Diablo III on PC was hellfire that burnt bright and brief. Players leapt into its dark, trashy fantasy world and were entranced by its whirligig spell effects, its popping, projectile-vomiting demons, its showers of gold and its Rare Axes of Wounding. Then, as quickly as they came, players seemed to leave the action-RPG behind, dropping unanswered questions in their wake like so much low-stat loot.
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 release provides a few answers, and a number of new quandaries of its own. Perhaps most significantly, it turns out Diablo III didn’t need the PC game’s contentious real-money auction house and always-on internet connection after all.
It’s a welcome subtraction. On PC, the auction house proved too tempting a presence, and even if you never caved and used it, simply knowing it was there sabotaged the thrill of finding high-stat weaponry for yourself. What value did your war gavel really have when there were hundreds far better available for pennies just a few clicks away? With the auction house removed entirely, Diablo once again has the sense of satisfaction found when something flashy and powerful spills out alongside the viscera of a monster you’ve just killed. The console release goes further in its streamlining, making item drops rarer and more useful across the board. It’s a subtle change, but with less need to establish a trading economy, you’ll find fewer items for classes other than your own.
When you do find items worth your time, managing your inventory is swiftly done via menus redesigned for the controller. Items and skills are placed on radial menus, and you can see at a glance which of those items are worth keeping, which you should toss, and which you might like to take back to the blacksmith to be salvaged for use in crafting better equipment. Across the board, Diablo III’s interface has been admirably adapted to work with a controller.
This doesn’t make managing your pockets feel any less of an odd couch activity. At high levels, Diablo III becomes a game of theory-crafting: of running the numbers to find the best combination of swords, shields, belts, gloves, and shoes to wear in order to beat back the forces of hell in the unlockable higher difficulty levels. Only a small percentage of players would ever have reached those obsessive heights even on PC, but if you’re that way inclined, it seems even less likely that you’d want to do it front of your TV.
On console, the modified looting isn’t only a concession to the pad, but to the game’s likely action-focused audience. It’s not the only change made for the same reason: the right analogue stick triggers a directional dodge move. It’s useful for dodging incoming projectiles, a joyful way of smashing through Diablo’s myriad breakable pots, coffins and crates, and a method of passing the time when traipsing down long dungeon corridors.
But the similarities to more traditional console action games don’t do Diablo any favours. When compared with more kinetic fare like God Of War, it feels a little clumsy; a brawler that’s slow to respond to your actions, in which your fingers trip over cooldowns and in which, even after the game eventually opens up and offers you skills across all the face buttons and triggers, you still end up stabbing at the same main action button over and over and over.
It fares just as poorly when compared to its own PC release. Up on screen, Diablo III remains unchanged, and there are times when controlling a crowd of swarming spiders and using the Monk to trigger their deaths like dominos feels as satisfying as it ever did. In your hands however, the controller feels imprecise. You don’t click on enemies to prompt a torrent of guts to burst forth, but swing in their general direction and hope. Any resulting display of onscreen violence feel less connected to your actions, and less personally thrilling.
This reveals awkward truths about the game’s provenance. No matter how well the menus are adapted and how neatly the skills are fitted to the gamepad’s buttons, each character’s skills weren’t designed with this control method in mind. They were tweaked for over a decade to feel great when triggered by a mouse click, and analogue sticks and face buttons would have led to different design decisions from the beginning. As it is now, you’ll perform the Monk’s teleporting attack towards a single enemy a few yards away, and miss, and instead teleport to an unseen enemy 30 yards away, your character now stranded amidst a mob of scratching enemies. All the classes have similar issues, especially those who fire projectiles like the Wizard.
From the top of your head to the tips of your fingers, Diablo III offers less satisfaction to console gamers than it did to PC users. The one healing salve should have been its local co-operative mode. Diablo III’s now slightly messier action focus is surely perfect for casually hopping on a couch with a friend to breeze through its depths.
It is fun, as long as you and your chum commit to creating a character at the same time. If no pact exists and one of you is already level ten when the other begins, there’s no satisfying way to play together. Repeating the early quests will be a bore for the higher level character, while all but the most basic enemies will crush the newcomer in a single hit.
Even if you have separate co-op characters specifically for the purpose, it’s an imperfect union. As soon as one character finds a bundle of loot, the inventory pops up, and the other players have to twiddle their thumbs till the important decisions are made.
Since before Diablo III arrived on PC, Blizzard’s public statements contained two contentious opinions. The first was that the game required a real money auction house and an always online internet connection to function according to their vision; the second, even before this console version was announced, was that the game felt even better on a pad than a mouse. Now that it’s here, the console release turns out to be fig. 1 in proving both of those statements false. Diablo still contains enough impulsive monster-slaying to entertain, but the trek from its home on PC has left it diminished.
Diablo III is released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on September 3. PS3 version tested.