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Diablo 3 Impressions: Hands-on with the Monk Class

Click, click, click. It's rare that a game is so instantly recognized by simple onomatopoeia. Diablo III has that instant recognition factor; playing the game, it is simply Diablo from the first hack.

At the same time, this isn't Diablo. It's flashier. It's faster. It's "more vibrant," as the team likes to put it. These changes were even more pronounced in this year's BlizzCon build, a tour of a desert area that included a playable version of the Monk class. The recently announced Eastern fighter is like nothing seen in previous Diablo games. For the sake of Blizzard canon, the Monk from Diablo's Hellfire expansion must have been geriatric. He came to Tristram to live out his years in peace, but was forced out of his holy Lazyboy to get the demons of Hell off of his lawn, gosh darnit.

The difference between the old and new Monks is like that of Obi-Wan and Ewan McGreggor. Things on the screen are dead before you hear the sound of the click. The Seven Strikes ability, which sees the Monk zipping across the screen to hit several surrounding enemies at once, is a good example of how Street Fighter-zany it feels. It's an absurdly kinetic class--moreso than Diablo II's Assassin--and makes for a nice addition to the cast. But then America always prefers a younger face.

Maybe it was the clouds of blood following me around, but I wasn't paying much attention to my Monk's quests in either of my playthroughs. They were the standard "go here, kill these guys" directives, handed out from NPCs with WoW-style exclamation marks above their heads. I did, however, enjoy the surprises Blizzard's working into the actual NPCs this time.

Whereas the secondary characters of Diablo were restricted to towns in the past, they now populate the world in a similar fashion to World of Warcraft. You'll find them in need of rescue, or surrounded by minions plotting an ambush. Blizzard's not afraid to throw these characters out, either. One quest had me assassinate a man in the desert. At one point I ran across a poisoned woman, who promptly vomited her guts onto the sand before literally exploding. I guess she won't be back for the expansion. The quest environments contained some surprises as well. One random teleport pad took me to a crumbling dungeon, with a four minute timer counting down to the roof caving in. The idea was spelled out by a quick dialogue line from my Monk: grab as much loot as possible, but find the exit before the timer ends. He sounded cooler when he said it.

The concept of balancing loot greed with the possibility of death was great to begin with, but the chaotic setting made it something memorable. Falling boulders crashed down from above, damaging heroes. Stone columns disintegrated, either broken by errant Wizard spells or by the general calamity. The panic to smash through a wall of enemies--the last-second dash to the exit, a yellow item just out of reach taunting you.

Artistically speaking, Diablo III is doing some things that I really appreciate. Spell effects have a very satisfying punch to them. The boundaries of zones are detailed and make more sense in the context of a large world--rather than a solid rock wall, there are cliffs and bridges and other doodads off in the distance. Tornadoes whip through the world, and the destructible objects are incredibly well done.

From a gameplay perspective, I can't get enough of the game. Many of the things that made Diablo II a unique game are changed, but not to its detriment.

When you die, you simply respawn at the last checkpoint. The importance of health potions has been diminished by health orbs and cooldown timers for potions, but as much as potion spam defined the Diablo experience, I'm not sorry to see it go. When you nuke ten enemies at once, they don't all die in that chunky, satisfyingly synchronous death animation, instead exploding dynamically into random bits and pieces--it's different, but my brain enjoys it on the same level.

The majority of the ingredients are the same, but it's a different flavor of Diablo. Same brand, new great taste.

In some ways, it's frustrating how long Blizzard is taking to get these games out. They probably could rush Diablo III out in less time, patch in their high-level tweaks later on, and people might be happier--myself included. Diablo II and StarCraft weren't made over the span of presidential terms, and they certainly turned out fine.

Yet every year at BlizzCon, I play a new version of these games again. And every year, they're inevitably that much better. It's hard to argue with that.

Blizzard has me right where they want me: sitting in anticipation as the clock counts down the wait. Click, click, click.

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