Diablo I and II (1996 and 2000) are probably my two favorite games of all time, with the possible exception of Fallout (1997), but that all depends on what kind of mood I’m in. Both franchises have an apocalyptic backdrop, I bet that has something to do with my adoration for them. The main difference is that in Diablo, it’s not nuclear fire that threatens mankind, but the corporeal manifestation of the Lord of Terror. I’ve always admired Diablo for the way it managed to convey that feeling of foreboding, mostly through the melancholy representation of Tristram. The music composed by Matt Uelmen, that accompanied the short stays in Tristram, amplified that atmosphere to even greater heights. It makes for the kind of game you just don’t forget, ever. The gameplay was equally refreshing. Unlike similar games that came before it, Diablo had real-time combat, creating a particularly virulent strain of role playing games. There are many names for it: dungeon crawler, roguelike, action rpg, hack ‘n slash game, loot-based games, etc. But the result is the same every time, players around the world were completely hooked to relentlessly clicking on monsters and feverishly gathering powerful items. Blizzard recently celebrated the 15 year anniversary of the Diablo franchise and since I can remember playing the first game with crystal clarity, that makes me feel old. Older than I used to be, at least. It also means that my fondness for Diablo is strengthened by a pretty potent sort of nostalgia, all the more because the game managed to get so many intangible things right (elements unrelated to gameplay). Why am I telling you these things? Well, now that I’ve established how I feel about the franchise, it might help you understand what my angle is when I look at Diablo III. However, it’s just the beta we’re discussing, so none of this is final. Though I suspect the tone of the game will not really change this close to release.
Let’s do a little background first, Diablo III should finally be released this year and Blizzard is slowly increasing the exposure for, what has become in some way, their smallest franchise (the brunt of the focus being on Starcraft and World of Warcraft). There seems to be an odd kind of disconnect with Blizzard and Diablo that may be the result of what is now ancient history. Diablo was the creation of a studio called ‘Condor’. That studio first approached Blizzard in 1995 to simply publish their project, but when Blizzard saw the enormous potential in Condor’s game, they acquired the studio and renamed them ‘Blizzard North‘. The collaboration went well for about a decade and also led to the successful release of Diablo II. However, in 2005, after a lot of work had already been done on Diablo III, Blizzard disbanded Blizzard North and decided to start from scratch with a new team. It’s hard to say what caused that to happen, though I can’t imagine such drastic measures resulting from anything other than rather serious disagreements regarding the direction of Diablo III. The game did look quite different while it was still in development at Blizzard North. The key figures (Max and Eric Schaefer) that left after Blizzard North’s demise, started a new studio called Runic Games, which led to the release of Torchlight in 2009. Oddly enough, Torchlight has a visual style that is similar to Diablo III‘s new direction; a much more stylized look that’s reminiscent of World of Warcraft (though with a slight dash of steampunk). You’d expect them to continue with something that’s more in line with the first two Diablo games, but who knows what really motivated those decisions? Perhaps it’s better to just discuss the Diablo III beta here and leave this mystery for a time when someone is ready to talk about the game’s troubled development in more detail (I’d love to hear about it). Apparently, there is a book coming on the subject of Blizzard North, perhaps that will tell us more. For now though, let’s finally talk beta.
The first thing you will notice, is that you’re again faced with the choice of five characters. They’re not gathered around a campfire like in Diablo II, but the character selection screen looks pretty enough. The classes you can choose from range as follows: barbarian, wizard, witch doctor, demon hunter and monk. The only character that returns from Diablo II is the barbarian, though the wizard is very similar to the former’s sorceress. The other characters do have small elements from older classes, but are basically completely new. For my first run through of the beta I chose the barbarian, a grizzled looking man, but still capable of dishing out adequate amounts of carnage. The barbarian no longer uses mana as his resource pool. ‘Fury’ now fuels the necessary skills. In fact, every class has his own resource mechanic. In case of the barbarian, it works by having a few skills as fury generators and a number of other offensive skills that spend the gathered resource. In Diablo II, it only took a few uses of the ‘bash’ skill to deplete a low level barbarian’s mana supply and you’d be back to the basic attack (waiting for it to recharge at low levels took extremely long). Now though, you’re free to use the fury generating skills as often as you’d like. In the beta this felt a little overpowered, but I admit that the new resource management method will probably result in a much better balance later on. High level characters in the Diablo I and II had such high levels of mana regeneration that resource management was no longer an issue. In Diablo III, I suspect this will only get more important as characters gain levels and enter higher difficulties. Another area where this line of thinking continues is in the use of potions. In Diablo I and II players never left town without a potion belt absolutely chock full of health potions. It’s a good thing that the extensive use didn’t have any nasty side effects, because ‘extensive’ doesn’t really cover the sheer amount of potions that people used in the first two games. The potions now have a cooldown and there are health orbs that sometimes drop from downed enemies. I think we can mark that up as another improvement, the potion spamming was a bit contrived and the health orbs add another incentive to keep you moving around and to take certain risks in doing so. Actually, what I’m more concerned about, is the way skill management is rearranged. In Diablo II, each new level the character gained, netted the player a skill point that could be used to increase the power of particular skills or unlock new ones in three different skill trees. By contrast, in Diablo III, the player unlocks all the available skills as he or she progresses (and there are no skill trees to navigate). Skill use is now limited by having a maximum of 6 active skills at all times (plus one passive skill). This bothered me somewhat, as I felt constricted in the different ways I could approach a given situation, since you’re stuck with the small number of skills you’ve last chosen to be active. Yes, Diablo II’s skill point allocation system was far more permanent and didn’t allow for the swapping out of skills, but at least you had every skill available to you at all times if the necessary points were invested. While it’s true that, due to the beta’s level restriction of 13, only 4 skills are active, I’m unsure whether the relatively low final number of 6 active skills will allow for combat as complex as that found in Diablo II. Perhaps that’s why the necromancer isn’t here this time round (a class with a rather high number of useful skills). And I guess 6 skills are easier to fit on a D-pad when the inevitable console version is officially announced. Nevertheless, now that it’s easier to experiment with different skill setups (free ‘respecs’) and rotations, we might see more unconventional and fun character builds. Along with the addition of skill runes (to act as modifiers) in the final game, I hope there will be enough variety to keep things interesting.
The combat itself is immensely satisfying. The barbarian’s hits really connect with the targets, and enemy deaths remain accompanied with a variety of entertaining animations. Now that the game is no longer sprite based, physics have also been introduced in the Diablo III universe. This is especially noticeable when you slap around stuff with the barb. Both enemies and all sorts of debris fly in every direction and it really never gets old. Other nice touches are the combo counters which keep track of the amount of enemies you killed in rapid succession, or the amount you killed in one hit. This goes for items in the environment as well. You might get annoyed by the fact that you’re urged to do better everywhere, but it is kind of cool to notice that you’re breaking new records in barrel abuse. I found that the wizard’s overpowered ray of doom was very well suited to this task. By comparison, the barbarian’s skills are a little more common place, but I guess that’s what you pick the barb for. You want that frenzy skill, and that’s what you get. (Though, I imagine you can shake things up a bit once the rune modifiers come into play.) There’s lots of other nice little updates to make life easier or more interesting. During gameplay, the ‘treasure goblin’ can be encountered: in what is an obvious reference to Golden Axe, the player has to pursue a fast little goblin that can drop items if you catch him (savagely beat him over the head) before he vanishes in a portal. – In the category of changes that make life easier, we find that the inventory now holds a simple ‘stone of recall’ that allows you to teleport back to town. I admit to mourn the loss of the ‘scroll of town portal’, but I suppose keeping constant track of your scrolls doesn’t add that much. As for the ‘vendor trash’ you tend to pick up: where Torchlight introduced a pet that you could task with selling unwanted items, Diablo III has the ‘Cube of Nephalem’, which turns useless garbage into material that’s used for crafting purposes. As an added bonus, it cleans up your inventory quite nicely. The full game should also have a cauldron that’ll turn the vendor trash into gold. They basically made it so that you never have to go back to town, or your life for that matter.
Again, this is just the beta, but as it stands, there are also areas where I feel the game may have been oversimplified. There are no longer stat points to be allocated (strength, dexterity and such). In theory this means that every class can wear every piece of armor and every weapon that is found, though some items now have class restrictions on them. This was true for a small number of items in Diablo II, but I fear this might be more prevalent in Diablo III. My barbarian couldn’t use a bow I found for instance. Now, it might be utterly nonsensical for a barbarian to use a bow. But if I can find a way to make that little bow work, I want to be free to pursue that option. Similarly, if I want to pump a wizard’s strength so high that he can walk around in full plate, that should be entirely possible. It’s that kind of nonsense that keeps the game fun over the years and I really hope they don’t put too many restrictions on the classes (and the player) in that sense. One last complaint concerns the lack of information in the game’s tool tips. When I played as a wizard, it was unclear how the use of a big two-handed axe would affect spell damage or casting speed. Since the spells seem to be dependent on weapon damage (there was no distinction between staffs, wands or swords), you tend to go for the item with the highest damage per second, yet I wasn’t entirely sure on the outcome of that approach. Further more, there was no information that told me whether a spell that increased weapon damage would have a stacking effect with the offensive spells. In a game where, in the end, it all comes down to numbers, you had better make damn sure there’s enough of them there to inform the player of what’s working best.
One of the biggest debates regarding Diablo III has raged around the game’s art direction. The game’s detractors haven’t always been too eloquent in voicing their complaints, but they did have a bit of a point. While Diablo III certainly is dark and there are couple of corpses lying around, if you depict them in a certain way, you can have as much of them on screen as you want, but the game still wouldn’t have a snow ball’s chance in hell of looking the way Diablo I did when you stumbled upon the infamous Butcher. I thought about this a long time, and even the one screenshot you see above here (of the witch doctor) would suggest otherwise, but in terms of style, Diablo III definitely is a departure from the other titles. And I think that has to do with more than just a problem of color (Diablo II had that in abundance as well). That’s not to say the game doesn’t look good, the amount of attention that went into the smallest details and effects is absurd, but the mood here is definitely different from the first two games. I certainly don’t want to end on a sour note though. It’s already been eleven years since the last Diablo game and almost four since the official announcement, but even considering that length of time, I bet it’s still going to be a game worth waiting for. Hell, even the tiny beta is more fun than most full sized games I’ve played last year. The fact that it feels different from what I might have hoped for, doesn’t take anything away from that.