Hands On: Diablo III

If you’re reading this article hoping to find a release date for Diablo III, one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2012, allow me to let you down gently… An official release date has yet to be announced, but Blizzard claims to be in the final polishing stages of the game. They’re still officially shooting for an early 2012 release, so hold on to your codpiece because a launch date could come at any time.

While Blizzard’s games are infamous for releasing later than expected, they’re also famous for being some of the most finely-tuned gaming experiences out there. That begs the question: will Diablo III live up to expectations and make it worth the wait? Games Are Evil recently got our hands on a copy of the Diablo III beta, so let’s break it down and see what the latest iteration in the Diablo franchise has to offer.

Diablo 3 Startup Screen

Let’s face it, Diablo III has some huge shoes to fill. When you consider the genre-transforming role of the original Diablo, followed by the massive success of its sequel, Diablo II, it’s no surprise that Blizzard has opted to not stray too far from the path they’ve already scorched (with hellfire and brimstone). From what I’ve seen in the Diablo III beta it’s evident that Blizzard has taken their patented “if it’s broke, fix it; if it ain’t broke, tweak it” approach to game development. We’ll start by looking at some of the classic game mechanics that made it into Diablo III.

The Diablo series has always been about loot, and, even in the limited gameplay demonstrated in the beta, it’s clear that nothing there has changed. Every time a monster is slain there is a twinge of hope that he might drop some seriously epic loot. “Come on, Quill Fiend… Matty needs a new pair of chainmail boots!” Diablo III may have new weapons, armor, and equipment slots, but the rush you get from looting demons hasn’t changed a bit. Prepare yourself for long nights of loot hunting when the game ships.

Diablo 3 Beta Epic Loot

Also returning with a vengeance is the breakneck pace of the game. Diablo III truly puts the “action” in Action RPG by keeping you moving and clicking constantly. Every time you slay an army and complete a quest you’re already onto the next mission before you can say “cracked sash.” Skills can be bound to the left and right mouse buttons, as well as the number keys, making for much easier use of larger variety of spells than in the previous games. This also makes a wider array of skills available at all times, pushing the pace faster than ever.

Not everything in Diablo III is borrowed from its predecessors, but thankfully I can say that most of the changes are for the better. One of the most noticeable tweaks to the Diablo formula is the removal of skill and stat points. Rather than leveling up your skills independently of one another, all skills scale together. I was a sad panda when I heard this because I liked the way skill progression worked in Diablo II. I wasn’t sure if I would like the change, but it turns out that it works really well in Diablo III. It works because the pacing of this game is so fast that, if you were to stop and plan out every skill point for your character, it would throw off your mojo in a big way. Without having to worry about what points go where, you’re free to try out new skill combinations and see what works for you. Is the Plague of Toads not lighting up your Christmas tree? Maybe a Zombie Charger will do the trick. Unlimited skill swapping allows you to focus on what’s really important: slaughtering the demons of the Burning Hells.

The new skill system brings up the only thing that has dissatisfied me so far during my time with the beta: the Nephalem Altar. These altars are placed in town and at various points throughout the game, and they are required to change from one skill to another. They were implemented as a way to control when players could swap their skills in and out, so that they aren’t changed mid-battle. While the reasoning behind the altar is solid, the implementation leaves something to be desired. The main problem the altar currently suffers from is the inability to simply look at your skills unless you’re at a Nephalem Altar. This can be particularly frustrating when you’ve just leveled up and earned a new skill and you want to know what it does. At present you have to travel back to town even if you just want to read what the skill does. Now, I’ll grant you that this is only a minor gripe in an otherwise shining game beta (that may be changed before release anyways), so take from it what you will.

Diablo 3 Nephalem Altar

Also new is the addition of health globes which supplement the need to guzzle potions constantly. Health globes are frequently dropped by fallen enemies and, when picked up, regenerate your character’s hit points over time. This is another change intended to keep the game moving quickly by reducing unnecessary baggage. Rather than picking up the potion, seeing which belt slot it fell into, and pressing the corresponding number key, all you do is walk on top of the health globe, and *shlooploop* it’s time to get back in the action.

Perhaps the biggest addition to Diablo III is the auction house. Trading is an indispensable part of the Diablo series, but has never seen a perfect implementation. The auction house has been introduced to cut down on the amount of scamming and third-party item sales going on through shady websites. Both gold and real-world money can be used to purchase gear directly in the game using the auction house. The real money auction house has been a source of many heated debates, but, personally, I’m in favor of anything that will keep credit card numbers out of the hands of people who may or may not have real items to sell.

Diablo 3 Auction House

With the release of the game right around the corner it seems that Blizzard’s next Diablo installment will qualify them for yet another gold star on their already sparkling report card. In fact, there’s so much to love about this game that I can’t fit it all into one article. Character classes, quests, lore… What would you like to know more about? Tell me what has you the most excited about Diablo III in the comments, and I’ll see if I can pester the boss enough to let me write another one!

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