There's an old saying "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," which basically implies that you can't make a superior product out of an inferior base. I guess nobody at Blizzard was told this, as their Diablo series has basically made a name for itself out of taking a rather mundane game genre, the hack-and-slash light RPG, and making a series of addictive, polished titles that earned their classic status through the cacophony of frantic mouse-clicks of gamers worldwide. They took the proverbial sow's ear and wrapped it in a gritty gothic aesthetic, stitched together with simple but addictive gameplay mechanics, decorated it with an arsenal of magically augmented loot, and made it into the equivalent of a designer Coach handbag: functional, durable, and beautiful.
It's been 11 years since Blizzard has summoned the titular Diablo in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction (well, it was Baal, but you get what I mean), and a lot has changed. Since then, virtually all of Blizzard's output has been related to their MMO smash World of Warcraft (with a brief layover in 2010 for Starcraft 2) and WoW's influence can be felt very heavily in Diablo III.
Diablo III's story is a piece of fairly predictable, pretentious high fantasy involving an endless war between the Prime Evils of Hell and the angels of the High Heavens, with the mortal world caught in the crossfire. This tale is told through Blizzard's inimitable CG cutscenes, which put even the costliest of Hollywood CGI films to shame with their near-perfect rendering and gorgeous animation. The fact that Blizzard hasn't hunkered down and crafted a feature-length film is a damn shame.
The hokey, predictable lore is not the reason for playing Diablo, but rather its painfully addictive gameplay. Using only the mouse and few hotkeys on the keyboard, players click their way around the game world, subtly led along by the promise of the next area just outside the map's "fog of war" and the loot that it contains. Armor and weapons come in three flavors: normal, enchanted, and rare, and you quickly become hopelessly embroiled in the quest make another piece of loot come noisily flipping out of a chest or an enemy corpse (a charming holdover from the first two games), praying that the [adverb][name]of the [noun] will prove to be a suitable replacement for whatever you're currently wielding or wearing. Even more thrilling are the rare, yellow-texted items, which ask that you cast a brief identification spell before seeing their stats. The hissing thrum of the identification spell has the same nail-biting tones as a clattering roulette wheel, wondering if you'll get a powerful new weapon or a low-powered dud that will still net you some decent coin at the game's many merchants or the new auction house.
This is where the World of Warcraft influence starts seeping in to Diablo III, as the auction house is a cash-earning carryover from the MMO. Players can take the various loot they've acquired and put it up on the virtual auction block, hopefully netting more gold than they would get at the game's AI salesmen. There's also the terrifying prospect of a "real money" auction house, which sees gamers exchanging legal tender for loot, but that had yet to be launched as of this review.
The other influence of WoW can be felt in the game's divisive online portion. Diablo III has the rather dubious requirement of asking that players be logged in to Blizzard's Battle.net service for both single player and multiplayer, using a screen that looks uncannily like WoW's. This has led to some problems in the game's early days, with a series of numerical errors keeping players out of the game even if they had no desire for multiplayer. While certainly maddening at first—I personally installed the game on launch day only to be told that I was unable to play as soon as I was finished—Blizzard seems to have ironed out the worst of the server issues. The always-on internet connection serves two purposes: to keep players from hacking their characters and loot, thus throwing off the game's economy, and allowing for some ridiculously fun multiplayer. Dropping into a game with a cooperative partner is fast, simple, and incredibly fun, with the game's 5 character classes (barbarian, monk, wizard, witch doctor, and demon hunter) all managing to complement one another almost perfectly. A lengthy run I completed with my barbarian and a friend's wizard was both challenging and rewarding, although the lack of an in-game voice chat made tactical planning difficult.
The other, final bit of WoW influence comes from the game's art direction, which was initially derided by series fans as being too bright and colorful. The first two games were incredibly grim and gritty in their aesthetics, and Diablo III does soften its tones with a painterly wash of color in its environments and a subtly cartoony vibe to its renderings of characters and locales, but the game actually benefits from these changes. While still managing to run smoothly on my aging dual-core Athlon, small touches like autumn foliage and Arabian-inspired tapestries were no less breathtaking. However, the game's dark, violent roots are still the same as they ever were, if not made more gruesome by the upgraded technology. The living dead still bisect as brutally as they ever did, but the 3D modeling and physics now send their dismembered parts to all corners of the room. Ultimately, this game is still about an invasion from a Judeo-Christian Hell and the visuals reflect that, with gruesome altars, fiery pits, and bodies torn asunder. Diablo III is not the candy-colored tableau that gamers feared, but rather a world of beauty that's been corrupted by Diablo and his minions.
Diablo III has managed to fuse two winning formulas, Diablo and World of Warcraft, together into a fun, addictive, and satisfying game. The newly introduced online mechanics dovetail with the simple, mouse-punishing gameplay in a way that works even better than one could ever hope for. As we speak I'm rolling another character—a demon hunter—to take another trip to Hell and back. Blizzard's made one hell of a fine purse.