Hard to believe it’s only been seven months since Diablo III launched. It took 12 years for the follow-up to Diablo II to arrive, bringing with it divisive changes to what many considered a sacrosanct design. Now that the dust has had time to settle, and people have gotten over the culture shock, what are we left with?

Is Diablo III actually a good game, when judged on the merits of what it is, not what people want it to be? Or does it continue to fall short, highlighting a deep-rooted problem within Blizzard’s design team? We examine what the various patches have added since launch, and muse on the merits of the Paragon system, after the break.

Bloody Launch

The launch of Diablo III is infamous. The news that Diablo III would only have the equivalent of Diablo II‘s “Closed” Realm, forcing players to be online even when playing by themselves, was not popular. So when the game launched, and the Battle.Net servers buckled under the game’s popularity, nobody could connect. So of course, here then was “evidence”, as some claimed, of how the entire idea was horrible, and single-player games should never require you to be online when playing. And that Blizzard should put back in the ability to play the game with friends on a LAN. While the request for LAN play is an entirely reasonable one, considering much of Diablo’s popularity came from exactly that – playing it at a LAN, with friends – expecting Blizzard to remove the online-only requirement was naive, wouldn’t happen, didn’t happen, won’t happen.

After the servers settled and people could log in without problems, the second so-called “problem” with Diablo III became a topic of discussion: that the entire thing was designed just to further Blizzard’s “Real Money Auction House”. Or so people insisted, and still do to a degree. Even though the Real Money Auction House is in no way a requirement. The regular gold-based Auction House however, is an entirely different matter. It may not be required (not that much anyway, after all the item balance changes), but it’s still a valuable service if you want to complete a Set or find gear for a specific purpose.

Diablo III being “online only”, ended up being a non-issue, except of course for those with weak internets or geographical disadvantage, like South Africans. ZA players will continue to be geographically challenged in relation to most game datacenter locations, for quite some time. Did Diablo III need to be online-only? Probably not. Neither does the upcoming SimCity, and yet it will be. Like it or not, that’s the way these things are going right now, because companies want more control over their products.

Paragons and Legendaries

To address two problems at once (what was perceived as a low Magic Find / Drop Rate issue, and lacking a “carrot” to chase after hitting level 60), the Paragon Levels system was introduced with Patch 1.0.4 at the end of August.

The Paragon Level system kicks in when you hit level 60, effectively adding another 100 levels beyond it. Each time you gain a Paragon level, you’re given core stat increases, +3% Magic Find and +3% Gold Find. The Paragon system really makes it rain after you get 10 levels in, so the entire economy got bootstrapped due to the influx of money and Rares / Legendaries into the Auction House.

Part of the 1.0.4 patch, was a complete overhaul of Legendaries – such a huge change, that any Legendaries dropped before the patch were recontextualized as “Legacy”. Legendaries now scale better based on where they dropped, and many have random affixes based on the level of monster killed, rather than the item’s level. When a Legendary drops, it’s now marked by a column of light and a ping on the minimap, with a satisfying ping sound, to make sure you don’t miss it. The chance a Legendary will now drop, is double what it was before the patch.

Goldspammers are still a problem though.

Monster Power and Infernal Machine

Patch 1.0.5, released mid-October, re-introduced a feature from Diablo II: Monster Power. Similar to the “Players X” command from D2, Monster Power is a system designed to give players a choice on how challenging they want the game to be. You can set the Power level up to 10, which scales monster damage and health up, but also scales up bonuses to experience, Magic Find and Gold Find. Currently, the general consensus is that Power level 7 (when playing Inferno) is the “sweet spot” for challenge vs reward, anything higher is a huge risk, and anything lower is mostly just for when you want to steamroll over things. Personally, I’m still doing MP0 Alkaizer runs to try and build up a stronger Witch Doctor, but more on that later.

The Infernal Machine, added in 1.0.5, is a device for battling “uber” versions of the various bosses found in the game. You need to assemble the device, but once you have it, it can be used to open portals to special encounters that combine two augmented bosses together. Defeating these bosses is required if you want to craft the new Legendary ring. You can read more about the Infernal Machine on Blizzard’s site. Just to be nasty about it, when you use the Infernal Machine to open the portal, the machine is destroyed, so you’ll need to go hunt down the components again, and pay 12,000 gold to the Blacksmith to craft another. The components are Account Bound, so you can’t buy them off the Auction House. Is the Hellfire Ring worth all the trouble? It has no level requirement, so it makes an excellent heirloom to pass down to a new character. And since it’s Account Bound, it represents something you actually need to play to get, you can’t “cheat’ and buy it off the Auction House.

Patches Patches Patches

Before all the aforementioned changes, the usual kinds of patches hit regularly: fixing/adjusting skills, runes, players getting stuck or becoming invulnerable, and a variety of humorous bugs that would disconnect you instead of warning you that what you’re trying to do is silly/impossible. It used to be, trying to remove a gem from an item with no sockets, would disconnect you. Or trying to equip a shield on a follower, if you’re a Demon Hunter.

One of the earliest “major” changes, made in June, was removing monster damage scaling based on the number of players in the game. Their health still scales based on player count, but the chances of coming up against a Champion Of Death were reduced significantly. Perhaps the change was premature, an incorrect response to players not being properly equipped for Inferno. It’s not uncommon for developers to “patch” a non-issue, being overly reactive to player complaints instead of waiting for things to settle.

As the months progressed, the droprate on Rare items (based on how many Nephalem Valour stacks you had) was increased. Even at low Paragon levels, with five stacks of NV, it’s not uncommon for an Champion or Rare to drop three or more Rares. At the end of June, the drop-rate for high-end items were increased across the board, especially for the final acts of Hell difficulty and early Inferno difficulty, to try and counteract the problem of players not having sufficient gear for Inferno.

By October, the difficulty scaling for monsters in Inferno was dropped by 25%, fixing what Blizzard claim was an error on their part.

But Doth It Click?

I played Diablo III a lot at launch, since I enjoyed it. I wasn’t overly critical of the new skill system, having never been that much of a fan of how Diablo II (and Torchlight II) does it. The combat feels powerful and fun, and the Witch Doctor’s style of play ended up being something I enjoy. Once I got to level 60, and hit Act II on Inferno, I hit a brick wall. It was difficult to survive Act II by myself, and I didn’t want to keep joining random multiplayer games just to get further. I couldn’t play with friends, since Blizzard still insists on keeping their regions separate. Their whole “Global Play” thing is a bit of a lie. Sure, I could start a new character on the European servers to play with my friends there, but I was already invested in my Witch Doctor on the American servers.

It was a mistake on Blizzard’s part, to force people to go through the difficulty levels from scratch with each new character. Once you hit Inferno, creating a new character should give you the option to start a level 50 or 40, already at Inferno, or at least Hell. Granted, that would remove some of the perceived “value” from having a high-level character in the first place, but I wonder if that would have been an acceptable loss.

Not wanting to use the Auction House, I ended up dropping the game for a while. Then, quite recently, I picked it up again to see how all the patches and Paragon levels and etc, changed things. For the better, was my impression. The overall experience is far more balanced, with difficulty vs droprate being an acceptable hill now, instead of an insurmountable cliff. I could progress through Act II, with some difficulty, and start getting more +Resist All gear. Legendaries were dropping every few sessions, nothing all that great, but gold is gold. My Paragon level started increasing, but very slowly.

Alkaizer run

By happenstance, I came across mention of the “Alkaizer run“: a popular farming run in Act III. Named after the character who was first in the world to reach Paragon 100, a Barbarian named Alkaizer, this specific path through Act III is what the character repeated, until max level. It’s a very dense run, huge groups of monsters and lots of boss packs. It’s considered the most efficient and profitable run in Diablo III.

I tried the Alkaizer run a few times myself, and found that I really enjoyed it. Not just for the experience gain and loot, but for the specific kind of challenge it provided. I see it as a kind of speed-run, where the goal is to complete the run as fast as possible, without dying (as that would slow you down). The narrow definition of the run gave me a good framework from which I could optimize my character, and my playstyle, for maximum damage output without sacrificing survivability. You can’t really “cheese” your way through the run, since you’ll come up against some serious business Champions and Elites, which you want to kill for the Nephalim Valor stacks.

Since each Alkaizer run takes, ideally, less than 15 minutes, it presents the perfect “quick break” game for me. I can sit down, load up my character, and do the run, reap the rewards, experience a few thrills along the way (since the randomness of Diablo III can still surprise you), and occasionally find something to improve my character with. And that’s really the essence of a Diablo-style game, isn’t it? It’s not like we played Diablo for the plot…

Continue?

But, much how Diablo II only became truly accepted with the first expansion pack, so too does Diablo III desperately need its own fully-formed expansion pack. It needs Player vs Player, more content in terms of monsters and areas, and new classes/types of items, perhaps a third Artisan.

Someone once described Diablo III as being akin to Tetris. It’s not a game you play to finish – it’s one you play for the sake of playing, because you enjoy the act of playing it. So while the various patches until now have done much for the game, improving it in more ways than just surface gloss, it’s unlikely the recent changes will make someone who didn’t enjoy it, enjoy it now.

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