Hack-and-slash action RPGs, pioneered by Blizzard's Diablo, are essentially slot machines. You click the mouse, and every time you do there's a chance you'll get the loot you want . Yes, the trappings of role-playing and combat mechanics are there, weaker in some cases and stronger in others, but in terms of brain chemistry you're playing for the jackpot.
As anyone who's been to Vegas will tell you, there are different kinds of slot machines. There's the rickety old unit sitting in the gas station near the airport. And there's the junky Jokers Wild machines blinking and chirping in that one casino downtown, where the air smells too much like your grandmother's bathroom.
And then there are the machines in that one room in the Bellagio, where velvet seats wait underneath crystal chandeliers. That's where the shahs from Dubai come to play with thousand dollar tokens, where pretty ladies serve you drinks as you play, and where a private concierge will happily help you order up a steak, buy a Brooks Brothers suit, or get you anything else you might want. Blizzard's Diablo 3 is that Bellagio room, high stakes and luxurious and ready to cater to your every dungeon crawler need.
The genius of Diablo 3 is in the pacing. While we haven't seen a sequel to Diablo 2 in nearly thirteen years, Blizzard has been iterating on this type of gameplay all that time with World of Warcraft. And all that experience has given the developers an incredible sense of what players want and will do at any given moment.
At its core, Diablo 3 is a series of combat encounters and, when you realize just how carefully it's put together, Blizzard's expertise is staggering. Again and again, the pattern shows up: You see one wandering enemy, or a glimpse of light ahead, or a small glowing object you can interact with on the ground. You click to attack, or move forward, or interact. Suddenly, the enemy has friends, or that light opens up into a room full of bad guys, or that object spawns four huge creatures, who would just love to crush you.
You hammer away with your various weapons and abilities, your health constantly falling and being caught just perfectly by a well-timed potion or a random health globe, and just as you think you're overwhelmed the tide turns, and enemies start dropping. After you pick off the last of the bad guys, what's left is a small area scattered with gold and loot of various qualities. You grab them, wander away for a bit, and then notice, just offscreen, another pool of light, or a wandering enemy, and the whole process begins again.
This pacing works perfectly throughout a number of environments, and while, yes, all you're doing is clicking and popping one of six abilities when needed, it never once gets old. That glimpse of what's ahead never fails to push you forward, that triumph of winning in battle always excites, and that loot, that sweet loot, always falls right into your pack with satisfaction.
Diablo 2 was famous for its talent trees – long lists of class-based abilities into which you could put points – and that idea has spun off into countless other games (including World of Warcraft). But Diablo 3 smartly reduces basic ability choices into just six options, which themselves are unlocked as you level up.
Once fully open, the system is just as complex as the Diablo 2-style talent trees, but the pace of leveling and unlocking makes everything much easier to understand. You have one skill at level 1, at level 2 another one opens up, and as you level up abilities unlock just as quickly as you can learn how to make effective use of them. Later in the game, switching abilities out (which you can do whenever out of combat) becomes paramount: For crowds, you'll switch to AoE, and bosses will have you picking single-target skills. The fact that you can easily and quickly narrow down exactly what you need from thousands of ability and rune combinations speaks to how powerful this new system is.
And no matter how you choose your abilities, using them is exhilarating fun. All of the particle effects and crashing and bashing sounds are just syntactic sugar on a loot-based slot machine, but it's delicious. Blizzard's legendary polish is brought to bear all the way through the game. Enemies animate beautifully, spells are clear and gorgeous even with four players on screen at a time, and, oh boy, the sounds! My Barbarian's bash sounded almost like a cannon shot whenever I landed a mace right on the crown of a drooly demon's head. The voice acting drips with charm as well, and lootable audio log items have you listening to stories almost the whole time.
For all of the hack-and-slash RPGs out there, no one has ever done the constant, grindy dungeon crawling battle as well as Blizzard has here. One segment in Act 3, called Rakki's Crossing, is the most memorable action RPG battle sequence in recent memory. I had my Barbarian slicing through demons for a good twenty minutes, all while I laughed in glee at the carnage on the screen. Only at one point in Act 2's wide open desert landscape does exploration slow the pace down a little too much for my liking. Throughout the rest of all four acts, it's nothing but pure, glorious dungeon crawling.
There are four difficulty levels after Normal, and the game is designed to take one character through at least twice - the really good gear only starts to appear at the end of Normal, and some runes and skills don't even open up until Nightmare. There are five classes that all play differently as well, from the revolting pets of the Witch Doctor to the dark ranged attacks of the Demon Hunter.
The game's famously been attacked for requiring an Internet connection to play. Once you log in past Error 37 (an issue that's hard to forgive, but forgivable nonetheless), you can see why that connection is there: Blizzard has not only closely integrated the game with an online auction house, but the social system is deep and powerful as well. You can see where your friends are playing at any time, and jump in or out with them on demand. Public games are easy to find and join, and every player only sees their own drops, so there's never any fighting over loot. Quests are the only place where the social connection can fall apart: Entering someone else's game puts you on their quest in the story, which can be confusing when you return to your own. But the out-of-game menus can easily let you go back to whatever you'd like to play.
The weakest part of Diablo 3 is the story. Again, Blizzard has learned a lot about storytelling from World of Warcraft, and it has worked hard to draw characters in this game with clear and interesting lines. The Followers (more or less required for single-player) each have their own memorable personalities, provide some excellent chuckles, and do a great job of pointing out more loot, or just filling out the environment (my Templar told me once that the ground in one demonic sanctum "yields like flesh," providing quite a mental image).
Though Blizzard leaps into these personalities with style, it fumbles the landing. The game's plot turns are almost comedically telegraphed (as World of Warcraft players know, anytime there's a lot of power around someone will go mad with it), and the ending, at least to Normal mode, is as abrupt as a pop-up screen that tells you the game is over. The setting of the game is suitably epic, and there's a lot of great characters to care about here, but most of them are forgotten by the the time the credits roll.