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Going Hardcore in Diablo 3

Just how much fun is permadeath, exactly?


I mean it. Turn off the radio. Let that bowl of food you're eating fall to the floor. You can clean it up later. Because there's a good chance you're playing Diablo 3 incorrectly.

Hardcore Mode, unlocked after you hit level 10, has one simple rule. If your Hardcore character dies, they're gone, leaving you to walk away from the computer in the kind of trance that sees your flatmates saying "What's wrong?" or "You're standing on the cat."

My hardcore character, a Witch Doctor called Raki, is nuzzling up against the end of Act 2 now. And you know what? It's incredible. If Diablo 3 is a bottomless abyss of numbers, rewards and explosive combat, Hardcore mode is the abyss staring back at you. It makes the game more tense, yes, but also more atmospheric, rewarding and so much sharper.

I could never, ever go back. And you could well be the same, making every step you make with your existing character a mistake.

The fact that I haven't died yet should also tell you something about Hardcore mode: it's not that hardcore. Which is actually a wonderful discovery. This isn't Dark Souls or some roguelike, where punishment is inevitable. Instead, the only inevitability is fear and rigorous engagement of the player (which is to say, the best part of Dark Souls).

In fact, your two biggest enemies in Hardcore mode aren't any of the game's bus-sized bosses. The bosses are scary, and as such you start playing it safe, hanging back on the edge of the battle like an extra in a kung-fu film. No, my greatest foes and my nemeses are the Enlightenment Shrine and the health bar. They'll haunt you, too.

I'm pretty sure Enlightenment Shrines were built by the demons themselves. Scattered around the world at random, these burning totems give you a two-minute buff that increases the amount of XP you earn by 25 per cent. And, if you're anything like me, touching one causes you to go bolting into the wilderness like a startled deer. Quick! Find something! Find everything! Kill! KILL!

Typing it now, it seems insane. 25 per cent isn't that much. Yet every single time, 60 seconds after touching the shrine I'm stood shoulder to shoulder with demons in a flailing mass of bodies resembling the dance floor at Club Ugly, my aggression having lured me into a situation that tightens around my neck like a noose. And then, only then, I'll remember to look at the health bar.

Diablo 3's health bar is a war crime. If, and I appreciate this is improbable, but if I saw it in the street, if I saw that orb rolling around, just doing some shopping in Boots or whatever, I would chase it down and throw it onto a roof. I would slam dunk it into a bin.

It's agonisingly unobtrusive. Your life slips in and out of it, silently, like high tide and low tide at a beach, and it's only when you remember it exists that you'll see how close to death you are. Technically it's the fault of the whole game, with no damage indicators or flashes of red to interrupt the pyrotechnics show of the combat, but even Torchlight manages an "I'M DYING" bark from your protagonist. Diablo 3 has nothing of the sort, making its health bar the silent killer. It also makes the first and only real lesson of Hardcore mode: watch your sodding health bar.

Outside of actually dying, the health bar is responsible for the other bad thing about Hardcore mode - the near miss. You come out of a little scrap with a half-dozen vomiting trees, hoover up the loot, and then see it: you've only got 15 per cent of your health left. To a regular player, this means nothing. To you, it's the apocalypse.

NB: This article was based on single-player. There's hardcore, and then there's putting your life in the hands of a potentially drunk friend.

You almost died and you didn't even know it. You pick the metaphorical bullet out of the metaphorical bible in your vest pocket, and realise that you were lucky. But screw luck. The Hardcore character isn't about luck. He or she is about bravery, caution, and most of all skill. When you tell somebody you've got a level-40 hardcore character, what you're saying is that you're better than them. To come out of a fight knowing you drifted close to death, ignorant of the danger, devalues your character. It leaves you feeling a little bit sick.

In Hardcore mode, there's only one thing worse than a bad fight. A good fight.

Raki, my Witch Doctor, has only fought one of these. It was at the oasis in Act 2. I ran her into a cul-de-sac to lazily kill a dervish floating there, only for a torrent of monsters to run in from offscreen, trapping me and driving a snarling wedge between myself and the rest of my party. I had all the wrong powers for a close-up fight. The right ones were on cooldown timers. It was a perfect storm of "F*** you."

"Diablo 3's health bar is a war crime."

It was also a magnificent bit of gaming. The second I realised I was fighting for everything, my head experienced a kind of explosive depressurisation. Nothing existed except the monsters, my powers, my health, the monsters, my powers, my health. I had the spirits of the underworld clawing at the beasts around me, great soul-sucking artillery blasts aimed at the deadliest enemies, explosive frogs pouring out of my character by the cartload. And it wasn't enough.

Then, like a ball bearing circling a funnel, a thought began travelling my brain. I was going to die.

Finally, my zombie dogs were ready to be re-summoned. My Witch Doctor clawed them afresh from the earth around her, creating a small buffer between her and the inevitable. Slowly, mortifyingly slowly, the maths changed. My health stopped bottoming out. I would live.

Outside of the end of Journey's snow level, it was the best minute of gaming I've had in 2012.

The only question that matters, then: Should you be playing Diablo 3 on Hardcore?

It's a weird one. On the one hand, I shouldn't be trusted as a reliable source because I haven't suffered a death yet. Let alone an ignoble death - one of those surprise deaths that I talked about before. That would be a colossal kick in the teeth. And while I'm massively excited to try out a different class, Blizzard's avuncular locking-away of features for the first eight hours makes replaying the opening chapter seem a bit of a chore. Death is going to be infuriating. It's going to suck.

On the other hand, Hardcore mode elevates the entire game. It isn't about the adrenaline rush, which only surfaces for a couple of minutes of every hour. It's about how every shiny piece of armour, every decision about what to wear, about which runes to use and how much proficiency you, as a player, have with a new arrangement of skills - all of this becomes life-and-death information. It becomes exciting. Which, by contrast, makes regular Diablo seem as shallow as a ghost train, bumping from set-piece to set-piece. Meanwhile, you're actually playing the game.

At one point, an NPC in town closed a conversation by telling Raki to "Be careful." Just narrative fluff, spoken upon hearing Raki was going after some McGuffin or other.

"Be careful." I don't know how many times in my gaming career I've heard that exact warning, but for the first time ever the words meant something. I understood the intent behind them, felt their weight. In this next leg of the journey, I would take them to heart. I would be careful. And that felt beautiful.

No. I'm not ever going back.