Diablo III is Totally '90s
Let's just get this out of the way. The people worried about the look of Diablo III being too colorful are idiots. They're straight-up wrong. The last thing we need is Blizzard taking these people seriously. Because if there's a problem at all with Diablo III (and I'm not sure that there is), it's that the game isn't straying far enough from the grim geek aesthetics of the '90s.
At BlizzCon this year, I had the opportunity to hack-and-slash my way through buzzing Sand Wasps and maddened cultists. I painted the desert with their blood. And the frequent red flash of arterial spray was the brightest color to meet my squinting eyes.
We've seen the offending screenshots, depicting cavernous dungeons lit by the pale glow of ancient magicks and forests painted an autumnal ochre. Fans went crazy over those early images; infuriated, apparently, by Blizzard's use of the entire color palette -- especially the rainbow that shone in the misty reaches below a broken bridge. To most gamers, that arcing band of color was like Kryptonite. I found all those screenshots to be quite beautiful.
What we saw at BlizzCon wasn't quite so lovely. The Sundered Pass was a wind-blown path snaking between jutting black rock. Our party fought its way between the tilting stone spires, slashing bugs, cutting down Dune Threshers -- bigger, fiercer critters that crawl on their bellies. Rotting corpses of creatures alien and unknown curled in corners. Alcoves hid treasures and ambushes in nearly equal share. But always there was death -- delivered by the hands of Barbarian, Monk and Witch Doctor.
All of these moments are accentuated by the game's art style. One that isn't stylized or cartoony, as some critics would claim. True, Diablo III doesn't look like a game from the '90s any more -- it looks like the box art of a game from the '90s. Recall the aesthetic: the future gore of DOOM, the disarming orange and yellow of Planescape: Torment and the gothic lettering of Diablo. These were a culmination of male teen fantasy -- an amalgamation of the mature comic book, Nine Inch Nails angst and cyberpunk style, like the now-clich?d leather trench coats donned by Neo in "The Matrix." And so, while you won't see the Monk wearing William Gibson-inspired mirrorshades, the aesthetic soul of the '90s is preserved in Diablo III, for better or for worse. I'm going to say for better.
Play the levels we were exposed to at BlizzCon and you'll feel transported not only to the fantastic world of Diablo III, but back to the '90s. Because despite the gorgeous visuals dancing across the monitor, images that feel torn straight from the cover of a Dragonlance novel, Diablo III is a total throwback. Blizzard's devotion to the past is understandable. Millions still play the games it created way back when. A hard left turn would be folly. Diablo III, like StarCraft II, stays the course. And the destination is the same as it's always been: 3 a.m., bleary and buzzed with a bag full of loot and an alarm clock looming.
Apart from the detailed visuals, Diablo III futzes very little with the formula. And that's a good thing. Players roam overworlds and dungeons, cutting through enemies and looting their still-warm corpses. Diablo III is a return to Sanctuary, some 20 years after the characters in Diablo II saved the world. But the veterans of the last war against Hell have gone mad from the horrors they've seen. And new blood is needed to pick up the fight. Familiar faces, like Deckard Cain, are set to return. And familiar places, like Tristram, will be revisited.
But more interesting, at least to me, are the moments of d?j? vu I felt during the demo. Played with friends, the same multiplayer moments arise. Groups split up, each player nosing their way toward different corners of the map. One player finds himself outnumbered and the rest come running (sometimes failing) to save the day. Pockets fill to the brim with loot, forcing friends to stop momentarily and trade by chucking useful weapons and whatnot into the dirt.
I'm glad Blizzard didn't cook up new ways to handle these moments, because they're part of what made the original games fun to play with friends. And I'm looking forward to seeing how the new Battle.net accentuates rather than transforms these moments. Being able to hear your friend's voice while playing Diablo III certainly isn't something I remember from the '90s -- but it's a touch that I'll find useful. Because who wants to type when you could be clicking and killing?
This preview is based on a hands-on demo at BlizzCon 2009.
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