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Diablo 3 beta preview: Polish and punch


While all the Diablo 3 talk this week will probably center around Blizzard's announcement of the player-to-player auction system, there's plenty to say about the game itself. It's the most polished it has ever been, and while the mechanics were in and working at the last BlizzCon, this beta build featured all of the classes with both sexes, the early questlines and story in the beginning of Act 1, co-op play, and the latest implementation of the full skill and crafting systems. We didn't get to play with the skill-tweaking Runes, but we were shown them being slotted and used in a hands-off demo.

Regardless of how you feel about real-money transactions and third-party payment providers, Diablo 3 is still turning out to be one hell of a videogame.

Gallery: Diablo 3 beta (8/1/2011) | 28 Photos

"Diablo 3 is a game about customization," says Wyatt Cheng, technical game designer at Blizzard. "It's about making interesting choices about the hero you want to be." It's that philosophy that's really shining in these polish stages -- not only is Blizzard figuring out ways to get you new loot, XP, and new skills and character tweaks as you move through the game itself, but the team is then focusing on getting you to make informed choices about which ones you want to use.

"We don't want every Barbarian to be the same," says Cheng. "Just because I picked to play a Barbarian, that doesn't define me. I can be an aggressive Barbarian, I can be a dual-wielder, I can put on my shield and take less damage. And even among the tanks, am I more focused around stuns, or focused around damage reduction or healing myself or reducing the damage that enemies do and disabling them?" Playing the Barbarian is the premiere hack-and-slash experience, whether dual-wielding or waving around a giant axe. The class is governed by Fury and, as you might imagine, the more damage you do, the more damage you'll get to do next.

All of the classes are still hosting roughly the same skills we've seen in the past, but the class resources have been tweaked and balanced out. Wizards now run on Arcane Power, and have a few spammy damage spells counterweighed with more costly status spells like Slow Time and an Arkon form that transforms both the character and her skills. Monks have Spirit, which slowly fills as you carry out his quick attacks and is then used up with big skills like a group heal, or a wall-creating skill called "Inner Sanctuary." Demon Hunters use two resources, Hatred and Discipline, and they play off of each other, pushing you to balance ranged attacks with traps and prep skills.

Skills themselves are given to players every level or so (which means every class has plenty to play with), and then they're simply chosen from a list to fit into up to six slots, slowly opened up through the progression. At level 5, for example, you might have four skills, but only two slots in which to put those. The Trait system we've seen at past BlizzCons has been simplified, and is now just called "Passives" -- three different passive abilities that you can choose for your character. Skills can be switched out at any time, which makes for a lot of experimentation, letting you try one skill at a time or see how it combines with others.

There are no skill points or talent trees at all, which marks an interesting diversion in the series. Cheng says Blizzard did a lot of testing, and found that the number of choices players made wasn't as important as which choices those were. "Would you rather have one percent bonus crit that you choose five times, which is a system that we could have gone with, or would you rather just pick one passive and say I'm good at critical hits?" asks Cheng. "Would you rather make 20 small decisions or three big ones? What we find, especially when it comes to defining your character, is that three big ones is more interesting and compelling."

Polish also means that Blizzard is smoothing out the flow of gameplay, and one new choice that they've made is that players will no longer have to return to town to sell items. Early in the game, you'll get a "Cauldron of Jordan" that sits in a permanent inventory slot and will pay out vendor price for anything you don't want. There's also a "Nephalim Cube" that will grind unwanted items into the game's raw crafting materials, so any time you need to clear your inventory you can do it right where you stand, instantly.

"Bottom line, we're an action RPG," says Cheng. "And we want to keep the action flowing. Obviously there are objections, like shouldn't there be some reason to go back to town?" And there still will be, at points. Quests return you to town, your (account-wide!) stash is there, and the vendors, repair, and crafting NPCs are all there. "But at the end of the day we want to do what plays best and what played best was the ability to decide at any time, do I want to make this item into gold or do I want to make this item into crafting materials."

Those crafting materials can be brought back to NPCs, who will, for a price of gold and mats, help you produce weapons, armor and jewelry. But rather than World of Warcraft's crafting system, which essentially serves as yet another way to get equal gear, Diablo 3's crafting is more like a second chance. "In Diablo, the crafting philosophy is take something that you don't want, and make more random items," Cheng says. "So when you ask what's better, a crafted item or a random monster item, the answer is, they're both generated from the same base materials, so it's luck."

The idea is that if you go into a dungeon and get 30 items, odds are that you may only use or need three. "The other 27 are garbage," says Cheng. "In Diablo 2, you vendor them. In Diablo 3, you salvage the materials, give them to your crafter, and you get two, three, four more chances at getting a good item again." That's not to say that there won't be rare crafting materials, but the actual produced items are meant to be random, not substitutes for dropped gear.

Quests are in, and very clean. The system quickly guides you around the game's randomized dungeons to what you're supposed to kill next, while also offering a few sidequests and even "localized events." At one point, I came across a tomb on top of a mound, and when I reached the peak, enemies appeared around the hill, making me and my party defend the top until a named NPC showed up. Those quests will always fit the context of where you are, but they're random on the map -- yet another reward.

The main storyline is in as well. Early on, you meet Deckard Cain's daughter, Leah, in "New Tristram," a gold-rush town where a meteor has fallen on the old Tristram, causing the dead to rise. Each class has their own reasons for investigating the meteor, and Leah, the NPCs, and your first follower (a Templar warrior you save from being sacrificed in a blood ritual) are quite chatty, feeding you story as you play. There are also small diary scraps to find that will play out voiceovers and lore as you fight along. I didn't find all of these in one run, but more and more appeared on subsequent runs, filling in the blanks of the characters I came across.

The UI is cleaner and simpler, and it too is full of rewards -- everything you click on supplies a satisfying sound and helps build up that character you're customizing. It's not completely done yet, as there are still a few temporary items floating around, but you can tell Blizzard has what it wants in the game, and is now trying to figure out how to make it work as best they can.

While all of the classes are solid, it's worth mentioning that playing as the Monk specifically is just an incredible experience. His combination of quick three-stage combos (whether using simple hand wraps or two enchanted short swords as I did) and Dashing Strike is just a wonder to behold, and lets you bring down a crowd of zombies with lightning speed (and actual lightning, if you're also using his elemental attack). You could spend all day just plowing through dungeons with that combo. And let's face it: when this game comes out, you probably will.

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