Another Blizzard game, another bout of frenzied gamer expectation, another round of new sales records: in a way, Diablo III's launch on May 15, 2012 played out as expected. More then ten years after the much-loved Diablo II, PC gamers around the world were clearly eagerly awaiting their next fix of dungeon hack'n'slashing. In fact, they were eager enough to turn Diablo III into the fastest-selling PC game of all time, with 3.5 million copies of the title flying off the shelves on day one. Backed by strong reviews, the game's impressive launch was tainted only by the fact that Blizzard itself apparently hadn't anticipated such a success, despite the fact that the game had already become the most pre-ordered PC game of all time on Amazon. Blizzard's servers were initially unable to handle the load of millions of gamers trying to play the title, which requires a constant internet connection due to anti-piracy measures. The inevitable online backlash subsided some days later when Blizzard had remedied the situation.
One of the most iconic elements of the Diablo franchise since its first instalment back in 1996 has been its music, created by Matt Uelmen. When Diablo III was first announced at the Blizzcon Worldwide International in 2008, Blizzard chose to do so simply by having guitarist Laurence Juber play Uelmen's "Tristram" theme, and according to the game's lead composer Russell Brower, "over 10,000 people in the room knew EXACTLY what was coming". However, since Uelmen had left Blizzard, somebody would have to fill his considerable shoes and continue the musical legacy of the Diablo franchise, which Uelmen had unexpectedly shifted from Diablo and Diablo II's ambient creepiness to Diablo II: Lord of Destruction's Wagner-inspired symphonic splendour in 2001. Before leaving Blizzard, Uelmen had already done some demo work for Diablo III, including an hour-long guitar recording and notes of the significance of motifs and themes he had in his mind. It was then up to Blizzard's Director of Audio/Video Russell Brower (Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, World of Warcraft: Cataclysm) to both "[pay] homage to the iconic music of the past Diablo series' games, and explore[...] new sonic and melodic territories" by further going down the path that Uelmen had started to walk with Lord of Destruction.
The first fruit of Browser's work was the "Diablo III Overture", released in June 2008. That overture reappeared as part of "Legacy of Terror" on Eminence's Blizzard-themed Echoes of War project later in 2008. Diablo III's music popped up again in 2011 on The Music of Diablo 1996 - 2011: Diablo 15 Year Anniversary, with two pieces of Uelmen's concept music for the game. Finally, coinciding with the game's May 2012 release, soundtrack collectors were given a more extensive look at the game's soundtrack through a bonus CD that came with Diablo III's Collector's Edition and which contained a generous 77 minutes of score. Clearly, Blizzard had spared no expense for the soundtrack. Brower and his team of co-composers, including Blizzard regulars Derek Duke and Glenn Stafford, recorded the game's music with the Pacific Symphony, involving nearly 100 musicians, and with two different choirs. To this, Brower added the composers' studio work, particularly the various guitars and other plucked string instruments.
After all these years of anticipation, does Diablo III take the franchise's music into new waters? A wary 'yes' to that question. Does Diablo III also continue the franchise's streak of characteristic and creative scores? A clear 'no' to that one. The soundtrack isn't as original and effective in its textures as the first two Diablo games, and its orchestral material is nowhere near as sophisticated and intricate as Lord of Destruction. The game does continue Lord of Destruction's stylistic direction in the sense that most of its score consists of large-scale, late- to post-romantic orchestral music. At the same time, Brower and his team manage to retain aspects of Diablo and Diablo II's ambient inclinations, incorporating synths and various sound effects. But the soundworld in which they choose to bring both tendencies together is disappointingly familiar and musically conservative, at least compared to the inventiveness of the first two titles.
For most of its running time, Diablo III dabbles in standard Gothic-horror fright and eeriness, mixed with only mildly involving dark fantasy bombast. Opening track "And The Heavens Shall Tremble" gives a good idea of what's to come, with its stereotypical fortissimo orchestral hits and portentous brass progressions. Incorporating the "Diablo III Overture", "And The Heavens Shall Tremble" is competently orchestrated, but that doesn't stop the composition's lack of substance from shining through. This problem comes to haunt much of the orchestral material on Diablo III. It's bland, thin, and one-dimensional in its evocation of overwhelming doom and gloom via foreboding, sustained deep strings and mighty brass chords, a well-worn technique that gets old way before the album finishes. "Arreat" is a good example of how perfunctory Diablo III's orchestral material is. The piece adds female choir to increase its weighty mood, but the choir and orchestra are layered in disappointingly simple unisono lines, both musical forces moving forward in slow, predictable chord progressions. To make matters worse, the inclusion of rapidly rising and falling violin legato lines later on sounds like a cheap horror cliché.
There's a feeling of 'been there, done that, heard it already' that occurs much too frequently on Diablo III, be it the bog standard tension-building orchestral figures on "Azmodan" that segue into an equally unexciting dark march; the crisis rhythms that close "Heaven's Gate" after it opened with more common fantasy bombast that was at least made a bit more interesting through skittish violin ostinati; or the Gothic 101 whirring string dissonances, fearsome percussion and bulky brass of "Demon Hunter". These problems not only afflict the score's Minor key material. The compositional means used to create the victorious mood of "A New Dawn" are as generic as those behind many tracks that have preceded "A New Dawn", but at least the piece introduces some new emotional colours to the otherwise bleak score. This lack of substance and originality also means that a longer composition like "Leoric" become tedious before it finally finishes after eight minutes. Admittedly, the slowly rolling and heaving string and brass molasses of "Leoric" manage to sound self-confidently grandiose enough to hold the listeners' attention for a while, but the composition's constant drama turns tiresome in the track's second half. These issues are further aggravated through a lack of melody that runs through Diablo III. True, the Diablo franchise's music was never about catchy tunes, but while that was more than compensated for on previous scores through original orchestrations and intense atmospheres, this soundtrack often lacks both. A handful of short filler tracks like "Witch Doctor", "Barbarian" and "Wizard" add some colour through ethnic woodwind and hand percussion sounds, but on their own they fail to shape the album's character into something more interesting.
Consequently, things always look up when Brower and his co-composers introduce timbres and textures that haven't been overused in dozens of other scores before, although even then some issues remain. First and foremost, there's of course a variety of plucked string instruments, which still sound relatively fresh in the context of a fantasy score such as this. The acoustic guitar's most anticipated entry comes on "New Tristram", a re-interpretation of the classic "Tristram" theme. The famous five-note motif and its acerbic sound are still intact, still evoking without fail the barren, dangerous lands surrounding Tristram, capital of the world of Sanctuary. What has changed — at least in the first half of "New Tristram" — are the added string and choir orchestrations, which retain the foreboding sense of wariness inherent in the guitar material. At the same time, through its familiar harmonic progressions and timbres, the orchestral backdrop gives the composition a more reassuring aura than previous "Tristram" cues had, a sign that things are about to change for the better in Sanctuary. Again though, the orchestra's simplistic progressions and layering lessen the music's impact, until the more atmospheric and intricately composed guitar lines take centre stage on the track's second half.
Other compositions that feature guitars are of equally mixed quality. The roaring electric guitar on "Eternal Conflict" adds as little to the piece as the acoustic guitar on "Demon Hunter", which at the track's end is buried so far under the clamoring orchestra it might not be there at all. On "A Tenous Bond", the acoustic guitar's tentative melodies help to enrichen what's otherwise five minutes of run-of-the-mill, floating choral material. Even the best of the crop, "Tamoe Highlands", is not without problems. The piece is one of Diablo III's more atmospheric compositions that effectively paints the image of a desolate, gloomy plain through lonely woodwind calls, frail acoustic guitar lines and some creative electronic manipulation of instrument sounds. But then somebody thought it was a good idea to throw the sounds of running water into the mix, which makes the less dark portions of "Tamoe Highlands" sound like New Age relaxation music.
Altogether more striking at the compositions on which Brower and his team turn more adventuresome, an inclination most closely associated with the use of choral forces, and a teasing hint at how Diablo III could have managed to be both intriguing and different from its predecessors. Sure, there are pieces like "I Am Justice" and "A Tenous Bond" where the choir has to sleepwalk through plain material, but then there are also surprises like "Black Soulstone" and "Incantation". On these cues, the wordless vocal lines given to both soloists and whole sections of the choir intertwine in chromatic, ghostly harmonies that create a haunting mood and are as spooky as they are captivating — a new entry into the Diablo franchise's history of deliciously creepy music. "Garden Of Hope" isn't quite as impressive, but it still manages to wring much suspense out of its juxtaposition of angelic female sounds and the oddly menacing orchestral and synth background, whose constantly shifting harmonies never provide solid ground for the listener to tread on. Towards the end of the piece, the music turns more and more threatening, with the choral sounds themselves turning eerie, while clanging and slashing sound effects try to overwhelm the piece's last remaining melodic bits. The album's most inventive and experimental piece is "Caldeum", with its array of sound effects — including electric guitar feedback and grainy static — that are injected cleverly enough to stir up an atmosphere of insecurity and menace. While the track's first half is held back by more flat string and brass chord progressions, the second part features intricately layered percussion rhythms that travel across the soundscape and together with the sound effects make for an uncanny yet ear-catching mix.
And let's not forget that there is the occasional track on which the orchestra gets to perform material that is emotionally more complex and thus involving. Among these is one of the album's longest tracks, "Bastion's Keep", which opens with solemn choir chants against a web of spectral sound effects and the acoustic guitar's steely, cold notes. Despite the generally oppressive atmosphere, this piece does a good job at switching seamlessly between feelings of graveness, danger, decisiveness and even hope and heroism when the music ventures into more ennobling melodic territory. Like "Caldeum", "Bastion's Keep" thus manages to mostly justify its prolonged running time of over seven minutes. Finally, there's "Leah", the album's closing track and one of Diablo III's best compositions. The piece starts with a harp motif that is both innocent and foreboding, followed by the album's most convincing outpouring of string drama. It's the game's most satisfying realisation of its Gothic ambitions, and "Leah" manages to finish the album on a tantalising note with an unaccompanied reprise of the mysterious harp motif.
Diablo III is a competent, occasionally inspired score, but that's hardly enough to satisfy heightened expectations. The decision to move the music of the Diablo franchise into Gothic horror and grandeur is hardly inspired, and makes Diablo III the most generic Diablo score yet. The new stylistic direction is made more problematic by the fact that apart from some exceptions like "Leah", the orchestral material is bland, simplistic and falls far short of the standards set by Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. The addition of acoustic guitars still gives the title a signature sound that sets its apart from other dark fantasy scores, even though the guitar material isn't always ideally implemented. There are enough moments of originality that lift this soundtrack out of complete mediocrity, particularly on those pieces that feature a more creative use of choral forces and sound effects, and most of the other music is at least suitably atmospheric. Still, the strong point of previous Diablo scores has always been their ability to create spellbinding soundworlds, and Diablo III's often generic strains fail this test.