Thursday, June 30, 2011

Diablo 3 preview

Playing Diablo 3 is like being a little kid again with a pile of birthday presents laid out before you. You race to get to the next monster, environment and level-up, tearing and ripping and cutting everything open in a mad dash, hellbent on one thing: the precious gold and XP inside. The previous Diablo games, both undisputed classics, were frantic click-and-loot fests with an action RPG sheen, but Diablo 3 ups the frenzy quotient further, blessing every single click with satisfaction both instant and deep.

The game's matured a bit since we saw it last year -- the build at BlizzCon this weekend showed off the game's final class, the Demon Hunter (or "Huntress," in this demo), as well as a new 3-vs-3 arena mode and an updated UI system. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the development is definitely progressing, and the game's core gameplay is up and running. And it is as rewarding as video games get.

The Demon Huntress

The Demon Hunter class is an interesting take on the standard ranged class -- as Blizzard told the Con during the Diablo 3 gameplay panel, the character is meant to convey a dark sense of desperation (in that she will do anything to stop evil), as well as a bit of shadow magic and technological wizardry. The character art never crosses into the realm of steampunk, but the dual crossbows give the class a bit of a firearm feel, blasting waves of damage in various directions. I also played with a shot that slowed enemies and an explosive Bolo Shot that fired a wraparound projectile, which exploded after a short delay.

The Demon Hunter is forced to be very nimble, too, aided by her Vault ability, which flings her across the screen in a blur of acrobatic flare and dark magic. Since some enemies can close range quite quickly, you're meant to use this move often.

Just as with the other Diablo 3 classes, the Demon Hunter really starts to shine once you mix and match its abilities. It's fun to try to just bolo a bunch of enemies, sure, but temporarily hinder their advance with a slow shot -- enough time to lay down a trap -- and then bolo them, and then vault away just as they reach you (only to be ensnared in your trap -- and, of course, engulfed in the bolo explosion) and you realize that Diablo 3's combat requires a little more thinking than most hack-n-slash games. The Barbarian, for example, can use his Ancient Spear to pull a target close, ground stomp to stun, and then swing for the fences; and the Monk can sprint into the middle of a crowd, whip out some kung-fu, and then use a new ability called "Wave of Light" to finish off the monsters and heal himself from the damage.

This stacking strategy goes even further with the new Rune system, which has evolved in the new build. Runes are special gem-like items that augment skills rather than gear, so the Monk's electric fist might be turned into a poison fist, or the Barbarian's Leap might grant a stun or a knockback. Runes are great fun, especially since Blizzard has done a lot of work to make the "Rune-shaped" abilities very diverse. My Wizard found a rune that turned his Hydra spell (usually just a summoned hydra that shoots fireballs) into a fire wall, and it completely changed the way I used the spell and played the class.

The skill tree itself has received a UI facelift that makes it simpler to browse and choose abilities; though Blizzard has suggested it's likely to change again before release. Traits are better implemented, too, but they are still very much a work in progress.

The BlizzCon build also shows off the Talisman feature, which moves Diablo 2's charms out of the inventory and into a special paper doll slot. Additionally, the new demo included a few quests: one was straightforward and had you teaming up with a friendly NPC vendor to get revenge on a nuisance partner; and the other asked players to dungeon crawl through bits and pieces of story about a king driven mad by the powers of Hell. Neither quest was fully fleshed out, and they functioned more as placeholders in the demo -- and we're forced to keep waiting to learn more about the game's story.

PvP Battle Arena

The player-versus-player arena mode was also up and running in the new demo -- in 3-on-3 form. And it was chaos.

Diablo 3's graphics are flashier than its predecessors, and when you have six characters filling the screen with spell effects like meteor drops, zombie dog pets, Barbarian whirlwinds and the Demon Hunter's spike traps, things get confusing. Add in runes and the way they completely change the way some spells look, and I had a hard time narrowing down solid strategies in the twenty or so matches I played.

There were a few reasons for this: For one, the game's not yet fully balanced; plus we were all thrown into the arena with characters, runes and abilities we'd never seen before. In the final version, you'll be playing in the arena with your own leveled-up character (though some spells may not work quite the same in PvP as they do in co-op).

Still, overall, the BlizzCon demo was fun as all get-out. Even before you crack open the rune system or the skill trees, just tooling through a dungeon killing slimy things is full of great payoffs; from tons of sweet loot and gold (you can even earn extra XP for killstreaks or killing multiple monsters with one ability) to fleeting pleasures like catching a crowd of zombies in an environmental trap. Even breaking open the "crates" is fun -- instead of generic boxes, Blizzard has decorated the dungeons with unique items, like old torture racks and an inexplicable and creepy "Bucket of Blood"; and all are there for you to break open and find the delicious candy inside. The rewarding gameplay is heightened by the gorgeous graphics: enemies die with very satisfying animations and the level-up "flash" your character experiences is just plain beautiful.

Though I'm convinced we won't see the finished product before 2012 (and, of course, Blizzard hasn't even dared to pose a suggested release date), no matter when it's done, Diablo 3 shows every sign of being well worth the wait.

Mike Schramm

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