There are two ways to play Diablo III. The first is to run willy-nilly from boss fight to boss fight, pausing only to smite the demons who stand in your way. Or obsessive dungeon crawlers can methodically sweep every cursed cave and decrepit castle exterminating all evil, collecting every piece of gold and hoarding busted old swords and boots like a medieval Fred Sanford.
Either way, Blizzard’s 12-years-in-the-making action role-player is about compulsion, ambition and the delightful friction of conflict—all the evils that men do.
It is not coincidental that Diablo III hinges upon the eternal battle between heaven and hell, with humanity forever caught in the middle. Everything goes south when your hero (or heroes, since up to four can play cooperatively) follows a fallen star to a feudal town where the dead are rising from their graves. Here we meet Deckard Cain, the Yoda of our tale, and Leah—a plucky lass who has absorbed the old man’s arcane knowledge the occult as a non-paid intern. The game’s developer, Blizzard, holds Star Wars in higher estimation than Judeo-Christian myth. Despite being indebted to the vision of Hades popularized by Dante, the game is scrubbed clean of crucifix and pentagram, but Leah damn near quotes Luke Skywalker when she tells the tale of her father’s untimely death at the hands of demon marauders.
Though there’s fantasy lore and some solid character motivation to be found on the sidelines, Diablo’s plot is really about the scenery—where you go, who you’re killing there, and the big nasty you’ll face at the end of it all. The progression feels good. Once the zombies and skeletons are cleansed from their tombs and torture chambers, the whole production migrates to a sandblown approximation of the Arabian Nights, across the ramparts of a massive fortress under siege and, as if there were ever any doubt, from the depths of the abyss to the gates of heaven.
The fact that you fight a horned devil named Diablo at the end of Diablo III should come as no surprise. The trajectory of a dungeon crawler like this unspools predictably. That’s because it is meant to be consumed over and over, like a Catholic rosary. The lures to do so are many. The promise of epic weapons and resplendent pieces of armor are a huge motivator. When monsters die, gold, gems, and armaments explode from their fallen corpses in a satisfying fountain, leaving the heroes to scrabble for their goodies like kids scavenging the innards of a broken piñata. There’s always that chance of scoring a super-rare item with the orange aura of a legendary find—the kind of gear your character will wield for ages, or pass down to friends and family like an heirloom. And as any lottery addict will tell you, you can’t win if you don’t play.
In a major departure from RPG doctrine, Blizzard has streamlined the dull work of statistic tweaking in favor of something more gratifying. As the game goes on, your character gains new skills that can you can immediately try out on your foes. Much of the moment-to-moment fun of Diablo III is found experimenting with combinations until you’ve found the sweet spot that best suits your play style. With teammates, these decisions are more interesting. A tight-knit team can wreak major havoc by freezing, slowing, and crushing enemies in concert. Or a thoughtful partner can support a reckless ally by providing a well-timed heal or distracting ranged attack. This free-wheeling experimentation also means that players can come at a tricky fight from a new angle—altering their character’s powers on the fly when facing a tough monster a second time, or even in the midst of battle.The fact that so much customization can be crammed into a game that’s so easy to play is somewhat surprising.
Blizzard took years to sand down all the rough edges, leaving the only purposeful, for-fun friction to get between the player and their goal. Some of the best moments are when the game swats your hand to guide it. A lumbering tree-beast leaves poisonous cabbages amongst its roots, discouraging combatants from simply standing and fighting. Stand in poison, fire, or swirling black sorcery, and you’ll die. This is one lesson among many, and it’s revisited in surprising ways, preparing the player for future encounters.
Diablo III did not come off completely without a hitch. Slammed servers plagued the game’s first several days, underlining the fact that you’re playing Diablo III online even when you’re rolling solo. This isn’t the great blasphemy that some make it out to be. You’re meant to feel a little weird for wanting to play a game like this alone and disconnected, coveting your save file like it knows your greatest secrets. Diablo III is a game best played promiscuously, with best buds, acquaintances and strangers. It wants to be taken out of sequence, from new angles and, most importantly, over and over and over. And since this is the future we’re living in, all this happens in public, on a server, under the watchful eye of our corporate overlords. Tying the game to one company’s network hub gives the game a limited lifespan. When the apocalypse comes, you sadly won’t be able to play Diablo III on your Omega Man stationary bike. Sinfully anti-consumer? Maybe. But we all knew the world was going to hell anyway.