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Diablo III Beta Preview – Hell Freezes Over

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Eleven years. That’s how long it’s been since Diablo II graced our computers and mysteriously began to make free time disappear worldwide. Since then, there have been many pretenders to the legacy of the immortal hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, and while some have managed to win some notoriety, none have managed to wrest the crown from the genre’s undisputed king.

Now, at long last, Diablo II seems poised to hand down its decade-plus title to its own progeny, and as excitement mounts, many are wondering if Diablo III could possibly live up to the legend that is its forebear. But, if Diablo III’s beta is any indication, it would appear that Blizzard is entirely hell-bent on making its newest title the gold standard for action-RPGs.

So stay a while and listen – hit the break to find out all you need to know about your new obsession for the next eleven years.

Series veterans will be pleased to note that the fundamental basics of Diablo have not altered – there’s still a whole lotta clickin’ and a whole lotta loot grabbin’. Naturally, we wouldn’t want it any other way. But don’t take this to mean that Diablo 3 is just action-RPG business as usual – there are a host of elements Blizzard has brought to the table this time around that make the game distinct not just from its predecessors, but from many other games in the genre.

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The beta places players in the town of New Tristram, which has recently been beset by hardship following the appearance of the fallen star, a meteorite that landed inside the old Tristram cathedral that Diablo I veterans are likely to remember. With the dead now walking the land and villagers succumbing to a mysterious plague, players will be tasked with tracking down the venerable Deckard Cain, last of the Horadrim, and follow his advice as they prepare to face off against the mighty skeleton king Leoric.

Diablo III offers five different classes to play as. Amazingly, however, Blizzard has done a downright admirable job of making sure that each of these classes plays distinctly from one another. The main reason for this is that each class has its own unique resource mechanic. Unlike previous Diablo games, where every class used mana to fuel spells and abilities, all five of Diablo III’s character classes have a different power source that fuels their unique skills.

The end result is five decidedly unique approaches to monster slaying, and the experience quite noticeably varies based on your choice. There’s enough variety here that you’ll find at least one hero that fits your playstyle.

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Those who prefer to get down and dirty with melee combat can roll with either the monk or barbarian. The monk focuses on combination strikes, tasking players to pay attention to the timing of their attacks – successive strikes with the same ability will generate different effects. These abilities produce “focus” for the monk, which can be unleashed for a deadly finishing move.

The barbarian, Diablo II’s sole returning class, plays a bit differently from his prior outing. While many of his staple moves are present – cleave, leap attack, and whirlwind are all accounted for – this time around, he’ll be generating “fury” by dealing and taking damage which he can burn to power his attacks. He’s a very momentum-based hero, as fury will decay over time if he’s not actively fighting.

If you prefer a more mystical bent, the wizard and witch doctor have you covered. Standing in contrast to the sorcerer and sorceress of Diablo I and II, the wizard is all about quick and powerful bursts of raw magic rather than mastery of elemental forces, using a mechanic called “arcane power” that depletes and regenerates rapidly. In contrast, the witch doctor is a far more methodical caster, playing similarly to the necromancer from Diablo II. The sole user of mana, the witch doctor can summon zombie dogs, poison frogs, and all manner of dark voodoo to plague his enemies.

Standing in for the ranged archetype previously filled by the rogue and amazon, the demon hunter is one of the more interesting classes to play as. Using a mixture of bows, crossbows, and hand crossbows (which, in an unmistakably awesome manner, can be dual wielded), the demon hunter takes the fight to her foes from a distance, using an array of gadgetry such as grenades, explosive bolas, and caltrops  – an arsenal sure to make Van Helsing proud. The demon hunter balances twin resources of “hatred” and “discipline,” the former a quick-charging mechanic used for basic combat maneuvers, while the latter takes longer to regenerate and is used for more tactical techniques.

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In a divergence from the skill tree system from the previous entry, Diablo III simply grants your character skills when they reach certain levels. The depth to the system comes in skill selection, as only a certain number of active skills may be equipped to your character at any one time. As you gain levels, this number increases as more active skill slots unlock, to a total of six active slots and three passive slots. Skills will naturally increase in potency as the character gains levels. It’s a very free-form system and allows for a greater variety of useable characters, as one of Diablo II’s biggest weaknesses was that its skill tree system only allowed for a limited number of viable builds.

And of course, you’ll be using these skills to take on all manner of demons, devils, and the walking dead as you mow your way through dungeons and haunted countrysides. Combat in Diablo III is excitingly fast paced, often rewarding you with bonus XP for rapid and brutal slaying, and many of the game’s mechanics are tailor-made to get you back into the action as quickly as possible.

In addition to all manner of enchanted gear for you to grab, enemies also drop health orbs, glowing red balls that immediately restore a portion of your HP as soon as you touch them. Potions still exist, but they aren’t nearly as plentiful or useful – each quaffing triggers a long cooldown during which you cannot drink another one. This effectively eliminates the dreary Diablo II tactic of constantly slamming your potion buttons during a difficult fight. You’ll now need to be far more wary of avoiding damage altogether if you’re to survive.

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Blizzard has also put in a few ingenious devices to make sure you’re not slogging back to town every few minutes. You’ll quickly gain access to two items – the Cauldron of Jordan and the Nephelim Cube – that can be used for on the fly inventory management. The Cauldron (in a clever nod to the infamous ring which became Diablo II’s de facto currency) essentially serves as a mobile vendor – drop any item in it and it will be instantly converted to its sell value in gold pieces. The Cube is a bit more interesting, as it can break items down into raw materials to use in the new crafting system. More on this in a bit.

The end result of all of this is that you’ll be spending far more time blasting your way through Diablo III’s environments and less time managing your inventory, which is a tremendous boon as they’re incredibly fun to explore. In true Diablo fashion, much of the environment is randomly generated, though there is a bit less variation in hub world sections, presumably in an effort to avoid the dull plodding that Diablo II occasionally presented (Act III’s jungles, anyone?).

A great way the world of Sanctuary is kept interesting is through a variety of randomized events that you can stumble upon. Some of these are quick mini-dungeons that are randomly populated every time you play and can be explored for some quick slaying and loot-grabbing. Others are far more interesting, presenting small mini-quests and events that liven the experience. You might come across a mad mage in an abandoned library jealously guarding a piece of ancient arcana, or activate a pedestal that forces you to tackle wave after wave of skeletons for a set period of time. These randomly generated scenarios do a great job of keeping things fresh and interesting, even in dungeons you may be running multiple times.

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One of the more delightful surprises Diablo III offers is just how interactive these environments are. A vast majority of the elements existing in the game world are destructible, which does a fantastic job brining them to life. It’s especially great how they interact with your skills, as powerful blows and mighty spell blasts can shred through the environment and really make you feel like the all-mighty badass your character is supposed to be. A wizard unleashing a shock blast while surrounded by zombies in a graveyard will send the debris of broken tombstones flying, a barbarian leaping into combat might splinter a nearby table, and the grenade of a demon hunter might knock out the support beam of a crumbling stone wall, causing it to cascade down on the heads of a horde of demons. It’s immensely satisfying.

When you’re not too busy blazing a path of destruction through it, Sanctuary is actually quite pleasant to look at as well. Forget all the grumblings about rainbow color schemes and a “WoW-ified” aesthetic, as Diablo III looks very much like a Diablo game should. Landscapes are dark and foreboding, dungeons have a great sense of depth and eeriness to them, and the overall theme is appropriately gothic while still allowing for the distinctive colors necessary to facilitate gameplay.

It’s the little visual details that really sell the game’s presentation. Pages scatter about as you ransack a bookshelf. The screen shakes and pans to help you feel the weight of your attacks. Large zombies burst into a shower of maggots when they’re defeated, which start to frantically crawl in every direction.

Player skills are also wonderfully animated with a large degree of visual pop. Some have fantastic animations – for instance, the witch doctor spell “Firebats” summons a flock of bats from behind him as he channels a spout of flame over his head. The bats fly through the flame, igniting themselves and then suicide diving into enemies in front. Most importantly, there is a large degree of enemy variety, and priority targets are visually distinct enough for you to pick them out from a crowd.

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But it isn’t just the game’s visuals that stand out – Diablo III’s sound design certainly deserves special note. From the powerful noise of unleashed abilities to the absolutely top-notch voice talent, all tied together with a typical high-caliber Blizzard soundtrack, Diablo III is as much an audible treat as it is a graphical one.

Interestingly, it would seem as though Blizzard seems intent on fostering more of an RPG feel to Diablo III than was available in previous games. For one, there is a lot more interaction to be had in town – there are more NPCs to interact with and you are actually able to enter certain buildings to explore.

Most remarkable, however, is that your character actually engages in dialogue far more frequently than previous games, where such speech was typically limited to the very occasional quip. Now, you’ll find your hero openly responding to NPCs during story segments, throwing out mid-battle jibes, and actually engaging in full conversations with your hireling while exploring a dungeon. It really helps establish the concept that each of the classes are full-fledged characters.

Another intriguing design adopted from more traditional RPGs is the inclusion of a crafting system. While you won’t actively make items yourself, you will gain access to a blacksmith. This tradesman can create certain recipes for you, provided you have the proper materials broken down with the Nephelim Cube. The blacksmith can be given additional recipes you find while traveling, and he can level up with enough experience to offer an even wider array of gear. Typically, these items have a set property on them or two, with everything else on it being randomized in true Diablo fashion. Even better, his experience and recipe list is persistent between all of your characters, giving you a sense of progression even when playing characters other than your “main.”

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Sadly, the beta is a bit limited in scope. You can get to about level 12, and the content available represents only about the first third of Act I. There are also a number of gameplay elements that have not been implemented yet, such as skill runes that can vastly modify what your abilities do, gems for socketing into items, and crafting artisans besides the blacksmith.

Nevertheless, what is presented so far paints a clear enough picture: Diablo III is already destined for greatness. It takes all the elements that have made the series such a addictive pleasure, fine-tunes the elements that were lacking, and adds a good bit of original content to create what’s shaping up to be an incredibly memorable sequel. 2012 cannot come soon enough.

Look forward to updated impressions of Diablo III straight from the BlizzCon floor later this October.

Your Comments

  • avatar
    Diablo3Warrior said Oct 11th 2011 12:25 PM

    Great article. I’m very excited for Diablo 3′s release, but I believe the delay is due to class balancing. Because Diablo 3 treasure can now be sold for real money, we underestimate the importance of making sure all five classes are equally efficient treasure hunters.

    If they’re not balanced, people will be strongly compelled to all choose whichever class is the best bounty hunter.

    Reply
  • avatar
    Mark said Oct 23rd 2011 11:04 AM

    Superb article!

    Reply

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