Diablo 3 Hands-on Preview

By Garnett Lee, Aug 01, 2011 9:00am PDT

More than three years since it was announced, Diablo III is finally getting closer to release. How close? Blizzard's Rob Pardo told us that their internal alpha of the game is finally playable from beginning to end, and that everyone on the team has been doing exactly that, over and over. That got the attention of everyone in the room. And then he called what we'd be playing shortly the beta--important word that. It's the last stage before a game is finished. My experience playing this Diablo 3 beta bore that out, revealing a number of refinements made since the last time I'd seen it, and a game shaping up for release.

As a player of ranged characters, I went with the Demon Hunter class for my main playthrough of the demo. With my freshly created Demon Hunter readied, I jumped into the beginning of the game, on the outskirts of Tristram. It's been over twenty years since the events of Diablo 2, and a new city has sprung up in the rubble of the old. Merchants eke out a living supplying adventurers venturing into the cathedral in hopes of finding valuable artifacts. All that has come to a screeching halt, though, thanks to a zombie apocalypse caused by a recent meteor strike.

As I made my way to town, it didn't take long before I got reacquainted with my old friend. There is no mistaking this game for what it is. Despite the high resolution widescreen monitors, one glance makes it obvious that this is the successor to Diablo 2. Although the most recent release was the Lord of Destruction expansion pack a decade ago, the visual evolution of D3 felt natural. It won't wow anyone, but it captures the visual feel of Diablo well. There are subtle tweaks to appreciate, not the least of which are the interface elements like the style of chat windows that come over from World of Warcraft.

It may look like Diablo, but once the action started, it felt like Diablo even more. Many games have sought to copy Diablo's action RPG formula. And while those titles can clone the various pieces of the game, it's Diablo's pace that makes playing it such an addiction. Within moments of starting this demo, I knew Diablo 3 had managed to capture that je ne se quoi again. The secret lies in the balance of rhythm of adventuring in the game. Encounter areas frequently feature large groups, yet never quite so many that I would get overwhelmed. It's a dynamic that gets the adrenalin going, and rewards me with a little downtime to poke around, uncovering the map, before hitting the next battle.

Pushing the limits of what a character can take on also promotes learning how to use all of the chosen character's strengths and tools. Since the last time I saw the game, the skill system has been switched up. Characters will be able to ultimately equip a combination of six active and three passive skills. These slots open up with new levels. Everyone starts with two actives, and gains one additional at levels 6, 12, 18, and 24 to reach the full complement of six. The first passive skill unlocks at level 10, with the other two opening up at levels 20 and 30.

The new approach may sound a little simplified. One of the points behind the change was to make it more flexible, and easily adaptable to situations in the game. As I progressed through the beta, I found this to be the case. Trudging through the swampy graveyards above ground, I found myself using a lot of snare traps combined with rapid fire to entrap and then take down groups of zombies. When the action shifted into the halls beneath the Cathedral, so did my plan of attack.

Game director Jay Wilson described the combat as "layered," thanks to a tiered series of abilities. So-called "spammable" attacks make up the first tier, followed by "breakout abilities" that can't be used as often but disrupt the battle. Finally, each class has an "escape" move to allow them to regroup when it all goes wrong. In the case of my Demon Hunter, that ability was smoke screen, and when used it gave me a few seconds of effective invisibility, allowing me to get away from groups.

Before facing off the Skeleton King, I encountered a crusading knight willing to join my fight. Followers can be thought of as "mini-heroes" that believe in the character and will fight alongside. In this case, the addition of a fighter to get out in front of my arrows proved invaluable. Diablo 3 allows the player limited control over the development of followers. They level up, and gain assignable skills at levels 5, 10, 15, and 20. I also found I was able to select my companion's weapon, so I equipped him with a heavy pike. But this customization does not extend to selecting their full set of gear.

Followers also figure prominently into the storytelling scheme for Diablo 3. Lengthy monologues are gone, replaced by conversations held with the various people met along the way. One of more important of these is Leah, the adopted niece of Deckard Cain. As well as a potent archer, she serves as a narrative bridge between the volumes of knowledge we know Cain has from chronicling the story for so long and what we as players of the game need to know.

When I finally reached the Skeleton King (yes, the legendary King Leoric who was cursed in death to serve Diablo), I took advantage of one more skill. Hitting him with "marked for death" boosted the damage my follower and I did to him, making it a little easier to bring him down while dealing with all the minions he had at his disposal. Fall he did, which meant the demo had come to an end. Much to my dismay, I couldn't continue down the glowing doorway that beckoned me on.

It's undoubtedly a throwback, but if this beta is any indication, Diablo 3 is primed for recapturing its predecessor's addictive hold. It shouldn't be long before everyone gets a chance to play the beta and get a taste of it for themselves.

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