4 Hours Of Hands On With Diablo 3
Man oh man, has there ever been a serious epidemic of old time game franchises revived for modern consumption. Sadly, it’s been a mixed bag. Yeah, Mortal Kombat ruled. But Dungeon Siege 3 was basically a waste of time (and don’t get me started on the HD remakes). It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that Blizzard’s decision to bring back the Diablo series didn’t light a fire in my brain. Was Diablo awesome? Yes. When my dial up was enough to play. What about Diablo 2? Hell yes. When the Sopranos was still good.
By which I mean those games were very incredible but after letting the franchise lay fallow for more than 10 years is it possible to actually make something that’s actually worth playing? This is proof that I am stupid because Starcraft 2 is incredible. So it was that last week during my trip to Diablo HQ, I lost – literally – nearly 4 hours playing the (barely) beta version of Diablo 3. I’m not kidding. 4 hours lost easily, playing through a very small portion of the game that even after that length of time I wasn’t able to finish. Even at this early stage, as resurrected franchises go, Diablo 3 looks to be every bit StarCraft 2′s equal. It’s addictive, fun, varied and beautiful to behold.
It’s worth noting that the internal version Blizzard’s staff plays is still called alpha. They called what they let the press play ‘beta’, but I couldn’t help but feel like we accessed a gussied up version of the alpha. Even so, I’m in love. Diablo 3 handles as easily as you’d expect from the World of Warcraft and StarCraft 2. You control your character and manage their primary weapon with your mouse. Secondary powers are assigned to the number keys on your keyboard. The player can choose which powers are assigned to which keys or mouse commands, and the rest is point and click. It’s the kind of control scheme you normally associate with F2P MMOs.
I mention free to play games because last week, a minor freak-out broke out over the news that Diabo 3 will be a ‘casual’ game. Blizzard reps quickly clarified that by ‘casual’, they don’t mean ‘Wii’, just that it won’t require a WoW level time commitment from players. Otherwise, it’s going to be an experience similar to what players got with Diablo 2.
I can’t pretend to speak for every gamer, but I found Diablo 3 an immersive experience closer to a true RPG than to games like Angry birds. Interactions with NPCs unlocked new quests; quests aren’t nonlinear, but players have a degree of freedom to explore; combinations of weapons and magical abilities guarantee combat isn’t a bore; and the story unfolds slowly enough, and uniquely for each class you play, that it appears you’re guaranteed a unique experience no matter how you play.
Diablo 3 looks great. It’s an isometric view, and while you can zoom in similar to StarCraft, you can’t get the kind of close up detail possible with a 3rd person game. Even so, it looks spectacular, richly detailed utilizing a full color spectrum. Rich environments that appear vast in scale pop out of the screen and the little details, such as the way your character looks as you change their armor and weapons, are brilliant. The attached photos do some justice to the final product, but the highest compliment is this: it looks the way you remember Diablo 2 looks in your memory. It creates a kind of continuity with the previous games, while surpassing them.
First things first. Players will absolutely be able to choose to play as part of a group, or simply bang a game out in a solo campaign. I opted to play a solo campaign, all the better to save myself from potential embarrassment.
Diablo 3 takes place 20 years after Diablo 2. The demons of hell are still problematic, but more worrisome is the apparent fulfillment of the Diablo universe’s end-times prophecies. A meteor has struck the former city of Tristram, and the dead are rising from the graves. The character you choose will have a highly personal reason for involving themselves in this mess, and you’ll spend your game sorting out what the hell caused the disaster, discovering whether or not it’s actually the end of the world and tracking down the last of Diablo’s unaccounted for demonic forces. Simple stuff!
There are 5 classes total: Barbarian, Wizard, Monk, Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor. I chose the Demon Hunter class. We previewed the Demon Hunter last fall and I am as impressed now as Mark Burnham seemed to be then. She (and the default is female though I played as male) is, for lack of a better descriptor, Diablo 3′s steampunk class. Her backstory – she lost her family to attack by demons and is now fanatically devoted to rooting out and destroying every demon she can find – is straight out of the 1800s. She wears an outfit that is 50% industrial ages and 50% Elizabethan. She wields two crossbows, and an assortment of cool gadgets and magic powers.
Like all classes, the Demon hunter’s powers and magic are enabled by a power source specific to the class. In her case, she has access to ‘Hate’, and ‘Discipline’. Hate is easy to earn simply by attacking as much as possible. Discipline takes more time to earn, as the name implies, but you’ll do so in combat and by completing missions. As you can expect, the powers fueled by Disclipline and Hate have different strategic advantages. Discipline powers pack a lot of punch, well worth the time and effort it takes to earn, while hate-based powers are excellent for rapid attacks and unleashing short bursts of carnage.
The mission I played appears to have been quite early in the game. Your character has traveled to New Tristram, a village built on the ruins of the city that was largely destroyed in Diablo 2. At the beginning of the game, a meteor has crashed into the new town and in its wake, zombies have risen from their graves and are making delicious lunches of the local citizenry. You’re asked to track down Diablo series mainstay Deckard Cain by his adopted niece. From there, I explored the ruins of a cathedral and wandered around a massive graveyard. One nice touch is that there are mini missions liberally sprinkled around the map, accessible simply by exploring. These missions aren’t mandatory, but you can find useful items and unlock new areas simply by trying to open every door you come across.
Players have access to both passive and active abilities, which essentially fall into offensive and defensive powers. The powers are class-specific, as you’ve no doubt guessed. I was only able to unlock a few of the available powers, but those I did unlock were awesome. One secondary weapon allows you to fire off rounds from a firearm that blast your enemies away from you. If they get too close to you while you’re using the weapon, you’ll jump away from them. I also had a grand old time using the secondary crossbow’s feature that sends blasts of flame like medieval guided missiles. The Demon Hunter can also launch nice little magical explosive grenades and sticky arrows that cause your enemies to slow down, or my personal favorite, the Fan of Knives, literally an explosion of blades expanding outward, excellent for repelling persistent ghouls.
What struck me while playing is that Diablo 3 just works. I wasn’t joking when I said I spent 4 hours like it wasn’t even a thing playing. I barely got a glimpse of the full story but I was dying to play and keep playing. The game certainly felt nerfed, appropriate since they were letting a roomful of journalists have at it, but even if it was kind of easy, it was still challenging. Naturally, the challenge in the limited game I experienced was the tactical use of the weapons and the powers you can unlock. But even in this limited context, Diablo 3 has the makings of a classic. I spent most of an Afternoon with my face buried in the monitor and it still wasn’t enough. Compulsive isn’t normally a compliment but here it’s the highest praise possible and I cannot wait for Diablo 3 to go beta.
Ultimately, one can’t pass strict judgement, given that we’re still months from even the beta test. But I can honestly say I want more, and more, and more. Addictive, gorgeous and fun? Hell, forget playing Diablo 3, maybe we ought to see if it will take us to prom.