The problem with waiting for something for an extended period of time is that it can never really live up to the expectation placed upon it.
For many, the wait to see a sequel to Diablo II – arguably the best action RPG of them all – has been fraught with trepidation and disappointment. An early build featuring a promising heaven and hell symmetry was mooted and partially developed before being canned, to the frustrated wails of ardent dungeon crawlers the world over.
Developer Blizzard's 2008 Worldwide Invitational became the staging ground for the first confirmation that Diablo III would actually be released; eventually, and a mere four years later, the game is finally available.
Well, mostly available, that is. Proof that gaming online in 2012 is still perilous from a reliability standpoint, Diablo III has failed to make the transition from beta to final release without a host of connectivity problems that have seen gamers' unable to consistently access login servers. Much like a major MMO release, Diablo III has been a victim of its own sales success, with infrastructure blues entirely due to Blizzard's insistence that all players must be connected to the internet at all times.
Nearly two weeks after the launch, network problems have largely subsided, and while the method of delivery may have tempered initial excitement there's still much to celebrate within Blizzard's newly reformed world of Sanctuary. The story has rolled on two decades and now new Prime Evils threaten to once more flood the dark lands with demonic incantations. Once again it's up to the player to hack and slash their way through the countless hordes, keeping one eye on the health bar and another on the floor for loot.
Although the core gameplay holds true to that which made Diablo II so utterly compelling, it's clear from the outset that combat and encounter pacing has come up for a major revision in this sequel. Where Diablo II essentially generated a random playing field from set parameters then likewise inserted random mobs from whatever populations were entitled to appear, Diablo III allows the player to flow from one mob encounter to another as the game engine accurately assesses and adapts to challenges.
When on song, and in possession of a formidable understanding of how a character is constructed, combat waves merge into each other and cause a uniform wall of carnage without compare. Either solo, or with up to three other players, the flame front of destruction spreads across beautifully crafted and superbly rendered maps, each a testament to the undeniable brilliance of Blizzard's art team who deserve some kind of an award for squeezing so much detail into the brutally restrictive isometric hunting grounds.
Then add to the ceremony the animation team, who have lovingly bestowed an astonishing level of variety to each of the five character classes. The Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor each ooze unique charisma, and possess extensive skill animations, the majority of which can only be unlocked by reaching the requisite character level.
Controversially, Blizzard has opted to strip out most of the pen, paper and dice characteristics found in the series to this point. Instead of manually assigning points to strength, dexterity, intelligence and vitality, characters are automatically allocated these points when levelling up according to a template dictated by Blizzard, all the way to the level cap at 60.
Complexity and customisation is instead found in the use of skills and runes, the latter being modifiers that range from minor damage buffs to entire game-changing perks depending on how and when they're added to the base skill.
Players can use their abilities to squeak through, or pay the price of death for a lapse in judgement. When all seems lost, the revamped health system may throw a lifeline in the form of an orb that instantly averts death, or luck may dictate the cooldown for potions will elapse two seconds after it was needed – it's impossible to know exactly how any situation will play out, meaning that once the insultingly easy Normal difficulty is conquered, only true mastery of skills, runes and equipment stands between progress and epic failure.
As should be expected, this equipment is now sourced from much more expansive loot tables. There's so many new weapon, armour and jewelery variants on offer that Blizzard has enabled an easy comparative system to instantly determine which items are more suited to each character, even if this is likely to take some of the romance out of endless late-night calculations. This speaks to the underlying pace improvement too – in Diablo II, several minutes could be spent calculating if a new sword was likely to provide a clear advantage. In Diablo III, those minutes are instead spent looking for the sword after that.
Sockets return, allowing modifications to be made to all manner of items, and happily the majority of decisions aren't at all permanent. The ability to unsocket an item runs parallel with the ability to swap out skills and runes at any time too, allowing on-the-fly changes between tanking and damage-per-second builds, for example. An expandable stash allows storage space for equipment suited to hot swapping not only between individual builds, but across characters too – meaning that whatever situation arises, those willing to invest the time will almost certainly have an ideal build and equipment to suit.
Time, it must be acknowledged, is another matter altogether. Not only will it disappear with frightening velocity over the course of any game session, a good deal of it is required to find the kind of equipment necessary to bolster a character to God-tier status. Where Diablo II: Lord of Destruction rewarded players with set and unique items from the very first act, it's entirely possible to level a character in Diablo III to the cap without finding a single legendary item. Most of the more interesting weapon types and modifiers aren't seen until Nightmare difficulty, so be wary of those willing to dismiss the game as too easy or too predictable with less than thirty hours of gaming under their belt.
Artisans can also now offer weapon improvements, and act as a diversion from the base gameplay by encouraging players to level up their crafting skills in a rather rudimentary doff of the hat to World of Warcraft. Almost every exciting new addition requires gold to facilitate, and although it's too early to judge the overall stability of the economy, it's unlikely to be as broken as end-game Diablo II, which saw players sitting on full stashes of gold endlessly gambling it away for little return.