Even though it contains dozens, if not hundreds, of enhancements and upgrades over its predecessors, “Diablo III,” passes the smell test. Sixteen years after “Diablo,” Activision Blizzard’s latest action role-playing game for the PC should provide nostalgic, reassuring comfort to gamers who grew up on the 1996 original and 2000’s “Diablo II.”
In more than a decade and a half, the “Diablo” formula has changed little. Players will create a hero from among several boilerplate character classes, and then travel through myriad dungeons, clicking furiously on the minions of hell with your mouse in order to obliterate them. Once defeated, these skeletons, slugs, cultists and demons will disgorge obscene amounts of gold, armor, weapons and trinkets. You’ll sort, compare and obsess over this gear. After deciding 98 percent of it is useless, you’ll return to town, arms full, to sell off what you don’t need. Maybe you’ll have it broken down into components used to craft more gear that may or may not be incrementally better than what you have.
Then you’ll head back out to click on more bad guys. Maybe this time you’ll bring a friend, but the process is the same. Click, loot, sort, sell. Lather, rinse, repeat.
While you’re doing all this, your character will gain experience and level up, allowing you to customize his or her abilities along some narrowly set parameters.
This blueprint, which other recent games like “Dungeon Siege III” and “Torchlight” have followed to a T, is about as minimalist and mindless a distillation of video games’ core challenge/reward dynamic as you’ll find. Although Blizzard dresses up “Diablo III” with expensive in-game movies and surprisingly competent voice acting, no one will keep playing to see what happens at the end. It ain’t “BioShock.”
Instead, we’ll keep playing because blasting demons with flaming “fire bats” while purple zombie dogs nip at their heels is a heck of a lot of fun. Going back to early classics like “Diablo” and “Warcraft 2,” Blizzard has always known how to leverage the technology of the day to make attacks and special abilities look stunning and feel satisfying.
Without changing things up too much for “Diablo III,” Blizzard has introduced a few new wrinkles, the most onerous of which might be the requirement that players maintain an active Internet connection at all times while playing, even when gaming alone.
For most players, this always-online connection won’t be much of a deal breaker. In 15 years, we’ll probably all laugh about it. But for now, when sizable patches of the country lack access to a reliable broadband Internet connection, it will be kind of annoying for some players. It was especially vexing the first few days after launch when Blizzard’s servers were overwhelmed and many people with perfectly good broadband connections weren’t able to play the game they’d just spent $60 on. (I received my review copy a week or so after launch and had no such issues.)
Although “Diablo III” features more character classes, large outdoor environments and modern features like in-game friends lists, achievements and an auction house that will eventually let players sell rare items for real dollars, none feels earth-shatteringly disruptive to “Diablo’s” core formula.
In a business climate in which gamers freaked out and complained en masse when Blizzard released screen shots in 2008 displaying more greens and blues than fans were accustomed to, it’s hard to fault the developer for playing it safe. But there’s a small part of me who wants to sit down and play “Diablo III” with a teenager who cut his role-playing game teeth on the likes of “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim” and “Mass Effect 2.” Does “Diablo III” measure up if you lack the baseline experience with its predecessors? With an ever-growing audience of graying adult gamers, does it matter if it doesn’t?