Diablo III: Briefly Relevant Again Maybe
Gamescom ended a couple of weeks ago, and I’d like to focus on Blizzard Entertainment’s announcement of the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo III. Today is an auspicious day to discuss it; Diablo III just released on PS3 and Xbox 360, promising to “Unleash Hell in your living room,” as though the college moving frenzy hasn’t already.
Diablo III was a polarizing entry in the series, disappointing many eager fans, like other games that spent more than 10 years in development. Let’s examine how this series evolved, and consider if Reaper of Souls can address those issues.
Here’s a summary of my problems with Diablo III: A writing team seemingly recruited from an anime convention, and game design within a bubble entirely ignorant of every innovation made to the hack-and-slash genre in the decade following Lord of Destruction. My Pavlovian response to Diablo III is to expect to play Torchlight, or Titan’s Quest.
Others have already analyzed Diablo III‘s problems at length, so I won’t do that here. Rather, I want to take a broader look at the series as a whole, and contrast the first two games with Blizzard’s eventual change of narrative vision and scope.
Roots Down Under
Diablo the First was a roguelike dungeon-crawler. Its narrative needed to be simple and focused, as the game design couldn’t fundamentally support anything larger than “This demon is terrorizing a town from the labyrinth beneath it, so go kill him.” Compared to many other video game plots, Diablo isn’t very epic or cinematic, even though its set-pieces are basically those of Beowulf. Ultimately, Diablo became a critical and commercial success, and it’s my favorite game in the series.
Diablo II naturally took the first game’s ideas further in many ways, including the plot. Now Diablo is going to different parts of the world, freeing his two demon brothers, and you have to kill all three. It’s not just about protecting one small town anymore; the entire world is at stake, and you’re going to be fighting all around it.
I doubt that Diablo could have fulfilled this premise to satisfaction, neither in its technological nor conceptual capacity as a video game. Illustrating this requires a comparison between the designs of the original game and its sequel.
Diablo II simplified the dungeon crawling and removed most of the roguelike mechanics, in favor of a focus on action in large areas. Its gameplay is much faster paced than Diablo, and more frenetic. There are dozens of monsters onscreen slinging swords and magic spells; they drop quickly to yours, though with many of their brethren at hand to reinforce their losses. The Bloody Foothills of Act V exemplify these changes in gameplay at their most well-executed, in my opinion. Of course, Diablo II was an immense hit, and I spent as much time playing it as anyone else who helped make Uber Diablo appear in their Battle.net game.
The story is where things got dicey. Diablo II gave the series a kick when it ended by taking the overall plot forward, and left at a cliffhanger. The Worldstone was destroyed, which meant open borders between the human world and Heaven and Hell. This presented a lot of great possibilities in terms of environments, enemies, items, and characters: Angel and demon classes busting heads in Heaven, for instance, or all-out war between the three worlds/planes.
Where Blizzard would choose to go with the series at this point gained a new level of significance. Since Warcraft III, Blizzard embraced a direction for its fantasy storytelling that emphasized epic plots with cinematic presentation, backed up by enough lore to fill several Alexandrian libraries. This kind of lofty ambition in video game storytelling takes a lot to execute, especially when applied to a series previously lacking such scope.
As the series matured from I to II, the gameplay and narrative evolved together. However, Diablo III did not shift the game design along with the narrative scope, as Diablo II did. In terms of fundamental design, Diablo III is essentially II, just with a larger storytelling burden. Diablo II didn’t have in-game cutscenes, or even actual dialogue outside of unilateral spiels. These and other story elements were executed so amateurishly in Diablo III, purely from a writing perspective, that I have problems discerning whether or not that style of gameplay can support the kind of story Blizzard aims to tell. Looking at the results, I guess not.
Reaper of Souls looks poised to improve specific elements of Diablo III: New character class, revamped loot and crafting systems, and it will introduce what appear to be replayable loot runs that Blizzard is calling…Loot Runs. Blizzard promises welcome improvements, but they are touching up a locomotive when there’s a bullet train sitting right next to it. As it looks right now, I don’t believe they are doing enough with Reaper of Souls to bring Diablo III closer to the more mechanically advanced state of its genre peers, such as Torchlight II and Path of Exile.
I’m even more wary about the quality of the storytelling, considering that it’s Blizzard. I’ll nitpick on the only thing anyone really can at this point: Malthael? Since “mal” is just a ubiquitous term for “bad,” this isn’t really any more imaginative than naming your antagonist Badthael, or if you’re J.K. Rowling, Draco Badfoy. Maybe at the very least they can set up a good premise for the next game, assuming there may be a Diablo IV.
We’ll just have to wait and see if Reaper of Souls is up to the task of redeeming Diablo III. I’m not holding my breath.