The wait for Diablo III has been just about as merciless as the dark lord himself, with information about classes and features being drip-fed to us over the course of years. We hopped into the newly released beta to finally get some quality time with Blizzard's upcoming juggernaut. The beta encompasses the first act of the game, allowing participants to shop in New Tristram, slay untold numbers of minions using any of the five classes, and finally attempt to defeat the Skeleton King.
At the outset, Diablo III looks a lot like you would expect from a modern game in the series. The UI has been redesigned and revamped, but it immediately feels familiar to fans. The graphics and art design is more vibrant yet still immediately invokes equal feelings of adventure and gloom. It feels right as you carve your way through various undead monstrosities, and it's quite entertaining to blow apart a zombie with a massive hit and watch the pieces fly.
More importantly, though, is the gameplay and the many differences between Diablo III and the previous game in the series. Combat basics feel almost exactly the same, but the skill system has been entirely revamped. Gone are skill or attribute points to allocate; as you gain experience and level up, you automatically gain stats and unlock skills. It is a dramatic reduction in the level of customization that you can have over your character. New fans may not notice or care about the difference, but at least initially, it may be an oversimplification for those making the transition from Diablo 2 and the myriad ways you could build your character.
The skill system seems built for high-level play, but with the beta limitations, it is harder to tell how it scales. At the beginning of the game with a new character, you only have two skill slots, and at level six, you gain a third. This continues onward to a total of six slots in the endgame. While you may have numerous skills unlocked, you have to equip them in one of your skill slots to use them, and you cannot use any that are not equipped in such a manner. At the beginning, this means that you can control all of your active skills with your left and right mouse buttons, and even at level six, you can play most of the game using nothing more than a two-button mouse and a couple of keyboard keys. If the leveling up changes could feel strange to series fans, the skill slot system feels like a massive departure in that its simplification doesn't always seem better.
What remains to be seen is how the skill slot system scales in high-level play. Diablo 2 had more total skills per class and you could fill your action bar with them, but in actual gameplay, you only used a small handful of them. With six skill slots in Diablo III, the gameplay could come across intact, but that remains to be seen. In addition, there are many early abilities, such as auras, which add useful benefits, but in the early game, you wonder if you really want to "waste" a skill slot on them.
The outdoor environments are static and unchanging from one play session to another; it's a departure from its predecessor, which had randomized layouts. However, the indoor environments are randomized and done quite well. There are a greater number of smaller dungeons that can be explored outside of quests, but they still offer up some choice loot. The entrances to these environments are randomized in the outdoors, and a cellar entrance that was closed in a different playthrough may be wide open for exploration during the next.
Near the end of the beta, you can get a Templar to join up to follow you around and help you work your way toward the Skeleton King. These NPCs have been beefed up a lot from the previous game and now can be considered more like party members. Not only can you equip their gear, but you can also pick which skills they unlock as they level up. With the Templar, you can give him a healing skill to keep you topped off, or you can build him like a tank and give him a taunt to pull enemies off of you.
One very important thing that we took away from the beta is that Diablo III is equally as much of an online-only game as World of Warcraft. Every component takes place online, from enemy AI to loot generation, and any latency higher than your normal thresholds is certain to affect gameplay. There is no offline play whatsoever, so while we simply tested what it would be like to have high latency, potential players with less-than-stellar connections may want to make the proper considerations. A few times during the beta, the servers went down, and on one occasion, we were surprised to find that when we came back, we had lost a significant amount of playtime. Standard beta jitters aside, one hopes that Blizzard's server is at an expected stability level at release and that these types of rollbacks are more of an exception than the norm if/when the servers — or your connection to them — are unexpectedly on the fritz.
All in all, Diablo III is a greatly different game than its predecessor. While the beta gave us a taste of what to expect upon release, it also raised a few questions. Much of Diablo 2's gameplay took place in the endgame, and while the sequel seems to be mindful of that, it may be overly so. If Blizzard took too much flak in the past for not sufficiently shaking up new entries in their series releases, the opposite may be true this time around. Diablo III is a significantly different game than what series fans are expecting, but it will be interesting to see how the changes shake out when the game is released in 2012.
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