, the co-op mode turns into an uneven experience. Too easy for one player, too hard for someone else.
I also have to mention that account security has turned into a major issue for Diablo 3. Huge numbers of accounts are getting hacked and having all of their items sold off, then their gold transferred to online bot accounts. There's all sorts of heated rhetoric flying around about this right now, and I'm not enough of a tech person to know how or why these accounts are getting hacked. The main point is that this has developed into a serious issue, and it feels necessary right now to use an email authenticator just to play the darn game in safety. Blizzard has had to delay the "real money" portion of the auction house because this has turned into such a pressing concern. At least right now it's just in-game items and in-game gold getting hacked, and not actual financial information. All of these issues have led me to question the decision to make Diablo 3 online-only, and place so much attention on the auction house. Yes, if it all goes according to plan, it's going to make Blizzard a ton of money. At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the deleterious effects that the auction house is having on the game, and the very serious problems with lag, account hacking, and server downtime that are aggravating the player base. There are a lot of mad customers out there. Would it really have been that big of an issue to allow players to opt-out of the whole online thing, and simply create single-player characters if they wanted to do so? I'd be happy to authenticate my account each time I played, if I could just get out of the online mode afterwards, avoiding lag and hacking and all that other crud. Diablo 3 is going to sell over 10 million copies before its run is done; it moved over 6m in the first week alone. At some point, maybe Blizzard should just be happy with all those sales and not try to keep forcing more MORE MOAR online transactions on its player base. It's cool for those who want it, but not all of us do, you know? It would be nice if our opinions were considered as well.
Anyway, like I said at the beginning, this was going to involve more nitpicking and criticism than my first thoughts. I think that about 85% of what Diablo 3 does is really great and makes for a fabulous gaming experience. The other 15% is unnecessarily aggravating and head scratching. That's almost exactly the same way I felt about Diablo 2, a mixture of mostly good and some incredibly frustrating ideas. I can see why Blizzard made the choices that they did from a design perspective, and yet many of them aren't proving to work out in the way that they were expecting. I will be interested to see where they go from here in the patching process. Variant characters are still a fair ways away for me; need more time to become familiar with the mechanics and the various skill combinations. If I can't play through the game deathless, then I still need more practice, and I'm not sharp enough for variant play. Dying 80 times to progress through the game is not my style. Stay tuned.