The Crusade falters, a brief assessment of Diablo 3’s design

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Vacation is over and routine has wrapped its tentacles of dullness +5 around me, with tests, work and, worse than all of that, the new season of Diablo 3 taking up my once free time. Last season went on for several months, beginning in April of 2015 and ending on the 23rd of August. As is our habit, me and my group of gaming friends downloaded the game once more, ticked both the seasonal and the hardcore boxes and sallied forth into the demon-infested world of Sanctuary. While last season I had chosen the newly strong and incredibly boring Barbarian to play as, whose best (by far) build consisted of pressing a single button and sweeping across the map, this one I chose a class I’d never dabbled in: the Crusader. Sixty hours and two crusaders later, I’ve concluded that patches come and go and Diablo 3 is still Diablo 3.

The 2.3 patch brought changes that were touted as significant – a revamp of the bounty system, where exclusive materials are now used in several recipes; the much welcome change of the Nephalem Rifts to not requiring keys and the Greater Rifts not requiring trials (something I called out last season, mind you); the introduction of four new difficulty levels (Torment VII – X); and a brand new addition, the Kanai’s cube, which allows players to extract legendary powers from their weapons/armor/accessories and have them as passives, reforge items and convert set pieces they might have doubles of into other pieces of the same set. If there’s anything I can say about the patch, it’s that it’s made the game more accessible and less punishing. You’ll get to keep your extracted powers even if your hardcore character dies, meaning that if you spent twenty hours farming the ever elusive The Furnace you can rest assured it won’t be lost once your (inevitable) death comes knocking.

The cube somewhat eases the farming and overall strengthens characters, who now have three new legendary passives they can always carry around.
The cube somewhat eases the farming and overall strengthens characters, who now have three new legendary passives they can always carry around.

The question is, however, does this change the mentality surrounding Diablo’s design? Sadly, no. I could rant about Diablo and how it’s a superbly polished and well executed game that delivers all it sets out to do, but is full of terrible design choices: progression is strictly a fruit of time, with skill coming as a far, far away second element; gameplay is repetitive due to the limited amount of viable builds; and the game lures you in with its sense of progression but effectively shoehorns you into playing in a single manner, punishing any variety. Curiously enough, many of these poor design choices weren’t as evident pre-Reaper of Souls, which came as a double-edged sword: it added much needed replay value and trimmed the campaign’s fat away by creating Adventure mode, at the same time exacerbating the importance of a now easily reached end-game (Torment I+, level 70) without offering the needed variety of items and end-game builds. I’d be lying if I said that all these things outweigh Diablo’s co-op element, which is why I return to it regularly despite thinking that beneath its polished surface, its ever-increasing numbers and attributes is a prosaic and dull core. And to tell the truth, I could forgive its dullness, its flaws, its glaring repetitiveness just because of the co-op element, were it not for one thing: class sets.

A few weeks into the game I started checking the Crusader leaderboards to see what people were doing, and the problem I found present in the other seasons and patches, and which continued present despite my hopes for it being appeased with the newly added flexibility of the Kanai’s Cube, was rearing its ugly head as I inspected Crusader by Crusader. There was no variety. The same build, varying in quality by whim of the player’s luck – one or another had more ancient pieces than the other people on the leaderboard -, repeated to exhaustion, with the same passives in the cube, the same skills and runes selected, the same equipment and the same playstyle. All the elements of discovery, experimentation and different synergies that RPG players have come to love stripped to nothing, as the game defines, piece-by-piece, the optimal setup for anyone who wants to be anyone in the Diablo scene. The sets are so absurdly overpowered and superior to other legendaries, with increases to certain skills going even farther than the Barbarian’s Wasteland set multiplying a specific skill and rune’s damage by TWENTY-FIVE, that other setups and uniques simply can’t compete.

Woe be to you, oh damnable sets!
Woe be to you, oh damnable sets!

You see, Diablo 3 has hundreds of interesting legendaries that change how certain skills and aspects of each class play out on a modular basis – if you were to play without sets, there would be countless combinations you could make, as each slot would be free and untied to another. Instead of this variety, instead of giving the players freedom to explore these multiple combinations, Blizzard has made it so that out of the thirteen pieces you could choose, none will actually be of your choosing. You’ll settle for replacements as you try and find the final pieces of the already established best combination, sure, but it’ll be a matter of time until you have your shining carbon-copy of every other character in the top thousand players. Diablo 3’s allure is the sense of progression, and that sense of progression comes from clearing increasingly difficult Greater Rifts, and the recipe to do so was already well defined a day into the season. What’s worse, not only will you have a pre-determined set of items, but these sets are so intrinsically tied to certain skills that out of a roster of around 25 skills, each with five runes, you’ll play an entire season using only a handful of these. There are Crusader skills which, having never played him before, I haven’t even seen used in my sixty or seventy hours of holiness.

Diablo 3 has come a long way since its release, with the Reaper of Souls expansion greatly improving its grinding aspect and letting players skip the long campaign in favor of direct action. Sadly, it ended in a spot not so different from its previous one, when you look from farther away. The fun of aRPGs, at least to me, comes in great part from being able to build my characters in different ways. It’s evident you’ll end up with a few combinations and choices that are better, but having only one makes the whole process very insipid and predictable, and with as large a community as Diablo has what this means is that the optimal builds will already be set before the patch launches, due to its beta branch. The next major patch, which I’d say is at least half a year away, promises to balance all class sets – if they manage to pull it off, that’ll mean that at least every character will have three or four builds to pick from. Not ideal, but certainly less droll than the current scenarios. They’ve dug themselves a hole of which they can’t get out – the playerbase will not take kindly to being weaker in future seasons. The established cycle of growing stronger with each season must be kept, and however artificial it is to make monsters stronger as you make players stronger and call it a new difficulty, players will not, again, settle for an apparent recession in their power.

Exceptionally, the Witch Doctor seems to be the class with the most (competitive) variety.
Exceptionally, the Witch Doctor seems to be the class with the most (competitive) variety.

I don’t expect to quit Diablo 3 for good anytime soon, although I might eventually just shrug it off until the new season comes. The issues that have always pestered me, such as an outrageously obtuse always-online system, where the game can’t even do you the courtesy of pausing once it detects you’ve disconnected from the servers, and the linear progression to the one, perfect build, continue under the make-up of an alleged cube-provided variety. Since its launch, Diablo 3’s patches and downloadable content have made it more polished, more accessible and better, but without effectively changing how the game is balanced – the only changes are that, generally, the seasonal items and sets trump the old items and sets from past seasons – and that has made it, to me, a stale experience whose only merit is that I have friends to play it with. If I were alone? I’d much rather go for something like Borderlands, Victor Vran or the Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing, which while might be lacking in the massive replay value Diablo 3 has, don’t have the set-in-stone balance their spiritual ancestor has in its most recent version.

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