Diablo 3 Open Beta Weekend Report
It’s been quite a while since I last played Diablo 3 — it was late September 2011, in fact, when I reviewed the closed beta. Since then, there have a been a number of wholesale changes to the game. This past weekend, with the release date looming, I hopped back into the open beta to see how things were doing.
Many of the changes have been largely uncontroversial — UI tweaks and various streamlining measures. Scrolls of Identify have been removed, in favor of a short channel bar that has largely the same effect without requiring consumable items. The Cauldron of Jordan and Nephalem Cube, which allowed players to sell and salvage items on the go, are also gone. Players will still hawk common items and break down magical, rare, and legendary items into their component parts, but will now have to make a trip to town in order to do so. These jaunts will come courtesy of a dedicated Town Portal button on the action bar, right next to health potions, which now also have their own dedicated slot and hotkey.
More contentious are the changes to the skill system. I was a fan of Diablo 3′s endlessly customizable character builds last fall, and I still am — I have little sympathy for people who yearn for the days of accidentally gimped builds and the hours of grinding it took to try new playstyles. That said, Blizzard might have overreached a little bit by dividing skills into 6 class-based categories, each of which corresponds to a mouse button or a hotbar slot. Though this change makes it easy to combine six skills into a usable build, and was clearly designed with inexperienced players in mind, it feels very forced. Thankfully, an optional “elective mode” allows players to select and deploy any six skills, regardless of category. This should assuage fan complaints.
The rune system, which gives players a choice of six powerful effects to apply to each skill (knockback, fire damage, increased duration, etc.), adds another layer of welcome customization. It also ensures that you’ll get some sort of upgrade every level, and often more than one. Since attribute points are assigned automatically when you level up, providing a more tangible reward every time is a wise move by the developers.
I was impressed by the automated matchmaking feature — simply choose a quest, and Diablo 3 drops you into a game with other people who are working towards the same goal. You join a party automatically when you join the game, and banner-like portals in the center of town enable you to teleport directly to your cohorts in the field.
Crawling dungeons in groups of five was not without its faults, however. My least favorite new feature is the variety of garish, technicolor spell animations that have been added since my initial playthrough. Belonging more to World of Warcraft than Diablo, they are tolerable for solo play, but quite distracting in groups — five players casting spells in one area can quickly turn the action into a confusing mess. This is all well and good at level 11, but I can imagine it driving high-level and particularly hardcore mode players up the wall. On a more personal level, I really missed the old animations of the Monk class, which I enjoyed in September and therefore rolled again this time around. They were simple, brutal, and easily visible — everything that the current crop of colorful chaos is not.
I also suffered from persistent and precipitous frame-rate drops, something which I never experienced during the closed beta. This might be attributed to growing pains on the part of Blizzard’s new Diablo 3 servers, but in the frenzied world of Diablo combat, every second counts, and I hope the issue is resolved before release. The spell animations, I fear, are here to stay.
The true test of Diablo 3′s success will be measured first by evaluating the entirety of its content, and then by keeping an eye on its longevity. Despite my misgivings about some of Blizzard’s new innovations, however, my excitement for the game is undimmed. The developers seem intent on paring the game down to its bare essentials — using magical abilities to hit monsters where it hurts — and their mastery of that endlessly satisfying feedback loop is still complete. Now I have three weeks to decide which class to pick on May 15th.