I liked Diablo III. I liked the gameplay -- who doesn't like carving their way through hordes of demon corpses? I liked the controls, which were relatively simplistic, and I liked the talent trees, which were fun without being confusing. It's hard to compare WoW and Diablo, because the two games are so very different in concept. One's an MMO, the other is a click-fest of looting and gore. But they both have one thing in common: story. And oddly enough, it seems as though there are a few things these two games could learn from each other on that front.
Please note: There are spoilers for Diablo III in this post. If you haven't finished playing through to the end and you wish to avoid spoilers, turn away!
I think what irritated me the most about Diablo III's story is that it was so easily predictable. And I don't mean that the story itself wasn't intriguing or entertaining -- I mean that quite literally the entire story of the game, including the ending, was given away within the first hour or so of play. That is, of course, provided you knew where to look. And players who paid attention to their surroundings not only noticed the odd and prophetic choice in decor outside Leah's room, they also noticed the guy spewing his heart out about prophecies outside.
I know not everyone pays attention to these things. I know people sometimes don't even notice that they're there until the third or fourth play-through. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. So all of the little hints that were dropped throughout the game only confirmed what I'd already gathered from what the prophet said, including the ultimate end of the game in which "justice is broken so that wisdom can be reborn." This wasn't a case of a clever hint being slipped in à la Shyamalan; this was simply blurting out the whole tale before you really got into the game itself.
Warcraft, while having an incredibly weighty story in comparison, does a marvelous job of slipping in little hints here and there that seem tantalizing but may lead to nothing at all. But it can afford to do that mainly because the game is so huge. We never quite know what's going to come next until it's announced or the dataminers find it -- whichever happens to come first. With a game like Diablo III, a relatively short game with an ending rather than an endless series of patches and expansions, you can't really afford to throw something like that in there. It cheapens the experience for those like me who are lore fans familiar with the Diablo universe. We pay attention to this stuff.
It's no secret that I love the Diablo III lore journal. It collects all of the books and bits of lore you happen upon whilst merrily slaughtering demons and keeps it all nicely cataloged for you, just in case you want to read through it again. Oh wait, did I say read? Well you've got two choices on that front -- you can sit there and read through the journal, or you can click play and listen to an NPC narrate the text for you. In some cases, it's Deckard Cain, but there are also a host of other NPCs that narrate as well. And the narration is spot on, a delight to listen to.
Diablo III has some of the best voice actors I've heard, honestly. None of them made me want to claw my ears out, unlike the endless attempts of Sindragosa back in Wrath. Even the villain's voices were pleasing. But really, it wasn't so much the quality of vocal work as it was that people simply talked. You don't see that in World of Warcraft. NPCs that whisper at you do so via text rather than out loud. NPCs that carry on conversations or talk to themselves do so via text only as well.
And I have to wonder, what would the World of Warcraft be if it actually sounded as vibrant and full of characters as it looks? Can you imagine wandering down the streets of Stormwind and actually hearing Ol' Emma muttering to herself? If walking along the Darkmoon Faire were a chaotic burst of NPCs barking at you and trying to get you to play the games? If loading into Dalaran meant a burst of chattering mages? And if you didn't care for all the chatter, an option to turn off voices would be handy, too.
Mind you, the amount of resources a project like that would take, not to mention the amount of space said sound files would take on your hard drive, would likely be gigantic. In Mists of Pandaria, more NPCs are chattering than ever before, but it's still limited. However, one thing could be done and done incredibly well: narration. It would be fantastic if we could actually hear those lore stories, those books we find along the way actually read out loud. I don't know about anyone else, but I would kill to hear a live rendition of The Fluffy Bunny.
I think in the end, while I really liked the story for Diablo III as far as concept and the story itself went, it was the execution of the story that fell a little flat with me. It isn't that Diablo III has a bad story; it's that the story wasn't paced in a way that naturally flowed. Act I had an engaging beginning that led to an intriguing middle and a satisfying, if poignant, end. And it left me absolutely wanting to play even further and figure out where the story was headed next.
However, Act II seemed like an interesting premise that dragged on just a little too far. It took a little too long to reach a resolution, and the resolution didn't seem quite as satisfying. Yes, the town was saved. Yes, everyone was extolling my virtues and calling me a hero. Yet it didn't seem like the hooks were woven together tightly enough. There were moments where I wandered in the desert and wondered just exactly what I was doing there. The point of my presence wasn't hammered out as easily as it was in Act I.
And where Act I had a high point and a resolution to it, Act II just seemed to lack that high point altogether. I knew where I was headed when I went into the zone, and everything along the way was just an exercise in heading to that inevitable conclusion. There wasn't a moment of surprise or a moment of mystery, just my character diligently doing what she set out to do, the ending of the act a foregone conclusion.
... Which led to Act III, because Act II wasn't apparently the end of it all. More fighting, more heading toward the same inevitable conclusion -- only this time, the end of the act signified a really important plot point. So in Act I, we had build up ... build up ... conclusion, and Act II was a build up ... build up ... build up, and then Act III felt like yet more build up ... build up ... build up ... super-amazing conclusion that leaps to Act IV. And unfortunately, all of that building up between Act II and Act III wasn't quite paid off by the events of Act IV.
Don't get me wrong. I liked where it went. I liked the idea of my character roaming around heaven and helping out fallen angels. But it was wrapped up so incredibly quickly, and there were plenty of issues that simply weren't addressed at the end. Where did Leah's mother go? What happened to Leah's spirit? Everyone seemed really concerned about her spiritual fate but didn't seem to care once the deed was done and heaven was saved. What's up with Shen? He seems like a really weird character with a really weird story that went nowhere, essentially.
Oddly enough, even a giant like Warcraft has some of the same issues, only on a much larger scale. Because an MMO is a continually evolving game, the story in that MMO is continually evolving as well. With Warcraft, that story seems to move pretty quickly when we leap from one expansion to the next -- and then promptly slows down to a crawl once we hit endgame. We're limited by how quickly Blizzard can release content. And it's not easy to put together satisfying content patches for an MMO -- it's something that takes time to do -- so I'm uncertain if anything can really be done on that front.
In the end, I still come to the same conclusion: I really liked Diablo III, and I really like World of Warcraft, even after seven plus years of playing. Diablo III had some advancements on the story side of things that I desperately wish I could see in World of Warcraft, and Warcraft's got some good things that Diablo III could borrow from as well. I'm hopeful we'll see more story out of Diablo III, that we aren't quite done yet and those random questions from the end of the game will be addressed eventually. But considering how long it took for Diablo III to make its frankly stunning debut, we may be waiting a while.