Friday, June 8, 2012

Diablo III - Story and Setting

A long time ago in a galaxy pretty close and nearby, a certain computer game called Diablo was made and released. It featured taking a warrior through an incredibly long dungeon of multiple levels, fighting through hordes of demons before taking on and defeating Diablo, the demon lord, himself. The game's ripples were few but its profit was enough to justify the creation of a sequel. I never played this original Diablo.

Then, Diablo II emerged from developmental slumber and took the world by storm. Entire summers were devoted to slaying fiends. Millions of people found that they could live with less than eight hours of sleep so long as they had just one more opportunity to get a rare or unique item drop. Fields, deserts, jungles, and Hell itself... Every biome was tread and retread until we found ourselves at war with the cows themselves. They marched forth with halberds raised and droll moos as their battle cries and were cut down in turn, collateral damage in our madcap quest for “phat loot”.

The addiction that Diablo II brought with it was legendary. Games like Super Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Call of Duty: Insert-Bullshit-Number-Here have had their fans, but nothing short of that behemoth World of Warcraft itself has been able to command such a obsessive-compulsive brand of gameplay. But this story is not over. As you may have heard, the thousand-pound fiery-eyed demonic gorilla that is the Diablo franchise has come out with the newest and latest form of video game-equivalent crack/cocaine to sucker in an entirely new generation: Diablo III, the reason why hundreds of thousands of people won't be seeing sunlight this summer.

Does it Measure up? - Setting and Story

Yeah, I know. Cue the boos. The immediate reaction of much of the video gaming population is that, “Diablo's gameplay is the important part. Who cares about the story?” The answer is: I do. Deal with it.

The Diablo series is known for putting the combat and treasure hunt first and foremost, leaving the story and details of the greater world in the background. It's there if you want it and, if you aren't looking or interested, much of it can be missed and leave you blissfully unaware. Neither camp is wrong. Some people like blasting through the games so that they can get the next epic upgrade to their equipment. Others take their time, talking to the NPCs (non-player characters), learning more about the world, and gleaning knowledge of the gigantic conflict that seems to perpetually arrest it.

First things first, I have to point out that Diablo's world (hilariously and ironically called “Sanctuary”) has got to be the most godawful fictional world ever created. Have you ever asked your friends the nerdy question of, “What fictional world would you most like to live in?” Yeah, Diablo's would be right at the very bottom. It's a miracle people exist at all much less maintain civilization and cities to live in. The countryside is fucked. Demons butcher anything in sight. Vultures roam about and attack you when you aren't paying attention. Even the damned flowers try to kill you if you get too close.

Then Things Got Ugly

Diablo III takes this setting and makes it even nastier. Think your king has been acting a bit weird lately? Yeah, he's probably a demon lord. Think you're safe in your mountain keep? Some trollop with a rock might piss off the wrong archfiend, causing him to emerge from a volcanic wasteland with a hundred thousand angry demons to utterly destroy your day. God forbid you're one of the soldiers in Act III; your life expectancy is less than five seconds, particularly if the main character steps anywhere near you.

However, on a setting basis, I found that I enjoyed Diablo II better. Diablo III is certainly a very pretty game and its vistas hint at an astonishing amount of depth. But, aside from the surprising turnabout in Act IV, it feels as if it is simply retreading the steps of D2. The first act of both games? Nighttime plains/marshland. The second act of both games? Interminable desert. The third act of D3 copies the expansion act of D2, but does it poorly; an epic snowy landscape is quickly replaced by unending circular dungeon crawls into the center of a volcano. Theoretically epic? Perhaps, but in practice I got bored pretty fast. These things are important to note because Diablo games are built on the premise that you will be going over these terrains over and over. I already feel like I covered most of this ground a bazillion times already in the previous game.

Stay a While and Listen”

As for the plot, the fact of the matter is that D2 felt like a more interesting and epic game. In D2, you are fighting to stop the Prime Evils. Baal, Mephisto, and Diablo slowly come into prominence and plan to summon legions of demons to basically end the world. To stop them, you must venture into Hell itself and smash their soulstones upon the Hellforge.

I won't go into the details belong that because, frankly, even I don't care to. But it is important to note that D3 just isn't at this level of intensity. Your main foes for much of the game are two of the Lesser Evils: Belial and Azmodan. Diablo does emerge at the end to threaten Heaven itself (which pleasantly surprised me), but it feels too little too late. It was like the writers remembered that the game series is titled Diablo at the last moment, and so felt they had to rush the big guy into the story just so he could be beaten yet again. In addition, Act IV felt absurdly small in comparison to the others and didn't even have its own town area.

The game tries to create some empathetic connection to the player by having us follow the story of Deckard Cain, his daughter Leah, and the archangel Tyrael. But this ultimately fails. Leah is built up to be the main character but then comes off as daft and ancillary to what you are doing. Tyrael is supposed to be this big badass former archangel but becomes significantly less awesome when you realize that he (and all your henchmen/escorts for that matter) are almost completely useless in a fight, particularly when compared to the standards of D2. And Deckard Cain dies within the first few quests, so good on him.

The other characters are one-dimensional and often more annoying than interesting. Zoltun Kulle's betrayal is painfully aware from the moment you first talk to him, and his only claim to awesome is an incredibly epic sounding voice. Imperius simply shows us that even archangels can be pricks and spends not even a single moment doing anything remotely intelligent. If God exists in this world, he really sucks at picking his subordinates. And don't even get me started on Leah's mom.

Despite all this nitpicking, though, I wanted to point out that D3 is still a fantastic game. Though I'm not sure if I'll get around to reviewing the gameplay aspect of it (as it is easy to write that off in a sentence by saying it expands upon D2 and makes it better in just about every way), it almost goes without saying that the game is horrifically addicting in the best possible way. But in terms of staying power and how it feels compared to its predecessor, the story, its protagonists, and its antagonists just fail to make it feel like D3 is truly better than D2.

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