Hands-on with Diablo III's desert wastes

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Yes, it hasn't even been a week since we brought you some hands-on impressions of Diablo III. One might say it's too soon to add to those impressions, and one might have a good point. Allow us to offer a counterpoint: It's Diablo III. This game, at the very earliest, will not release until 2025 (Q4, of course). As such, we have to provide you with any and all possible coverage. It would be irresponsible not to. Besides, there's some new stuff to cover here, and it's good stuff.

As we reported earlier, the Monk is designed to play like a fighting game character. Having spent considerable time testing out his skills, I can vouch for Blizzard's efforts. We knew that the Monk's skills could be chained into combos using multiple clicks. As an example, the Crippling Wave skill delivers three successive staff attacks - one attack per click -- with each attack doling out debuffs to the enemies, culminating in an area debuff attack on the third strike. What we didn't know, was that these combos can be performed across various skills.

In other words, by assigning two different skills to each mouse button, it's possible to mix and match the various combo skills. Want to deliver two blows of the crippling wave technique and then cap it off with the final strike of the Exploding Palm? Go for it. Now the enemy has debuffs applied to it and, most likely, will explode in a few seconds. Then toss in the fact that many of the Monk's skills don't require mana -- although more advanced techniques like the Seven-Sided Strike do -- and players are really encouraged to experiment with different strategies. In fact, the Monk setup at PAX didn't even include a regular attack button, instead assigning the Exploding Palm as the default left button -- you can assign a standard attack button if you want, of course.

Strategies seem like they will be very important for the Monk too, because he's not as tough as the Barbarian. While he's certainly capable of dishing out damage, he's no tank. Unlike the Barbarian, the Monk is fairly frail. Since nearly all of his attacks require you to be extremely close to the enemy, you'll need to adjust tactics in order to keep foes manageable. If not, you'll quickly find yourself surrounded -- and then dead.

And there are plenty of enemies to surround you. The area I played was a desert outside the city of Alcarnus -- think the area outside of Lut Gholein in Diablo II. The region played host to a menagerie of demons and beasts, including massive sword-wielding warriors, lizards that swim through the sand like sharks and whirling dervishes -- floating specters that spin, slashing my hero with blades at the end of their long robes. Clever use of skills are needed to take them all out, especially against monsters with special attributes. One monster I encountered healed himself every time he struck, which made him very difficutl to dispatch, especially when I was surrounded by other baddies too. Protip: The Seven-Sided Strike is a great way to break up a crowd.

The Monk looks great doing it too, with some impressive spell effects and some wonderful gore. Set off a few Exploding Palms and you'll understand. Small touches, like new character animations during conversations, give real personality to the game, even to the NPC characters. One character I met had been poisoned and used the last bit of her strength to lead me toward her killer. Doubled over and profusely spewing bile, she limped onward until she collapsed (and subsequently exploded into a disgusting vomitous mass). These are small details, but they add a welcome layer of reality to the characters and the world in which they live.

The control scheme has seen some significant changes, with four skills assigned to the 1-4 keys on the keyboard, another on the left mouse button and a second skill on the right button. The right button skill can be hotswapped with another pre-selected skill by hitting the tab key. I'm not sure how much further customization will be in the final game -- control options were disabled in the PAX demo, but I couldn't help but feel like the setup was too limited. It's not uncommon for dedicated Diablo players to employ lots of hotkeys to quickly cycle through skills. I personally have nearly a dozen skills hotkeyed on my Diablo II Necromancer. Blizzard has stated that it wants to keep the game "fairly mouse-centric," but hopefully the game will still allow the level of customization that players are used to.

Beyond that (minor) gripe, the game is shaping up to be everything a Diablo and Blizzard fan would expect it to be. It looks great and, more importantly, plays as well as it always has. The din of mouse clicking surrounding the Blizzard booth pays testament to that. The hardest thing about all of it is that, even though it already plays like a finished game, none of us will be able to lay our hands on the finished product for long, long time.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.