Diablo III benefits from great writing. Not necessarily in the narrative or dialogue, both of which offer the same old gleefully stagey stuff about warring angels and ancient prophecies. No, it has great writing where it matters: in the names of its class skills. Wrath Of The Berserker, Rain Of Vengeance, Mass Confusion – here’s where creative effort has been spent. Here’s where you can see the density of pulpy exuberance that ten years of development can provide.
As it is for the writing, so it goes for the wider game. Diablo III is defined by its skills, and by the characters who unlock them. With five vividly distinct heroes to choose from, Blizzard’s returned to the dungeon-crawler with rebalancing in mind. Enemies drop the same coins, shields and magical trousers when you hit them, but it now seems like a minor concern compared to your own progression. Diablo’s still a fruit machine, but it’s far more rewarding to step away from the randomness and approach it as a series of decisions. Which power now, which one next?
The biggest decision comes right at the beginning: who to play as? The answer, of course, is everyone eventually, but that doesn’t make selecting your first class any easier. Seek the standard all-rounder for that initial playthrough and you’ll discover that there isn’t one. The Barbarian, for example, is the melee tank rendered seismic. He’s handed the bone-shaking Leap and Earthquake, the latter of which shatters the ground beneath him and brings lava oozing to the surface. However, Ancient Spear makes him surprisingly good for distanced play, since a quick tap of the action bar can harpoon mobs from halfway across the screen, while Whirlwind twists him into a tornado of blades, spinning around like Taz the Tazmanian Devil. Even core skills such as Frenzy bring to the fore leftfield ideas such as incremental speed boosts, each strike diminishing the cooldown before the next. The spirit of Conan is hard to locate within this dynamic, scene-stealing demi-god; he’s not the straightforward option you might expect.
The Wizard’s no more traditional: a youthful mage who plays like a spry angel crossed with a Tesla coil, firing frosty lasers and linking enemies together with lattices of electricity. Decked out in a schoolgirl ponytail and a bright sash, she chucks Magic Missiles like she’s pitching baseballs. And while she’s built for range, she’s an uncommonly hardy tank if you weight your deck with defensive and area skills.
After that, things get really creative. The Demon Hunter is Batman with a Gatling gun, a dark knight of traps, bows and grenades who rolls into combat and dashes between shadows. The Monk, meanwhile, mixes elements from healers with moves you’d expect from Capcom. Seven-Sided Strike rattles him between groups of enemies, and Lashing Tail Kick unleashes a powerful knockback attack that’s accompanied by the sound of a jet engine. Then, of course, there’s the Witch Doctor, the weirdest and most contradictory of the bunch. He’s a confusing blend of ranged and melee attacks, direct and indirect, and each new power represents another trip to the world’s strangest pet shop, summoning spiders, firebats, and zombie dogs that scamper after their master in a disgusting parody of the real thing.
There’s plenty of fun to be had as you use classes together in the churning muddle of co-op – letting a Wizard freeze a group in place, say, before a Barbarian sends them flying – but the addition of runestones ensures that heroes offer endless entertainment for solo adventurers. Runes unlock gradually as you level, allowing you to flare each power in unusual directions by slotting them into sockets. In a game built upon a series of incapacitating choices, they offer some real dilemmas – do you want that Cyclone Strike to be explosive or heal? Like the skills they enhance, runes can be reset at will, allowing you to play across the entirety of a class at once. Diablo’s always been a complex game powered by simple things, and to impulses such as greed and violence you can now add curiosity. Stat-tweaking, loadouts, bespoke resources: the campaign is both laboratory and sweetshop, offering depth as well as sugary fanboy excess. The end result is an embarrassment of rewards, an endless nested arrangement of gifts, levels, abilities, items, runes, sigils, achievements, and AI followers to play alongside.