Diablo III: refusing to succumb to the late-game grind

Tuesday, 3 July 2012 08:43 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Diablo III’s a blast, but you have to be dedicated to move beyond a few campaign runs, says Patrick Garratt. Bottom line: how many times can you beat the horned overlord before giving over to boredom?

I’m left looking at a pretty game engine with an exponentially ratcheting difficulty level, staring gloomily down the hair-clogged plughole of a blood-splattered time-sink. It’s at this point I turn it off.

I admit it. I’m bored of Diablo III, and it’s over nothing technical. While a wash of recent evidence suggests all is not well in Sanctuary for a variety of reasons – the real money auction house (RMAH) has been accused of unbalancing top-end play at a fundamental level, and Athene’s posted a video apparently showing him beating every boss on Inferno difficulty with his eyes shut – it’s a lack of content and balance issues that nailed it for me. It may well be the most successful PC game ever shipped – depending on the metric you feel comfortable with today – but it’s obvious Blizzard’s hellish bed isn’t as odorous of demon roses as it ought to be.

I’ve played through twice, once as a Witch Doctor and once as a Barbarian. The first run took me 17 hours. I watched everything, read all the text, slogged through every mob. But even for me, as a content tourist, there were noticeable oddities. While second-to-second play itself is slick to the point of absurdity, there are times when the co-op and instance system does become a little odd. Balial was proving difficult, so VG247 reader Erthazus turned up with his 60 Wizard to lend a hand. I got killed and kicked, couldn’t get back into the instance and Erth ended the stupid crabby bastard in half a second. The game lavished me with co-op awards and XP, and I wasn’t even in the room. Surely that’s not right? I didn’t do anything. I should have been cheering. Instead Erth was asking me if I wanted to repeat the encounter, this time with me in the event when we killed the boss. I was very grateful of the assistance – I know Erth will read this and he’s helped me a lot in D3, so please don’t think I’m whining – but the game’s design knocked a key moment dead. This caused some face-pulling.

The imbalance in joint play was obvious in the later stages, too. Lauren Wainwright, now of MCV fame, joined me for the last part of Act IV with a 40-something Demon Hunter (again, I was getting smashed and needed a lift). Diablo, lord of all hell, lasted about 15 seconds. Lauren even apologised for crossbowing him to death too quickly. On a few occasions I’ve been playing with Erth, he’s had to stand off to one side and let me actually kill things as his level was so far beyond Normal that even major bosses were dead in a button press. Yes, I know I can set myself to busy and stop people from coming into the game, but isn’t the drop-in-and-out stuff kind of the point? It’s an online game and that’s how it’s most fun, but it’s when you introduce other players that it becomes most problematic. The difficulty balance for a single character is nearly perfect, but should it switch from “challenging” to “cake walk” simply by bringing in a friend? I’ve really enjoyed playing with people like Erth and Lauren, but it feels as though finding common ground between the low and high levels was too much even for Blizzard’s designers this time.

Athene beating every boss on Inferno difficulty
with his eyes closed. Yes, it’s a stunt, but
come on.

But still. I had a blast. There are times when you’re totally “in” the play and it’s like watching a very violent firework. Diablo deserved to die. I’ve been to rainbow pony land, and I’ve been killed by a teddy bear. It’s fun. But once it was done, I just couldn’t face pushing through with the Witch Doctor again. Instead, I chose a Barbarian. I ran Normal in less than 11 hours, skipping everything and calling in high level help as often as possible just to get me through it. I wanted it over and done with.

And that’s because I was bored.

I didn’t want to savour any of it. The entire system had been deconstructed to numbers and kit. Every battle was an annoyance. I was just clicking. Diablo III had become nothing but grind. The first time you encounter the later stages of the Skeleton King story, when you go into Leoric’s dungeons and see the torture equipment, there’s a thrill at the darkness. The blood-stained walls had been drained of magic in the second run: they were just textures. For a game that demands you replay endlessly, to be sighing so quickly isn’t a good sign. Exactly the same thing happened to me with World of Warcraft, but it took about 100 hours. Suddenly I shake my head and the fog evaporates. I’m left looking at a pretty game engine with an exponentially ratcheting difficulty level, staring gloomily down the hair-clogged plughole of a blood-splattered time-sink. It’s at this point I turn it off.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve put in nearly 30 hours – more than 95% of all the games I play – but I can’t see myself going back without an expansion, simply because I don’t want to smash through the same content again. I might try a new class over the summer, I guess. I’ll certainly try PvP when it’s patched in, but I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a 60-plus charnel house where Jethrine the 34 Witch Doctor is a one-click corpse. Considering there are such obvious balancing issues in co-op, it seems likely PvP is going to be a “put up or die” affair.

I haven’t even touched the RMAH. I fiddled with the in-game gold side of it very briefly – I was trying to buy Jethrine a legendary off-hand frog – but I don’t want the game to be about managing sales. The whole thing feels as though it’s just demanding my time for little reward now. Maybe it’s just me. I can suffer a lot, but enduring tedium by choice isn’t one of them.

Let’s have some more content, Blizzard. There’s only so many times killing Diablo in ten seconds can hold anyone’s attention.