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Blizzcon 09 Preview: Diablo III

By Jeff Buckland, 8/23/2009

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For many fans of the Diablo games, it sometimes seems like Blizzard really hates them - or maybe just likes them the least. From the years of neglect by way of new patches for D2, despite the game still selling well after so long, to the continued announcement and release of new Warcraft and Starcraft games over the last several years, fans of Blizzard's darkest and most mindlessly addictive universe have been feeling left out in the cold. When Diablo III was announced, the gameplay videos were immediately piled upon for having color schemes that diehard fans found too vibrant for their tastes.

Even now, Blizzard seems to be thumbing their nose at fans, if just a little bit. Since the new World of Warcraft: Cataclysm expansion pack was announced at this year's Blizzcon and Starcraft II getting very close to completion, that now almost surely makes Diablo III a 2011 game. What makes that number even tougher to swallow is that the game seems so polished and complete already - at least, on the surface it does. On the upside, the game looks incredible, and that's something fans should be ecstatic about.

The Principals

Thousands of gamers have gotten to play this year's Blizzcon build of Diablo III already, and I've heard almost nothing negative yet from anyone who got to sit down with it. Four character classes have now been announced: the Barbarian makes a return, the Wizard evokes old Sorceress stylings, the Witch Doctor brings in pets and a new shamanistic focus, and now the Monk will satisfy fans of D2's combo-building Assassin. But he'll also make Paladin players happy, too, as his fighting game-style kung fu is also backed up with protective and powerful holy spells.

The demo build this year sent us into a mysterious and dark desert filled with unsightly creatures to fend off. The Fallen ("Rakanishu!") are back complete with lieutenants that resurrect their little ones as well as more powerful warriors, along with Sand Wasps, whirlwind-executing Dune Dervishes, cultists who are abducting and sacrificing people from nearby settlements, the undead, and plenty more. All of this comes together in the desert setting to make for an unsettling, harsh landscape filled with death around every corner.


And yes, I experienced death quite a few times. My first playthrough was with a Wizard, which can be both male and female, and my initial fumbling of her abilities caused death several times - although by the end I was deftly juggling her abilities and surviving very well. The enemies have that simple-but-effective method of layered attack: swarmers surround you while lieutenants back them up and ranged attackers sling from the back. The Wizard was able to fend them off in several ways: by firing out a mirror image of herself that absorbs damage for a while and taunts enemies to attack it, tossing out frost novas which have a long cooldown but actually chill enemies to the core (complete with icicles hanging from their outstretched arms), unleashing arcane orbs that exploded with color, and using a powerful magical melee-style attack that hit multiple monsters. All of it felt right and played fantastically, with great feedback for almost every attack in the game and superb visual cues for showing what's happening to opponents without having to include buff bars and the like. And no, the developers don't plan on allowing mod-makers to design new interfaces like we've seen in WoW, and I suspect it's because people will start adding bars and buttons that Diablo simply doesn't need.

The Barbarian charged into battle much more readily, relying mostly in this demo on multiple-monster-hitting Cleaves to take enemies apart. He doesn't have mana - instead, he has Fury which works a little like World of Warcraft warriors do in that hitting monsters increases it. But the developers wanted a simpler visual style, so he increases his Fury to fill up three orbs, and different attacks will get bonuses based on how many orbs you have filled up. You won't ever be unable to unleash attacks, though, so don't worry about having to wait for your Fury to fill up just to fire out something nasty - the orbs just mean that you'll hit harder with your special attacks.

The Witch Doctor is a more difficult to play class, mostly because his pets - including the redesigned Carrion Spiders - distribute out damage and you'll have to be the one to focus it for them. The main attack at Blizzcon for him was the ability to toss out bottles of exploding fluid; I had a hard time using these and ultimately found myself staring at the respawn screen quite a few times. He's definitely more of a finesse character, and he doesn't seem quite as polished as the Wizard or Barbarian yet.

I also didn't have much luck with the Monk, but I eventually came around to how he's played. While he is a melee class, his ability to dash in, debuff monsters, and then finish up with a powerful burst was impressive, but also more difficult to manage than many other classes are. This is because the combo system is relatively new for Blizzard and I felt like the visual cues for it weren't quite there. Switching out armor on the Monk also didn't actually change his outfit, so that's a good sign just how early in the design he actually is. I think with the right amount of work on his look, feel, and role, the Monk will be up to speed and will be a very powerful class, but right now he's just lagging a little behind.

Loot and skills

The loot was most certainly already working nicely, though, as the Blizzcon demo gave us access to regular, magic (blue) and rare (yellow) items - I don't know of anyone getting sets or uniques - with plenty of interesting new properties, including a straight spell damage increase for the casting classes. A fully fleshed-out skill system is in that has prerequisites, multiple ranks of most stuff, lots of new spells and abilities mixed in, and passive bonuses as well, and while it most certainly will change plenty before the game's release - this is Blizzard, after all - I thought it seemed thought out better than most of what we've seen in many of Diablo's competitors and derivatives over the last decade. The interesting new thing will be runes that now attach to your skills instead of your item sockets (although sockets will also be in, along with at least gems to toss into them). If you play WoW, it's like Glyphs where they directly affect your spells by adding perks, increasing damage, or making them more powerful in other ways, but now you'll have a rune slot for each and every skill. Unfortunately, runes were completely disabled for the demo as the developers have had to hold off on designing them until the skill system is a little closer to completion.

One interesting feature with the loot is that the developers currently have it so that each player in a multiplayer game only sees the loot that he or she can pick up - no longer will someone with a faster reaction time (or internet connection) grab all the good stuff before you can even see what it is. That does mean that unhelpful or annoying players will still get loot from bosses, but it's easy to imagine a simple system that gives the best stuff, at least most of the time, to those who contribute the most damage and/or utility in a boss fight.

Heading out into the wastes

Speaking to the new lands to explore, I really enjoyed the playable area this time. Quests come often but can be finished up quickly, meaning that while you'll go through a lot more of them than in D2, you'll never have more than a few open at any one time. I don't think any Diablo player wants to open up a big scrolling quest log window and see a list pulled almost straight out of an MMORPG, so this is a good thing. What's interesting is that some quests now pop up only when you discover an NPC out in the field; it's a nice change after having everything come directly out of towns and quest hubs in the past games. Also, some other quests only appear right when you start them, like the collapsing tomb that gives you four minutes to get as much loot as you can and find the exit. This interesting take on a dungeon wouldn't have stood out to me too much, but the place was full of monsters - ones that might be better avoided if you want more loot - and many pillars and ceilings could be triggered to collapse. Players could set them to fall on your enemies to quickly do some splash damage, or accidentally trigger them and have them fall on you and cause damage if they're not careful. This really increased the excitement in the old tomb and made for an exhilarating little high-tension treasure hunt.

Not having been to Blizzcon last year when Diablo III was premiered, one thing that I expected to see was the much-maligned pink and purple color scheme half the internet has been complaining about. If it's still there, I sure as hell didn't see it in any of the indoor or outdoor areas I got to see. So at the very least, some sections of the game will be intentionally dark and just a little washed out. On top of that, the copious splatters of blood and body parts in just the first few monster kills make this a very obvious M rating - the ESRB won't get two minutes into their evaluation of D3 before slapping an M on it. From everything I got to play, I can say that this is still a very dark game, both in color palette and in story and substance, so I don't think anyone will have much to worry about there once it's released.

"Two years, Turkish"

What astounded me in the first five minutes of play is that this game is still about two years out from release. Most games this far from release don't have any single part that looks or plays like this does; hell, many millions-selling games are started and completed in well under two years. But Diablo III is being developed through a slow, iterative process where ideas are bounced around incessantly and content is made and remade and changed because this one other thing changed and rethought again, and so on. The developers fessed up to their ridiculously inefficient (but ultimately satisfying, at least for the gamer) development style at the open Q&A panel at Blizzcon, and what it means is that Diablo III certainly looks and plays fantastic in a tight, controlled setting, but it has a long, long way to go in delivering a full experience from beginning to end.

Blizzard also don't have any concrete answers when it comes to how other elements of Diablo III will come together. Will we have the same game-launching style of D2's old-school Or will there be MMO-like common areas to talk to people in instead of chat rooms? Will gold be worth something? Can we transfer items between characters without trading or tossing them on the ground? Duels? LAN play? How will boss runs be done? For many questions like this, we either got a non-answer or a "we intend to do this" answer without any solid details. And what that means is that while this game looks and plays great for the half-hour segment that Blizzcon players got, the rest of it is nowhere near ready for public consumption.

But what is clear is that while this is not the team that made Diablo II - many of those guys are scattered to the winds - the franchise is in very capable hands. After playing for over an hour, I can say that this feels exactly the way a new Diablo should: true to its roots, but not grasping to them in a pitiful attempt to be just like the last game. It's at once simple to play but complex to see in action, addictive to start playing but still easier to stop playing than an MMORPG, visually striking but not cartoony or outlandish. This is Diablo, despite what some have been saying with regards to those early screenshots. Now we just have to wait another couple years for Blizzard to prove it to the rest of the world.



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