Posted by Eric Schwarz at 6:42 pm on 12.19.2011 (1 year ago)
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.