As I prepare to match wits and wills against the final boss of Diablo III for the first, though certainly not the last time, I do a final check of gear and skills for my wizard, Muisyle. (It’s Elysium spelled backwards. Get it?) I make a few shifts in gear to bump up my vitality, and thus my hit points, while trying to minimize a loss of the intelligence that provides the primary modifier for my damage.
The skills adjustments take longer. It’s not just a matter of whether I want Frost Nova or Diamond Skin as my defensive skill — that’s a tough enough decision on its own. But when I settle on Frost Nova, I equivocate endlessly on whether I want the rune that lowers the recovery time of the spell or the version that doesn’t actually freeze enemies but slows them down and does damage. That decision made, I’ve already decided I want a Hydra for my force skill, but do I want the fire, arcane or lightning version?
This never happened in Diablo II or its predecessor, of course. These kinds of decisions were made in many cases long before the character was ever created. You would enter the Rogue Encampment likely with a scripted plan for talent points well established in your mind, and the only question worth asking before any fights was what level you were, and therefore how far you had progressed through what really was in practice a static skill tree. You knew that you were going to be an Auradin, Bowazon, Bonemancer or Frozen Orb Sorceress even before slapping impotently at the first Fallen in the Den of Evil. And, that’s the build that you would be playing with for the next however many hours you choose, come good or ill.
There have been plenty of contentious design and feature decisions made in the run up to Diablo III’s launch, but somehow the idea of not having a pool of points to spend on specific skills felt the most impactful to me. I love spending skill points, getting that incremental boost here and there from a very specific update, and the idea of not having that was at first anathema. I say that only so you know how far I had to travel to get where I am now, prepared to say that the way Diablo III handles skills is one of my favorite things about a game I’m already in love with.
I liked playing pet classes in Diablo II. I would march through dim halls of fetid death with an army of skeletons at my side, and they would cavort through the world, slashing and tearing at the enemies that lay between me and Diablo. I would steamroll through waves of crashing horrors, joyfully picking up the detritus — otherwise known as loot — left in the wake of my undead army, until inevitably I would saunter into creatures or a boss who seemed the perfect counter to my minions.
Then, as I watched helpless bones disintegrate under the might of some new foe, and thought about what was left in my bag of tricks to dispatch this new threat, I would inevitably realize that my eggs had been, as they say, all in that one bone-woven basket.
And even if things weren’t quite that bad, places like the Arcane Sanctuary or Maggot Lair, with their bizarre tight confines and awkward environments, just did not suit a pet style of play. These were not the cavernous spaces where my approach to play worked best, but a claustrophobic environment where my army could only line up and fight in a miserable single file. They would get weirdly bunched up in the wrong places, and I would suddenly find myself minion-less and under enemy fire because they’d all gotten stuck on an oddly angled corner.
Tough, I would have to say to myself. I took the Skeleton Army path, and that’s just that.
I really was surprised how freeing it was to not be bound by this constraint anymore in Diablo III. The first time I changed my build essentially on the fly to adapt to my surroundings, I had to do something not entirely unlike a mental double-take. I’ll grant you that most combinations of skills will suffice in the game’s normal mode, but even early in act 1 of Nightmare I find myself looking closely at what an enemy is capable of and making decisions about attack strategies based on that.
Had this been Diablo II, the situation would have looked quite different. “Well,” I might have said, “it looks like that bloated vomitous mass of living hell is capable of walling me in. I guess I’ll use my skeleton army against him. Oh, and that scum-ridden pustule of slouching damnation can lob mortar-like bombs my way, so I guess I’ll use my skeleton army against him. Gads, that morbid mucus-dripping, shambling tumor is carrying a Skeleton-Army-disintegrator … get ‘em, skeleton army!”
Diablo III instead plays to what we all knew ahead of time its strength would have to be, specifically being a surprisingly action-packed slot machine. Every click of the mouse is a quarter down a one-armed bandit’s gullet, and the piñata candy that pops out could be anything from a broken piece of useless equipment — the candy corn or Tootsie Roll of loot — or a legendary item of unimaginable capacity.
Building out a strategy, when it comes to the place in the game where you actually need one, is an adaptive and evolving experience where skills are a tool rather than a hindrance. Yes, I suppose you could make the argument that this approach makes Diablo III less hardcore, but my understanding is that there is no lack of death in Hell and Inferno modes. Even with every skill unlocked, even with every rune at players’ disposal and even with the supposedly game-breaking auction house in play, I see plenty of videos of bosses and unique creatures dispatching would-be heroes with casual ease.
That suggests, I think, that there are still synergies and strategies, tactics and tricks yet to be discovered by players. It suggests to me even that more pieces having been put in play add to, rather than subtract from, the complexity. It suggests to me that the elimination of skill trees, rather than being a black mark on the game, actually makes it better.
But, that’s just me.