Diablo III

Final Beta Preview
"It manages to feel fresh and totally new while still reminding me of all the great things I loved about Lord of Destruction."

With the agonizing wait for Diablo III over in more than two weeks, Blizzard opted to open the game's beta test to the general public over the past weekend. While there's certainly still time for the nitty-gritty to change, it's likely that the beta state of the game is very close to the way it'll be looking at launch. I spent quite some time murdering the Skeleton King Leoric repeatedly, and here are my various observations.

I was particularly keen to experiment with the new rune system. Originally set to be a type of lootable item that could be slotted into your various skills to change their properties, runes are now unlocked as your character creeps toward the level cap, ultimately leaving you with five to choose from per skill. Opening the menu reveals a selection of signature skills for the left mouse button and secondary techniques for the right, in addition to five categories of skills mapped to 1-5 on the keyboard and three passive ability slots. Each active skill can be modified with runes, unlocked as you level up. I found the rune effects to vary – in some cases they add additional damage and slightly change the visual effects, such as with the wizard's Arcane Orb skill. In other cases, however, runes have more prominent effects, such as with the Shock Pulse skill, adding an explosion effect to enemies felled by it, giving it a significant boost to its crowd control potential.

At first, I was a little disheartened to hear about the new system, but having spent several hours with it, I can say that it feels great. It makes leveling up exciting (since now each level offers either a new skill or a new rune to play with) and allows for a degree of flexibility in how you set up your skill loadouts. Since none of the rune effects are "better" than the others, it truly falls to the player to decide how they'd like to have their runes slotted.

Without a doubt, the game feels like Diablo. The environments, while more varied and, yes, colorful, still evoke that lonely, foreboding atmosphere that locales from the first two games were so successful in creating. Fog fills eerie forests and dilapidated ruins crumble underfoot as you plumb their depths. The music, while being handled by Russell Brower rather than Mat Uelman, still puts a chill in your bones as you slice, dice, and smash your enemies into pieces.

System-wise, the game feels stellar; it feels like Diablo II, given a modern facelift and the production values ratcheted up to eleven. Banners around the town waypoints allow you to teleport quickly to wherever your fellow adventurers are; a button in the interface allows for easy access to the town portal skill (no more scrolls or tomes to hoard in the corner of your inventory); and each player receives their own loot, alleviating some of the stealing and loot-bot concerns that plagued the previous iteration of the series. Tedium has been all but eliminated from the various aspects of the hack-and-slash genre, and there are numerous concessions in place to ensure that you won't spend hours in town selling loot and fiddling inventory (unless you'd like to!), and that you're always just seconds away from joining your teammates in the fray, wherever they may be.

Unfortunately, there were a few problems I had with the beta. Many people have taken issue with the game's four player limit on matches, and I believe there is definitely some merit to these complaints. The game does feel like organized chaos with four players, what with crazy skills effects erupting all over the place, but the player cap feels strangely low and will likely seem limiting when the final game releases. The lack of world PvP such as it was featured in Diablo II isn't a deal-breaker, but it definitely changes the tone of the game a bit. Perhaps Blizzard could patch in a toggle when creating a match to allow players to duel one another in the game environment, at least as a concession to players missing a non arena-style PvP option.

Additionally, the game currently feels too easy. This could be attributed to the small slice of the total experience that the beta represents, as well as the over-leveling that occurs through repeated play-throughs (the cap for this beta was 13, and a single run through all the content would take you to about 8 or 9), but the fact remains that not a single enemy or group of enemies posed a threat in any way throughout my entire play time. With four difficulty levels to sink your teeth into, however, I don't imagine the full game will have any trouble challenging intrepid adventurers, and will certainly necessitate a great many magic-finding runs to stand up to the dangers that await.

Coming away from the beta, I can't help but feel more excited than ever for Diablo III. It manages to feel fresh and totally new while still reminding me of all the great things I loved about Lord of Destruction, things that have kept me playing on and off for the past ten years. The game feels polished and relatively bug-free, and the combat is as fun and addictive as ever. At this point, all that's left is to tighten up the last few screws and see how this thing works as a whole.

In about two weeks, we'll be able to see if the new game really has what it takes to stick around for as long as its predecessor. Based on the game I played this past weekend, I'm confident that it will – so here's to what will hopefully be another ten joyful years of blood runs, MFing, hellcows, and nm/hell rushes!

Beta Preview
"My experience with the beta felt both nostalgic and fresh."

Ten years. It's been ten long years since Diablo 2, and I'm hungry for some loot.

The announcement of Diablo 3 back in the summer of 2008 sent a wave of endorphins through my entire body. But, as with any announcement of a returning franchise, the voices of concern and jeers of the detractors began to weigh down my expectations for the Lord of Terror's return. Can Blizzard evolve the genre in ways that we haven't seen before? Are they simply going to ride the wave of nostalgia each one of us feels every time we kill a Fallen One and hear that delightful scream? It was with slight trepidation that I installed the Diablo 3 beta on my computer and made my return to the world of Sanctuary.

The first thing you'll notice is the world now resembles Blizzard's current art styling. A slightly cartoony look enhances each character and adds to their personality and place in the environment. Those fearing rainbows and (gasp!) colors in a Diablo game need not worry. The forests of New Tristram feature just the right amount of foreboding and hostility. The game still feels gothic and full of death, though the enhanced pallete and 3D landscape give it a level of cohesion not present in the previous games in the series. This also allows the developers to throw far more random situations at the player than ever before. Monsters don't hide in rooms waiting for an opponent; they leap out from behind bushes and climb up crevices in the earth to hunt down the player.

I know, I know. You don't care about how the game looks. What's the loot like? How are the skills and how do you level up? Calm down, young adventurer. Stay a while and listen.

The most critical choice you make in Diablo 3 (besides your gender) is which character class you're going to take through the burning hells. Thankfully, each class feels super strong and plays in a very different way. The Monk and Barbarian act as the melee bad boys, but they differ in their approach. The Monk favors quick strikes and lots of debuffing combos, while the Barbarian builds fury with each blow to unleash a massive attack. You can even see the difference in their two approaches in the ways enemies fly apart from a furious Monk barrage or ragdoll through the trees like they were just hit by a truck after the Barbarian finishes with them. The remaining three classes exhibit the same amount of variety. The Wizard focuses on artillery-like spells that fit his "glass cannon" design philosophy, while the Demon Hunter uses traps and archery to take down enemies from a safe vantage. My favorite class so far, however, is the Witch Doctor (though I loved playing with each character class and will probably finish the game with everyone). The Witch Doctor plays very much like the Necromancer from D2, although his zombie creatures aren't the main damage dealers. He also throws fire bombs, spiders, frogs, and other sorts of nasty creatures to kill his enemies in fine fashion. Each class features their own resource management system that plays into their style. No longer must a Barbarian worry about mana for attacks. Cooldowns and high resource costs keep the stronger skills from spamming the battlefield, but the developers want you to use skills rather than simple attacks. I don't think I used a normal attack except by accident, as Blizzard wants you and your character to look cool while killing the legions of Hell.

Perhaps the most concerning change to D3 comes when you level up. You no longer allocate ability points or skill points to strengthen your character. Instead, each level on the path to the level cap has been planned out, and you will receive skills and upgrades in a certain order. I was a bit nervous about this change, but it actually works quite well in practice. You have a limited number of skill slots available (and you can only change them at designated altars in the world), so you must choose which skills you're going to take into battle. You'll begin to experiment and see what works well together. Maybe the Monk's Breath of Heaven healing spell would work well with his aggressive Crippling Wave combo. Perhaps the Demon Hunter's Caltrops trap could keep her safe while she fires Entangling Shot to further slow down the advancing enemies. I started to get creative with my skill choices, and it helped me to feel like I was playing a character class rather than tailoring one to my needs.

Eliminating skill points also alleviates the biggest problem from Diablo 2. You could easily break a character if you didn't build him/her properly, as skills would eventually prove useless unless you upgraded them. Certain skills appear to level up with your character in D3, so there's no need to worry about putting yourself in an unwinnable situation. I doubt D3 will even need a respec option, considering the lack of player choice in how you level. Skills are now directly linked to your gear in a much more noticeable way than before. Equipped weapons act as the base for the damage done by skills, meaning that even a mage class must find powerful gear to further buff their abilities. It may seem strange at first to equip a Wizard with a powerful shield or a Monk with two clubs, but this change puts everyone on even footing and emphasizes the most important aspect of Diablo: loot.

Ah yes, loot. Diablo 3 nails the timing on loot. Whereas most games either give too much or too little unique armaments, Blizzard seems to have solved the mathematical equation that maximizes player satisfaction. It's hard to describe, but no other dungeon hack seems to get this timing right. D3 constantly rewarded my persistence and made me feel powerful yet vulnerable. Sure, you find a great deal of vendor trash, but even that serves a more important purpose than before. You can transmute unwanted items into raw materials for artisans, a group of merchants specializing in creating unique items for the player. Each piece of armor also looks different to each class; so while the Monk wears ceremonial robes, the Witch Doctor and Barbarian get tribal tattoos to show off their gear. Unique items for each class make a return from the Lord of Destruction expansion for D2. I still grin when I watch my Witch Doctor roaming the countryside with a dead chicken in his hand. You still get a stash in town to store excess gear, though now this is linked to every character on your account. No more finding an awesome two-handed axe that doesn't fit your style and letting it go to waste.

Of course this is a beta of a game that we will hopefully see very soon, so Blizzard is constantly tweaking the game to make it a smoother experience. I began playing after a major patch, so I can't speak to the early portions of the beta and the progression of D3's balance. I can say that there seems to be a shortage of archery weapon drops, making the Demon Hunter's life a bit more difficult at times. And as much as I love my Witch Doctor, I'm expecting some serious nerfing given how easily I can walk through the beta with the proper spells equipped. The beta acts as an introduction to the first of four acts, so there's still much we haven't seen yet. You only acquire one artisan and follower (think mercenaries from D2, though more fleshed out with skills), and runes – which change skills in numerous unique ways – were completely absent. Still, I saw the introduction of random quests, and lore books around the environment further develop the world and harken back to the stories and characters of D1 and 2.

Diablo 3 has a long shadow to overcome. The closing of Blizzard North and released screenshots of their version of D3 will no doubt characterize this long development cycle much the same way Capcom's numerous attempts at Resident Evil 4 keeps fans asking, "What if?" If the beta is any indication, however, Diablo 3 will push the genre forward in ways we never thought possible. Sure, people will complain about the real world auction house, and the more tailored leveling experience will certainly cause a few fans to cry out in horror, but Diablo 3 already feels like a wonderful evolution of the franchise. My experience with the beta felt both nostalgic and fresh. The familiar "woosh" of a dropped item brought me back to the summer before my first year of high school, when I spent the better part of my days sitting in front of my sister's computer playing Diablo 2. Plan out your next few months accordingly, fellow traveler, for the Lord of Terror awaits.

© 2011 Activision Blizzard. All rights reserved.

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