Diablo has never been a game as much as an addiction. Even after you've spent the last few hours immersed in it, it can be hard to fathom the appeal of all that endless clicking, the continual accumulation of arms and armour, the constant worrying over whether those brass knuckles of the serpent are a better choice than the vampiric club of wounding, or if you ought to opt for a great big wavy spear instead. Yet when you're playing Diablo, Diablo is pretty much all that you can think about. As one mass of monsters merges into another, dungeons dissolve in a blur and you level up and find new ways to beat the living daylights out of goatmen, zombies or crazed cultists, hours disappear and you're still left wanting more. This is as true of Diablo III as it was of Diablo II and the first Diablo.
Partly, that's because the game hasn't changed all that much. While the graphics have had a luminous HD overhaul and the whole thing has been polished to an extraordinary degree, Diablo III still plays almost exactly like the first two games. Towns act as a hub between wilderness areas and randomly-generated dungeons, and your hero or heroine enters these and bashes seven bells out of anything that walks, crawls of scuttles. Visually, he or she appears to do so through a mix of athletic swordplay, martial prowess and spectacular magical attacks, but in practice it all comes down to left-clicking on the monsters at a furious rate, right-clicking to use your secondary attack and occasionally pressing one of four hotkeys to access a tertiary ability. Once everything in the immediate vicinity is dead you hoover up the loot and, when you get something cool, equip it in one of the weapons or armour slots in your inventory.
By killing monsters and finishing quests (usually involving the slaughter of every monster between you and an object or location) you gain experience, and when you gain enough of that you level up. This gives you access to new abilities, though to say that the choice is limited is putting it mildly - you're often simply asked to rubber-stamp the one option available. With the exception of some light crafting, that's pretty much all there is to it. In a nutshell, Diablo III sounds monotonous, and in an odd sort of way it is.
Yet all the monotony has such a nice flow to it. As you move from one area to another, build your powers and upgrade your equipment, you end up somehow having a great time. There's always a new monster to slay, a new powerhouse attack to try, a new sword, axe or spear to take for a spin. Diablo III hasn't got the intense narrative hooks of Mass Effect or The Witcher, but really it doesn't need them. The mechanics of fighting and upgrading are enough to keep you coming back for more.
Diablo III's main additions to the old formula come in a new set of character classes (now available in both male and female versions) and in a little more interaction with the environment. The Barbarian is pretty much the warrior from Diablo or the Barbarian from Diablo II, and the most straightforward choice, while the Wizard isn't a huge departure from Diablo II's Sorceress, with high-powered spell attacks making up for weakness in close combat. Otherwise, there are elements of the Necromancer in the new Witch Doctor and the Assassin in the new Demon Hunter, but while the Witch Doctor has similar summoning and cursing powers, he's arguably more flexible, while the Demon Hunter focuses more on ranged attacks to complement his or her traps.
Meanwhile, there's a greater degree of interaction with the dungeon scenery, enabling you to hit groups of foes with tumbling logs of falling chandeliers, or even work with traps, flame-spewing floors and deadly swinging blades to cut down numbers. These interactions are, to be fair, quite limited, but they add a little extra variety to the combat.
Diablo III also brings us a new take on Diablo II's Mercenaries. Now labelled 'followers', one of these CPU-controlled assistants can now accompany you throughout the game, with key points where you can pick them up or swap them, plus the option of leaving them temporarily or permanently in the current act's main town. Followers are genuinely useful fighters, and can be equipped with weapons and armour, and even have skills which unlock as they build experience and level. Even if their speech gets a bit repetitive, at least they add a little life to some otherwise gloomy dungeons.
Of course, if you really want more life, then the best way to play Diablo III is as a multiplayer co-op game. Credit to Blizzard for making it easy to hook up with a party temporarily. You can open your own game to other players, or select a quest from those your current character has completed and let the game search for a suitable session to join in. Of course, it's even better played with friends, and the combination of showing off your heroes and their latest acquisitions and competing with your comrades should give Diablo III a long-term appeal that other, more sedate RPGs can't match.
Graphically speaking, Diablo III is more an artistic tour-de-force than a technical one. The main isometric view doesn't allow for a huge amount of detail, a lot of the scenery is - by necessity - repeated, and if you want photorealistic characters or environments, you're really looking in the wrong place. That said, some of the environments have a real beauty to them, with rushing waterfalls and ornate, ruined architecture, and the lighting and atmospheric effects look gorgeous. Blizzard has a way of creating coherent-looking worlds with an almost tangible feel, and Diablo III doesn't let the side down.
And this brings us to the really odd thing about Diablo III. Its achievement isn't in its graphics technology or in its innovative game systems, but in simply being the best Diablo it can be. You can feel that this is a game that has gone through years of polishing, so that each quest runs smoothly, the difficulty level is never too tough and you're never wasting time just backtracking. Everything, from inventory-management to buying and selling gear, is as pain-free as can be. Where so many otherwise brilliant games are let down by a list of niggles and irritations, Diablo III seems to have obliterated each and every one.
Well, almost. The one remaining source of irritation is a biggie: Diablo III's demand that you're hooked up to the Internet for each and every second that you play. Not being able to play because you can't sign in is annoying, but getting dumped out of your current dungeon and having to restart at square one because your connection has been dropped is infuriating. If you have a rock-solid connection this might never happen to you, but it's happened to us a couple of times while playing, and on large levels with sparse checkpoints it's a real source of grief.
Diablo III's connection issues are a pain, but they don't detract from the furious, addictive action, the stylish and atmospheric looks or the incredibly polished gameplay. It's easy to say that it's a conservative and even backwards-looking game, but who cares when it's this compulsive and this much fun? It's the game Diablo fans have waited for, and one that might just conquer a whole new generation.
Pros: Compulsive, very polished gameplay, great multiplayer, replayable with different characters.
Cons: Needs a constant Internet connection, doesn't break new ground.