Since I took a look at a spiritual successor to Diablo 2 I figured I might as well take a look at the actual successor. Unlike Path of Exile however, I really can’t think of too much that draws me to Diablo 3. This makes me especially sad since I waited in great anticipation for its release, playing Diablo 2 over and over again in the meantime. I paid full price for it. I paid for a copy for a friend to play with me! That is how much I wanted to continue my Diablo 2 fun in Diablo 3, but I ended up losing interest and dropping the game extremely quickly. You can maybe discount my analysis because I haven’t gotten much actual game time in, but I would argue that it isn’t my job to persist at playing a game until it is fun, it is instead the game’s job to keep me interested in playing.
So what horrible things did Diablo 3 do to my family to make me dislike it so much? Did it kick my cat and spit in my eye? Effectively D3 was just like Path of Exile in that it beefed up the features of D2 which I disliked, but unlike PoE it really didn’t do much with the features that I liked. In fact, it kind of got rid of them.
While you might not think about it all that much, D2 was very much about player choice. Every time your character leveled-up you were given points to spend on raw stats and a point to spend on learning new or upgrading old abilities. When it came to your abilities you had to choose which ones you really wanted to focus on, and abandon the rest. The choice was meaningful since you couldn’t go back and change it (until a patch late in the game’s life). Yes, this meant you would have to make multiple different Necromancers in order to experiment with different Necromancer builds, but it also meant that you as a player got to grow with your character. You also got to choose your equipment. Choosing a sword over an axe meant something because they played differently. Each class of weapon had a mixture of stats that made them unique to each other.
Diablo 3 is not about choice, even though it claims to be. Outside of the very beginning of the game your choice of weapon doesn’t matter all that much (this may be an uneducated view, but in my experience playing as a Wizard and a Witch Hunter, this is how it felt) because all weapons did was operate as a source of number buffs to my spells and abilities. Switching from a dagger to a spear did nothing for my gameplay except for alter my numbers (and change my sprite). Frost Ray felt the same no matter which weapons I equipped. Choice didn’t matter, and as such I stopped seeing weapons as cool and unique entities and instead just saw floating numbers.
Leveling-up provided me with no choice whatsoever. Yes, it unlocked access to either new abilities or new runes to alter a previously known ability in some way, but I didn’t get to choose. No matter how much I loved throwing spiders at my enemies I couldn’t mess with that combat style until the predefined character progression let me. Not getting to do anything with my level-ups actually made them feel very bland and no longer rewarding.
In fact, I would compare D3’s treatment of leveling to League of Legends’ account level system. If you are familiar with LoL you might understand the phrase, “The game doesn’t start until you hit level 30.” What this means is that you as a player don’t possess all of the tools you need (points for stat customization) to truly play a match until you have leveled your account up to its maximum. D3 does the same thing by saying you can choose how you want to play by picking out which abilities you want to use as well as how you want to alter those abilities, but you don’t have full access to the library of skills/adjustments until you max out your character’s level. But unlike LoL, where the level-up process is exclusively about learning the game, in D3 you are playing the real game. You are playing through the main story without access to your preferred playstyle. In fact, I bet you often don’t max out your character on your first playthrough (I could be wrong. I really don’t know). This means you don’t really get to play through the game as you want to play through the game until you have unlocked a higher difficulty level, and then get to play through the same story… again. What is your motive for playing at this point? To experiment with ability combinations? What about after that? Grinding up to get weapons and armor with the highest number values? You end up killing zombies over and over again so that you can become more efficient at killing zombies over and over again.
I wish D3 had instead started out with a sort of training or “discover yourself” section of the game. Perhaps even just make Act 1 operate in that way. Throughout the Act you would quickly gain new abilities right before fighting enemies which are vulnerable to the use of those abilities. After this learning section of the game you would then have your full compliment of skills and would be allowed to use them as you see fit for the majority of the game. This would give you at least one Act worth of sharing the experience of growth with your on-screen avatar. I wish weapons also actually mattered. It’s really cool that the spellcasters can rely exclusively on their magic, but at least make different weapons feel different. D2 did this mostly via damage and attack speed ratios (axes did more damage than swords, but swung more slowly, and polearms had much more variable damage than all other weapons).
Where Path of Exile focused too much on randomness to create grind, Diablo 3 focused too much on streamlining and ended up creating monotony.
I eventually put down Diablo 3 but I definitely clocked in a hundred hours at least on it at beat the highest difficulty before doing so. My biggest problem with the game was that they flat out got multiplayer wrong right from the start. I would argue Diablo 2’s greatest appeal was public games, and having control over that and being encouraged to play in large groups. It was fun.
At launch, (and for several months onward until I stopped playing) Diablo 3’s difficulty scaling with more players flat out made you not want to play with anyone else because you could literally clear levels faster and better by playing solo. It made no sense.
A lot of it felt like the illusion of choice, like you pointed out. Which is a damn shame because I tried so hard to continue liking it and just couldn’t find anything there to keep wanting to continue.
I remember they really flubbed on multiplayer by not allowing enough people to play together to actually cover each class. There were five classes, and four player slots. That is a huge oversight as there should have been at least as many slots as there were classes (and preferably more).
Honestly, I almost exclusively played the game with another person, and just duoing I never found anything all that difficult ever. Perhaps Wizard is just awesome? Perhaps I’m just really good at Wizard? I doubt the second one. My Barbarian traveling companion might disagree though, as she constantly took a beating and died in some of the bigger engagements.
Another issue that I didn’t mention (since I didn’t play enough to get to this point) is that replayability was not really in D3’s design. You literally played the same game over and over again. How did D2 solve this problem? 1) by forcing permanent decisions, so you had to play through multiple times to experience the game in different ways, and 2) PvP.
I have never really cared for PvP until I played League of Legends, but I have to admit it is one of the best ways to extend a game’s life. Players will always figure out enemy AI and will end up just repeating patterns over and over again. But people adapt as you adapt, and it makes your experience new just about every time. By avoiding PvP, D3 forced itself into having to provide new content to extend game life. But they didn’t. When people complained about “end game” they added 100 new levels for you to grind, not 100 new areas for you to explore/experience.