[ NOTE: this is my beta preview. I also have a release post on playing the Barbarian 1-60 and a separate one on the Barbarian in Inferno Mode. ]
Finally, the Diablo 3 beta invite showed up in my mailbox. Unfortunately, by the time I got it downloaded and installed I was headed to Vegas for the weekend (which wasn’t so bad, really). But as soon as I returned, I fired it up, rolled a toon, and cranked through the 1.5-2 hours it took to defeat the Skeleton King and “finish” the beta. Then I rolled another class. Then another and another until I’d played them all.
Not surprisingly, for a Blizzard game, and one that is only a month from launch, the game looks “finished” and is seemingly bug free. I didn’t have any problems. I didn’t try any multiplayer but I’m looking forward to it in the release.
Graphics wise, D3 is kinda dark, which wasn’t a problem playing at night, but during the sunny hours it was hard to see a lot of detail. I play on a Mac Pro with an Apple 30″ monitor. At full 2500×1600 resolution the game ran fine (I have a ATI Radeon HD 5870 1024 MB). There was occasional slight slowdown as new textures paged in (I think that’s what it was because it wasn’t during big fights but moving into new areas).
The art is fantastic and everything is modeled in detailed 3D, yet the classic three-quarters pulled back viewpoint limits the options for dynamic camerawork or even the simple ability to show enemies at any real scale. Overall, this substantially reduces the visual drama in favor of more approachable gameplay.
But in that regard, Blizzard does it’s usual slick job of babying you into the game. This is in complete contrast to a hardcore RPG like Dark Souls, which does no coddling. Here, you start each class with just one skill, gaining them incrementally as you level. The early quests are easy and straightforward. By the time you get into the depths of the cathedral and to level six or so, the real flavor of the class starts to emerge.
The overall gameplay is, as one of my friends said, like the Diablo II you remember, not as it actually was. If you boot up the aforementioned classic you’ll find a 2D game that runs in 800×600 (and that only with the expansion pack installed!). Sure the gameplay is slick, but the late 90s graphics are very dated. The new Diablo brings the same basic experience but updated to perhaps 2007 level technology. And really, it’s that great gameplay that matters.
I’m normally drawn toward dark wizards, and so in D2 I mostly played a Necromancer. In D3, that niche is filled by the Witchdoctor, but neither the pet based nature or the class style really appealed. I decided to try out the Barbarian. Big and plate wearing, this is a very straightforward class. The few skill choices available in the first nine or so levels basically seemed to oscillate between heavy hitting on a single target and non-quite-so heavy hitting on multiple targets. I haven’t studied the skill system in detail but it seems to have been simplified, moving away from the elaborate talent trees. Each skill can be powered up or tweaked with runes, and there are several completely distinct skill slots (primary, secondary, defensive, etc) that you can swap in and out skills that belong exclusively in their particular category. For the Barbarian, the primary is a fury generating basic attack and the secondary a harder hitting fury sink.
Progression with the Barbarian was a piece of cake. In the limited scope of the beta I barely even had to chug a health potion, perhaps once. I didn’t die at all. Even the Skeleton King was pretty easy. The attacks definitely got more satisfying as they leveled up, but some felt lackluster like the bleed-causing whirlwind. Maybe it gets cooler later. Maybe they aren’t done with it.
Still, all and all a very fun class to play.
Next I tried out the wizard. This is the ranged magical damage dealer. Overall, this class is much squishier than the Barbarian and I died in one spot (right on returning to the Cathedral where there are three big sub-bosses). You have to watch your health and make sure to kite, mostly using the freeze ray or the frost nova to slow down the badies. I liked the feel of the freeze ray, it’s pretty fun. If you tune the skills toward the electrical discharges and the spark-like exploding fireball the wizard can do some serious AOE damage. On one middling outside area I collected a rather large collection of undead and then obliterated them in a big firefight (earning a 60 enemies killed at once achievement). I think there is more pure DPS output here than with the melee classes — in exchange for being fragile.
You have to pay more attention to your resources than the Barbarian. The defensive skill (on the 1 key) is crucial. With the Barbarian it was a sweetener, here, it’s key to getting out of the middle of a big cluster of foes (or blasting them down quick if you are using Crystal Armor). Although harder, it was a fun class to play and I’ll be torn what to try first in the release version.
Third up I tried the Monk. Squishier than the Barbarian for sure, but fairly similar in that you get right in the thick of thinks and wallop. At the earlier levels the different skills didn’t seem as differentiated. Theoretically the Barbarian would be slower and the Monk more nimble, but the Barb is plenty fast, so I’m not sure I yet see a compelling advantage. The teleport TO an enemy rune is kinda cool though.
At about level 7 or 8 things power up a bit and the excitement level rises. The spinning circle of fire and triple punch are real nice. Overall this was an easy class too. I didn’t die and pretty much never needed a health pot.
A few days after finishing the monk I felt it was my duty as a Necromancer player and diehard WOW Warlock to try the Witch Doctor. It was immediately obvious that this was a seriously squishy class, even more so than the Wizard. It’s harder to kite with too. A lot of the early skills are pets of one sort or another and you have to toss them out there and run. This is true of the spiders and bats. I really didn’t like trading the snaring hands for the bats and quickly went back to it. The spiders were okay though. Like the other classes, by the time I got to level 8 or so he was getting fairly powerful. The dogs were fun. The runed version of the grasping hands was a really solid snare and the machine gun blow gun too. Fun to play, but despite the cool theme, I think the Wizard was more straightforward as a ranged caster.
This is the last class I played and thematically the least interesting. The Hunter in WOW never held any interest whatsoever for me and it’s the only class I’ve never rolled. But the D3 Demon Hunter turned out to be pretty fun. Its long range and rapid fire is satisfying and I put an epic? (yellow) bow I got from another tune to good use right from the beginning. The problem with this class, like the Witch Doctor and Wizard, is that it’s very squishy. But even more than those other two it becomes problematic when you get mobbed by mobs. The Demon Hunter can go down fast. Now, even given that, I only died on the Skeleton King, but it was the only class where the boss gave me some trouble. Once I learned to kite and stun him and run back and forth for the health balls it was okay, but still harder and slower than the other classes. Up until that point I often felt I was really kicking ass with the DH, but the problem seemed to stem from the classes’ lack of AOE. I ended up having to use the “trap” as my slowing and AOE device, laying them down (up to five) in advance. I didn’t like the invisible skill very much. The Wizard, while also a ranged squishy, has much better AOE (at least at these early levels).
I enjoy the gearing up minigame in Diablo, always have. My only complaint is the still present need to manage your inventory. It’s not as bad as in D2 where one spent a ridiculous amount of time combing the trash from your inventory and leaving it on the dungeon floor, but you still have to do this. The more readily available town portal(s) makes flipping back to sell your crap much easier.
I also don’t exactly get what gear you really want for each class. Classes can use a large percentage of the items, which I guess is a good thing, but it’s hard to know if a 15.5 dagger is better for a Wizard than a 12.0 wand.
I spent about an hour playing the last two dungeons and the Skeleton King with a pickup group of one other person. This does not represent any exhaustive survey of D3’s four player coop mode. Overall, it was fun, and slightly easier. It was also slower as one often had to wait on the other person. That player clearly hadn’t run through the whole beta four times already and didn’t know exactly where to go like I did :-). I’m assuming multiplayer is the most fun with a good or pre-made four man group. I was playing my monk (repeating the dungeons and she was level 9-11) and they were playing a Demon Hunter about two levels lower. There is no increased loot or particular advantage to playing multiplayer, either. There should be. It’s also not very competitive anymore because everyone has their own loot and there is no PVP (that’s in a separate non PVE mode like the WOW arenas).
The consistent naming and art elements in Blizzard style are an amusing note. While Diablo is darker and more gothic than WOW there are quite a number of common enemy archetypes. The grotesques (abominations in WOW) are one example. These are a distinctly Blizzard baddie. Many of the spell names (and even the class archetypes) are overlapping. The Demon Hunter fires arrows and drops traps and bombs like the Hunter. The Wizard is like a WOW Mage, even down to having a Frost Nova with nearly identical effect. There was even a skeletal sub-boss with the same name as a Scholo boss.
I can’t wait for May 15. In the meantime, watch the Wrath animated short.