Editor's Note: The play time indicated above is specific to the Necromancer character used to review this expansion pack, not all Diablo III playtime.
Diablo III: Rise of the Necromancer is an expansion pack (or “in-game content pack” as the developer markets it) for Diablo III, developed and published by Activision Blizzard. I have to confess, writing about this game, as dated and passed-over as it was and is nowadays, save by something of a core crowd of players, is not exactly how I planned on breaking the long dearth of my content after the breakup with my now-ex-wife and the spate of bad health I have, but while I struggled with some ennui about writing about games, replaying Diablo III to put this little add-on through its paces with the new “Season 17” thing going, it really started to resemble a sort of archetypical game of a lot of my complaints in artificial difficulty, and as such, functions almost as something of a case study. If you are one of the people who hasn’t tried Diablo III and just wants me to get to the point of whether it’s worth getting or not: It is, but it remains a popcorn game, and frankly, I’d advise against the higher difficulties. You’re only really going to want this one if you are a Diablo 2 fan with nostalgia for the class. A new player to the series isn’t going to get much out of this that isn’t already there in the base game with the witch doctor class.
The chief addition unique to the expansion pack itself is the Necromancer class, allowing you to play as a Male or Female Necromancer. People were pretty excited about this at the time, because it was one of the at-the-time fairly unique classes in Diablo 2 and there really wasn’t something like that which stuck with people in Diablo 3. You can count the witch doctor I guess, which was a very limp-wristed attempt at bottling the same lightning with a different flavour, but it never really seemed to strike a chord with the crowd in the same way. So what’s so different between the two? The approach, really – the Necromancer essentially used its minions as a sort of wall of mild tanks to keep the enemies off them, while they pelted the enemy with teeth or bone spear. Essentially, the Necromancer was relying on a strategy of getting good economy out of the dead enemies they raised in terms of being that distraction, so that the Necromancer had the time they needed to dispatch enemies.
Understanding this approach is essential to going on to then understand what the Rise of the Necromancer expansion does differently with the titular class. The fundamental differences are the approach of using corpses as a resource. At first blush, this doesn’t sound any different to raising enemies before, but the problem becomes readily apparent on further examination of the class’ abilities. What the designer of the mechanics has done here, is essentially flip-flopped the resource allocation – you are using corpses for the main combat abilities such as corpse explosion – and the mana for raising skeletons and your golem and such forth. In fact, in keeping with the game’s casual design philosophy, you don’t even have to cast a spell to raise your army – the game does this automatically.
The passive accumulation of the army can probably be considered a quality of life improvement, however, your skeletons and golems have one very big problem at the higher difficulties which actually punish you – they are too few, and they are dumb as a sack of hammers. You have a hard cap of seven skeletons at any given time (I think there at least used to be items which would increase this, but at time of writing, I was unable to find any), which really is not enough to deal with the number of enemies the game throws at you – but this in and of itself wouldn’t be so much of a problem if you had a less numerous number of intelligent followers, but frankly, they are anything but intelligent. The AI needs to go back to school.
AI spottiness is something that most players are already familiar with dealing with in Diablo III’s companions, which tend to be about as helpful as an anchor on a sinking ship. Well, okay, that’s not fair – they’re not likely to hinder you too much most of the time, except insofar as sometimes engaging enemies you’re trying not to pull – but they also aren’t much help. They are very slow to use their helpful abilities, their standard attacks are akin to using a water pistol on a burning building, and they position themselves very poorly.
The latter is what it really comes down to when speaking of the fundamental AI problem with the necromancer’s followers. Rather than keeping creatures directly attacking me busy, more often than not the skeletons and especially the golem would be wandering off screen to fight things that often had not even been pulled yet, not only failing at providing the effective screen the necromancer relied upon in the previous series installment, but deepening the problem of trying to keep enemies away from a ranged spellcaster as your minions constantly pull more additional enemies into the fray.
Activision Blizzard seem to have been aware of the fundamental problem this AI presents to the design of the class, but rather than addressing the faulty and unreliable intelligence logic, they attempted to patch over the problem by giving the player the ability to direct the skeletons to attack a specific target. This fails for a variety of reasons: you often want to target multiple enemies at once, the skeletons lose interest in attacking the specified enemy very quickly, and the pathfinding is such that often they will get stuck on the scenery when directed to attack. The golem is also the worst offender when it comes to engaging in an undesired fashion, and you cannot direct it to attack specifically without specific runes, which are special attacks that are often ineffective and have a relatively long cooldown before it can be used again. Therefore while it cannot be said that the developers didn’t attempt try to address this issue, the method in which they did so was not effective. They do not give you enough control enough of the time to overcome the issue of the AI’s lack of intelligence.
Once you figure out that the main gimmick of the old class doesn’t really work effectively, you can come out with some other strategies that are effective, but I felt it was important to expound on the problem with the fundamental mechanic, because this is what Diablo 2 players were coming to this expansion pack for, and it isn’t what you’re going to find here, or at least, if that’s what you are here for, you’re probably going to have a bad time.
The strategy I found particularly effective was to use the blood golem as a corpse generating machine more than anything else, and design a melee-based Necromancer that uses the corpses essentially as a constant area-of-effect damage essentially centered on me. Without the largely-ineffectual minions pulling agro, I was the sole target for enemies. This strategy wasn’t perfect, since many enemies are ranged in nature and the necromancer doesn’t have a real strategy for dealing with those kinds of enemies beyond “shoot back”, but I found it carried me well through the ascending (or descending, if you prefer) levels of the Torment difficulty levels with relative effectiveness. However, I got to a point about halfway through the seasonal goals for the Season 17 play and down to Torment 3 and then I just stopped, because I realized what was happening and what the game was doing, and frankly it infuriating. Allow me to expand.
The way that the game was increasing the difficulty level wasn’t to introduce more clever enemies or different methods of attack such as more difficult procedurally-generated rooms to the mix (which was what the original did largely, such as the well-remembered Chamber of Blood), but rather to inflate the difficulty artificially through two methods. First, the hit point count of the enemies is ballooned out to the point where they are exponentially greater than the players, and second, the enemies are given more and more unfair special abilities.
To come to grips with the second as someone who doesn’t play Diablo, allow me this explanation: largely inspired by early Rogue-likes, Diablo III procedurally-generates “champion” or “mini-boss” enemies with a certain number of special abilities. As the game difficulty mode increases, the lists of these abilities become less forgiving. While this does make the game more difficult, it is an artificial difficulty, as this creates a scenario where we are not playing on the same rules. The enemy creatures have a deck stacked in their favour, and as you increase in the difficulty modes, it becomes more and more arbitrary the ways in which the game will arbitrarily kill you. And it is quite arbitrary indeed, because there is no amount of player skill that can prevent some deaths as you get higher and higher in that difficulty curve. When it feels like there’s nothing you could have done to prevent dying, it instills a feeling of hopelessness in the player, which often quickly turns to frustration and sometimes even anger. When I started to realize the game was messing with me in such an opaquely-heavy-handed manner, I lost pretty much any desire to keep playing, and instead of doing so, started reading this long-winded rant you’re reading now.
What is important to note is that most video game difficulty is artificial in at least some way. Until we devise true artificial intelligence, we have to find ways to give the computer a way to present a compelling challenge to the player. We essentially are trying to create the illusion of natural difficulty, while the difficulty is quite artificial. The creation of natural difficulty, or as-close-to-natural-as-is-possible difficulty, rather, is something of an art form, and only a handful of games I can think of really nail the implementation of this feeling of fair challenge.
The litmus test I use when determining if the difficulty is reasonable or not is simple: do I feel that the challenge I just experienced is something that a player can reasonably be expected to have a good chance of success at if they are skilled at the game? In examining Diablo III’s higher difficulties in that context, I would say it fails miserably, because situations you cannot escape from by any means are quite common in the higher difficulties. The special abilities are what cause that. There are a few particularly egregious examples: the “arcane enchanted” enemies will create an area-of-affect attack which are essentially rotating sweeps, and touching them for even just a moment will knock off most of your health. They create these area of effect attacks at random but increasingly-short intervals, and it isn’t long in fighting these enemies before trying to fight them becomes less like a hack and slash RPG and more like a NES bullet hell shooter. Nothing against bullet hell shooters, they aren’t usually my bag with a few notable exceptions, but they aren’t what I play hack and slash RPGs for, and they become obnoxious when combined with two of the other powers. The first one is “waller” which essentially will hem you in with series of walls which you cannot destroy (but go away after a minute or two), and the second one is “jailer”, a control effect which roots you in place. The second one in particular can spell certain death. If you cannot move, and you are in one of those sweeps, you are going to die, it is without question, and only a couple classes have any ability to deal with that. Combine this with the fact that you’re often fighting enemies with these combinations in 3s or 5s, and you’re only in for more of a controller-threatening grind-fest at best. There are other nasty combinations out there, that’s just the one that frankly did it for me. Another example that Diablo 2 fans will love is that with recent patches, enemies which are basically immune to all of your attacks have made a comeback. I will forgive you if you aren’t exactly enthusiastic about this change.
Having now winged myself inside out, I feel it necessary to mention that most of the other changes to Diablo are positive ones: there’s now a way to save certain equipment loadouts for certain skillsets when you’re switching between specialized builds, dyes are now all available through the transmog vendor rather than relying on the ineffable whims of fate to get the ones you want from the fence, there are a series of new areas which while largely repeats do include some interesting new content and spins on things I found interesting, and the visual effects overhaul they did makes the game both look more impressive and run smoother on my computer. So it’s not all negative, but the steep increase in how artificial the difficulty seems now overshadows those additions considerably.