Your friendly (and frank) guide to the Diablo III Starter Edition
UPDATE (09/14/2012): The guide has been updated after Blizzard decided to let everyone access the Diablo III Starter Edition. Furthermore, I have verified without doubt that the extreme and casual slowdowns I talk about in the post are ascribable to the software configuration used to test the game and not to the game itself (or to my hardware, luckily).
Yeah, I now, I’m late as usual: Diablo III was released two months ago, and I have already talked enough about the almost complete failure of the launch period. So why devoting a post to the demo version of the game when almost everyone has already read, seen and done what there was to read, see and do in the cursed lands of Sanctuary? For two reasons, the first of which is that after having extensively played the Starter Edition I have a weight on my chest that I need to let go.
The second reason (related to the first one) comes from my personal passion about the world of Diablo and the first two games of the series: stemmed from an experience in Diablo II single player that I still carry out today (and I will probably continue to do so for other 10 years at least), the following reading wants to be an examination of what Diablo III has to offer as seen from the point of view of someone who considers Diablo II one of the few titles worth of being called an all-time gaming masterpiece.
The Diablo III Starter Edition
Let’s start with the basics, ie what the Diablo III Starter Edition is and how to access it. Blizzard explains that the Starter Edition is essentially a demo of the game, a limited version that lets the player experience the part of the first Act lasting until the Skeleton King fight, the first 13 of the 60 available levels for every playable class, the multiplayer restricted to demo users only, the lack of the Auction House and the “Global Play” feature to play on a different server than the one of the player’s own region.
As for accessing the Starter Edition, after a moratorium lasted some months Blizzard opened the gates of hell to everyone on half August: now you don’t need to acquire a Guest Pass (maybe at a cost) anymore to try Diablo III. The Starter Edition is free, Blizzard wants to specify, and you just need to access your Battle.net account (or create a new one) to download and install the game’s software.
As for accessing the Starter Edition, the question becomes troublesome: right now the only way to unlock the download of the massive demo client is by using a “Guest Pass”, a code received as a gift from a friend or recovered on-line through other means. “My” Guest Pass, for instance, comes from eBay and cost me no less than 3 euros. Blizzard says that the Diablo III Starter Edition “will not be available without a Guest Pass until further notice“, but seeing the game trends (about which I will talk later) my spider senses tells me that within a few weeks the demo should be accessible to anyone.
Technology and presentation
The first encounter with the technical part of the game has been unpleasant to say the least: the game client needs to install an “agent” that will start the massive download of the program’s assets, the aforementioned agent tends to work poorly and unless the user leaves the PC on all night long solely for completing the transfer of the more than 8 Gigabytes of the Starter Edition, Internet becomes unusable. Diablo III performances (with adequately low profile settings and a native resolution of 1366×768 pixels) are decent even on a ancient laptop like the one I own (2.00 GHz Core 2 Duo CPU, GeForce 9600M GT GPU) at least until the game decides to slow down at the point of becoming unplayable.
The slowdown issue seems to arise in a completely random way, it matches an abnormal peak in the CPU cores utilization (not particularly overstrained by the game in normal conditions) and according to what can be read on-line it’s a phenomenon that also affects much more recent and powerful configurations than mine. Waiting for a stable solution - maybe by Blizzard itself - the only effective way I have found to restore the usual game speed is by pausing (Esc), switching to the Windows desktop, waiting around twenty seconds and going back to the game. Eventual advices from whom already solved the issue are very much appreciated.
Diablo III - adventure among corpses and mists
When everything works, the spectacle Diablo III can offer to the eyes and ears is pleasant, sometimes palatable and even exciting: fears about too much vivid colors already expressed 4 years ago have luckily proven to be groundless, the several locations visited by the player are fairly grim and “dark” in obedience to the general tone of a series known for its dungeons full of tombs and reanimated skeletons. Sure, the World of Warcraft graphic style influence is still there (mostly in the 3D models of characters and monsters), but I have to say that it’s much less oppressive and “colorful” than what I were expecting.
Colors and death - more death than colors
The settings and the architectonic structures of Diablo III offer a three-dimensional feel impossible to show through the old 2D isometric engine, with rivers flowing under the bridges, portions of dungeons that can be seen from above platforms located at higher levels, giant pulsing craters dug by the passing of the mysterious Fallen Star, glinting lights filtering through the opening of solid metal gates, stacks of dead bodies everywhere. Especially appreciable is the fact that you can destroy a good part of the objects and structures integrated into the game environment like tombs, benches, falling walls, banisters and so on.
Where, conversely, Diablo III doesn’t seem to be particularly brilliant is in the sound part: the soundtrack is nice, sometimes interesting, but except for some lyric moments and some well-made pieces it lacks inspiration and true epic drives. In a game like Diablo the audio part is worth 50% of the atmosphere, and in the Diablo III Starter Edition there is not even a sign of the many little masterpieces arranged by Matt Uelmen for Diablo II. In short: the Diablo III sound is slightly better than mediocre, maybe much more enjoyable for whom doesn’t know the previous episode well but nothing unforgettable anyway.
DRM and MMOG-tailored interface
The really diabolic part of Diablo III are its DRM: the game requires a permanent connection to the Blizzard servers to work, and the servers access is granted only by registering an account on Battle.net. Diablo III is an experiment, a bizarre crossbreed between a massively on-line title (MMOG) and “something” that can be also played in solo mode - still on-line anyway. From a strictly practical standpoint the system works, at least on the surface: beyond the embarrassing first weeks of instability, during my testing sessions latency has almost always remained constant and the game usable both on a home ADSL connection (7 Mbps with a lag of 100-200 ms) and on a cellular network (HSPA with a lag of 200-300 ms).
Going beyond the surface and my personal experience, in these two months of activity the Blizzard’s on-line system did nothing but showing cracks, security issues, bugs and filthy trends that have turned the user into a guinea pig useful just for feeding the sick desire for profit at all costs that took possession of the USA company: Diablo III isn’t a game that can be enjoyed on-line too but a service available exclusively on the net, a service that all things considered has shown to be so mediocre to spur investigations by national authorities, refund orders, even the ban tout court of in-game transactions for virtual objects in South Korea.
It’s probably the hardest hit to Blizzard’s monetization ambitions for Diablo III: the Korea obsessed with e-sports and StarCraft has turned its back to the recently opened public auction house - unavailable in the Starter Edition - because the gaming culture must be “healthy” and unaffected by the disease of buying and selling lumps of pixels with real money. Blizzard has simply proven to be incapable of managing the Diablo III GaaS (Gaming-as-a-Service) experiment going as far as enforcing temporary access to contents of the demo on whom had purchased the full game in digital format, and causing the loss of moderately significant money sums because of a bug in the management of real money auctions.
Going back to the Starter Edition testing, another addition that I found especially unpleasant is the obsessive presence of any kind of pop-up for every single, stupid progress made in the game: these are the infamous “achievements”, graphic shouts that engulf the screen every time your character kills many monsters with a single hit, levels up, destroys the surrounding environment and so on. Maybe the achievements are an important part of the MMO experience, personally I am not interested in MMOs and within Diablo III the achievements have the sole effect of diverting the attention and concurring to further break the already weak atmosphere of the game.
The functional part of the Diablo III interface, the one that manages the character, the objects found during the adventure and the transactions in the city is a double-faced sphinx: on the one hand the base attributes (strength, intelligence etc.) cannot be managed individually and are automatically allocated every time the character levels up, on the other hand the “detailed” attributes have become logorrheic and almost unreadable. Weapons, accessories and armors won on the battlefield seemingly are the only way the player can go to customize his or her character.
Contrariwise the on-the-fly compare between the object highlighted with the mouse and the one wore at the moment (during the purchase of new objects too) is very useful, as much as the chance to re-purchase the recently-sold objects in the city. The looting system surely is made more interesting by the addition of the artisans (Haedrig Eamon for New Tristram) and the option to break up the magic objects in their basic elements, subsequently using the aforementioned elements to create more powerful and worthwhile equipment. With the first 13 character levels of the Starter Edition, only a minimal part of the new equipment can be accessed.
The dialogues progression - both in the idle phases and during dungeon exploration - has become, at best, annoying: the writing often shows no depth, the characters engage in childish or cartoonish (WoWish?) attitudes and the tones of the predefined talks with the NPCs become irritating because of their inconsistency and a surplus of silliness. After the first half an hour one starts to regret the interaction shortage proper of the Diablo II gaming experience.
- Update to the guide for the Diablo III Starter Edition
- Videogames highlights - May 2012
- The job of your dreams
- BlizzCon 2009, Diablo III gets the new Monk class
- Diablo III at BlizzCon 2008
- New Diablo III screenshots, design triumphs over blackness
- Diablo III, a videoclip rekindles the colors controversy
- Diablo III is the end of an era. Just before Diablo IV
- Diablo III loses its art director, but graphic style won’t change at all