The epic fantasy genre has matured in the last decade, thanks to writers like "Game of Thrones" mastermind George R.R. Martin who are less interested in the eternal conflict between good and evil than in the gray areas in between. Video games have followed suit, with ambitious adventures like "Dragon Age: Origins," `'The Witcher II" and "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" refusing to define their heroes and villains so neatly.
So when "Diablo III" (Blizzard, for the PC/Mac, $59.99) arrived with the tag line "Evil Is Back," it was hard not to look at it as a throwback of sorts. You know who the troublemakers are in this game: They have red skin, glowing eyes and razor-sharp horns. It's the devil you know.
That's not the only thing that will make players wonder where the developers have been since "Diablo II" came out in 2000. The topdown, god's-eye perspective takes some readjustment after years of battling from protagonist's point of view. Forget about the open-world exploration of "Skyrim"; "Diablo III" is relentlessly linear. And the combat, at the default setting, rarely demands more than hacking and slashing your way through hordes of easily dispatched monsters.
And yet, "Diablo III" is nearly irresistible.
You start by choosing a character from one of five archetypes: the barbarian and monk, who fight up-close; the demon hunter, who uses long-range weapons; and the wizard and witch doctor, who wield magic. After a brief video setting up the tale _ a falling star has crashed into the human world, Sanctuary _ you're thrust into the fray.
Once you get into its rhythm _ fight, collect your rewards, take a breath before the next fight _ "Diablo III" is very hard to shut down. Much of that is due to the uncomplicated controls: You can perform most movement and combat functions by just clicking the mouse keys. I wouldn't be surprised if there's an upswing in carpal tunnel syndrome cases a few months from now.
There's also a desire to keep playing just to see what's around the next corner of the dungeon or over the next dune in the desert. And for many "Diablo" aficionados, that boils down to loot. Every monster you kill coughs up something _ a few gold coins, perhaps, or a chunk of armor. Tougher creatures tend to yield more exotic rewards, but the process is randomized, so you never know what you'll get.
When you get back to town, you can sell whatever you've gathered and use the cash to upgrade your weapons and armor. Or you can trade them with other players in an online auction house. Or you can ask the blacksmith to break down items and use the components to build better ones _ so you can defeat stronger enemies, which earns you more valuable stuff. The whole loot-collecting feedback loop is as insidiously addictive as anything in games.
The most irritating element of "Diablo III" is the need to have a steady online connection, even if you're traveling solo. The online requirement led to chaos when the game was first released, as Blizzard's servers weren't able to meet 12 years of pent-up demand. The situation has been mostly resolved, but there have been a few recent occasions when I wasn't allowed to log on.
The always-connected environment does let you tackle any of the game's missions with the help of online friends or strangers. The difficulty automatically increases with multiple players, and it's fun to chat with other humans in the wastelands of Sanctuary, but the experience isn't radically different.
After one prolonged session of monster slaying, as the clock approached 4 a.m., a supporting character asked my demon hunter: "Do you ever become weary of strife? Of constant fighting?"
His response: "Rest is a luxury I cannot afford." You'll feel the same way after a few hours of "Diablo III." Three stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten