After countless years of development Blizzard finally released Diablo III on May 15. I haven’t played it yet myself but I’ve a few things to say about it.
As someone who has played World of Warcraft since shortly after it launched I know a lot of people who have been frothing for this game. And why not? It’s part of the holy trinity of Blizzard’s famous IPs and (to me) was arguably their most successful brand back in the days of Diablo II. Since those days Blizzard has focused elsewhere. With the astounding success of Warcraft III and World of Warcraft we saw much of Blizzard’s creative focus shifting toward that brand. Or perhaps it was just due to a brain drain in Blizzard North, who were supposedly working on Diablo III back in 2003. Regardless, the Diablo and Starcraft franchises sat on the back burner for years and years while Blizzard rode upon their good fortunes with Warcraft. In that time, the company has changed. And I don’t mean to say that in a bad way, all things must change. However, I fear much of what made Diablo II so special was lost during this time.
And what made Diablo II great? In many ways, it was one of the most mindless dungeon clickers to ever gain mass acceptance. There have been countless similar games since then, many reveling in their derivativeness, but none has gained a player base the likes of which Diablo II saw. I would argue that the spark which let Diablo II shine more brightly than many of the similar titles of its time and since was its story and the sheer weight of effort put into presenting that story to the player through music, text, and cinematics. And while Diablo II’s cinematics haven’t held up so well from a modeling or animation standpoint, nonetheless they still have a lyrical quality of genuine narration that is hard to dismiss. When one looks at this type of storytelling and considers its use in Diablo II, Warcraft 3 (and especially the Frozen Throne), and Starcraft its easy to understand how gamers form attachments to the worlds and narratives Blizzard has created for us.
But over the years Blizzard has begun to turn away from these qualities. Over the years they have reduced their cinematic teams and turned to creating more visceral, action oriented cinematics. It is much the same as we see in modern cinema – lots of action, camera movement, and explosions but with less substance. And I find these new cinematics, and the narratives they spin, hold far less charm as a result. A cutscene should not be merely a maddening din of extreme actions. There needs to be an emotional aspect, a building to what needs to be seen, and a poignant move to action at the proper time to gain the full effect and to create the kind of engrossing stories we’ve come to expect of blizzard. So we’ve seen countless times – The slow reveal of Mannoroth, the brief struggle, the death of Hellscream. The slow contemplative climb to the Frozen Throne, the freeing of Ner’zhul, Arthas fate at the peak of Icecrown. More recently, Zeratul considering the appearance of the Xel’naga, a confrontation with the Queen of Blades, and a lament of prophecy.
With Diablo III Blizzard has set new standards for both their modeling and animation. Yet they have somehow failed to provide the same emotional impact that their other narratives have elicited. The buildups are often not engaging to the player, the action sequences are skewed towards anime style action, and there is little to contemplate at their denoument.
Act 1: This was created as a teaser trailer – it has no particular emotional worth. No real introductions. Basically it just shows off how pretty the work of Blizzard’s cinematic team can be.
Act 2: The high watermark of the game, if only they could all be this good. As impressive as the conflict between Tyrael and Imperius is, it is the exposition that stands out. As Leah picks up her Uncle’s work and Tyrael slowly lowers the torch to his fire there is such a simple grace and beauty to the framing of the scene – it’s a true work of art.
Act 3 : Again, this cinematic was created to be used in trailers. While it does show some impressive imagery, it suffers from a lack of emotional impact as the first cinematic did.
Act 4: A battle between Imperius and Diablo. This mostly relies on being loud and gaudy, but ultimately even the fight itself seems weak due to poor choreography.
So I haven’t played Diablo III, but I have looked into it a bit. And it just doesn’t seem like it will be able to live up to Diablo II. Considering I’m a solo player and I’ve heard you can beat the game in 10 hours I’m not in any hurry to buy this one, either. It seems clear from what’s available that Blizzard didn’t put the care into the storyline that I value in most of their games.