It's been twelve years since I waited excitedly for the Amazon purchase my mother had made for the family: Diablo 2. In that time, a lot has happened not only in games, but in how we interact online. LiveJournal is dead, MySpace came and went, Facebook went from a private network open to select colleges to being public(ly traded). Blizzard has also launched the most financially successful MMO we have yet seen. Every console can now connect online, while most boast achievements that are tacked on to our digital presence, marking us with varying degrees of prowess/interest. With these factors, it is easier to make sense of what Diablo 3 presents us.
Having not played World of Warcraft in five years, but having watched a roommate play for a bit a year ago, I know that achievements now exist; it was among the first things that caught my eye when playing the stress-test weekend beta. When playing this copy, it was no different; as someone who does not see achievements as necessarily evil, I know it already has made me experiment some with the classes, letting me know of different ways I could build a class, without being hampered to solely building towards them (I've already been storing equipment for a battlemage type build). What I did not immediately expect was being told when other friends had achieved something of note, being able to click on that achievement, and being in a different game, but receiving messages congratulating me on beating the game, reaching level 50, or finding some sidequest.
The thing is, I actually enjoy that touch. It can be turned off, but my experience has been bolstered by the camaraderie of playing that particular type of game. As someone who played both previous installments with his family over LAN, and no longer lives on the same landmass as they, it creates a new type of social experience for a game I have always experienced with others. Which is not for everyone, and I imagine will turn off quite a few people; for others it will pass by as something that just is, because they are so accustomed to the social networks that game systems are increasingly becoming.
Which is great, because the plot and writing are on the same level as most of the Diablo novels. I cringed while reading most of those, the exception being Mel Odom's The Black Road. In fact, having read the novels, some of the game's terms and concepts actually made sense to me, where otherwise the game waits forever to actually define them.
Then again, while I had an interest in the lore and storybuilding of the Diablo world, I also know that for a number of people the game is click-click-loot-level-loot-click-click-die-click in varying patterns (don't get me wrong, I'm that way too!). Diablo 3 very earnestly wants to tell a story, but it does so in some bizarre fashions. Typically, if a cutscene is given, I am a fan of the in-game method of doing so, however, the story this game tries to tell, paired with the art style they are using do not mesh well. Paired further with the writing, I have found that I can quite happily skip past them when playing with alts, or going through the higher difficulties.
Diablo 3 is also so full of pop references and nudge-you-in-the-ribs jokes, it seems that while it wanted to tell a story, the more important experience they wanted to craft was for longevity: discover all these in-jokes, get these humorously named achievements, use the auction house when you reach a stumbling block in the higher difficulties, then use the auction house yourself to make money to purchase more! So, the story certainly exists, but it is almost trite and meaningless when contrast with the rest of the experience on offer. It is a B-movie plot with some stellar names attached (Jennifer Hale and Claudia Black make an appearance!), but still a B-movie plot.
Which is fine, and while I perfectly understand the philosophy behind making sure there are stretch goals and amusements on offer once the plot has been discovered, it begs the question of why there are so many cutscenes through which I must press space to skip, or why a follower will repeat the same lines over and over, as if I haven't heard the same noble savage-y joke about the witch doctor offering the enchantress a lizard to eat enough already. This is less a hindrance when you are playing with others, which did improve the game substantially for myself (even if only to see who could skip past a scene the fastest). I even have an almost nightly session of 'Diabros' who just made it to Nightmare Act IV last night. See, aren't they cute?
Given this push toward the social, where the game lacks it seems very odd. When looking over my friend list, I can see what character a friend is playing, their level, and on which quest they are. Great! I cannot see which difficulty at which they may be playing, though. There's also the standard 'here are the people with whom you recently played that are not on this list already' list. This would be fine, if it did not buffer itself between the online and offline friends you already do have.Upon looking through friends' hero lists, I can see what level they are, all manner of information about their stats, and yet I have to know that the difference between a softcore and hardcore character is blue and red flames on their base, respectively.
Even in communication the game seems to be stuck. The standard of navigating tells via keyboard exists just fine and dandy. There are even chat channels into which I could wade, though that interest has yet to develop. Yet there is no way to create a private channel among friends, to chat while playing in discrete games. However, typing itself can be a bit of a bother when running from an elite pack who is demolishing your character, so the lack of in-game voice capability of any sort seems somewhat odd (though from what I have heard of the in-game chat in their other games makes me wonder if they just didn't want to bother giving mediocre service).
So, in the day of social networks, that terrifying feeling I had the first time I ran around in Tristram cathedral is completely gone; given how social this game can be from the beginning, it may have been necessary. Considering how rare it is to get actual sentiment that is not on either the extreme or sardonic scale on Twitter, Facebook, and so forth, running through the dark, dodging missiles from an enemy you cannot see does not have as poignant a punch. The game is still tense, sometimes brilliantly so, but the macabre elements set a style, not a tone.
For the most part, I am mostly fine with that, though. What will be really interesting is to see how a world that is constantly online, and voicing their opinions, and expecting changes, patches, etc. more frequently will shape the future of the game to come. I imagine as long as I have friends playing, I will keep coming back in fits and spurts to experience slaying demons, gather loot, and try to max my skills and numbers to my liking. Oh, and dress up my dolls. That's fun too.