Oct 25 2011 12:00pm

The Lord of Terror Rides Again: A Hands-On Look at the Diablo 3 Closed Beta

BlizzCon 2011 came and went this past weekend in Anaheim, California, and naturally, much of the fanfare surrounded Blizzard Entertainment’s highly anticipated third instalment of the Diablo series. Diablo 3 invites players once more into the troubled realms of Sanctuary to war against the invading demonic forces of Hell. Originally slated for release in December of this year, Diablo 3 was — to the surprise of, well, no one already familiar with Blizzard and their projected release dates — delayed by its developers into the first quarter of 2012. To tide over rabid fans and finetune gameplay, Blizzard released an invite-only closed beta last month, and yours truly was fortunate enough to gain access.

The Diablo 3 beta kicks off in the town of New Tristram, where a fallen star has plunged through the town cathedral and woken the vengeful spirit of mad King Leoric, the Skeleton King. It also appears to have woken the dead, as New Tristram is beset by hordes of zombies. Seriously, this town can’t catch a break. You’d think the townsfolk would get the message after their homes were razed twice before, but noooooo. Anyhow, it’s now up to you, the swashbuckling adventurer, to rid Tristram of its demons and lay the Skeleton King to rest for good.

There are a number of constraints in place that I wish to note here before moving forward. The beta includes the first quarter or so of Act I — a duration of about 1-1.5 hours. All five character classes (barbarian, demon hunter, witch doctor, wizard, and monk) are available to play in the beta. However, character level is capped, meaning once your character reaches level 13, they cannot level up any further. This also means that any new skills beyond level 13 aren’t accessible. The real money auction house is not available to evaluate, and neither is the PvP combat arena. Furthermore, the much ballyhooed rune system is absent from the beta, presumably because of ongoing implementation debate. Loot-wise, only two Legendary items (formerly known as Uniques to Diablo 2 players) are available, and NPC interaction is somewhat buggy. That said, these are all perfectly acceptable and, indeed, expected issues of a beta release. So with this in mind, I want to clarify that this is NOT a review. This is merely a discussion of some of the stronger and weaker aspects of the game in its beta stage.

Enough disclaimers. Let’s get to the good stuff.

There was much message board consternation when Blizzard revealed that Diablo 3 would be rendered in 3D and released the first batch of screenshots. Fans worried that the screenshots represented a departure from Diablo’s traditionally dark and gothic art style. I’m happy to report that these concerns can be put to rest. This feels like a Diablo game, through and through. The art direction and gameplay are spot-on.

Gameplay is so spot-on, in fact, that one wonders if the player is receiving too much of the same old, same old from previous franchise installments. The Diablo franchise has never been one for complexity — after all, the simple point-and-click gameplay mechanic is its signature. Blizzard has made a token gesture in this respect by adding destructible environments, but in-game, this feels like just another scripted event — instead of “click here to open door,” it’s “click here to drop massive chandelier on 20 chanting cultists.” For now, the developers seem to be adhering to the adage of sticking with a proven, winning formula. Of course, this could change by official release. An implemented rune system (or a later patch) has the ability to alter the gameplay dynamic enough to keep it fresh.

Diablo 3 also introduces a new character skill system that is a significant departure from the “load up 4 skills and screw the rest” strategy in Diablo 2. Diablo 3 no longer requires the player to save up and spend skill and stat points in a few specific categories. Rather, skills and skill slots (the number of skills a player can utilize at once) are unlocked automatically as you level up, and increase in power as your character levels. Assigning stat points has been eliminated entirely. There are several positives to this system: it eliminates having to spend hours on end trying to mathematically puzzle out the optimal setup of skill and stat points for your character build, and instead gives you the option to try out a diverse combination of skills at any time, allowing you to experiment without decreasing the potency of your skill-based attacks. The downside is that some may complain that this oversimplifies the game and takes a lot of the risk out of your character build. Ths is another concern that the rune system may potentially address.

As for the character classes, the level 13 cap makes them difficult to fully evaluate, but here are some general impressions. The barbarian returns from Diablo 2, for good reason. The barbarian is your classic melee/tank fighter — a well-balanced character that didn’t require much of an overhaul. The witch doctor (Diablo 3’s take on Diablo 2’s necromancer) is also a fun, well-balanced mid-range character. It’s flat-out fun to sic zombie dogs, gigantic spiders, and acidic toads on hapless enemies. The wizard (formerly known as the sorceress) is probably the most enjoyable class in the game — a long-range fighter with deadly arcane weaponry at her disposal. However, at this point in the game, she feels a bit overpowered — there’s no real danger of death unless you’re extremely careless. Conversely, I found the demon hunter (similar to Diablo 2’s Amazon) and monk had the opposite problem — they felt a bit underpowered in the beta. However, the power dynamics could easily correct themselves as later skills become available. The monk seems particularly suited to being a complementary class — his skills bestow several useful powers to party members during boss or treasure runs.

Speaking of treasure, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on one of the most important aspects of the Diablo universe — the loot. Simply put, in the beta, there isn’t enough good loot dropped. Part of this is due to the game being in beta (hence the lack of Legendary items) but even rare and magic items are few and far between thus far. This is likely to change in the actual game, but just in case... more drops, please, Blizzard. More frequent and more lucrative drops.

Generally speaking, the Diablo 3 beta is a mostly-promising sneak-peek at one of 2012’s most anticipated games. If you have any specific questions about the game or gameplay, please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll share what I know. In the interim, if you’re as impatient as I am, check out the Black Soulstone cinematic below — the newest game trailer released at BlizzCon this week. Bring forth the Lord of Terror once more.

Pritpaul Bains is an avid gamer and an alum of the 2008 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop. He, for one, welcomes the opportunity to sacrifice the majority of 2012 to his new Blizzard overlords.

Mouldy Squid
1. Mouldy_Squid
Too bad the Blizzard's DRM requires that you have a persistant internet connection for a single player game. I will not buy or play Diablo 3 so long as this is their requirement. What the hell is the point of a game I cannot play unless I am hooked to the net? I don't play Diablo to interact with other people. It is not an MMORPG. I play Diablo to kill stuff. Why on earth would the game require a persistant internet connection?

To be honest, considering what Blizzard has done with WoW and Diablo 3, I doubt I will ever buy another Blizzard game again. They are a company that is being killed by their own success.
Pritpaul Bains
2. Kickpuncher
@1 I feel your pain in that respect. I mostly played D2 online so I'll still be picking up D3, but Diablo aside, I'm mostly a single player kind of guy so if any other game I enjoyed pulled this, I'd be pretty pissed off.

I know Blizzard's reasoning for this (or part of it) is that this will allow them to control the online bots/dupes that eventually ended up ravaging D2's MP, but it seems to me in the process of doing so, they're ostracizing a fairly substantial SP minority.
Benjamin Klein
3. benjaminsa
Thanks for the preview, I am itching to play, but with Mould_Squid on this, wow the internet thing annoys the hell out of me. Not sure what I am going to do.
I don't buy it is about battlenet, there are many other ways they could have solved that issue. There is an interesting article on GeekWire about Valve's approach, money quote:
One thing that we have learned is that piracy is not a pricing issue. It’s a service issue. The easiest way to stop piracy is not by putting antipiracy technology to work. It’s by giving those people a service that’s better than what they’re receiving from the pirates.
If there is a hacked version (and there will be) that doesn't require an internet connection then you are going to be trying to sell an inferior product, bad bad idea.
Pritpaul Bains
4. Kickpuncher
@3 I'm with you there--there were likely other ways to approach it that wouldn't piss off SP gamers, but I guess Blizzard took the easy way out to focus on the majority.

Re: your latter point, you may well be right, but it's interesting that the beta has been out for over a month now and there's still no fully-functional pirated version out, to my knowledge... yet, at least. Maybe it's only a matter of time though.
Chin Bawambi
5. bawambi
I loved the original Diablo (never played 2) and was a WoW player for years. It is possible that the limited amount of drops is to avoid a common complaint of WoW players (at least when I was still on) that you could never skill anything close to what dropped from raids and monsters. I got bored with WoW when the only way to improve my character was to group-play - I loved the solo aspect of the game.
Benjamin Klein
6. benjaminsa
@4 Closed beta is a smallish pool of people, and even if someone has, why would they publish it? You just give Blizzard time to patch the hole. But I might be wrong, I am sure some very smart programmers spent a lot of time making it really difficult to crack. If they have succeded it will probably be a first. Another thing: dissapointed that still no linux support, not that I was hoppeful.

Question about the beta though: how much do you think this is designed for multiplayer vs. single player?
Pritpaul Bains
7. Kickpuncher
@5 It's certainly possible. D2 had the same issue - better drops were directly correlated with the number of players in the game.

@6 Good point re: the small pool as of now. It'll be interesting to see what happens when the full game is out. There is a partially cracked version floating around right now but it only allows players to walk around the map and check out the setting.

Re: your question... the game felt very similar to D2 SP when I played on my own (despite the fact I was forced to play online, I spent most of my time doing solo runs). I would guess that Normal, Nightmare, and Hell difficulties would all still be do-able solo. The one tweak they added to D2 in later patches to encourage/force team play was to make higher-difficulty (Hell level) monsters completely immune to certain types of attacks, meaning they were undefeatable in solo runs if you had the wrong type of character build for them (you're probably familiar with this if you played a lot of D2 MP).

From everything I've heard/read, they're avoiding this in D3 so I think solo-ing shouldn't be a problem, at least up until Inferno difficulty, which sounds like it's going to be a chore even with a team.

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