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Diablo III (PC) artwork

Diablo III (PC) review

"With so many of Diablo III's core functions being handled on Blizzard's end, the game's performance is directly tied to how well their servers are running. When you buy Diablo III, half of the game is still in another part of the country, and millions of people are trying to access it all at once."

Diablo III asset

Diablo III is a game in which you click on things. Click a spot on the screen and your character walks to it. Click on an enemy and your character will make loud noises in its direction until it drops dead. Click on the many items that scatter across the ground and your character will pick them up. Click on an NPC with an exclamation point over his head and that NPC will give you a quest that involves more clicking. If your index finger isn't cramped by the end of a Diablo III session, you probably didn't play for very long.

The above description is neither praise nor criticism. It simply underlines (a) why I enjoy a dungeon crawler every now and then, and (b) why I don't play them very often. Everyone hated Dungeon Siege III last year, yet I had a great time with it purely because I'd just finished playing L.A. Noire, and it was the anti-that game. After a couple dozen hours of hollow story overload with zero payoff, it was a relief to just sit back and fight some monsters. But then, shortly afterward, I couldn't engage myself with the more beloved and admittedly much better Bastion, because my dungeon crawling quota had been filled for the time being, my capacity for navigating mazes and cutting through waves of identical baddies being strained.

So while Diablo III's core gameplay is certainly pretty fun, it's nothing we haven't seen a thousand times already, and this is coming from a guy who doesn't even play many dungeon crawlers to begin with. In fact, if one of the big draws of the Diablo series is randomization, I'm left wondering why we even needed a sequel in the first place, especially if no large-scale mechanical changes are made. Call it a visual upgrade, but Diablo III doesn't even look particularly good. Those who frequent this site's forums will be aware that I just dumped a lot of money into a relatively powerful new computer, and now the first current game I bought for it looks like it could have run on my GameCube. Diablo III is also a continuation of a story, I guess, but it's a story that no one cares about.

My point is that while Diablo III is fun, it's not worth the hype or the hassle, and my goodness is it ever a hassle. I am talking, of course, about Diablo III's requirement that players must be actively signed in to in order to enjoy the game. Blizzard has been dressing this up as an effort to idealize their admittedly strong online community. This, of course, is bogus. It's an anti-piracy measure, plain and simple. If you're a gamer, then I'll assume that you're familiar with "always on" DRM schemes and their many inherent flaws; Diablo III is, unfortunately, far from the first time we've encountered this. But while it's become an increasing concern over the last couple of years, I don't think it's ever been a problem on quite this scale before.

Blizzard has built Diablo III on what they call a "client/server architecture," meaning that handles a number of key tasks enemy spawns, loot drops, level layouts, etc. that would normally be relegated to the game itself. So while the disc you purchase contains all of the game's art, animations, sound effects, dialog and so forth, it lacks the means to do anything with them. It's an incomplete product. It is, effectively, a car without an engine.

Now, it is not my job to review business practices. When I play something, I shut off, put my disgust for corporate greed aside, and judge the game on its own merits. Diablo III marks the first time I am unable to do that. In any other case of "always on" DRM, all of the content is on the disc, and it's simply locked until you've signed in to the publisher's servers. That means you're screwed if the servers go down, as has happened, but as long as the company detects your presence online, the game is open to you. If you're on, you're in. But with so many of Diablo III's core functions being handled on Blizzard's end, the game's performance is directly tied to how well their servers are running. When you buy Diablo III, half of the game is still in another part of the country, and millions of people are trying to access it all at once.

What does this mean for playability? Well, have you ever been in an online match alongside a player with a laggy internet connection, and his character is just skipping and stuttering all over the place, seemingly in another plane of existence? That's what Diablo III's entire world often feels like, with actions and dialog not triggering until long after they're supposed to. It's frequently an annoyance and occasionally outright breaks the game, with enemies not responding to you and giant, gaping holes appearing in the scenery where the level is having trouble auto-generating. I frequently had to Alt + Tab out of the game and check to make sure my internet connection was okay before finally physically moving my PC into another room and hooking it up directly to my wireless router. My problems were no less consistent.

We're happy to lambast games for having built-in technical problems like crashes and framerate issues that render gameplay a chore on a regular basis. How are the problems many people are encountering with Diablo III any more forgiveable? In a way, this is even worse. Incompetence is one thing. Deliberately handicapping your game is something else entirely. Blizzard evidently uses the same system for World of Warcraft (which I've never played, for the same reason I've never smoked a cigarette), and having the developer rigidly monitor the experience makes a certain degree of sense for a multiplayer-only game in which players need to be logged in anyway. But Diablo is a single-player franchise with a multiplayer option. A strong multiplayer option, and one that is the selling point for many people, but an option nonetheless. That a single-player campaign should require an internet connection is, in and of itself, Draconian. That said single-player campaign should be frequently hamstrung by issues previously exclusive to multiplayer games for no good reason is nothing short of ludicrous.

No, it's not nearly as bad now as it was on launch day, and the situation will likely improve as traffic dies down and Blizzard gets their act together. But that disastrous first week exposed the critical flaw that Diablo III is never guaranteed to be playable. It is only ever as functional as Blizzard allows it to be.

Funny. It was just a month or two ago that I was waving my games-are-art flag at angry Mass Effect fans over what they were "owed" as paying customers, and now here I am, knocking Diablo III for being an unstable product. As it happens, the only thing I feel we're owed when we buy video games is that they work properly. So even if we can put aside the scary fact that Diablo III's success may open doors to a future in which paying full price for a game does not mean that we own it, the truth of the matter is that if you were to ask me how good Diablo III is, I'd say I don't know. Maybe I'll boot it up and everything will be running perfectly, as it often does, in which case it's a reasonably fun (if predictable) nostalgia trip. Or maybe it'll be a server-side mess, as it all too frequently tends to be, in which case it's unplayable. Diablo III is the rare instance of a game's structural quality being beside the point. It's a volatile game, and I don't know why you'd want to invest in that. I wish I hadn't.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (May 26, 2012)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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bbbmoney posted May 27, 2012:

Alright,I have to say this is complete hyperbole. I was thinking of reviewing this game as well, and giving it a lot of criticism as well, but DRM/server issues are the very least of this game's problems. The very least.

I have 70 hours into D3 and I get a disconnect perhaps once a day,twice on a bad day, and both times meaning all I had to do was log back in. AH being unavailable has been much more annoying, but likewise almost unnoticeable, same with rubberbanding. I wouldn't pump this much time into a game that didn't work. I had this game beaten on 3 difficulties the day after it was released, when server problems were actually rampant. If you constructed this piece on that day, it would still be exaggerating.

Your review stops 3 paragraphs in and turns into an angry post anyone could read on the Blizzard forums. The only thing you do cover is how the game doesn't do anything differently, when it is wildly different in so many ways. It has real problems, and perhaps if I reviewed the game I'd give it a similar score. But unplayable? What game did you buy?

Sorry to blow up but this is the first of your pieces I've had a huge disagreement with.
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Suskie posted May 27, 2012:

Heh. I told you I was going to address the DRM issue in my review, didn't I?

Holdthephone, something you need to understand is that experiences with Diablo III's online functionality have wildly differed from player to player. I've talked to people who have had virtually no trouble whatsoever. Likewise, I've talked to and read about people having very similar problems as mine. Here's a professional video game critic citing the exact problems I mentioned in the review. ("Even now I'm still getting some lag, even playing solo, and sometimes it renders the game unplayable.") Why there's so much variance isn't for me to determine, but thanks for at least not telling me to check my internet connection like everyone else seems to be doing, as if I'm new to this whole "internet" thing.

The reason I really didn't talk about gameplay at all in this review is because, as I mentioned, this is the first instance in which I just genuinely don't care about gameplay. No game has ever outraged me in quite this manner. I suppose if these stupid DRM issues were fixed, I'd go into more detail about how the skill system has been revised, or how the classes differ from those of the previous games', or how its occasionally rousing set pieces (particularly the castle at the beginning of Act III) really make you feel like you're accomplishing something, or how there are a handful of genuinely great boss battles tucked away in here. But none of it matters to me.

I appreciate the feedback, Holdthephone, but I think you're falling into one of the most common traps for review-readers: assuming I'm going to be reviewing from anyone's perspective but my own. My own experience with the game is all I have to go by. This is the game I played, and this is the game I reviewed. If you say that are more pressing issues to discuss, good! I look forward to reading your own review. That's the joy of a site like this.
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bbbmoney posted May 27, 2012:

I don't get why it would just effect you, though. I play in a community of 24 players and when a server issue arises we all get the same problem at the same time. Anyone else lagging? Yeah. Auction House down right now? Yeah. Error 37? Yeah. It's been nearly 2 weeks now since release, and no one is having unplayable levels of difficulty with the servers.

So I guess I'm just in disbelief, because I had no clue it was this problematic for others. All of the message boards I visit to figure out how to beat Inferno and what the best builds are, and the worst complaints I've heard from people is something being down at a key moment in their day. But I've never heard yours, and I suppose that's what I find frustrating.

If those have been your experiences though, I guess your review is your own, and I understand that.
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Suskie posted May 27, 2012:

Believe me, I've continually been just as astounded that so many people haven't had any real problems since launch, given what I've seen.
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bbbmoney posted May 27, 2012:

Well, at least know you're not missing out on much of a game =]
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espiga posted May 27, 2012:

I know it can happen. A buddy that I've been playing with gets disconnected every 5 minutes or so. Even when he's not getting disconnected, he lags so bad that, on my screen, it looks like he takes two steps then stops, then takes two steps then stops.

I realize that when you sell 6.5 million copies in a week or whatever that crazy number was that it's not going to work flawlessly for all players, but I really think Blizzard dropped the ball on this instance.
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Halon posted May 27, 2012:

I haven't had many problems aside from some lag that ranges from mildly annoying to borderline unplayable. Luckily, it has gotten a lot better since launch, though I haven't had the time to play the game nearly as much as I hoped I would.

This is a tough game to form an opinion on and one that I probably won't be able to determine the quality of for a while. Basically, what's there right now is pretty underwhelming: we have buggy servers, an overly simplified skill system, and tons of problems with items/auction house that makes it potentially not worth the time and effort. However, with PvP on the horizon as well as Blizzard's support for the item crafting/auction housing this may become the deepest, most innovative game of its type.

This is one reason why it is becoming increasingly difficult to review multiplayer games. They go through too many changes and phases, especially the ones that are constantly updated (e.g. games by Blizzard, Valve, Riot Games, Tripwire Interactive, etc). If I was to review Team Fortress 2, for instance, at launch it would probably score a 6-7/10, around 2008-early 2010 would be a 9/10 and the game in its current state is probably a 5/10. I'm not exactly sure where Diablo 3 will wind up; it could be the next innovation in the genre or Blizzard could make mistakes similar to what they made in Starcraft 2(which they hopefully fix in HoS!), where it would stay mediocre forever.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted May 27, 2012:

I've decided that I'm not going to bother with this game, mainly because I don't want to be one of the ones who drops $60 into it and comes up with shitty experiences and dreadful amounts of lag and log offs. That and I almost completely disagree with forcing players to log on in order to play a single player campaign. A friend of mine just the other day was well into the game, nearing the finish, and then some asshole hacked into his account and stole all of his items. Can you imagine playing any other RPG with a problem like that? Think of playing a Dragon Quest game and having your stuff stolen after hours of grinding for money or materials. That's just ridiculous. Besides, if what Suskie said in his review is true, I can get the same point and click experience from a plethora of other games.
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jerec posted May 28, 2012:

I wasn't all that interested in Diablo III but the way they've handled this makes me never want to play it. I just hope they don't use this practice for games I actually care about in the future.
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Halon posted May 28, 2012:

While I'm definitely not a fan of the DRM practice I can't act surprised by it, either, considering I knew about it over a year ago.

I'm more disappointed with the lack of skill customization. I know the official word on why they did it - they didn't want people to be forced to follow the "optimal" skill tree how you were basically forced to in Diablo 2 - but it's 2012 and Blizzard could've easily fixed this problem with balance updates similar to what they're doing in Starcraft 2 and Riot's doing in League of Legends.
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bbbmoney posted May 28, 2012:

I actually liked the linear approach they took with the skills, it's sort of what makes Inferno a lot of fun, having to put a lot of thought into your skill set ups. Because if you change skills on the fly, you lose your stacks from the magic find buffs.

It's just maybe the skill system isn't worth it if you consider how badly it damages the game's replay value. I didn't realize how awful the game was until I started a new character.
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Halon posted May 28, 2012:

Yeah, I don't find it to be "bad" as much as it's underwhelming. In 2012 I feel they could've done a lot more to enhance it without running into problems that set back past games in the genre.
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wolfqueen001 posted May 28, 2012:

This was a great review, Suskie. It's certainly convinced me that I"ll likely never be buying this game, which is sort of a shame because I've half wanted to get back into Diablo for at least a couple of years now. I know I just don't want to risk having the same experiences you did, and frankly, by the time I ever could get around to playing this game, I doubt the servers will even be active anyway.

That's what gets me about this. I don't mind the whole idea of "needing to be logged in to play" Thing as much, since I use Steam and you more or less have to be online to access your Steam account anymore, but at least the Steam games I download are all on my hard drive and don't cause me any lag issues because half their content is on some server or whatever you describe here. That's just ridiculous. I seriously hope this extreme is never taken again, especially since it poses its own security threats, as someone else already explained.

EDIT: Well, it is unfortunate, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's fairly certain that this debacle won't stop Blizzard or other publishers from pulling similar shenanigans in the future. I just did a cursory glance at the general review scores thus far, and the vast majority of professional reviews rate this game 80% or higher, which suggests to me that they either haven't had these kinds of issues, were forced to cover them up, or just didn't think they were that important. Interestingly, the vast majority of user reviews on the Internet seem to score below 50%, which suggests to me that users are having similar issues, or have problems with general game mechanics like what holdthephone was talking about. In either case, unless there's enough outcry from Blizzard's online community, I doubt they're going to do anything because why on Earth would a huge company listen to the little people?
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Suskie posted May 28, 2012:

I appreciate the feedback. Really, my biggest objective with this review was to explain exactly how this anti-piracy measure works. People who haven't played the game seem to be assuming that it's like any other "always on" DRM. It isn't, and it's infinitely worse in that it can directly affect your play experience, as it has done for me and others. It's a dangerous practice for the industry, because now that we've turned Diablo III into a massive financial success, it assuredly won't stop here.
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Never3ndr posted May 14, 2014:

I was around for D3 release and yes, server stability was an issue...but I think pretty much everybody expected there to be some server issues on release for a game as massively popular as Diablo. And honestly, I don't remember there being a ton of issues other than a wait wasn't like World of Warcraft where you could wait 24-48 hours and still not have a game to play...on a weekly basis...which was the last massive online release Blizzard (and realistically ANY gaming company) had on that level.

I am a bit disappointed that you pretty much ignored what you thought about the game and just honed in on your complaint that you had to be online to play an online game. That being said I think Diablo, on release, was a pretty subpar experience for most players. Maybe you should give the expansion, Reaper of Souls, a try. They have made massive improvements to the game and, while like you I'm not a fan of dungeon crawlers, I was thoroughly impressed with what they did over the past couple years.

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