There's an argument to be made that, 12 years on from Blizzard's previous game in the Diablo action-roleplaying series, Diablo III shouldn't be simply more of the same. It is. It really is, and entirely consciously so. It doesn't expand upon the mouse button-abusing clickclickclick, killkillkill formula, or try to turn it into broader. Instead, it polishes everything that Diablo has always had to an almost blinding shine, and very much with the loot and statistical compulsion that World of Warcraft has lately cornered the market on in mind.
It's not an MMO like Warcraft is, but you might be forgiven for thinking so. Online play is in Diablo III's bones, the quest for the betterment of your characters is essentially endless and there's even an persistent out-of-game auction house for you to buy ever bigger and better loot. It is, strictly speaking, a singleplayer opus of high-speed monster-slaying, with a far too big for its boots hackneyed plot about the legions of Hell invading the world (again), but while this is the default way to play the game it is where it's at its weakest.
Carving your way through all those imps, demons, goatmen, spiders and zombies on your lonesome can get boring and palpably hollow. If the desire for weapons and armour with increasingly large statstics attached ever loses its sheen, the game's meatheaded nature can sour the show.
If you have a few friends with the game also, though, they can drop right into your session (or vice-versa) at any time to fight alongside you, and suddenly it's a co-operative party of even more bloodshed, increased challenge and complementary skills. On the game's default Normal difficulty setting, it's also just a great excuse to hang out online and have something to do with your hands while you chat.
Yep, there's no escaping it- Normal difficulty is pathetically easy. Diablo III sticks to the series' tradition in that higher difficulty can be turned on until you've completed the game once. This is nominally because you need to have a high-level character with a ton of decent loot to get anywhere on the higher setting, but it doesn't excuse just quite how banal Normal is. It's entirely possible to play through at least three quarters of the game without dying even once. Once you unlock the harder modes, the game changes dramatically.
Fights must be approached tactically, with near-total awareness of what your character's skills and upgrades do, exactly what statistics the loot you find, buy or build needs to have and what character classes your mates should play as in order to have a balanced team.
Then, at last, it's crystal clear why the plot is so perfunctory, the dialogue so cheesy and the nature of the game so unchanging. It's about challenge and it's about escalating your abilities and your understanding to meet even greater challenge. The story stuff and the one-dimensional supporting cast are just set dressing for a highly tactical, never-ending fight against an infinite army from hell. Ideally with your friends at your side, all talking about what skills to use when and on what. It's the direct descendant of Warcraft's notoriously hardcore Raid dungeons as much as it of the earlier Diablos.
So yes, it's hollow to the point of stupidity on one level, but on another, at least once you unlock the higher difficulty, it's like a sort of lighting-paced chess. Every decision matters. Every reward for doing it right matters. It will only end once you tire of becoming better. It's also constantly visually entertaining, a weird and colourful world where armour rains down in sparkling showers, enemies explode in storms of light, Monks can summon giant bells from heaven, Demon Hunters can litter the screen with spinning blades and Witch Doctors can summon hordes of toads. It's ludicrous, and it knows it.
None of this excuses the game's openly mercenary trappings, such as demanding to be online at all times even if you're playing solo, else you'll be kicked out the game. So no holiday or train play here, and as the disastrous launch weekend proved, whenever there's server troubles no-one can play the thing. Then there's the controversial real-money auction house. It's yet to launch in full, but it's hard not to worry that it's a way to both suck up extra cash from players that it really shouldn't and to break the intrinsic nature of the constant loot desire by offering a shortcut. We shall see.
It's certainly a terrible shame that there isn't an offline mode for those who want it. Diablo III's such a great way to waste a few (or hundreds of) hours, but as it stands you can only do it on its terms rather than your own.