The last game Blizzard Entertainment made for consoles - not counting an outsourced Nintendo 64 version of StarCraft, a PlayStation port of Diablo (outsourced again) or the unreleased StarCraft: Ghost - was The Lost Vikings 2 for the Super Nintendo. That was in 1997, 16 years ago. The strange thing isn't that the titan of online PC gaming is back on consoles - that was always going to happen. The strange thing is that its return is marked with a release that is more like a classic PC game than the PC game it's based on.
Love it or hate it - and Diablo 3 has certainly proved divisive - you cannot fail to be impressed by how complete and insanely customisable the console version of this visceral action role-player is. Every update to the PC version in the last 15 months has made it across intact. Every feature is there too, save one, the unloved auction house for trading items with other players. And there are additions to make your eyes light up: offline play, system link support on Xbox 360 - yes, you can LAN it up like the good old days - and the coup de grâce, local multiplayer on a single console for up to four players.
About the only thing you can't do to console Diablo 3 is mod it. Everything you can think of is supported - right down to custom soundtracks and exporting your profile to USB - and it all works seamlessly, flawlessly. This lavish approach to fixtures and fittings is nothing new for Blizzard, of course, but it's notably unrestrained here by a corporate mandate for an internet connection, or by the need to protect a real-money trading market. Go nuts, break the game, see if they care. So console Diablo 3 feels like a return to the Blizzard of 1997 in more ways than one.
It's a brutal, unsentimental revision of the action RPG template that the first two Diablos defined, which means there's still plenty here for purists to dislike
But let's not get carried away. Although this version sees a couple of gameplay tweaks and, naturally, an extensive overhaul of the controls and interface, this is still the same Diablo 3 that was released for PC and Mac last year: "a turbo-charged romp through the conventions of action, role-playing and online games that plays to the gallery but tears up the rulebook on the sly," as I wrote in my review. It's still a brutal, unsentimental revision of the action RPG template that the first two Diablos defined, which means there's still plenty here for purists to dislike. It's still, for my money, an intoxicating and savagely entertaining game, featuring five of the greatest character classes ever designed.
Wizard, Monk, Barbarian, Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor. Pick one - or better, grab some friends and pick one each - and start smashing up monsters and masonry, hoovering up gold and loot. Level up and start acquiring new skills in new categories: light primary and hard-hitting secondary attacks; defensive skills on cooldowns that let you save yourself or manipulate the battlefield; summons and illusions and last-gasp megaton bombs. Marvel at the coruscating lightshow and fabulously meaty soundtrack that accompany your slaughter.
Then start modifying your character with passive abilities and the runes you unlock that customise each individual skill, each of these three layers of customisation interacting with the others. If you don't like the results or you want to try something different, if you want to tailor your character to some new loot you've found, if you want to switch between builds ideal for co-operation or solo survivability, or if you just want to fool around and experiment: no problem. There are no skill trees and you can redesign your character for free at any time.
This is the aspect of the game that old-school role-players have the biggest problem with, but I find it deliciously liberating to be allowed free run of the peerless skill design - especially when it's all backed up with such potent audiovisual oomph. These toys are too good not to let you play around with them all.
Where the purists do have a point is that Diablo 3's weaknesses stem, in part, from this one tremendous strength. The rest of the game is almost overpowered by these five rock stars and their squealing-guitar-solo combat skills. Despite the manic focus on collecting loot - so much loot - equipping a new weapon or piece of armour never has the tangible impact of slotting a new skill or rune that changes how your hero feels to play. And though it's fun, in a compulsive sort of way, to optimise your stats and equipment by combing through your bulging inventory, shopping and crafting back at camp, when you're out on the battlefield the numbers game pales beside the fast-paced tactics of taming the skittish, sprawling mobs of monsters that rush you.
This is Diablo 3's character, and it can't be altered. However, a couple of changes do mitigate it. In part to make up for the lack of trading, loot drops have been rebalanced, with the PC game's tidal wave of useless trash stemmed somewhat. There's a little less loot and it's a lot better quality, as well as being more likely to be useful to the class that you're playing, making it more toothsome overall. (If anything, Blizzard has gone overboard here; I had three Legendary items equipped by level 20, and I found one of them in a pot in the sewers.)
Furthermore, the Monster Power setting added to the PC game after launch has been brought across as a Difficulty setting, separate from the four escalating modes you unlock with consecutive completions of the game. Difficulty can be changed from the quest select menu at any time and there are no less than eight settings that boost the health, damage and number of monsters you face. Once into the Master ranks, playing skill is not enough to answer the challenge and it effectively becomes a gear test - useful if you really want to feel that your equipment is making a difference.
Ultimately, however, Diablo 3 will always be the opposite of cerebral. It's a game of the moment, of improvisation and violent gratification, in which you do your thinking with your gut. That's one reason it has made the transition to console so well.
In some respects, this is obviously a port. The tiny font sizes will have you squinting at anything less than a huge TV, and it takes a few minutes to learn your way around a menu system that has been designed for flexibility and blinding speed rather than approachability (a very wise choice, by the way). But there are dozens of lovely touches to smooth the transition, like the at-a-glance icons that tell you how an item will affect your damage, armour and health if you equip it. This square peg has been lathed with painstaking care to fit its round hole.
The traditionally mouse-driven gameplay has transitioned unexpectedly well. With your six skills occupying the face buttons and two right triggers, holding one of these down and pushing the left stick in a direction selects the target for your attack. There's a generous auto-target, which is fine - Diablo's more about quick thinking and tactical skill use than pinpoint timing or accuracy with your attacks. Despite some surface similarities, console players coming in expecting the involved inputs of an action game will be disorientated. Diablo 3 exists on a different plane between action and role-playing, at once mindlessly visceral and with some of the detachment of real-time strategy.
If anything, with all your skills under the fingers of one hand and direct character control, you can now play more instinctively
If anything, with all your skills under the fingers of one hand and direct character control, you can now play more instinctively. An evade move on the right stick, which lets you change position while attacking - never possible in the PC game - is a massive boon. The biggest beneficiaries of the move from mouse to pad are the melee classes, the Monk and Barbarian. The latter feels especially right, unleashing his mighty slams as you drum the buttons, brawling away. But the ranged Wizard and Demon Hunter also play beautifully. It's only the indirect style of the Witch Doctor, with his summons and skills that do progressive damage over time, which feels like an awkward fit.
Despite being a game of the moment, Diablo 3 is structured for the very long haul, with your first run through the game on the rather easy Normal taking you less than halfway to the level cap of 60. The perfectly pitched Nightmare mode lies beyond, and Hell and Inferno beyond that, with special Key Warden bosses and the Paragon levelling system providing an endgame for those who hit 60, beat Inferno and still can't stop playing.
It is, frankly, more than the content of the game can stand. Diablo 3's episodic storyline is pure hokum, made with an infinite budget, drawn with lurid glee by the masters of ludicrous fantasy overstatement, and delivered with scenery-chewing conviction by an entertaining voice cast. But it does bog down in its second half, the randomisation of the layouts is on the gentle side and - despite the strong pull of the other classes, of the high-level skills or of the permadeath Hardcore mode - it is questionable how many times you will want to see it through. Many were shocked that it was possible to lose interest in a game from the makers of World of Warcraft after a mere 50 or 100 hours, but accusing Diablo 3 of not offering value for money is insanity.
Diablo 3 is a big game with a complex context and a contentious history. But its appeal is profoundly simple, as was made clear to me while exploring the best feature of this console version: couch co-op.
It's a Lego game for loot-hungry grown-ups and it gets better with every player you add
The lion's share of playtime for this review was done with a co-op partner by my side, a console gamer with no experience of the series or of Blizzard games. She loved it, wolfing it down every bit as hungrily as I, who had played the PC version past boredom more than once. Going into this review, I'd been worried that I was too close to the game already to see it afresh. But then I realised that I was finally able to play Diablo 3 as I had always wanted to, but never had, not even online; glorying in its sensational, senseless pleasures in company.
Diablo 3 on console is one of the best co-op games money can buy. It swings smoothly from easygoing to intense, with perfectly paced pockets of downtime, and is capable of swallowing entire evenings in a single, voracious gulp. It's a Lego game for loot-hungry grown-ups and it gets better with every player you add. If you have co-op partners who would also enjoy it, this version is an essential purchase. If you don't, it's still easier to recommend than the PC game; almost as slick, even more flexible and usable and without that troublesome always online requirement.
Diablo 3 is a bold, bloody, opulent romp built around a ruthlessly simple distillation of action role-playing. It's perfectly comfortable in its new home on consoles, and so is Blizzard.