Home > Diablo III, Game Titles, Reviews > Til death do us part: Diablo III Hardcore

Til death do us part: Diablo III Hardcore

I spent a fair amount of time playing Diablo III over the past month – along with what I can only imagine is one sixth of the world’s population.  Unfortunately, about half of those people have also taken the time to write up detailed reviews of the game.  This deluge of commentary left me struggling to find some way to frame my experience with the game that seemed mildly interesting.  And then I read a blog discussing death penalities in games that made me realize that Diablo III’s optional permanent-death mode, a.k.a hardcore, was so elegant that it has come to completely redefine what I expected from the game and how I played it.

It also confirmed that lawyers are hell-spawn.

First, some context:  Diablo was my first online game way back over a decade ago.  Nostalgia obligates me to play any title in the franchise, even if my tastes in games have moved towards those with persistent worlds.  That’s not to say that I wasn’t excited about the game’s release, but more to point out that I expected to play through once or twice to experience the game and then move onto something else.  At best, I expected a few weeks of gameplay given that it’s largely an updated and more polished version of what is at it’s core a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler.  While some of my friends were keen on pushing through every single difficulty level and were happy to farm demons for gear, I knew that style of gameplay would not hold my attention forever.

Given those expectations, I surprised myself after finishing normal mode by making a new character and selecting hardcore mode.  I never played hardcore mode in Diablo II because the idea of investing time in a character only to have them deleted after one death seemed pointless.  This time though, the knowledge that I would eventually stop playing the game looming at the front of my mind put the loss of a character into a new context.  I realized that the second I stopped playing Diablo III, any character I had invested time in might as well have been deleted anyway.  Armed with this realization, I took my new hardcore character – a Wizard – into the now much more dangerous game world.   I pushed past normal mode spending every coin, potion, and crafting material I came across knowing that there was no point to holding anything back.   If I died, I was dead.  About mid-way through Act 1 in nightmare difficulty, I was cut down by a pack of elite spiderlings who cornered me in a cave.  My death happened so fast and so unexpectedly, that I was unable to process what had happened.  But I experienced neither rage or disappointment; instead, I felt catharsis.  The permanent death of my character was somehow more satisfying than actually beating any boss in the game on my normal mode character.

Curse you, spiderlings. Curse you.

This experience in a game was so unique that I knew I had to try it again.  I made several more characters, trying new classes each time to experience the game in a new way.  These characters made it to various levels, though never very far due to a bit of recklessness on my part and unfamiliarity with their play styles.   I started to become a little frustrated until I noticed that despite each of my characters having to start back at the beginning of the game, my account was still still getting more powerful.  My bank and gold carrying over between character deaths started to let me arm and equip my new characters faster.  Hardcore purists from Diablo II will argue that this negates some of the challenge, but it was just enough continuity to keep me interested.  The game had changed for me.

Despite the simplicity of clicking a mouse over and over,  Diablo III’s gameplay at higher difficulties comes down to solving dynamic problems.   The game sends new waves of opponents with complex and random abilities and you address these challenges with a finite set of tools.  The most powerful of these tools is also the one you appreciate the least until it’s gone:  trial and error.  If your character cannot truly die, you can brute force your way past some of  the more challenging puzzles thrown at you.  I love problem solving, but even trying to learn the game’s intricacies, I leaned on the crutch of trial and error when I played through normal difficulty the first time.  Hardcore showed me how to get at the good stuff, the uncut version of the game.  My most recent hardcore character, a level 51 Witch Doctor, is now in Act I of Hell mode and I absolutely cannot wait to come across the puzzle that finally beats me.

Mostly because I cannot stand the way this guy yells in combat.

The Diablo III developers have said that it was never intended that hardcore characters would beat the game’s higher difficulties, so it’s unlikely that I will ever “complete” the game.   But playing hardcore has artificially extended the game’s life for me.   Where some of my friends are already getting bored,  I feel like I am just coming into best parts of the game and I do not see an immediate end in sight because I can keep pushing the bar further.   Playing hardcore has made me appreciate that sometimes even a simple design on the surface can achieve elegant results and that we gamers have probably taken our digital immortality for granted far too long.

  1. Actro
    June 6, 2012 at 8:49 pm

    “Till Death do us Part” – I see what you did there 😛

    So, I was reading the World of Warcraft roleplay forums about a month ago out of boredom… Just waiting for Diablo III to come out. I actually learned quite a few interesting things, as roleplay has never really been something I tried other than the brief moments in the game where I was trying to be humorous. Anyway, on to my point! When you said, “Playing hardcore has made me appreciate that sometimes even a simple design on the surface can achieve elegant results and that we gamers have probably taken our digital immortality for granted far too long.” it made me think of the rules governing roleplay etiquette. Specifically the ones involving player death. What I am trying to say is, you would probably really love a roleplay server 🙂

    This link’s for you!

    While on the topic though, I know that Andrew plans to play Hardcore as well, but not until they somewhat balance the game towards the end game. Reaching 60 can be done without dying, of that I am sure, but with the skills changing every day, the items being modified, the stats being reworked, and the hardest difficulty being retuned, he is basically just in waiting mode. As it stands, stepping into inferno is literally a death sentence to a hard core character. I don’t think he minds the dying aspect or the danger aspect, but I can see his view of “what’s the point?” I mean, would you even turn on a video game if the second you pressed start the game ended and the game over screen appeared?

    To your point though, the game is getting pretty stale really fast. I still play it for some unknown reason, probably some strange compulsion, but it’s truly not fun at this point and I find myself just chatting with friends, viewing the auction house and then logging off. Some of that I am sure comes from the difficulty curve instantly jumping from moderate to impossible, but at the same time I wonder if it’s more than that. There are plenty of skills to use and runes to modify them, but even in the easier difficulties there are obvious skills that work, and others that are useless. Towards the end you end up with 4 skills you will always use, and maybe 2 you might swap out? Some skills are just flat out useless, and what stinks is that these useless skills are the ones I find enjoyable to use. Furthermore, the runes are always the same. Again, many of them seem like a lot of fun, but one always seems to trump the others making it required. The last part I wanted to mention though was that the game just isn’t fun to replay. The story is short, simple, and quite flawed when it comes down to it. No worries, no spoilers here for those who haven’t finished, but I will say that I was disappointed. The desire to replay the game for the story just doesn’t exist as I was able to “guess” the entire plot by the end of Act 1!

    One thing I did want to ask you though… Did you think the dungeons were truly random? I found myself seeing the exact same dungeon maps, or what I perceived to be identical, after only a few times through an act. I mean, even if you just play through every difficulty once you see each part of the game 4 times. I felt like all the entrances and exits were basically located in the same place and what was in-between was perhaps larger maps just copy pasted in. Almost as if they made 2 maps total, cut it into 4 parts, left the entrance and exits in the same positions and moved the 4 parts around. Anyway, just curious what you thought here.

    As for myself? I am not sure if I will dabble into the hardcore realm. Perhaps I will give it a chance when the game has had a little more work done to it, but I still find it very hard for me play that style of game. I am not a risk taker, apparently 😛 I also don’t like losing work I have put into something, even if I won’t ever return to it. I mean, just look at my WoW inventory. I hold on to everything I find! For now though? I’ll probably just be taking it easy from gaming for awhile, using it as a cooling off period. There are plenty more games coming out soon that I am sure I’ll spend more than enough time playing 🙂

    • June 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      I’ve never really fallen into the whole idea that there are “builds” in Diablo 3. While there are definitely abilities I use more frequently than others, I have often had to adjust on the fly and between packs of monsters to better approach what I’m fighting. Most obviously, fighting in the wild has a very different set of skills then going against a single boss for me.

      I don’t think the maps are random. It’s random if you get certain maps, but the floorplans are pretty static over all. Where I think the game brings random elements are the packs of elites and champions. Get a set that has abilities that compliment their natural arsenal and it can be a real pain. Actually adding a bit more random content probably would have offered a bit more life for some, but as I’m still moving through the difficulty levels, I’ve still got legs in this game.

      • Actro
        June 7, 2012 at 4:52 pm

        In inferno, changing skills will put a 1 minute cooldown on that skill as well as delete your nephalim valor buff (Increased chance at good items), so the idea is to find a build that should work for most packs of enemies. Also, there are some abilities you will never change out anyway. Smoke screen for Demon Hunters for instance. No matter what, you will always use this skill. I will say though that in inferno some bosses still require a specific build to win (No other options available). For instance, as I have mentioned before everything in inferno will one shot you. Well, one of the bosses does a teleport that ends with an unavoidable attack. The only classes that can defeat it are Wizard and Demon Hunter currently. The demon hunter has to get super lucky on their smoke screens to win (Since it makes them invulnerable), and the Wizard is forced to use their familiar (The one that will absorb 1 attack every six seconds if you are below 35 percent health). Basically a wizard takes off all his/her gear and then puts it back on with no life regen stats equipped. Granted, this is more of a balance issue since the attack does far more damage than you could possibly mitigate, (Upwards of 400k).

        My point is, I did change up my skills quite a bit while leveling, and occasionally swapped them out for specific groups of mobs or boss fights, but the harder the game gets I feel the less choice you really have. Even if inferno is balanced out a bit more, you would have to be foolish to be a demon hunter and not take smoke screen, or a wizard who doesn’t take force armor. This is not to say that my AoE force push away / Stun wouldn’t be crazy useful, as there are times I wish I had it, just I can’t put it on my bars because they are already filled with other required skills. Same goes for skills I would enjoy using because they are fun… In a way, I almost see Hardcore being close to what inferno is for normal players. What is the safest way to kill enemies, the way that will ensure my survival? That’s ultimately what it comes down to…

        Perhaps balancing the difficulty shouldn’t be their priority, but balancing the skills and the classes that should come first?

  2. marler
    June 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Death makes games more interesting — I would appreciate it if more modern games allowed permanent death to be a part of the game. In my mind this means making the game detailed, complex, intricate, and open. This also means not making games incredibly LONG so that replaying them starts to get painful.

    In any case, I truly found out I loved permanent death playing nethack and I wish more games had a hardcore mode.


    • June 8, 2012 at 7:31 am

      I think it’d be possible, but only if the game is designed to incorporate death more fully into the game experience. As it stands, it’s really an end to it. Steps like letting you keep your bank in Diablo III mitigate that a bit, but it’s still a binary experience where the game is going or it’s not.

  3. Scuderi
    June 6, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    While I’m not sure I have the patience or the free time to play through the same game repeatedly due to a moment of lag and/or negligence, I completely understand the point you’re making. What if we took this a different way?

    What if, instead of a permadeath hardcore mode, we just made it so that failed missions have consequences? For instance, let’s say Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard fails to disarm a bomb in time to save a Quarian envoy ship? What if, rather than a “retry?” option, we saw Shepard diving back in to the Normandy just as the bomb goes off, and we have to live with the consequences of that failure for the rest of the story?

    What if Geralt fails to bring down the monster before it takes out the merchants in town, and you have to play the rest of the game without those merchants?

    What if Link isn’t able to reach Zelda’s father before Ganon does, and the story twists accordingly?

    Having players move on with the story, altered to show the changes caused by failure, would be a pretty stirring way to make failure a powerful storytelling device without punishing players with a “Game Over” screen. For games that focus more on story, it could be a great middle ground between hardcore mode and normal mode.

  4. Matt Ratcliffe
    June 7, 2012 at 12:20 am

    I plan on getting Diablo III when I finish this school. I’m not sure I could do Hardcore difficulty if death means I lose that character permanently. Too much attachment.

  5. June 7, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Thank you for linking to my post and I’m glad it also inspired you for this one, which is a really interesting read. Way too many games nowadays simply start you back in a location close to where you died with no real consequence, but I like games that have actually put more thought into what happens to you after you die as it can really change the game play experience. I often find that I actually play better in games where I might lose something by dying, while in other games I can get pretty careless (brute force your way through as you put it here.) It may be frustrating or upsetting to lose so much work, but it can also be quite exhilarating. I suppose as long as the option is available you can cater to most people.

    • Actro
      June 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm

      While I generally don’t like the idea of losing one’s character when you die, I am all for a stricter death penalty. That is one of the many reasons I think I enjoyed EverQuest so much back when I used to play. The fact that if you died you came back to life with no gear, at the location you last “bound” yourself to (and this was limited for most classes), with a loss of experience, and were forced to run back to get your corpse essentially naked caused you to reconsider what you were about to attempt. You could even lose a level if you died with too little experience… Multiple if you kept dying 😛 It somewhat limited who reached max level and forced the less serious players to get fed up and leave the game. I am not sure how much that contributed to the community on that game, but I am willing to bet it did in some way. I can say with conviction that the community was much more generous and helpful than World of Warcraft’s is currently 🙂

    • June 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Your blog is one of my regular reads, so linking back was the least I could do. I’ve really been thinking hard lately about the problem you posed with “It may be frustrating or upsetting to lose so much work, but it can also be quite exhilarating.”

      I think it has to be possible to capture that exhilaration while still keeping people from getting frustrated and upset. Unfortunately, I don’t see a mainstream game producer backing that because it is just such a huge mental hurdle for many people to get over. Huge barrier to entry. If the perfect “loveable-perma-death” does exist, it’d probably need great word of mouth to ever get off the ground.

  6. June 7, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Excellent. I am looking forward to giving it a go. Waiting till after vacation to buy it.

  7. June 8, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Wow – I’ve never had so much discussion here before. Thank you everyone for the responses. However, I had no idea that you cannot respond to a thread after three responses. Guess I need to look for a different theme that better enables comments.

    This is in response to Actro’s #3 way at the top: I was unaware that there was a one minute timer in Inferno mode. That actually saddens me as it seems like a fairly lazy way to make a game more challenging. The current system feels just about right to me for difficulty to switching skills in combat and quite frankly you need that flexibility to actually address those elite / champion packs. I’m almost through Act 1 in Hell mode now and honestly the difficulty has been my favorite so far. It’s challenging but not absurd (with a few exceptions… I completely avoided my first “Invulnerable” pack after attacking for a few minutes). The reality is that I will have to eat that one minute timer to survive which means fleeing, going to town, waiting it out. It’s a bad design – not unlike having to wait for heroism after a wipe back when the cooldown was too long for boss attempts.

    I agree with you that there are definitely a few abilities / rune combos that are too situational, and if they aren’t going to let you swap in for those situations then the design contradicts itself. Who knows though… I may never make it to Inferno to run into these issues.

  8. Simons
    July 6, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Having just found this blog, I must say that it warms my heart to see that my dear old friends have kept the faith.

    Drew: having read through your blog, I’m impressed. You have gained a subscriber.

    Scudboy and Marler: sup.

    I totally agree with Marler on this one–permadeath needs to be in more games. I’m at work so I won’t take much time to respond now, but my most recent permadeath obsession has been Day Z. If you haven’t taken a look at it yet you should.


    It’s nice to see that our tastes haven’t really diverged much in the intervening years.

  9. Actro
    September 5, 2013 at 10:24 am

    That’s actually a pretty clever random text generator bot that just spammed your page… I mean, It almost makes sense. Color me impressed. Annoyed, but impressed.

    Come to think of it, this actually sounds similar to those story generators we made back in college based off of literary text so that they at least formed real sentences using an algorithm that picked the most likely word to follow the previous word. They were silly nonsensical sentences about pink elephants and napoleon, but sentences none the less.

    (For those confused, the above “Cheap Hearthstone Beta Keys” poster is spam. Do Not click on any links they provide or follow any advice they might have.)

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