The problem with saving the world is that there’s always something else to do.
Role Playing Games (RPG) have always suffered from bloated narratives and long play times. Burdened with the baggage of numerous side quests and a huge free-to-explore world, the sense of immediate, epic danger is rarely a quality associated with the genre (except, perhaps, during boss battles).
Devil returns: Diablo III is one of the most anticipated game releases.
Spira’s doom may be imminent in Final Fantasy X, but players are more than happy to spend blissful hours level-grinding on Mount Gagazet, with big baddie Sin having to wait his turn for our heroes to make an appearance. Evil masterminds often have to endure procrastinating players, who inevitably put a monkey wrench into their global domination plans (mostly by showing up late).
These qualities, of course, take nothing away from the power of the genre, but the sheer weight of the elements of an RPG (the notorious Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall comes to mind) — the complex statistics, the large gameworld, and the sheer amount of things you HAVE to remember — often alienate gamers, forcing them to flee even at the sight of one.
Diablo knew this. Or, more accurately, its developers did.
The Diablo series of action RPGs have sold more than 18 million copies worldwide to date, and are considered one of the most influential games of the last decade. So much so, that the unveiling of the third game in the series, Diablo III, on 28 June, was met with both joyous celebration and sceptical grumbling by its rabid fan base — which saw even the slightest change in gameplay mechanics as a “betrayal” of the core Diablo experience.
The team behind the series, originally called Condor, was established in 1993 and acquired by Blizzard (and renamed Blizzard North) six months before the release of their first game —Diablo I.
At the time, they had little idea that their pet project would, following its release in 1997, reinvent a stagnant genre and bring in more than 2.5 million players to the unfamiliar RPG territory.
Diablo stripped away the layers of complexity that had previously surrounded RPG, switching complex statistics and slow, turn-based combat for “speed and instant gratification”. Some complained that it was essentially a game of furious mouse clicking and greedy item hoarding — but so what?
It pulled a number of clever switcheroos: Non-playable characters were blatant cardboard cut-outs, serving the sole purpose of either providing the player with items or weapons, or initiating quests. Puzzles were merely obstacles — a well-placed firebolt or an axe through the air solved most in-game quandaries.
Diablo dumped the “huge, open world” idea in favour of a tight, taut setting. The village of Tristram, and the labyrinthine dungeon beneath its church, served as the backdrop for Diablo’s simple, but effective, save-the-world plot (one helped by its meticulously detailed mythos and backstory).
The dungeon itself was another design masterstroke. Divided into 16 levels, and four distinct areas, it was randomly generated in every game, providing seemingly limitless replay value, both in singleplayer and multiplayer (called Battle.net). Battle.net servers were often full to bursting, even years after the game’s release (it’s now home to numerous dupers who lure unsuspecting players with trails of fantastically powerful but tragically fake items).
A lacklustre expansion, Diablo: Hellfire, followed in late 1997, and the true sequel arrived in 2000, with the release of Diablo II.
Diablo II was bigger, and more expansive, but retained the core gameplay of the original—click, hoard, repeat (it also added a much-need sprint button, spurred, no doubt, by vicious hate mail sent by every player who had to make the regular, excruciatingly long trip to meet Adria, the witch, in Diablo I).
There were now five character classes instead of three; open, outdoor environments instead of a single claustrophobic dungeon; the music, another hallmark of the series, was top-notch; and the continuing plot was now spread over four acts, beginning with Act I, where the player saved the Monastery of the Sisters of the Sightless Eye (rogues to the rest of us) from the demon queen Andariel.
Lord of Destruction, an expansion pack that added a new act to the tale, was released a year later, in 2001.
But for all its strengths, there’s something eerily wrong about Diablo, something cold and distant and troubling.
It’s in that moment of annoyance, when you click impatiently through a character’s heartfelt dialogue so you can pawn off the latest pile of magical goodies from the dungeon. It’s in the absolute lack of reaction to your companion’s death, as you nonchalantly head back to the rogue encampment to hire another.
And most of all, it’s in the sight of poor old Deckard Cain. “Stay a while and listen,” he urges whenever you walk up to him.
But who has the time?
Diablo III will be available for the Macintosh and PC platforms. A release date has not been announced.