The original Diablo more-or-less invented the point-and-click action RPG genre, and its wide variety of monsters and generous loot drops made it an addictive and fun title. Diablo II took the concept online, and became one of the most popular games of the early 2000s. Even today, twelve years after Diablo II’s release, Blizzard still offers support and online functionality for it.
With that kind of legacy, it’s not surprising that Diablo III is one of the most anticipated titles of the year. First announced in 2008, the game will see release on May 15, and it promises to be one of the biggest titles of 2012.
Before I go in-depth with Diablo III, I need to make a confession: I’ve never actually played a Diablo game before now. With that said, I did spend many hours on NCSoft’s online Diablo clone Dungeon Runners many years ago, and I have spent many, many hours clicking monsters to death in Runic Games’ excellent Torchlight, which is also due for a sequel soon after Diablo III’s release. In order to fully prepare myself for this preview, I bought a copy of Diablo II off Battle.net and spent some time with it.
I also live with an obsessive Diablo fangirl, who has enthusiastically provided me with all kinds of details about the previous two games. So with that in mind, let’s take a good look at Diablo III. I’ve spent the last week and a bit trawling through the Diablo III beta, so I hope that will be enough to give you the best idea of how this game is shaping up.
Graphics and Sound
Blizzard are, if nothing else, excellent artists, and all their games, right back to the original Warcraft are notable for distinctive, well-crafted artwork. Diablo III is no exception, with atmospheric environments that bring out the many different monster models. Despite the wide pseudo-isometric view, you never lose your character in the environment, and the game always makes clear, thanks to the clever use of outlining, what you’ve got your mouse over.
Some criticism was made, based on early screenshots, of the game being too colourful in comparison to previous games (in fact, Blizzard even produced a t-shirt mocking the criticism), but that really isn’t the case. The transition from 2D sprite-based graphics in Diablo II to fully-rendered 3D environments allows for much more detailed lighting and atmospheric effects, while still keeping the game well-lit enough to be playable.
Sound is also suitably modern, with echoes inside the cathedral and cave areas of the game, as well as Blizzard’s traditional orchestral musical score. Voice acting is of Blizzard’s typically hammy quality. If you’re familiar with the voice acting in Starcraft II or World of Warcraft, then you’ll know what to expect here.
Diablo III offers five classes, each of which are variations or amalgamations of classes from the previous games. Unlike previous games, each class has its own resource system that works to the benefits of the class. This replaces the traditional mana resource from previous games.
- Barbarian — the typical warrior/tank type character. Wield either sword+shield or two-handed weapons. Uses fury as a resource, which builds by attacking and taking damage, and is consumed by skills that use it. If you’re familiar with WoW’s Warrior class, then this is similar.
- Demon Hunter — ranged attacker, borrowing from the hunter archetype. Has a dual resource system made up of Hatred and Discipline. Hatred is expended on offensive abilities and regenerates fast, while Discipline is used for defensive abilities and regenerates at a slower rate.
- Monk — Melee damage-dealers. Monks are pretty much the rogue/assassin-type class in Diablo III. They use Spirit, which is built by certain attacks and then consumed by others.
- Witch Doctor — a unique new caster-class that is part necromancer-type and part shaman-type. Their resource is called Mana, but it’s a slow-regenerating resource similar to the Demon Hunter’s Discipline.
- Wizard — the caster class. Wizards are best thought of as elemental damage dealers rather than the typical spell casting type, as their resource is the fast-regenerating Arcane Power.
Unlike previous games in the series, all classes now have male and female equivalents.
As with Diablo II, the hardcore option is back. In this mode, your character gets only one chance— if you die, you’re dead for good. The game offers online rankings for hardcore characters.
The game’s interface will be immediately recognisable to any seasoned Diablo player, with the two large orbs at either end of the action bar representing health and resources. The bar has been streamlined with four hotkeys for skills, the left and right mouse button assignments, and a special button (assigned to Q on the keyboard) for health potions. There’s no such thing as mana potions anymore.
Streamlining is a theme of the Diablo III experience. Those familiar with Diablo II or even Torchlight will appreciate some of the conveniences of the new game. The big change is the removal of identification and town portal scrolls.
Item identification is simply done by right-clicking an unidentified item in your inventory and waiting for the cast bar to complete. It’s assumed that your character just needs to take the time to look at the item closely rather than have to read some arcane scroll.
The town portal is now just a button you can cast at any time, with no need to rely on scrolls or anything like that for it. It occupies its own button on the action bar.
All this refinement is about getting the game’s mechanics out of the way as much as possible, allowing players to get on with the important task of clicking enemies to death.
Stats, skills and abilities
The theme of streamlining is present in the way skills and abilities operate, too. The big change is the removal of the skill trees from Diablo II (WoW players will note that the same thing is happening with talent trees in that game).
Instead, skills are broken up by how they’re activated, and then into primary, secondary, defensive and class-specific skills. These are divided up into Mouse skills and Action Bar skills.
Skills are enhanced by runes that unlock at certain levels. Runes generally offer an increase in the potential damage output of a skill, but they can sometimes alter the behaviour in other ways.
Character stats are no longer directly customisable as they were in D2. This time, the stats you gain upon levelling are fixed (WoW players will recognise this). However, stat customisation still exists in the form of gems. Gems are socketed into gear and add additional stats to each gear item.
Surprisingly, the gem system allows for even more stat customisation than was offered by Diablo II’s system.
The end result of these changes is that, while there may be fewer choices for each class, they are much more meaningful choices, and players aren’t restricted to the “cookie-cutter” builds that dominated Diablo II. This is similar to the planned changes for the next WoW expansion, and it’s easy to suggest that the development process for Diablo III influenced the WoW team.
One of the more controversial aspects of Diablo III is its auction house system. If you’re familiar with WoW or any other MMO that has one, then the auction house, which is accessed from the character select screen, will be immediately familiar to you.
The Auction House solves a lot of the issues that Diablo II had with regards to trading, and effectively gives the game a proper economy. In Diablo II, gold had no real value because it couldn’t be traded between players for items. This created a pseudo-currency in gems and item enhancements, and this, in turn, caused players to turn to item-duping exploits to be able to compete. Ultimately, the system locked new players out of the game early on.
The controversial aspect of the Diablo III auction house is that it allows for real money trading of in-game items. That’s right: You can spend actual, real-world money on in-game items. This is a huge change for Blizzard, who have been pretty strict on real money (i.e. gold buying) in WoW.
Importantly, from Blizzard’s point of view, enabling RMTs within Diablo III legitimises the practise, and allows the company to control it. Most gold that’s bought or sold in WoWis acquired via hacking player accounts or other nefarious means (anyone who’s had to compete for mining nodes against a farming bot will attest to this). In the end, accepting that people want to spend their money on this, and supporting it only serves to eliminate the pain of players logging in to hacked accounts.
While it offers only a very small portion of the full game, the Diablo III beta has enough in it to give some impressions about the final product. What we have is a typically slick production from Blizzard, with their famous artistic flair and approach to gameplay. By streamlining the dungeon crawling genre that the first Diablo more-or-less invented, Diablo III offers up a game that is both easy to get into, and very rewarding to play.
Diablo III will be released on May 15.