Everyones favourite bowel-chomper makes a fresh appearance

Diablo 3 didn’t languish in development hell as long as the Grand Old Duke of Nukem, but for legions of fans who were longing to kick demonic ass and loot themselves silly, the wait was truly infernal. Gap-fillers such as the enjoyable romp Torchlight helped to ease the pain, but it was like substituting prime steak with a Greggs pastie, or treating crack addiction with a dose of Lemsip. Sometimes you’ve just got to have the good stuff.

Early issues with servers aside, we couldn’t have been more thrilled to dive once more into Diablo’s world. Right from the start, at the character creation screen, you know you’re back for real. No wasting the best part of a day painstakingly picking your character’s skills, and choosing their favourite weapon/colour/barnyard animal. All you need to choose is your class, sex, and name. And that’s it.

Big and butch, or lean and mean....

As usual you get a choice of characters, with trusty stalwarts the Barbarian and the Wizard returning. Rounding them off are the Monk (dexterous melee specialists), Demon Hunter (crossbow-wielding trappists) and Witch Doctor (voodoo masters that can raise up beastly buddies). All five classes have vastly different strengths and weaknesses, and so complement each other nicely in battle – just one of the many reasons why Diablo 3 is best played in co-op.

Once more unto the breach...

A refreshingly brief cutscene sets up Diablo 3’s story: the troubled town of New Tristram is besieged by nasties, following the crash landing of a mysterious comet. You’re a random wanderer who happens upon the mess, and decides to lend a hand. After clearing the first wave of gribblies, you quickly learn that an old pal, the indefatigable Deckard Cain, had been kidnapped and dragged off to the local monastery. Time to strap on the G-String of Bloody Vengeance and go kick some bogus demonic arse cheeks.

Diablo fans will get a huge kick from the little nods to the earlier games, including a number of familiar faces and locations. In the first Act alone you’ll take on returning bosses, visit the ruins of Old Tristram, and smash through hordes of recognisable enemies. One early section, charmingly named the ‘Fields of Misery’, was almost a carbon copy of Diablo 2’s Stony Fields/Cold Plains - a muddy grassland infested with goatmen and gargantuan beasts. Act Two sees you journey to a desert town, trekking over huge sandy plains and infiltrating crypts and ruins. Sound familiar?

The rather depressing names are typically over the top, so every place you visit will have ‘torture’ or ‘agony’ or ‘anal molestation’ tacked onto the end. The Diablo tourism board must have a twat of a job getting people to visit, even when the forces of Hell aren’t running rampant.

Diablo 3’s story has some neat little twists that fans will enjoy, but they’ll be pretty much meaningless to anyone who hasn’t played the first two games. You also gain some insight into the game’s characters by finding and reading their journals, which are accompanied by spoken commentary as with Bioshock’s logs. Unfortunately most of these seem to pop up when you’re being set upon by a host of gribblies, so the commentary gets lost in a mess of wailing and shrieking (mostly from us).

Ringing some bells...

It isn’t just the story, locations and monsters that breed familiarity either. Gameplay remains mostly unchanged, which in our opinions is a very good thing indeed. You’ll be given a constant stream of quests (with the occasional side mission to contend with), most of which have you clearing a dungeon, killing a boss and retrieving some item.

A simple quest to find a sword becomes more complicated when you realise the weapon has been broken in three and scattered over the land. To find the first piece you need to locate five orbs to enter a dungeon, and so on. Things often spiral out of control, so when you think you’re close to finishing an Act, you find yourself on another epic journey through all kinds of unpleasant locations. Diablo 3 is certainly as lengthy as the second game, and despite the online chatter of some dedicated/mentalist fan completing the game in just 12 hours on the very first day, we reckon most people will take at least a week to bash their way through on Normal – and that’s with some serious play each night. After all, to get the most from Diablo you’ll need to carefully explore each location, gaining as much experience and grabbing as much new gear as possible.

As before, you can either take on the legions of the damned alone, or with real-life buddies online. We’d recommend the latter as Diablo 3 is a lot more fun tackled with friends, and you can choose different classes to back each other up. However, even if you do go solo, you can recruit NPCs to make your travels a little less lonely.

One massive annoyance when playing co-op was the apparent lack of voice chat – we found no way of communicating other than through clunky text chat, and ended up loading Steam in the background just so we could talk. Hopefully this will be patched very soon, as it’s a ridiculous oversight - who has the time to type in ‘Sorry to intrude, but a massive lizard thing with spiky fingers is currently fisting my face to death’ in the heat of battle?

I loot all day, I loot all night...

By sticking with the same simple gameplay, Blizzard has focused on the things that really matter. In a word, loot. Fans will not be disappointed by the enormous amount of weapons, equipment, rings and jewels you can pick up and stick on your character, from boots to braces, axes to armbands. Magical, rare and unique items all make an appearance, and are in plentiful supply. Every three or four minutes we were swapping out some part of our gear for a new kick-ass magical item.

Of course, it’s just as much about making your guy/gal look kick-ass, and Diablo 3 doesn’t disappoint. You start off resembling a cider-filled beggar who hasn’t washed in months, but by the end of Act I you’ll either be gleaming with armour or clad in silky cloaks. Our Barbarian could’ve scared the shit out of David Hay, with his spiky helmet and dual scythes.

You don’t just have to depend on lucky drops in Diablo 3 either. You quickly make friends with a blacksmith who can craft you a number of basic weapons and items, for a bit of gold and some essence (harvested from unwanted magical items). The twist is that you can train him up to make better gear, by splashing your cash. Each level he gains opens up better stuff, so it’s well worth saving some of your hard-earned dosh. Later on you’ll also find a jeweller who can help you upgrade socketed items with gems, as in Diablo 2.

Fair and square...

Loot drops are often a sore issue in these games when playing co-op, as everyone dashes in for the good stuff the instant a boss is felled. Thankfully, Diablo 3 makes sure you play fair. Each character gets their own loot and gold drops, which the other players can’t see or pick up, thus avoiding mad grabs for the decent kit. Of course, you can still trade with each other - or simply torment your pals when you pick up that amazing sword they so badly need, if you’re a bit of a git.

XP is also shared evenly between everyone, so you won’t find some characters levelling up faster than others. The only minor discrepancies occur as a result of the players’ gear, as some items grant extra XP per kill.

Mad skills

Diablo 3’s core gameplay may not have changed much, but Blizzard has thrown in a few excellent tweaks. One of the biggest is the skills system, which has been massively overhauled. In Diablo 2 you were assigned points upon levelling up, which you then pumped into a skills tree. You were stuck with whatever choices you made, unable to change your mind.  In Diablo 3, the skills unlock as you gain levels, but you can activate and deactivate them whenever you want, so there are no permanent choices.

For instance, our Barbarian started with just a single skill, ‘bash’, which is pretty self-explanatory. This is a Primary skill, meaning it’s assigned to the left mouse button. After we gained a level, we received a Secondary skill, which is assigned to the right mouse button. This was called Hammer of the Ancients, and is basically a more powerful swing.

A few levels later, we gained new Primary and Secondary skills, so Bash was replaced with Cleave, an attack that swipes out in an arc, hurting lots of beasties at once, while Hammer of the Ancients went out for Rend, which makes enemies bleed for extra damage. But at absolutely any time, we could revert back to Bash and HotA, simply by entering the Skills menu and selecting them. You aren’t punished later in the game for choices you made early on, which is a huge relief.

You can use up to six active skills, assigned to the left and right mouse buttons, as well as the 1-4 number keys. In addition there are lots of passive skills which boost certain traits, unlockable at levels 10, 20 and 30. But it doesn’t end there, because every skill can be upgraded using ‘runes’, which are unlocked at set levels, making them more powerful and adding a further layer of strategy.

Considering the number of different skills each character has to choose from, and the big difference between the different classes, you should have no problem upgrading your fighter to your own personal tastes. It’s fantastic that you can try out different character builds without starting the game all over again too, so if your character’s attacks are a bit too puny, or they keep dying from just one or two hits, you can mix it up again. Hardcore purists might not like it, but then they’re hardly ever pleased anyway.

Looks a smasher...

Stick a Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 screenshot next to each other and Diablo 2 suddenly looks all kinds of ugly, not surprising given over a decade has passed between the two. Diablo 3 uses full 3D graphics, similar to Torchlight, but unlike Torchlight’s colourful environments, Diablo’s are suitably grim. You’ll pass through dilapidated forests, waterlogged dungeons, caverns filled with fire and brimstone, and all manner of ruins that make Hull look like the Costa Del Sol.

Some of the fields and rocky landscapes are a little bare and boring, but the devastated towns and bone-strewn lairs more than make up for it, exuding a sinister atmosphere that always keeps you on edge. Variety is strong, between the locations and the enemies lurking within, so you’ll rarely get fatigued by the constant clearing of areas.

The new environments are also now completely destructible, adding authenticity to the frantic combat. Swinging your sword in a graveyard will cause gravestones to shatter and trees to splinter and tumble. You can hack down chandeliers to crush hapless demons, or smash pillars to bring down entire walls on a gathering of gribblies. You’ll also have to keep an eye out for traps, from enormous crushers to deadly spikes.

Some new additions...

Blizzard has made a few other interesting little tweaks that shake up Diablo 3’s gameplay from earlier editions. For instance, health potions themselves now have a ‘cool down’ period, so you can’t use a ton of them at once (a popular Diablo 2 tactic for tank characters). This makes it a lot more tense when facing off against bosses or when a horde of nasties surrounds you. Thankfully some defeated enemies drop health orbs when defeated, which grant you an instant life boost. Without these, we’d have been doing a Monty Python and running away an awful lot more.

Town portal and identify scrolls have also been scrapped. Instead, you can skip back to town using the ‘T’ key at any time, while unidentified items can be revealed back at town simply by clicking on them (and unidentified items are now a lot more rare – the exact opposite of Torchlight’s constant barrage). That frees up inventory space for more goodies, which is alright by us.

Our personal favourite addition was the loot-dropping imp, an obvious homage to classic action game Golden Axe. This little sack-wielding dude runs around dropping piles of gold as you smack ten bells out of him. You need to finish him before he teleports away, as he drops a collection of magical items and potions. Leave it too long and that loot is lost. It makes some battles considerably more frantic, as you try to fend off a ton of beasties while beating the crap out of this harmless little imp.

Finally, Blizzard has thrown in a huge number of achievements. Completists will need to do some serious grafting, as there are separate awards for solo and co-op campaigns, with dozens to collect for each.

Error 37 – shorthand for ‘bend over and take it’

Diablo 3 is a highly polished package, as you’d expect after spending so long in development. However, right now it’s a struggle to heartily recommend it, for two reasons.

First is the server debacle. You’ve no doubt heard about the plethora of issues that loyal fans had to wade through this week when trying to get their game on. The most infamous is Error 37 (so widespread it actually trended on Twitter, beating out popular trends such as ‘Bieber is hawt’). This little baby kept us at bay for most of launch day, and then for another few hours this weekend. Considering we’re hard working people with full-time jobs, only able to play games for a fraction of time each week, this is hugely unacceptable - especially from a company such as Blizzard, who have a wee bit of experience when it comes to online gaming.

Second is the price. At £45 this is one of the most expensive PC games of recent times (wanky collectors editions aside) - not a massive issue in itself, but when coupled with those server issues, which means you might be paying £45 just to stare at the main screen for a few hours each day, it’s a bit of a kick in the nuts.

The verdict

If you’ve never been into Diablo, this third instalment will do nothing to win you over. The story will mostly be meaningless to newcomers, while core gameplay remains the same, with some new characters, an overhauled skills system and shiny new graphics to mix things up a bit. This is pretty much exactly what we expected, and while the single-player experience can be a little lonesome or repetitive at times, Diablo 3 is one of the best times we’ve had while sat at a computer when played co-op.

However, with the current high price and server issues, combined with the ridiculous lack of voice chat, we’d recommend holding off before buying unless you’re a diehard fan (in which case, you probably already own it).
Let's make the scoring clear - We docked Diablo 3 a whole mark because of those three issues. With a lower price, VOIP and no DRM Diablo 3 sits comfortably with a 9 out of 10. Clearly the market leader when it comes to point and click, treasure sprinkling.

Diablo 3 System Requirements

Diablo 3 needs a reasonably beastly computer to run well, and of course a dependable network connection if you want to play co-op. Note that you’ll need to be online to play even the single-player version, which makes that Error 37 crap even more annoying.

Our Core 2 Duo machine handled the game well, with only a little lag interfering with play. We’d recommend a decent graphics card, at least a GeForce GTX 260, to get decent detail levels.

A charming stroll through the Caverns of Pant-Shredding Foulness