Space Hulk Review (PC/Mac): “A Tired Take on the Original”

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2013’s Space Hulk follows in the footsteps of several forms of inspiration – naturally, this includes the original board game it’s based off of, as well as the previous two Space Hulk PC games released back in the 90s. Each was a huge success, providing a tense, strategic game landscape backed by all of the lore of the Warhammer 40k universe. Now, Full Control have released what would seem to be a modern take on the originals, allowing players to control the Blood Angels chapter of Space Marines in a chilling, bloody fight against hoards of Tyranid Genestealers aboard the titular spacecraft. The 2013 version includes fully-3D graphics and voice-overs, but does the classic gameplay stand the test of time, or is it doomed to drift in the endless expanse of inadequate game remakes?

Story: 2/5

Space Hulk sees the player controlling a squad of Space Marines, the superhuman soldiers fielded by the forces of Mankind in the Warhammer 40k universe. Representing the Blood Angels chapter, these soldiers begin a bloody campaign of vengeance aboard a Space Hulk, a massive spacecraft that has become adrift in the Warp, a terrifying, chaotic alternate dimension host to daemons and other horrible creatures. Many of the Blood Angels’ forces were slaughtered therein hundreds of years prior by hoards of Tyranid Genestealers – nightmarish, feral aliens bent on killing and consuming all organic beings.

Bulky super-soldiers in a cramped corridor. What could go wrong?

The game’s campaign consists of 12 missions of multiple varieties, and each is prefaced by a short briefing, giving you an idea of what your objective will be. A powerful, melodramatic voiceover gives a full rundown of strategic data to digest, but otherwise the game’s plot is paper-thin. This is hard to excuse, as even the board game released back in the 80s came with multiple gameplay scenarios driven by an overall story. Given the rich amount of lore available for the Warhammer 40k universe, and the high quality of games in recent years to use the license, it’s a shame there isn’t more to make you care. In short: Space Marines are the good guys, Genestealers are the bad guys. The Warhammer 40k universe makes many, many more distinctions than that, but in terms of Space Hulk, that’s all you get.

Even worse, your Space Marines, each with their own name and specialties, can die during any mission. This ought to be a huge blow, considering each death is the loss of a super-soldier, but as long as you succeed in your mission, any of your units that died previously will respawn for the next mission. It’s a case of story giving way to gameplay elements, but this would have been an easy fix – giving Space Marines a random name each game would have helped to preserve whatever element of brevity is present in the game’s story.

Gameplay: 3/5

Space Hulk’s gameplay is, for all intents and purposes, a faithful recreation of the board game that inspired it. Players move their characters through narrow corridors and cramped, intersecting rooms to make their way towards the objective. Each player’s pieces have four Action Points to carry out actions like moving, turning, shooting, opening doors, unjamming weapons, and more. Players also get a pool of Command Points which are randomly awarded each turn, and can be used by any of the player’s pieces like Action Points, but are each shared among all of their pieces. The Space Marines and Genestealers couldn’t be more contrasted from each other – Blood Angels in Terminator armor are slow and ponderous, requiring Action Points just to turn around. They do, however, have the advantage in firepower – Space Marines can wield a large variety of firearms and melee weapons, all inspired by what’s found in the Warhammer 40k universe, including Storm Bolters, Power Fists, Power Swords, and Flamers, among many other instruments of destruction. While Space Marines can tangle with Genestealers in melee combat, there’s no denying that you’ll want to use your forces at range whenever possible. Genestealers are agile and numerous, and you’ll want to use your ranged advantage to take them down before they can swarm your position. Genestealers spawn from designated areas on the board, so you’ll need to plan where to station your forces to stem the tide enough for your other soldiers to complete the objective. A neat inclusion in the game is a shoulder-mounted camera feed, which broadcasts the perspective of your currently-selected Space Marine. It’s a surprisingly nice touch and adds a sense of tension and suspense to the game’s tactical top-down display.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don't count on it happening again.

A lucky roll by the Space Marine. Don’t count on it happening again.

Board game adaptations are tricky to produce on a gaming platform, since a lot of the enjoyment of a board game comes from the interactions between you and the people you play with. In the absence of that, a computer game needs to have some sort of hook to engage the player, whether it be flashy graphics or high production values. It’s obvious that Space Hulk tries to stick as closely to the principles of the board game, and in the end, it was the right decision to make. However, Full Control have taken this to the logical extreme, and presented a very bare-bones gameplay experience. There are many options present to the player, but there’s really only one clear fallback – get a Space Marine into position in a long hallway and turn on Overwatch mode, which lets the Space Marine fire at any enemies that come within range during their turn. Knowing that just one option is clearly the best for victory takes a lot away from the depth of play that is so well-known within the board game and 90s PC games. So long as you’re patient and can conserve your APs, you can have Space Marines on Overwatch stemming any Genestealers that come within range, making a practical runway to your objective. The Genestealers’ AI is somewhat inconsistent as well; sometimes, they’ll try to circle around and flank you, a surefire way to take a Space Marine down. Other times, they’ll rush headlong into your field of fire only to get easily gunned down. By the same token, for those times where you choose to take more direct action, your chances of victory are based wholly around dice rolls. Shots can miss, bolters can jam, and even attempts to bash open stuck doors can take a while to succeed. Such a huge degree of randomness makes it so that a whole scenario (which can take up to an hour to complete) can be won or lost on how lucky you are. The only time skill really comes into play is how you position your forces. Beyond that, it all comes down to chance, and can make for a very frustrating experience. What’s worse, there is no way to skip the lengthy animations of the ponderous Space Marines after giving a move order. You can give multiple orders in parallel by selecting another unit while the first carries out his orders, but each Space Marine can take anywhere from 10-20 seconds just to carry out a simple move order. This puts a real drag on the already-slow gameplay, and sometimes you’ll find yourself tapping your finger against your desk in tedium, waiting for your turn to end.

Space Hulk comes with Hotseat and Multiplayer modes, allowing one player to control the Space Marines and the other in charge of the numerous Genestealers. Hotseat play helps preserve some of the draw of gathering about a table with friends and playing through the board game, and this is really the best experience you can get. Trying to outwit another human opponent really brings the strategic play of Space Hulk into focus. However, its multiplayer showings are much more sparse – there is no server browser to speak of, and no chat functionality before entering a game. All you can do is find a random opponent, and select your desired map and faction beforehand, or allow the game to randomize these. There’s in-game text chat, but it’s not nearly as engaging as having a friend with you in Hotseat mode. Worse, as tedious as it can be playing the game solo, it becomes even more monotonous as you wait for your opponent to make their moves. All in all, the gameplay experience isn’t terrible, but it’s obvious the full effort hasn’t been given, and it’s a real shame with Warhammer 40k’s hallmark for engaging gameplay and lore.

Graphics: 2/5

A Space Hulk is, by design, a cramped, dark, confined space, and given the Warhammer 40k universe’s penchant for grim, gothic overtones, nobody is expecting to find rainbows and flowers in Space Hulk. However, the in-game graphics don’t do a lot to stand out either. While they’re certainly competent for a game released in 2013, cut corners begin to creep in at every turn. Even with the graphics turned up to the best preset, character models lack detail, and look more like plastic action figures rather than hardened combat veterans. Tyranids don’t look much better, but are certainly intimidating and gruesome enough. Animations are also sorely lacking here – the bulky Space Marines barely move at all when firing their weapons, and in general, all characters play the same animations over and over. When a Tyranid closes in on your space marine, he’ll always fend it off with a quick backhand before doing the creature in, or being felled himself. Genestealers, too, seem to recoil slightly from gunfire only to fall on their faces the next. It gets very tired, very fast.

Unfortunately, the in-game graphics can’t match the quality in this action shot.

Sound: 2/5

Another area where Warhammer 40k games are known to excel are their sound direction. From extensive voice-over work to sweeping soundtracks, they’re a big reason for the engrossing melodrama that 40k games are known for. It’s unfortunate, then, that Space Hulk contains no traces of an effective sound design. The title screen sports a dramatic, sweeping tune…and the rest of the game lacks any sort of music. Nor does Space Hulk boast a broad voice cast – in fact, there’s only two discernible voice actors lending their talents – one for the pre-mission briefings, and one for the canned phrases uttered by your Space Marines. The only thing saving Space Hulk from a critical sound score is the quality of what’s actually present. The title music is engaging, and the voice work is spoken with the same poise and deep, powerful tone as is expected from any of the Emperor’s Finest. There really isn’t much else to say – the game’s sound design is just another area where corners have been cut. It’s a real let-down.

The Space Marine "IWIN" button.

The Blood Angels call this maneuver the “I win button”.

Overall Score: 9/20 = 4.5 out of 10

Space Hulk is a game that had so much potential, both from the high quality of the board game it’s based off of as well as the source material Full Control had at its disposal. Warhammer 40k computer games are known for being dramatic, engaging, and extremely immersive. Unfortunately, Space Hulk cuts too many corners for its best aspects, few as they are, to come through. Repetitive, inconsistent gameplay, a nearly non-existent story, shoddy graphics, and a nearly non-existent sound direction make it hard to justify a purchase at $30, even for the most die-hard of 40k fans. Those looking for a grim, war-like strategic game should look to any of the Dawn of War games to get their fix instead.

Space Hulk is currently available on the Steam platform for PC and Mac, retailing at $29.99 USD.

PROs:

+ A straight adaptation of the board game stays faithful to old-school play

+ Hotseat play is the closest thing to simulating a board game session with friends

+ Shoulder-camera view adds a delightful horror factor

CONs:

– Gameplay is dull and repetitive

– Frustratingly reliant on random dice rolls

– Graphics are sub-par

– Inability to skip ponderous Space Marine animations drags each game on

– Nearly non-existent soundtrack

– Only two discernible voice actors

– Unusually thin plot for a 40k game

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy of Space Hulk! Copy reviewed based on the PC version.

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Cloudberry Kingdom Review (PS3/360/Wii U): “The Most Sadistically Awesome Platformer”

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Over the course of gaming history, 2D platformers have really become a staple genre that gamers of all kinds can enjoy. Ever since the days of Super Mario Bros. gracing the NES and Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis, we’ve seen a plethora of platformers impact the industry. Within the last half-decade, we’ve seen some stellar 2D platformers made by indie developers, such as Braid, Limbo and Outland. Pwnee Studios, an indie developer created by childhood friends Jordan Fisher and TJ Lutz, have worked together to bring about a 2D platformer that’s for the masochist called Cloudberry Kingdom. Is this a kingdom worth venturing?

When you start off the game’s story, you’ll be treated to a cutscene of the hero, Bob, trying to rescue the princess (where have we heard this before). However, instead of the cheery tone we’re accustomed to in Super Mario, we’re seeing that Bob is a tired, frustrated hero and that the Princess could care less that she’s being rescued from the evil king. Naturally, things aren’t so simple for Bob, as he’s thrown off a cliff by the evil king and forced to continue his tireless journey of rescuing the princess. From here, the game’s story mode begins. Cloudberry Kingdom plays precisely like you would expect a 2D platformer, with a few twists. You’ll have to traverse your way through deadly obstacles to reach the next level, with each ramping up in difficulty obstacle-wise, and each level takes only 15-40 seconds to complete. Controls are standard fare and nothing complicated by any means, with the A button used for jumping and Y button to use the exit door at the end of a level. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward enough, right? Well, here’s the thing. Bob dies in a single hit and has no weaponry to defend himself. If any obstacle or enemy hits Bob, he’s dead and it’s either back to the beginning or checkpoint. Levels are all cleverly designed to have a specific line that you can do that avoids death entirely, but I’ll touch more on that in a bit.

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Over the game’s eight chapters, there will be 40 levels of hardcore platforming action in each chapter (320 levels total). The obstacles all range from spinning fireballs, swinging spike balls, spikes that pop from the ground, lasers, etc. You’ll start off simple, just acclimating to the controls and feel of the game. However, things will quickly spin out of control when you play as various phases of Bob that change the mechanics and physics entirely. Every set of 10 levels, you’ll play as a new phase of Bob, such as Wheelie, Double Jump, Jetpack, Phase Bob, Tiny Bob, Fat Bob, Gravity Bob or even a Spaceship! For example, playing as Wheelie has Bob strapped to a stone wheel and will have the physics of a heavy wheel. Tiny Bob will make Bob gain more height, while Fat Bob makes him get less height than normal and is more prone to getting hit by an obstacle. Phase Bob will actually have Bob constantly morphing from Fat to Tiny, making traversing through levels a true challenge of timing. Playing as a Spaceship is really cool too, bringing back that feeling of playing something like R-Type or Gradius (granted you can’t shoot anything, but maneuvering it is fun).

As you traverse each level, you’ll notice there are blue crystals that can be collected. If you collect all of them in a level, you’ll get a “Perfect” status and earn an additional 10 crystals on top of what you collected. So what are the purpose of crystals you ask? Well, by pressing the X button, you’ll open up a Powerup Menu, which allows you to purchase a specific item to help you out with completing a level. The first item, which looks like “Terminator” Bob has you watch a video of the level to see the perfect path and timing you need to complete the level. The second item (which costs the most amount of crystals) will actually show you the exact path you need to take, as well as a dark object that goes along it to show you the exact timing of the path you should take. This item proved to be immensely helpful, especially with the precision required in later levels. The last item is a time clock that enables slow-motion, making everything except Bob move at a crawl. These items definitely help in their own respects and I never felt the need to be stingy with cashing in crystals for them since you keep collecting them.

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Aside from the game’s Story Mode, you will have access to Arcade and Free Play modes as well. In Arcade, you can choose between four different modes: Escalation, Time Crisis, Hero Rush, and Hybrid Rush. Escalation is essentially endurance, where you’re given 15 lives to start with and must get through as many levels as possible. You can get extra lives by collecting set amounts of crystals during the run. Time Crisis starts you off with 15 seconds to last before Bob explodes. As you race to the exit of each level (which are much shorter than usual), you must collect crystals to add precious time to the clock. Hero Rush and Hybrid Rush are much like Time Crisis mode, but both with distinct ways to play. Hero Rush has Bob changing his phase type in every level, while Hybrid Rush has Bob shifting into a combination of phases per level (such as being Wheelie and Phase Bob at the same time).

Free Play has a more customizable aspect to it. You’ll be able to choose a location, game type, hero style, difficulty, length of the level and how many checkpoints you’d like. The difficulty can not only be adjusted for players of any level, but can be completely customized to your liking. Want an incredibly simple level that has not a single obstacle? You can do it. Want a level that has more objects on screen that seems like there’s almost no room to move through? You can most certainly have that as well. The game’s AI has been designed to randomly generate a level that’s 100% beatable, which is incredibly impressive. Another customizable feature that’s really fun to play around with is Hero Factory. Here, you will actually customize the base, jump type and shape of Bob, while also tweaking every attribute to a tee, such as the acceleration, max speed, size, gravity, falling speed, jump length, number of jumps, etc. You can even fine tune your settings by testing it before going into the actual level. The options are simply endless.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is a vicious game in terms of difficulty, but why play it alone? You can have up to 4 people playing at once, all racing their way to the exit of these challenging stages. Each player can even customize Bob the way they want him to look. Whether they change the color of his suit, what kind of beard he has, his cape color (or no cape at all), and even the lining of his cape, there’s a solid amount to customize. I came across someone’s screenshot on the Miiverse where they practically replicated the look of Dr. Robotnik (sorry, his name is not Dr. Eggman in my book) from Sonic the Hedgehog. Playing in multiplayer makes this already chaotic game even more chaotic, but is an absolute blast. There’s even a co-op mode in Free Play where all the players are tethered together and must coordinate with each other to reach the end of the level. This alone will provide plenty of good laughs amongst friends.

Visually, Cloudberry Kingdom has a “flash” look to it, with very clean and vivid colors, as well as fluid animations. Environments and characters are nicely designed and the game itself runs incredibly smooth, never dropping the frame rate at all. The only odd animation that seems unpolished was Bob’s double jump, which had zero animation to it and was simply a “standing” animation while moving up. Cutscenes have a different visual style, representing a paper mache look. It’s actually pretty cool and works quite well for the visual aesthetic. Audio wise, this game has a bumpin’ soundtrack that’ll definitely engage the player further into the game. The soundtrack was composed by Blind Digital and Peacemaker…and damn is it a sweet soundtrack. They provide techno tunes that really get you pumped for wanting to complete a level. As I type this review, I’m listening to “Evidence” by Blind Digital (my favorite track in the game)…it’s that’s good. Although, I wish there was a way to change the song with a simple button press. On the flipside, the sound effects are pretty generic, but nothing bad by any means. Oh, and voice acting wise, Kevin Sorbo plays Bob…yes, the dude from the live-action Hercules TV show back from the 90s.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is an excellent 2D platformer that’s so sadistic, it makes the hacked Mario games look easy at points. However, the game’s stages are all designed to be 100% beatable thanks to the AI designed for the game. It’s an endless platformer alright, and one that you’ll be endlessly returning to, whether by yourself or with friends. The clean visuals, bumpin’ soundtrack and just downright addictive gameplay make Cloudberry Kingdom a must-own for any platformer fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Copy purchased by author for review purposes. Game tested on the Wii U.

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Cubemen Review (PC/Mac/iPad)

Tower Defense games have come a long way from being simple custom maps in Starcraft. TD is quickly becoming its own major game genre, and tons of games have been released that put a spin on the classic formula. One such game, Cubemen, by Three Sprockets, aims to take everything we think we know about Tower Defense and throw it out the window. Rather than build static towers, you purchase and command a squad of “Cubemen”, soldiers with specialized gear and roles. Does Cubemen stand out in the crowd of Tower Defense games, or fall in line? Let’s take a closer look and find out.

There are several aspects of Cubemen that it shares with other Tower Defense games; namely, enemies spawn on the map and move towards your base to destroy it, requiring you to build defenses to stop them. What sets Cubemen apart are its unique gameplay twists; rather than building towers, you can use money (called “Cubes”) earned from destroying enemy Cubemen to purchase your own Cubemen, each with their own role. Your Cubemen will fight with enemy Cubemen, and each side will take damage. When a Cubeman’s HP is exhausted, it disappears. What’s nice is that you aren’t required to keep your troops where you put them; all Cubemen (except the medic) can be repositioned around the map as required. This is a good thing, because Cubemen’s maps might take some adjusting-to as well. Rather than playing on flat, open battlefields, each map is three-dimensional (and made of – you guessed it – cubes); some even contain walls and pillars to take cover behind. This allows for some complex strategies and makes every Cubeman useful. Try hiding a flamer behind a wall, waiting to ambush enemies who pass by, while perching a Sniper on top of a column to soften up enemies from afar. Mortars can fire over walls (given enough clearance). This is just a taste of Cubemen’s deep strategic opportunities, and rewards players with experimentation. The game even seems to steer the player towards producing a variable army, as each time you purchase a Cubeman, its cost increases by one Cube. This creates the hilarious possibility for the cheapest unit in the game to eventually surpass more powerful ones in price. Even so, your Cubemen work best when they can perform their specialized roles, so having a tough unit in the front while the much frailer Sniper chips away at enemies from a distance is an excellent idea.

While the game lacks a real “Campaign”, the single-player experience includes a staggering 35 maps to play on, each with varying difficulty, from Beginner all the way up to the Insanity level. Your score is recorded at the end of each match and uploaded to the global leaderboard, allowing you to see how you stack up against the rest of the planet. You can even rate each map out of 5 stars after you play it, both to remind yourself of what you thought and possibly for some other hidden feature that has yet to be revealed. Single player includes six different game modes, including Classic, Limited Players, Limited Cubes, Just Rockets, Endless, and Sudden Death, and each provides some nice variety on the core gameplay. Cubemen also has great Multiplayer offerings, including 1-on-1 Skirmishes and a Mayhem mode, where six players can duke it out together. Multiplayer has no shortage of maps either – there’s a whopping 25 of them. Multiplayer is very similar to single player, with every player spawning Cubemen periodically to automatically try to attack other players’ bases. Unlike single player, however, Cubeman purchasing costs do not rise as more are purchased, allowing a wider range of unit combinations and strategies. You can even apply some creativity to your Cubemen, as the game gives you the option to choose their color and give them a pattern. Want to wage war against Eyepatch (pirate) Cubemen with your own Ninja Cubemen? Go for it. Are you a hardcore Linux user and want to stick it to Microsoft? Proudly emblazon Tux on your Cubemen while plastering the Windows logo on your enemies. It’s simple, but a nice addition.

As far as visuals and audio go, Cubemen is pretty simplistic, but it works. The game goes for solid, metallic colors with neon lighting, and definitely gives off a huge Tron vibe. Even the sound effects, which sound like something straight out of an 80’s Atari game, fit this theme. However, this is perfectly evocative of the game’s style, placing virtual soldiers on a simulated battlefield. Cubemen is true to its name as well – just about everything in the game is formed from cubes or rectangles, from the maps to the Cubemen and the projectiles they fire. While it’s never going to compete with Crysis 2 in the graphics department, Cubemen succeeds at presenting a clean-cut, simple art design that fits the game perfectly. Perhaps the one place Cubemen falls flat is its music – there is really only one track to speak of, and it plays on loop throughout the whole game, whether you’re in the menus or playing a round. It’s a shame the developer didn’t add a bit more in the way of a soundtrack, but it doesn’t detract from the game either. And if you eventually tire of it, you can always shut the music off and play your own soundtrack on your favorite media player in the background.

Cubemen would have also greatly benefited from a map editor, and given how simple the maps are, it wouldn’t be hard for a player to pick up and start rolling out their own stages. It’s possible Three Sprockets may be planning to release map packs down the road, which would definitely make a map editor a bad idea. However, if that isn’t the case, I hope Three Sprockets plans to include one at a later date.

All in all, Cubemen is an excellent addition to the Tower Defense market, and brings many fresh ideas to a genre already full of variety. The single player component offers an excellent change for players to hone their skills, while the multiplayer component ensures tons of replayability. Cubemen is currently available on Steam, Desura, and the iPad App Store for $4.99.

Final Score: 8.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

A special thanks to Three Sprockets for providing Gamers XTREME with a review copy of Cubemen!

Diablo III Review (PC/Mac)

Blizzard Entertainment is starting to set a trend with its franchises, reviving old (but popular) games like Starcraft and Diablo II. Starcraft II was a hit less so because it does anything groundbreaking, but takes a proven formula and improves it in every way. Now, after years of waiting, Diablo III is here. Will Blizzard keep its reputation for releasing blockbuster hits, or is Diablo III better off in the Hell-hole that spawned it?

Story: 3/5

The Diablo series, frankly, has never really been known for having a strong story. They were mainly meant to simply drive the gameplay, giving you a reason for runing around and slaughtering monsters. However, Diablo III does an admirable job of presenting you with an overarching plot, characters you want to relate to, and twists and turns. The main problem with Diablo III’s story is that it doesn’t try hard enough. The plot is there, but it’s pretty generic. The characters are voice-acted well, but they really don’t do enough to make you want to care about them. And the plot twists, while properly placed, aren’t too difficult to predict. Still, it’s a decent story, and it’s told in an excellent way through Blizzard’s cinematics, something the company has always been known for. These cut-scenes have never looked this good, though – the art team has managed to produce cinematics with the most realistic animation and texture you’re likely to see anywhere else. All in all, it’s a commendable effort, but not quite at the level where we’ll be talking about it after the game is over.

Gameplay: 5/5

Diablo III is built on the successes of its predecessors, offering an exciting, intense action experience with the simplicity of point-and-click controls. While it isn’t the most daunting task to improve on such a simple concept, Blizzard has managed to take the core elements from Diablo II and improve them in every way. At the heart of Diablo III’s gameplay experience are the five character classes the player has to choose from: The battle-hardened Barbarian, swift and deadly Monk, elusive Demon Hunter, dominant Wizard, and mysterious Witch Doctor all have unique playstyles, and every player is sure to find their niche. To add to their uniqueness, each class also has their own type of resource they can tap into to power their special abilities, and they all behave differently. While the Barbarian’s Fury only builds when giving and taking damage, the Wizard’s Arcane Power quickly regenerates at a constant rate. This creates the dynamic to use one skill to build resource, and another to spend it, creating a nice one-two punch that’s very satisfying. Each character’s skills are unique and serve a certain niche and playstyle, but players can also choose to add “skill runes” as they level up, which improve and change the function of each skill. While the Barbarian’s Cleave skill is deadly on its own, a player can choose a rune to improve the damage, or another one that will cause enemies to explode on death. And Diablo III gives you no shortage of enemies to test your strength against. There’s a huge variety here, with some even having unique behaviors or requiring more than one “kill” to eliminate. Rare monsters occasionally present themselves, with unique properties you’ll need to overcome to defeat them, such as knockback and freeze. The game also has a few dozen boss fights which require unique strategies to defeat, and play out like scripted events. It’s a nice way to break up the inherent monotony of point-and-click action games.

It’s hammer time.

The revamped resource system is just one example of the major reason Diablo III feels so solid: it’s incredibly streamlined. Moreso than anything else, Diablo III strives to keep tedium at a constant low, allowing the player to focus on the action. Just to name a few features in this vein: you can pick up gold by running over it, teleport to other players from town, open town portals at will, fire ranged weapons without the need for ammo, view stat changes on gear at a glance, and more. All these streamlines help to keep you focused on the action and are excellent for the type of fast-paced game Diablo III sells itself as. The interface is designed to be streamlined as well, and definitely takes a lot of cues from Blizzard’s other smash hit World of Warcraft. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though – despite the lack of ingenuity, a lot of WoW’s best interface features really help the experience when playing Diablo III. On level-up, you’ll be told exactly what stat improvements you get, what new skills you can use, and more. Not all is good however – many WoW players will notice that a lot of its flavor carried over to Diablo III, sometimes in overwhelmingly obvious ways – for example, the parallels between the Barbarian and the Warrior (Rage/Fury, Rend, Cleave, etc.) and even the Wizard and Mage (who share skills like Arcane Missiles and Arcane Barrage). Still, Diablo III is its own game, and feels immersive in its own universe.

The Diablo series’s hallmark has always been the loot, and Diablo III continues this trend in a big way. There are many ways to arm your character with dozens of pieces of gear with hundreds of possible magical combinations. And monsters drop these treasures like they were all taking them to the bank. It’s all part of the Diablo experience and it’s a huge thrill, especially when you find a rarer piece of treasure. These pieces truly make you feel more powerful. Any magical gear you find can also be broken down into components at the Blacksmith, who can then use them to craft more gear for you. This is a great way to have more control over the type of gear you can get, and it’s exciting to see your Blacksmith learn new recipes as you train him.

Loot is still at the forefront in Diablo III.

Blizzard has billed Diablo III as a complete online experience, and it shows in every aspect during play. You can chat with friends or join a chat room at any time, join friends mid-game, or even buy and sell items for gold at the auction house. Blizzard plans to also open up a real-money auction house at the end of May, allowing players to actually earn some money for the treasures they find in-game. Another plus with Diablo III’s online angle is that you never play alone: you can hire one of three computer-controlled followers in town to supplement your hero’s abilities. When you join a game with friends, these followers will wait in town. Despite the pitfalls of online play, like lag and disconnects, the online experience feels solid, and it’s a great social environment where you’re never far from your friends no matter what you’re doing. Users on slow wi-fi connections might have some issues, however.

The game’s campaign spans four acts, all of which should take around 3-5 hours to complete. All in all, one playthrough of the game should take anywhere from 12-20 hours, but the beauty of Diablo III’s gameplay is the high replay value. After beating the game on Normal difficulty, you’ll unlock access to Nightmare difficulty, where enemies are tougher, deal more damage, and have unique abilities that will really test you. This trend continues on to Hell difficulty and the new Inferno difficulty, which is sure to really put players to the test. Players are rewarded for this higher challenge with more and better loot, and honestly, what other motivation do you need? With five classes and multiple levels of difficulty, Diablo III is a game players will have trouble putting down, especially once they can sell their legendary loot for real money on the auction house.

Graphics: 5/5

The cutscenes are absolutely stunning.

The art direction for Diablo III has changed greatly from its predecessor, again drawing inspiration from World of Warcraft’s art style. While this does make the world more cartoony looking, it still presents itself as a dark, gothic world under siege. The characters look a big exaggerated, especially once armored, but it really gives you a sense of progression when you see your Barbarian running around in big, hulking armor with bloody metal spikes while swinging a gigantic, serrated sword. From a technical aspect, the game looks great as well – skills are accompanied by stunning special effects and blood and gore spray all over your character and the environment when you connect with a particularly hard-hitting attack. The game’s physics engine, like its characters, is extremely exaggerated but fits in perfectly with the visceral style of combat. Body parts will fly on critical hits, and parts of the environment shatter into hundreds of pieces when destroyed. It’s especially satisfying to smash a skeleton warrior with a critical hit and watch the bones fly and ricochet off the floor and walls. As previously mentioned, the cutscenes are also some of the most amazing we’ve seen yet, and really showcase Blizzard’s talents. All in all, from a visual standpoint, Diablo III is stunning.

Sound: 4/5

The Wizard’s Disintegrate spell crackles with energy.

Going hand-in-hand with Diablo III’s excellent graphical presentation is its sound design. One thing you’ll notice is that there is a lot more voice acting this time around – everyone from the lowliest of townsfolk to King Leoric himself is voice acted excellently. You might even recognize such actors as Jennifer Hale, Gideon Emery, Paul Eiding, Steve Blum, Crispin Freeman, and more lending their talents and bringing the characters of Diablo III to life. Even less prominent characters like New Tristram’s townfolk are voiced well and believably. Sound effects are stunning as well, and really lend themselves to improving Diablo III’s visceral approach to combat. The ground resonates with the Barbarian’s ground stomp ability, and the air crackles with the Wizard’s electrocute skill. The audio’s only shortcoming is its soundtrack. While it isn’t bad by any means, it doesn’t really do enough to stand out and even repeats certain tracks at different points in the game. Every piece fits the moment properly, but it’s just not one of those soundtracks you’ll find yourself hummimg to yourself when you’re away from the game.

Overall score: 17/20 = 8.5 out of 10

Diablo III is exactly what fans have been asking for – a refinement to the addictive point-and-click action of its predecessor with improved graphics, scintillating sound direction, and an online integration that is sure to help a big community thrive. While the soundtrack is unmemorable and the story is bland and generic, Diablo III delivers where it matters most, creating a riveting action experience that new players and die-hard fans shouldn’t miss.

PROS:

+ Diverse and unique classes to suit any player

+ Excellent graphics and sound direction

+ Online integration delivers a deep, rich experience

+ Come on – it’s Diablo!

CONS:

– Unmemorable story

– Soundtrack is somewhat generic

– Online nature is prone to technical problems