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Page 4 of 6Leaving Town
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.