Diablo 3 on consoles: hell or high water?

Jeffrey plays the PS3 game at PAX and finds that one man's loot is another man's soot.

Diablo 3 on PS3 and PS4 is a pretty big deal for Blizzard, as it marks the first time in two decades that the wildly popular strategy and MMO developer has made a game for consoles (not counting a couple of ports made by third parties). As such, it seems to be targeting a different market: one that prefers a more action-focused, one-to-one, button-to-attack approach over the more distant experience of lording it over your avatar with a mouse.

I happen to be part of that audience. My only experience with the series begins and ends with playing the demo of the very first Diablo when it came out in 1996 - but I like action games and dungeon crawlers in the vein of Zelda, Bastion and that one section of Nier that goes all isometric just for kicks. It would stand to reason that this new version of Diablo 3 would be right up my alley.

It isn't. Not if my 20 minutes with it are any indication, that is.

At a glance, Diablo 3 may resemble a console action game. This new port even has a fancy God of War-style evade manoeuvre tied to the right analogue stick. And yet, it doesn't feel like an action game. The isometric view and real-time combat may evoke something along the lines of Bastion, but compared to Supergiant's cult classic, Diablo 3 feels downright sloppy, with your rigid moveset ill equipped to fend off the insurmountable throngs of foes the game throws at you. No matter how defensively I play, combat inevitably devolves into a sea of demons clumsily trading blows back and forth with my avatar. My successes and failures seem to be tied more to my stats and gear than how well I perform. For a game that's primarily about fighting things, that's a problem.

I understand the addictive loop of grabbing gear and slaying larger foes may not come across well in a demo, but when the producer Josh Mosqueira maintains that "at its heart, the game has always been very action-focused," I find it worrying that the combat feels slipshod when stacked against other console action RPGs.

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Still, I've heard it argued that Diablo's raison d'Ítre is its co-op, which this console version goes to great lengths to make more accessible. The biggest change is that there's now local co-op for up to four players, though Blizzard was only demoing the single-player portion at the PAX East convention in Boston last weekend, where I tried the game out. According to Blizzard, all players will share the same screen, with each person's interface displaying in a separate corner. As they get further away from each other, the screen zooms out - to a point at least.

You'll be able to mix and match local and online play, so you can play with a partner on a couch along with remote friends on their own couches, thousands of miles away (or down the street). I know at least one Eurogamer editor who's excited about that prospect - and quite frankly, multiplayer games not offering this option has become one of my pet peeves, so good on Blizzard for that.

Menus have also been streamlined to the point where you don't need to access them very often. Hitting up and down on the D-pad flips through recently acquired gear in an abbreviated shorthand of symbols that indicates if it's better or worse than what you already have. If you like what you've found, you can equip it at the touch of a button. No pausing or menu access required. You will inevitably have to go into menus sometimes, though, as you'll want to change your gear and equipped spells from time to time, and this will sadly require players to take turns as one of them hogs up the screen with their menu. Can't win 'em all.

Another reason you won't have to sort through your booty as much is that the ratio of loot drops has changed. Blizzard has adopted a "less, but better philosophy" when it comes to loot, and noted that it wants players to be able to acquire all the great gear by themselves without having to trade items around.

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This change is due to the PC and Mac game's controversial auction house being excised from this console port. Blizzard insisted this was because the console version would have an offline mode, and it wouldn't be able to authenticate every transaction if some players were off the grid, so to speak. "A lot of that security [from the PC version] comes from the fact that it's online and it's running through Battle.net," said Mosqueira, who noted that consoles won't support the developer's proprietary online service. "Running through Battle.net would essentially eliminate all forms of cheating."

Despite there being no auction house, players will still be able to trade items directly online. The game will also support friends lists, invites and, refreshingly, voice chat via PSN, which I was shocked to find out didn't already exist on the PC game. Welcome to the 2010s!

In terms of control, players can customise the DualShock 3's face buttons and right shoulder triggers to function as hot keys for certain spells. It works well. Toggling between your various attacks on a cooldown meter while enemy forces crumble has a certain primal charm, even if feelings of drudgery set in quick for me.

Unfortunately, Diablo 3's performance on PS3 currently isn't up to snuff, with a frame rate that seems to average at below 30 frames per second. This doesn't bode well for when extra players and online play will be added to the mix - but this is also a work in progress, so here's hoping it gets tightened up prior to release.

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The PS3 version of Diablo 3 feels like an unsafe bet at the moment, though - especially with Blizzard being very cagey about its top-secret PS4 version. When asked whether players would be able to carry over their data from the PS3 game to the PS4, a Blizzard rep simply stated that it wasn't talking about that yet. Upon asking if this would be known prior to launch so consumers could make an informed decision, the developer refused to say. Blizzard also declined to comment on how the PS4 controller's touchpad might be used, or whether the game would be coming to other platforms like the upcoming Xbox 360 successor or PlayStation Vita.

Ultimately, local co-op and voice chat are noteworthy enough additions that diehard Diablo 3 fans may double-dip, and the enhancements to the UI are appealing. Some PC gamers disenchanted by the original game's always online requirement, auction house and loot balance might find this version easier to swallow, too. Blizzard's long-awaited return to consoles is sure to bring in new recruits as well. Yet based on my initial impressions as a single player, Diablo 3's charms were lost on me.

Maybe I'm holding Diablo 3 to the wrong standards - but if it looks like a console action game and plays like a console action game, then it's probably a console action game. Diablo 3 isn't, though - and those expecting otherwise may find themselves bewildered at what all the fuss was about.

This article is based on a trip to PAX East in Boston. Blizzard paid for travel and accommodation.

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