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Cheating death in Diablo 3's Hardcore mode

And how Blizzard fixed its dungeon-crawler by breaking it.

I lost my first character in Diablo 3's Hardcore mode - where death is permanent - to a puddle of acid excreted by an angry tree. The character was a level 17 wizard. I just wasn't watching where I was standing. That was a back before the console version, before the Reaper of Souls expansion - when the game was less fun, less pliable, less eager to please.

My second Hardcore character was kicked to death by a pack of pink unicorns. (The only way to go.) This was a while later, playing Reaper of Souls on PS4. It was a much more painful loss: a level 55 demon hunter, some 12 hours in. I was a victim of my own hubris. I was doing well, chewing through monsters, so I had decided to kick the difficulty level up to Master to keep me on my toes (and for faster levelling). I had detoured from the game's fifth and final act into Whimsydale, a kiddy wonderland of rainbows, smiling clouds and murderous teddy bears - a joke aimed at the players who had complained the game was too colourful and cheerful compared to its oppressively Gothic predecessors. Hence the unicorns. It was, at least, an amusingly ironic and surreal death, but it was still gutting. I had to put the game down for a couple of months after that.

Twice bitten, thrice shy. I started playing again after a recent patch and made an assault on Hardcore that I was determined to see me through to the level cap of 70. I rolled a Crusader, an armoured class with some good healing and defensive options that's at its best with shield in hand. I vowed never to go beyond Expert difficulty, no matter how easy I was finding it, no matter how laden my Crusader with legendary items and stat-boosting gems.

On Saturday morning, I killed Malthael, the tricksy end boss of the expansion, opening up the deliciously anarchic Adventure Mode for future Hardcore characters. On Sunday morning, deep in one of the bonkers randomised Nephalem Rift dungeons, I made it to 70. I was proud enough to do something I had never even considered doing before - post the trophy to Facebook. (Former Eurogamer editor Tom Bramwell was the first to respond, with a helpful "Nerd!" He has three level 30 Destiny characters.) But I didn't feel heroic at all. I felt... shrewd?

Because here's the honest truth: it was easy. And it was easy because the developers at Blizzard had essentially allowed me to balance the game myself.

Diablo 3's troubled launch and triumphant resurrection are well documented, but here's a quick recap. A highly polished action-RPG with superb combat design, it was initially hamstrung by a grindy structure and a parsimonious attitude to loot. The former asked you to play its flabby campaign over and over again on ascending difficulty levels, while the latter was influenced by an ill-advised real-money auction house that sucked all the fun out of Diablo's loot-hunting endgame. It was not a fitting fate for a game that was, in short bursts, an absolute blast, and which otherwise boasted a vigorous commitment to violent camp, to explosive excess.

Blizzard saw its error and set about fixing it. An excellent console version and the Reaper of Souls expansion killed the auction house, replaced repeat playthroughs with the go-anywhere do-anything Adventure Mode, accelerated levelling and opened the loot taps until the feeble trickle of item drops became an almost embarrassing gush of clanging legendaries. A new difficulty system generously allowed you to adjust the game's challenge at will across a broad range, matching it to your taste and you character's power. All the negative feedback had startled Blizzard into turning Diablo 3 into the cheapest date in video games, a slot machine that always pays out. It was much more fun, it was more in keeping with the game's character - and, of course, players loved it.

Is Diablo 3 now fixed? Absolutely. But in fixing it, Blizzard has also, in a sense, completely broken it.

Take my victorious Hardcore Crusader. She is loaded with so much resist, so much block and so many passive healing bonuses that most monsters can't even trouble her health bar at all. The strongest merely cause its final third to flicker, like an old strip light. I had just one close call - admittedly, a horrible, stomach-churning one - at level 68 when, with the end just within reach, I wandered onto the second floor of a Nephalem Rift and immediately pulled two packs of elite monsters and the Rift boss. Otherwise, it was like playing a game with cheats enabled - and bear in mind that this is on Expert, the third difficulty setting, and I could have used a much more conservative character build than I did.

Playing Hardcore ought to be tense, and I certainly felt a high level of investment in the character's progress as I stacked the chips of hours played on the table. But the game was rigged - by me. Through the difficulty setting, I could control the number of monsters I faced and the intensity of their attacks. In my mounting piles of loot I usually had alternatives to hand that would boost defence and healing at the expense of attack. And in the game's flexible skill system I had many ways to sacrifice offensive options in favour of making my character even more robust. As a nuclear option, I could push the difficulty down to Normal any time I liked.

I didn't, though. Not even when I paused before Malthael's chamber. And the reason was that between my character build and the user-set difficulty, I had tuned the game to exactly where I wanted it to be (armed with the knowledge, gleaned from my unicorn mauling, of precisely how much would be too much). I've played Diablo 3 quite a lot - over three years and three formats - and I have an instinctive sense of where its sweet spot lies. It's not even so much about difficulty as rhythm and intensity; you want combat to see-saw but not spike, to give after offering just the right amount of resistance. With the abundant tools offered to you by Reaper of Souls, you play the game like a mixing desk.

Some friends find this frustrating, and I can understand that. The game gives them no yardstick to measure themselves by, and they're niggled by a persistent anxiety that they haven't set the difficulty "right". Balance has gone completely out of the window. Using the game's own lax rules to break it, to supercharge your character beyond what is reasonable, almost becomes the game itself. Just ask the player who recently managed to take a character from level 1 to level 70 in just one minute. None of this was true of the old Diablo 3, the one nobody liked - and it's incontrovertible that Hardcore progress is less meaningful now than it was then (until the giddy heights of the endgame Torment difficulty, perhaps).

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I expected playing Hardcore Diablo 3 to make me feel like an intrepid, high-stakes adventurer - the kind of feeling I get from playing Bloodborne, only with even more on the line in every fight. Instead, post-Reaper, it intensifies another side of the game's character - the spaces in between the combat, when you pore over item stats and skill builds and set the parameters of your power. Now you play Hardcore like a maths genius at the blackjack table, or a game theorist at the stock exchange: measuring acceptable levels of risk, keeping things interesting while playing it smart.

In its own way, it's a thoroughly satisfying way to play; and I already know that Diablo 3 is so well-made, so instinctive in its pleasures, that it can survive, thrive even, while letting players have their wicked way with it. The genius of its reinvention has been to give players exactly what they want, whenever they want it. But it does make you wonder if another game could have been salvaged from that initial near-miss: a game that rewarded you, but also pushed back; a game where you could laugh in the face of death rather than just cheat him of his victory.

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