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Diablo III

Diablo III Beta Hands-On

Playing through the first half of Act I in Blizzard's upcoming action/RPG changed me. I have seen the future, my friends, and it is glorious.

Diablo III may seem like more of the same on a superficial level. The game is still about blasting your way through randomized areas, hoovering up randomized loot, and getting killed by randomized minibosses. It’s still a click-fest of epic proportions, with players mowing down hordes of monsters with a constant barrage of devastating attacks. Once you sit down to play, though, every minute brings a new delight as Blizzard has smoothed away rough spots in traditional Diablo design and inserted creative new wrinkles.

Story plays a larger role and is delivered organically this time. You can still ignore it, skipping through dialogue and sprinting for the next objective, but it doesn’t take much of a time commitment to listen to the many characters in the world narrating current events or an area’s backstory while you continue on your way. Lore pop-ups function like audio recordings in BioShock, giving a quick bit of voiced information about a new monster, area, or important character when you encounter it.

What I’ve seen of Diablo III’s grim tale fits the series’ gothic vibe perfectly. The pages of well-written lore, delivered in bite-sized voiced narrations, are a great complement to the action. The mysteries surrounding the fire in the sky and unquiet dead invading New Tristram drew me forward just as much as loot and levels.

Story is all well and good, but Diablo III’s staying power will depend on its mechanics. Since I last saw the game, Blizzard has removed skill points entirely. Instead, you unlock skills as you level but can only equip a handful at a time (two to start, six eventually). This may seem like a radical change, and in some respects it is, but I'm sold on it. Being able to freely experiment with new spells is such a massive benefit that it easily outweighs any downsides.

Carving my path through the outskirts of New Tristram on my way to the cathedral where mad king Leoric’s skeleton has been reanimated once again, I use five distinct ability loadouts. Each plays quite differently. Swapping out my single-target nuke for a chain lightning blast reduces my effectiveness against the disturbing minion-birthing mother zombies, but the ease with which it lets me wipe out entire groups is worth it. My defenses take a hit by flipping frost nova for wave of force, but it isn’t that hard to avoid being surrounded. Plus, having a long-cooldown spell that can one-shot a whole encampment of zombies is way more amusing.

It’s incredibly liberating to hit a new level in the middle of a battle and immediately bring a new skill into your arsenal. Unlike Diablo II, which required players to commit early to dumping points into a single skill in order to be effective, all of the powers now automatically scale with your level. Experimenting with different skills and the way that they alter your tactics has always been a big part of Diablo’s appeal, and this new system removes just about every barrier to that core tenet.

As much as I like being able to swap my build at a moment’s notice, I don't think this point-free system would work without the rune system. The ability to alter (sometimes drastically) each skill in six different ways means that there is still a ton of room to create a unique build that plays the way you want it to. I didn't get to play with the runes personally, but Blizzard showed off the system's power by taking a traditional ranged wizard character and turning her into a melee powerhouse. When you can go so far as to take a ranged projectile and turn it into an orbiting damage shield, you can get pretty darn creative.

Each class uses a unique resource (two, in the Demon Hunter’s case). This has obvious advantages in terms of differentiating their playstyles, but don’t expect any big surprises in the mechanics. The Wizard’s fast-regenerating arcane power functions like Rogue energy in World of Warcraft. The Barbarian’s fury is basically WoW rage, building off of basic attacks and being consumed by more powerful strikes. The Witch Doctor’s mana is exactly what you’d expect. The Monk’s spirit gauge is interesting; it builds slowly as he uses normal attacks and is quickly depleted by using special skills. On the other hand, his specials generally don’t have cooldowns, so Monks can burst huge power at the expense of being relatively weak until they can re-energize their spirit. Finally, the Demon Hunter combines the concepts of mana and arcane power, using quick-replenishing hatred to fuel their offense and slow-recharging discipline to power defensive escapes.

I didn’t have time to play through the whole build with each character, and spent more time with the Barbarian and Wizard than the others. Dabbling with all five left me impressed with the variety between them as well as the marked difference between playing different builds of the same class. Using debuffs and pets to keep monsters away from you and eat their life force as the Witch Doctor is nothing like a Wizard blasting them into bits with raw elemental power, despite the fact that they’re both spellcasting ranged classes. Likewise, the Barbarian’s gonzo smash-oriented combat style is distinct from the Monk’s stolid, defensive tactics. The Demon Hunter, as a physical ranged class, is unique among the five. I love what Blizzard has done with making positional tactics primary to that class, with powerful stationary traps and acrobatic escapes complementing bread-and-butter projectile attacks.

Dynamically generated one-off local events are a great addition to the game that help keep things from feeling too samey. I encounter an abandoned cellar being looted by pygmies. Fighting a swarm of bad guys in these tight quarters is an interesting battle for my fragile wizard, made more tense by the race to kill the treasure bearer before it opens a portal and escapes with the loot.

As is traditional for the series, you occasionally encounter unique monsters with random properties. Many of these will be familiar to Diablo II players, like the Molten minibosses and their minions who add fire damage to their attacks and explode on death. The Illusionist ability is a new one, though, and served me my only death during my playtime. These minibosses create mirror images of themselves at intervals – identical-looking copies that thankfully have a fraction of the true boss’s health and damage. That’s a challenge in itself, but when the Illusionist in question is a Grotesque that explodes on death and leaves Corpse Worms in its wake, it’s extremely deadly. Killing the copies takes a quarter of my health off the top and drops more mobs to deal with, and I’m pretty sure the boss itself gets several casts of fresh images off while I am trying to deal with the copies and the worms.

Blizzard also showed a battle where the hero fights her way onto a lonely hilltop in the middle of a forest with the Templar companion at her side. The Templar shouts a warning as a massive wave of undead gather at the foot of the hill and begin a shambling assault at the order of their long-dead commander. After the battle, the hero finds a book on the hilltop that tells the story of an ancient battle that took place there. The whole scenario plays out in perhaps a single minute, but it’s a great example of the extent of the little details Blizzard is adding to Diablo III that take the game to the next level.

Next up: More stuff that's awesome, plus two things that aren't

Comments
  • I don't think this new game mechanic of removing skill points is a good idea. This is just another step in removing the RPG elements of the game. Clearly, this move is meant to make the game more amenable to the console market. I'm just not excited about Diablo III anymore. ELDER SCROLLS: SKYRIM clearly is the leader now. Perhaps if Diablo III were given away for free, I might play it.
  • I really don't play these types of RPG's anyways

  • I might not get to play this but I am excited. In the immortal words of Tychus Finley, "Hell, it's about time!"

  • Thank you, your hands-on review is very helpful :) I just wish they brought back the Werebear :/

  • release date?

  • this is off topic but who remembers icewind dale II
  • want this game so badly

  • Dang this game looks really sick!

  • I hope the always online decision bites them in the ass. "All characters are stored on secure servers, and all gameplay is done in sessions hosted by Blizzard servers" is a poor design decision to prevent piracy and cheating. What happens down the road when they decide to stop supporting Diablo 3 and take the servers down? You won't be able to play the game you purchased? Not to mention people that may not have internet connections or very poor ones. Are you going to see in game slowdown because you get a lag spike? This is bad for the consumers and I hope it doesn't start a trend. I think Starcraft's authentication system would be much better and still do the same job. The only reason to send gameplay data in a single player game to their servers would be to prevent cheating and if someone is cheating in single player who cares? It seems like there should be an option to opt your character out of online play if you wanted to. Still the future support and ability to even play Diablo 3 without their servers being up is the most alarming issue.

  • The game looks and sounds awesome, but it will be interesting to see how many hardcore Diablo fans might be put off by the real money AH and the internet connection required. I love Diablo, and I have the CE of Diablo 2, so I can't wait for this.
  • Amazing, after 10+ years... I dont really have a computer for gaming but this...will change that.

  • This looks flanking awesome. I'm ready for some Diablo III

  • I think the only reason I'd get this would be because I played Diablo II a ton and would like to speed up the destruction of my wrists/hands/joints.

    Just looking at it and reading about it, it doesn't really offer anything new aside from the benefits of technological advances (graphics/sound).

  • Sounds and looks amazing just wish you didn't have to be online all the time.

  • Really looking forward to this game. The only online play doesnt bug me in the slightest. If my computer is on, so is my internet. And anything Bliz does to monitor cheaters is fine in my book

  • This game is gonna kick some major flank when it comes out!

  • Having to be online all the time kinda sucks since my internet isn't 100% reliable but I still think it's gonna be a very fun game, especially playing co-op with a few of my friends.

  • Yet again, living in rural nowhere keeps me from playing another amazing game. i have wireless hotspot service only...ever try playing on an online server with these things?
  • Guhhhhh........ my heart just died a little bit from the mere idea of others playing D3 while I am not...
  • My PC would explode if I tried to play this on it :(