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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

  • There goes another 400 hours of my life...

    The always on connection is definitely a bummer, but it just means people will have to upgrade their routers or internet connections, which I am sure will happen.

    And the real auction house is better than the way stuff used to be sold - loot via eBay, craigslist, etc.  While I don't like it, it will control the real-world economy that Diablo creates.

  • I have been waiting 4 years for this game to come out.... I know Blizzard is known for polishing there games until they can blind people with there refection... but come on..just bring the game out already.

  • It's kind of making me think of Guild Wars.

  • Blame pirates not Blizzard for the always online mode

  • Thank God I have a great internet connection but I definitely don't like that decision because I think it will really limit some people from being able to enjoy this game.

  • Blizzard games are like mac-n-cheese. Always comforting and delicious, but just what you expect

  • I am going to play this game until my monitor blows up.  No lie.

  • So how do we directly contact Blizzard to launch a complaint against the "online only" option? I've looked at the "contact us" section of their website and there doesn't seem to be just a direct contact email address.

    I don't mind the auction house stuff but the "online only" functionality just cost them a sale from me. This saddens me since like the rest of you I have been a loyal Blizzard fan for many years and have eagerly awaited the return of the Diablo franchise. But we as supporters and purchasers of a company's product should not be restricted in our abilities to use said product. I don't want to have to rely on an internet connection to be able to play a game single player if I want to. That's ridiculous!

    Thinking that this is going to avoid piracy is in fact going to do just the opposite. People who are scorned by Blizzard's choice in restricting how Diablo's players can use the software they purchased are simply going to turn to the piracy community to have them solve the problem and provide the product to them in the form that Blizzard should have in the first place and/or as others have said turn to Tourchlight II for their rouge-like fix.

    I urge all of us to gather together and petition Blizzard to not implement the "online only" single player DRM. The people will be heard! It worked when Capcom saw the backlash from the community in regards to Super Street Fight IV: Arcade Edition and it can work here.

  • They need to hurry up and release it already, thing's started to look pretty dated.

  • Everything about this sounds amazing except the last paragraph, to play the single-player aspect with a dedicated internet connection is atrocious.

  • bout time

  • Console version? Pleeeaaaasseeee?

  • Well **** now I'm all exited.

  • I really love Diablo 2, and I really wanted to play this game. But im not buying this game. After all these years waiting and they make this game to require constant internet connection? Hell no. I believe that if I pay for this I should play it on my terms, whenever I want, wherever I want, regardless of internet connection. Blizzard can go screw themselves, Im not getting this until they get rid of it.

    You customers dont need to be treated like thieves.
  • I CAN'T WAAAAIT! and I can't believe blizzard is embracing the whole selling concept~ hahaha... why fight something you can't stop right?

  • The game looks great, but the online only, DRM stuff is ridiculous. What's next, running background checks on customers before they can purchase a game? They are parts of the U.S. that barely offer decent dial-up internet. What is going on?

  • The DRM goes together with the real money auction house. You can't have real money auction house without the DRM because people will hack their local accounts and try to sell "fake" items for real money. The other option would be to not let offline characters use the real money auction house but that would mean less money for Blizzard. Basically, the money they will lose from those who won't buy it for the above reasons is nothing in comparison to the money they will make through the auction house. (I am not defending them, just stating the facts - I don't like these ideas either). As for taking the game down and not being able to play it, I can say that Blizzard is planning on keeping the game running for years. It's Blizzard after all. And even if the servers shutdown after a decare or whatever, there is always a small chance they will release a patch that will allow offline gameplay. Probably not but maybe if they add a small price on it. I do feel sorry for those who don't have stable internet connections though. It is not fair, some of these players may be hardcore Diablo fans since the first one.