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Page 3 of 6Nuts 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.