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The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is very well. I've had around a week to play through the Diablo III beta test, perhaps with more intent to scrutinize than others, and still ended up walking away impressed. Diablo III is a well-made, extremely playable and polished game even in its still incomplete state, and while there are plenty of decisions that will cause thousands of discussions amongst the more hardcore fans, none of these really get in the way of the fact that Diablo III is simply a lot of fun.
A quick note in this preview: I'll be going into heavy detail about the game mechanics, including many of the changes made from previous games and how it affects the overall gameplay experience. I'll be drawing attention to both the strengths and weaknesses, both to give readers a comprehensive idea of what to expect and in the hopes that Blizzard might take something away from these impressions. Of course, it's worth reiterating that nothing I mention here is final, and Diablo III still has a way to go in development. With that said, let's get to it!
My Old Love
Diablo III continues the classic "kill monsters, loot items" formula that has been a staple for the franchise since the first. Though over the years, the focus has shifted a bit more from "graphical roguelike" to "loot-driven hack and slash", the core of Diablo remains more or less the same as far as the basics of gameplay go. If you've ever played any Diablo-style game or one inspired by it, you should be able to slip right into the point-and-click interface and get to slashing, burning, crushing, freezing, exploding, and generally decimating waves after waves of undead, demons, and other hellspawn. As you kill enemies and complete quests, your character gains experience points and levels up, while loot, which erupts in fountains from the bodies of the slain, serves just as much role in your ability to dish out damage.
More than anything, Diablo III revels in its atmosphere and nostalgia appeal to fans of the first two games. The game positively oozes style, whether that's in its beautiful, hand-painted look, or the appearance of Deckard Cain, and yet another return to Tristram and its Cathedral. There's tons of smaller callbacks too, such as a return to Adria's Hut from the first game, a cave heavily implied to be the Den of Evil from the second, the design of the Cemetery of the Forsaken heavily mirroring a similar location in Diablo II, mentions of Bul-Kathos by the Barbarian, and many others.
I'll admit that I'm a bit ambivalent about all this - Blizzard are clearly trying very hard to play to the memories of fans, and much of the early game's structure and references might reach just a little too far in appealing to nostalgia. Diablo III is beautiful and polished, but I also get the sense that it's trying just a little too hard to stick to its roots - I would appreciate something more adventurous and creative, instead of more grim jokes at poor Wirt's expense. Granted, as the beta only covers roughly the first half of Act 1, it's possible the game will become more adventurous later on; it's just not apparent from the slice I played.
Where the game also gets its Diablo cred is in its sound design. Diablo has always had great audio, from memorable and moody music to the crunch of bones, splatter of blood, ooze of melting flesh, and howls of monsters, but Blizzard have outdone themselves as far as sound effects go. There is a great consistency in the audio that's rarely seen these days, and it goes a very long way towards lending a sense of gravitas and impact to the game. Music is similar enough to the previous games, with the dark strings and twangy guitars returning to haunt once more. And, of course, Deckard Cain's distinct croaking is in there amongst a complement of overall solid voice-acting. It's rare for me to rant and rave about audio in this sort of game, but it adds so much to making Diablo III feel like Diablo that I think it deserves the attention.
The Whole Gang's Here
Where Diablo III is really worth talking about, though, is in how it differentiates itself from its predecessors, primarily in its game mechanics and character system. On the most basic level, there are five character classes: Wizard, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor and Barbarian, which, roughly, correlate to Diablo II's Sorceress, Amazon, Assassin, Necromancer, and, er, Barbarian, though are they by no means identical, and in general are a good deal more versatile. All classes can be played as either male or female this time around, which is a nice touch.
The Barbarian is the most straightforward of the classes, unleashing a tide of slaughter on foes with ease; skills such as Cleave, which does 115% of weapon damage to all nearby enemies, and the stupidly fun Leap Attack, returned from the last game, reinforce his massive killing potential. Like in Diablo II, the Barbarian can also improve himself and party members through various war cries and shouts, but other high-level abilities even allow him to summon minions and transform for a limited time to deal even more damage.
The Wizard resembles the Diablo II Sorceress more than the classic Wizard of the first game, focusing on a mix of powerful offensive spells designed to be cast quickly and frequently, many of which can be sustained over time at the cost of Arcane Power. The Wizard also has some other old favorites, like Teleport and Hydra for more tactical choices. The more passive support abilities have been mostly stripped away in favor of greater variety of offensive output, and many spells have temporary effects that can help out allies, such as freezing enemies solid.
The Demon Hunter is the primary ranged class, dealing in bows and crossbows almost exclusively. Quick and lithe, the Demon Hunter has a range of abilities that are geared more towards crowd control in Spike Trap and Entangling Shot, and assassination with Impale and Marked for Death; Vault and Evasive Fire round things out by providing some acrobatic and traversal options. Of the characters, the Demon Hunter is probably one of the most party-friendly due to his ranged support style and crowd control skills, and has some of the greatest variety in terms of character build potential.
The Witch Doctor, though portrayed by many as a Necromancer replacement, is actually much closer to a battlemage than anything else. Though a summoner and controller, the Witch Doctor is also no stranger to direct combat, and in fact, most damage comes from either offensive spells or melee attacks, with the Zombie Dogs and other pets existing more to distract enemies than damage them. I found the Witch Doctor much more involved than the Necromancer, and was probably the most fun of all the classes for me, though he/she also lacks a bit of the build potential of other classes due to reliance on so many different skills.
Last comes the Monk, who is probably the most unconventional class and bears a close resemblance to a melee-dedicated Assassin from Diablo II, though also takes inspiration from the Paladin. The Monk largely revolves around three-strike combos - Fists of Thunder adds increasing electric damage and an area effect on the final hit, for instance, while Exploding Palm does low damage but "marks" an enemy, causing them to explode upon death. The Spirit Spender abilities, meanwhile, have both offensive and defensive effects, from powerful melee attacks to creating decoy images. Mantras, finally, are passive auras that provide bonuses to the whole party. The Monk is probably the most tactical of the classes, and requires the most concentration to play to its fullest.
Overall, all classes in Diablo III are a blast to play and have unique hooks that ensure they feel distinct. Though they don't all have the same level of diversity available in outfitting them, each one is powerful in its own way, and none of them are left feeling incapable and weak as some characters could be in Diablo II at times. There are games with greater class variety and distinction, but even in its beta state, most players should be able to find a character they enjoy, and can be fit out both for solo slaughter or co-op party support.
Nuts and Bolts
The actual details of character development have been almost entirely overhauled, and bear little resemblance to Diablo II's. Perhaps most significantly, manual allocation of limited skill and attribute points has been cut out. Whereas entire character builds in the previous games hinged on careful selection of certain attributes to level or skill choices, now, all characters are effectively identical, save for the gear they have and the way players choose to approach them. However, these changes haven't been made in a vacuum, and the skill and attribute systems have been altered a bit accordingly, as I'll get to shortly.
It's first worth highlighting the changes to the management of skills themselves. Previous Diablo games used Mana as the primary resource for special abilities, but Diablo III ditches it for class-specific resources, all of which operate in different ways. Barbarians have Fury, which increases as you cause and receive damage; Wizards have Arcane Power, which recharges faster than Mana but has a fixed quantity; Demon Hunters have Hatred and Discipline, which fuel each other in varying ways; Monks have Spirit, which builds up slowly over time and is unleashed in powerful abilities; Witch Doctors, meanwhile, retain Mana in the traditional sense, with it increasing every level but recharging slowly compared to other resources.
The end result of all this is that skills are much more fixed in their effects and costs, and are set up to be used frequently, with weaker skills having no cost whatsoever, and more powerful ones limited more by cooldowns than by the character resources; potion-quaffing is replaced with a more interesting management mechanic, especially in the case of classes like the Demon Hunter. It adds a certain level of involvement other than "spam skills until mana runs out" that I appreciate a great deal, so much so that I think it's one of the biggest improvements to gameplay in Diablo III.
Just about every level-up, a new skill is unlocked, be it active or passive. Skills typically fall into a variety of schools with various effects - for instance, the Barbarian has Fury Generator, Fury Spender and Situational categories - but cannot be leveled up, instead providing percentage improvements rather than fixed ones. This means that you won't be able to fine-tune your skills, but the upside is that you won't be locked into using the same ones the whole game. Instead of skill points, the main limiter is skill slots, which are gained on leveling up along with skills; judging by the user interface, you'll only be able to have about six active skills available at any one time, which, to be honest, is probably more than I felt was necessary while playing.
It really is a trade-off, with the new system encouraging smart selection of skills over simply min/maxing a key two or three, but it's also less involved, and once you find a few skills you like, chances are you won't feel the need to change them up, which potentially undermines the wide skill selection so emphasized by the "new skill every level" setup. Blizzard claim that Runestones will further enhance skills in different ways (turning a single strike into an area attack, or elemental damage bonuses), but they aren't included in the beta so it's impossible for me to draw conclusions as to whether it represents an improvement or not.
Attributes are still there, as well - Attack, Dexterity, Vitality and Defense - but they're all pretty static, even more so than skills, only changing based on bonuses given by items. Whereas attributes were deterministic in Diablo II, with multiple effects and influences per attribute (such as critical chance, blocking chance, etc.), now they're down to single effects mostly just influencing damage output. Once again, the loss to customization is substantial, and while it means that respecs aren't necessary if you make a mistake, it also cuts into the feeling of ownership of your character. Save for your items, nothing about your character build, if it can even be called that, feels very substantial or significant.
The net result of this is that Diablo III has a much more immediate feel than the prior games. Whereas much of Diablo II especially was about anticipating the next level-up, in Diablo III, those levels feel less like progress so much as they do expand your repertoire as the game's threats grow in number and complexity. I can't comment on the effects this might have on the game's longevity, but needless to say it can make Diablo III feel less like an RPG and more like a straight-up action game from time to time.
One thing that Diablo III drives home very early on is that it is not a game about running back to town. Just about every design choice seems driven to keep you in the action, from the addition of XP bonuses for killstreaks to the Barbarian's Fury reserves draining as soon as he's out of combat, and I think this is a huge change for the better that recalls the first Diablo's slower, steadier dungeon crawling.
The first way this is done is with Health Globes. In Diablo II especially, much of the challenge came from enemies who could simply one-shot your character, rather than from attrition, as simply keeping health potions stocked up would render most enemies almost ineffectual. In Diablo III, potions return, but they have been put on a strict cooldown and now serve as emergency healing items. Health Globes are now the primary source of health, and restore a fixed percentage for both you and nearby party members when touched. Dropped by monsters, and more frequently by bosses, Health Globes do a really good job of ensuring that you're always moving towards the action rather than away from it, and it creates an interesting risk/reward dichotomy that simply did not exist in the previous games.
Second is the removal of Town Portals entirely. Instead, the Stone of Recall is gained in an early quest, and functions about the same way as the similarly-named object in World of Warcraft, transporting you back to town after a short casting sequence. The mechanics of this are still being tweaked (during the beta, the casting duration went from 10 seconds to about 5 after a patch), but the end result is that you can't just run to town whenever you come across a tough enemy - instead you have to clear out that group of enemies entirely before it's safe. It's a subtle effect, but a very important one that keeps you fighting.
Last are the changes to the game's movement speed. Stamina and walking/running has been cut from Diablo III, and instead you run indefinitely by default. Despite sounding a bit innocuous, the impact on the gameplay is actually quite profound. In Diablo II, most fights could be bypassed or escaped simply by running, as most monsters weren't fast enough to keep up, especially with speed-boosting skills and items in effect. In Diablo III, movement speed is much more fixed, and while some enemies are quite slow, others are extremely quick. The first time you encounter a hulking Grotesque, you'll likely be surprised at its ability to match your own pace. This forces much smarter and tactical play, as crowd control isn't just a function of slowing and disabling skills, but also of positioning and movement.
The result of all this is that Diablo III is a fast-paced game, not so much in terms of speed, but in terms of its forward-moving nature and moment-to-moment activity. You're always making progress as you push deeper into a dungeon, and quests are completed and given with much more frequent regularity. More importantly, when you're not in combat, you're doing something else interesting, like changing your skills, comparing items, moving the plot forward, or receiving another quest. I'm glad to say that the days of wandering the vast, empty deserts of Diablo II seem to be a thing of the past.
Loot, Loot, Loot
Of course, one of Diablo's trademarks is its loot system, almost a game in and of itself for many players who try to find or create the absolute best gear. The good news is that most of the strengths from Diablo II have been retained, while many of the weaknesses have been improved or eliminated. In general the system simply feels smarter, more balanced, and has a better sense of progression to it, though the reasons are fairly nuanced.
Loot, naturally, drops from enemies with high frequency, but compared to Diablo II, Diablo III is much stingier about the sorts of gear it's willing to give out, especially earlier on in the game. My first time through, playing as the Demon Hunter, it was about two hours before I even saw a helmet, and close to that before I saw a simple magical item. It took two characters more for me to even come across a rare item. The loot that I did find, I learned to appreciate a lot more than the disposable weapons and items in the last game, which is a big improvement in my mind. Hopefully, the rest of the game features similar balance, as I much prefer items that keep their usefulness over time, rather than ones that get tossed every twenty minutes.
Crafting has also been pushed to the forefront in Diablo III. Though only straight-up item crafting/smithing is available in the beta (the other two are enchanting and socketing), the system shows a huge deal of promise and is much more extensive and enjoyable to use than Diablo II's. After completing a quest early on, you'll be able to use the Nephalem Cube to break down items into their base components - standard items provide simple junk, while magical ones provide their magical essence, rare items produce rare ingredients, and more. Once you've got enough, the smith can create different various weapons and armor for you.
Crafting in itself features a bit of a leveling system. During dungeon crawling, you'll find Pages of Training, which can be formed into Tomes of Training once you've found five pages. Offer these to a given crafting NPC, along with a sum of gold, and new items will be unlocked. You start out with simple Apprentice-level items, featuring a handful of random magical modifiers, but as you train a given Artisan, they're capable of creating better and better gear for you. On occasion, you'll find crafting recipes which allow you to create rare items, and perhaps even higher tiers later on.
While I only got a taste of it, crafted gear was always better than standard item drops and magical items, and breaking junk items down is a great alternative to simply selling them. The rare items I found, when they were of use to me, were usually a little better, but not by much, and the balance is currently such that one inventory's worth of junk items can produce about three or four good crafted items, which is a fair number given the investment. Meanwhile, the crafted rare items were also slightly better than ones I found while dungeon crawling, so there's incentive to keep playing to craft the best gear you can.
Beyond crafting, class-specific items return much as they did in Diablo II's expansion, although you won't see any "+skills" items due to the changes to the skill system. Wizards get Wands, Wanderer Hats and Eagle Orbs (the latter behaves a bit like the Necromancer's Shrunken heads in Diablo II), Witch Doctors have Tribal Masks and Wanga Dolls (similar to Eagle Orbs), Barbarians get Warrior Belts and Scythes, Monks get Knuckles, Spikes and other hand weapons, and Demon Hunters have Quivers, Cloaks and Hand Crossbows (which can be dual-wielded). No doubt more will surface later in the game, but if there's one criticism, it's that aside from giving characters more visual distinctiveness, the class-specific items don't feel as rare or special as they did in Diablo II, and there's rarely a reason to use a generic item instead.
... And The Rest
There's a whole bunch of other new things in Diablo III that probably deserve to be covered, but don't really warrant their own discussion. Storytelling, for one, has changed a little bit, with less in the way lore dumps and more uncovered as you work your way through dungeons, via found journals, scripted sequences, etc. Sometimes, characters will accompany you to locations and speak on the way, which is a good deal more entertaining than just standing around in town listening to them.
Another change is to the player characters themselves, which all have different voices and dialogue, and very distinct personalities: the Demon Hunter is appropriately brooding, the Barbarian is wise and practical, and the Wizard is pompous and self-absorbed. Once again, I think this is a nice touch, but unfortunately it also means that sometimes the dialogue between characters doesn't flow very well, as NPC responses are always the same; at times it feels as if your character is a little separated from the actual conversation, despite the fact that the effort was made to solve that very problem of text dumps. As not even dialogue seems final at this point, there might be room for improvement in time for release.
Followers have also received a bit of an overhaul, mostly in that you can choose their skills. Only the Templar (a bit of a Paladin-type) is featured in the demo, but for the short time he's available, he's pretty handy. Follower ability progression is quite limited, with a selection between one of two skills at preset levels (5, 10 and 15 right now), but the Templar was more than happy to kill monsters, could be outfitted with armor, a weapon and a shield, and used his skills when appropriate. They also tie into the storyline a little, and will offer commentary as you explore, which helps add interest during dungeon crawling. Though not a revelation compared to Diablo II's, the new followers are still worth keeping around.
Randomness has received a shot in the arm, as well. In Diablo II, most environments were extremely bland in layout, and lacked much in the way of unique and differentiating qualities, many resembling large open boxes or mazes with little direction. That's changed quite a bit in Diablo III - there are more hand-crafted locations, a better sense of direction, and a lot more variety. What's more, many dungeons are random (you might find one large cave in an area one game, and two small cellars in the next), you'll find random challenges from time to time, and some side-quests may not appear in a given session. This makes replaying the game more interesting, though I feel that Blizzard could easily take this further, with more memorable encounters similar to those in the first Diablo.
The graphics debate around Diablo III has cooled off, but I think it's worth talking about them a little. Blizzard's trademark art style, seen in World of Warcraft and StarCraft II, is very apparent, but compared to the earlier screenshots, Diablo III looks very different today. It's gloomier and darker, and characters have a bit more detail and realism to them, with the monsters especially a little more grounded. The hand-painted look is still present, but it's been toned back a little and I feel the end result is a lot more immediately associable with Diablo. The one thing that really sells it for me, though, is the level of interactivity with the environment. Most objects can be destroyed by attacks, walls can be collapsed on enemies, and more. It's common to be able to tell where you've been simply by following the trail of ruined architecture, and it lends a great feeling of power to all of your abilities.
So yes, it's a fantastic-looking game and runs great on a decent gaming PC, but it's also clear that the Gothic horror style of the original game is gone for good as well. Next to Diablo II's "kitchen sink" approach, Diablo III is a lot more visually consistent, which I appreciate, but there are still a few silly bits here and there which I'm not fond of. Some of the character designs are a bit pandering and very MMO-inspired, with female characters all looking universally like supermodels, while a few items just don't fit the serious tone the game is going for. Stomping through the gloomy, zombie-infested fields outside Tristram wearing a leather bikini and a pointed wizard's hat felt strangely self-aware and Halloween-esque to me, and kind of undermines the serious tone of the game.
Last, the online nature of the game also warrants a mention. As I discussed in a previous editorial, Diablo III's reliance on an Internet connection means that even while playing solo, you'll occasionally be subject to lag spikes and disconnects. Moreover, Blizzard now requires that Battle.net users provide personally identifying information, including real name, which caused quite a bit of controversy a while back. The game's multiplayer and social features are extremely robust (though the Auction House and Arena/PvP modes aren't available in the beta), but there are a lot of people uncomfortable with giving Blizzard their identities, as well as those who aren't fans of requiring a login even for single-player. I will say that I did experience gameplay problems, including lost progress and several deaths, as a result of lag, and there were times I wasn't able to play due to server timeouts, but in this pre-release state, it's hard to make judgments as to the reliability of Diablo III.
There's still more to talk about when it comes to Diablo III, but I hesitate to go into balance issues and other related subjects simply because it's still in a beta state, and even as I played through for this impressions piece, an update already rendered some of my thoughts obsolete. There are also a few features which at this point seem a bit poorly realized (gold and merchants seem a bit out of place with the importance of crafting, the game drops way too many health potions, and Scrolls of Companion seem tacked-on, linking spell damage to weapon damage means Wizards are stronger wielding swords than wands), but once again, hopefully that will change in time for release.
Even with all its changes, which are no doubt going to be very controversial for some players, it's hard getting past the fact that Diablo III is an extremely fun and playable game. In 2011 it's rare to see a PC game that runs so smoothly, has such an intuitive user interface and control setup, and genuinely appeals to the strengths of the platform, and Diablo III is at the top of its class in all those respects. I'm still very much on the fence about the changes made to leveling, skills and attributes, but once you're fighting monsters and storming castles, it's hard to care so much about that. The PC action-RPG market has been getting more and more crowded lately, but that doesn't change the fact that Diablo III is set to be one of the best action-RPGs we've seen in a long time.