We’re coming into an age of “finallys.” Finally, a decent Deus Ex sequel. Finally, Duke Nukem Forever. And finally, the king of loot-hoarding hack-and-slashers has awoken to take another shot at the crown it never lost. Twelve years after its last effort, Blizzard Entertainment has finally roused itself from World of Warcraft long enough to release Diablo III, the most anticipated threequel since Return of the Jedi.
On its surface, the unprecedented anticipation for Diablo III is a good thing, as it helps address concerns that non-MMO PC gaming is long dead. But there’s something rotten in the state of Tristram, and for once we’re not talking about the hordes of living dead that a typical Diablo game entails. No, there’s a problem with Diablo III itself, a corruption that sinks right to the core of modern PC gaming.
You see, Diablo III is a great game with a huge caveat. The game itself is a perfect reimagining of the series for the modern era, a Diablo simplified without being simplistic, streamlined without cutting corners. So many of the problems that seemed inextricable in Diablo II—the character upgrades that could render hours of gameplay moot with a single misclick, the inventory system that made mule characters into necessities—are retooled, overhauled, or just plain gone. Expedience is the name of the game in Diablo III; with so many goatmen and skeletons to crush, why waste time crunching numbers?
But the aforementioned caveat is a big one. Diablo III is a great game, but only when it’s actually playable. All that time Blizzard spent coding World of Warcraft expansions has finally caught up to it; Blizzard is now a studio completely incapable of building a game that isn’t shackled in a very real way to Blizzard itself.
When you buy Diablo III, you’re only getting a portion of the game—a client, like the software that’s on a World of Warcraft install disc. When you install Diablo III, you’re installing not something that’s a whole unto itself, but instead a series of transmission protocols designed to interface with Blizzard HQ to produce an entire game.
This nominally allows Blizzard to provide access to things like item auction houses and multiplayer games, and also allows for a relatively foolproof anti-piracy scheme that requires game licenses to be registered to Blizzard accounts to work. When everything goes according to plan, a decent approximation of a descent into hell is the result. When it doesn’t, an entirely different form of hell comes to pass.
This isn’t entirely unprecedented, but it’s a step too far. Starcraft 2, Blizzard’s first foray into non-MMO gaming with an always-on DRM twist, did it only as a half-measure. Maintaining a persistent connection to Blizzard’s servers was only strictly necessary for multiplayer games, in which case the player would be online anyway as a matter of course. If you, like me, didn’t care about things like leaderboards and ranked matches and account-linked achievements, you could still technically play Starcraft 2 all night long.
Not so with Diablo III. Blizzard’s insistence upon this new practice gives Diablo III many of the drawbacks of a massively multiplayer game with few of what MMO fans might call the perks. In the weeks since its release, rarely has a day gone by that some—if not all—aspects of Diablo III weren’t at least temporarily crippled. This is bad enough when we’re addressing an ancillary function of the game, like the much-ballyhooed but oft-disabled auction house, but when authentication servers go down due to unannounced but still “scheduled” maintenance windows, that’s another level of problem entirely.
And that doesn’t even begin to address all the things that can go wrong with such a system that are outside both Blizzard’s and the player’s control. You’ve used the Internet before, right? You’re at least a little bit familiar with its foibles, its inconsistencies, its damnable tendency to just not work sometimes? Many of the things that could go wrong with your PC or Blizzard’s servers can also (and often do, so far) go wrong at any of the several hops that a command makes between the two. That’s a lot of unnecessary complications to put between me and the zombies I want to puree.
It’s really, really hard to not like Diablo III when it’s up and running. When you can actually log into it, and your characters actually load, and the game isn’t lagging because half of America is watching Netflix, and the whole thing isn’t just offline for some reason, it’s really a lot of fun.
But when I buy a non-MMO PC game, I buy a non-MMO PC game. The responsibility for having a machine capable of running it should begin and end with the player, who shouldn’t have to rely on his system, plus the developer’s servers, plus all the various routers, switches, and miles of cable in between if he wants to spend his evening slaying demons by himself. In an era in which a computer’s speedy obsolescence has itself become passé, Blizzard actually managed to figure out a new way to make a PC game unplayable.