Here's what's unfair: three wizards, each dropping a fireball-spewing Hydra, firing laser beams of death, calling meteors out of the sky and landing them on our hapless team. The Wizard is over-powered.
She's also hilarious to play. Right now, a team of three wizards are completely destroying us in Diablo III's competitive arenas – a new addition to the series. Here, your character – or 'build' – is dropped into a cage fight. It's vicious and frenetic – no round lasts more than 90 seconds. Every cooldown, every trick, every hilariously overpowered ability fires off at once.
We are PC Gamer and two friends. We're playing at Blizzcon, on the open machines that are available for attendees to test the game. Our enemies have been round the queue multiple times, fine-tuning their build, their tactics and their teamplay – discussing everything in fine detail. They really know what they're doing.
We haven't discussed our tactics much. We've pushed to the front of the queue, waving press badges and pretending we're important. We're completely outmatched.
We think a spread of skills will be fun. We have one of each of the three PvP classes: a Witch Doctor, a Barbarian and our own Wizard. Our Barbarian leaps in first, swinging his axe like a whirlwind. The Witch Doctor lobs magic Molotovs. The Warrior is a blur, punching and kicking seven shades of hell out of anything that moves. We giggle.
The three wizards on the opposite side spam meteor. They focus fire with a disintegrate beam. When we think we've got one cornered, she teleports out of the trap, her skin turning to diamond. It's bloody irritating.
Within a few moments, we're dead. All three of our enemy wizards are still standing. Shit. Try again. Same result. Again. They smash us even harder. Pause. Let's think about this.
“Barbarian, you corner one, get in their face. I'll stand back and disintegrate. Witch Doctor, you... you... God, what is it you do anyway?”
“I make zombie bears happen.”
Blizzcon has been kind to Diablo III. This annual showcase of forthcoming Blizzard games has lacked a major announcement, and the Diablo III demo is reaching crush point. This compulsive, violent action-RPG is drawing crowds, and they're more than satisfied with what they're playing.
Last year, the launch of the Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft dominated the show, crowding out the drip feed of information about one of the five Diablo III character classes, the Monk. This year, the only major announcement out of the show comes from the Diablo III team: a fifth character class is on the way.
Spawned as a very, very fast RPG, the original Diablo played like a cross between D&D and such text-based dungeon crawlers as Angband. It was set in the hell-sieged world of Sanctuary, where you descended 16 levels beneath the town of Tristram, finally taking on the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. It was fast, brutal and fun, with randomised levels, randomised loot and randomised hordes of monsters. Within seconds of starting, you could be beating up crowds of hell-spawn. Within minutes you'd be hooked – levelling up, replacing your crap jerkin with shiny armour. A million mice died at the hands of gamers clicking their way through Normal, Nightmare, and Hell difficulty dungeons. An expansion and a sequel followed. Then... silence. Many of the creative leads within Blizzard left the company to strike out on their own. Nothing. Blizzard's focus shifted almost entirely to building on and improving World of Warcraft. For nearly five years, Diablo III was no more than a rumour.
Fast-forward. It's August 1, 2008. Blizzard are hosting a party at the Porte de Versailles Exposition Centre in Paris, their Worldwide Invitational. Rumours of a Diablo III have circulated online for the past week, aided and abetted by Blizzard's own websites teasing a 'major announcement'. “It's got to be Diablo III. Surely...”
A guitarist takes to the stage. A first chord rings out. It's the opening bars of the Diablo III theme. Paris explodes.
Back to Blizzcon. You can spot the Diablo III team mingling in the crowd. There's Jay Wilson, the game director – short, slightly balding, obviously passionate. Jay has made some of the most violent PC games of all time: he's responsible for the vicious artillery bombardments in Company of Heroes and Dawn of War. That's Wyatt Cheng, technical designer, giggling about giant frogs. He's a veteran of the World of Warcraft team – now responsible for turning the mechanics of dice rolls and critical hits into fast action violence.
And there's Christian Lichtner, the lead artist. When Diablo III launched, the art design took some serious heatfrom core Diablo fans; 63,000 PC gamers signed a petition expressing “the disappointment of Diablo fans about the way Diablo III artistic design is being done.” Those fans believed the game should feature dark, gothic horror, not the bright, well-lit violence we're currently being confronted with.
This has quickly become a running joke. Every panel and powerpoint at Blizzcon so far has been interrupted by a unicorn and a rainbow bouncing across the screen. It's funny. We laugh.
The final class to be revealed for Diablo III is the Demon Hunter, a fantasy gunslinger who keeps demons at bay with twin crossbows and a steady stream of grenades. The vast cheer this news provokes is a mark of the passion of this mainly American audience.
The Demon Hunter plays into the Diablo III mechanics perfectly. By making her (a male version is coming, but the Diablo III team haven't finished his looks just yet) a ranged specialist, you're forever working to kite monsters away from you, using a dash/somersault move to dart into space, then ducking back to fire a multi-shotFan of Knives at the pursuing baddies. Her Bola Shot is the coup de grace – it's a string that wraps around a single target, to which is tied two small explosives on a slight delay. Fire, skip, jump. Wait a moment. Pop.
Away from the showfloor, Jay explains some of the thinking behind the Demon Hunter. Her inspiration is “part Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld films, part Boba Fett. The idea of a kind of monster hunter was always the class on the list that we were like 'we really, really want to do this'.” The problem: WoW already has plenty of Demon Hunters, and the team were nervous about repeating concepts. “We don't want people to think we're pulling stuff from that. But then we went, 'Well, if Diablo can't have a class called a Demon Hunter, no game can,' so that kind of convinced us.”
The Demon Hunter makes us all the more keen to try the singleplayer/co-op demo, because for the first time, all of the game's five classes are ready to test. This playable slice of Sanctuary is devastatingly smart and seriously slick. You begin in a dungeon and within seconds you're screaming through demons. The Demon Hunter multishot skill quickly proves its worth. Demons in Diablo don't come singly, or in pairs. They come in vast hordes. Casters at the back, shackled to pets. Ranged attackers lobbing fireballs and pyroblasts in the centre, creeping up, taking a shot, then pulling back. Creepers and melee at the front. They scuttle forward, take a swipe and then pause, stupid enough to give the player a chance to kill them, vicious enough that if you're cornered, you'll need to spam a Fan of Knives.
It's clear from the demo that a Diablo monster's job isn't to be a vicious and cunning AI, or a realistic and thoughtful opponent. Their job is to die, bloodily. And so they do. Zombies explode in a mash of gore, limbs rolling across the floor. Vast bile boomers pop, leaving behind waves of snakes. Demons are sucked up into the ether. Gibs fly, ricocheting off the walls. When a caster is hooked by a Bola Shot, it keeps on coming for a moment, oblivious to its impending doom.
Then, pop, an explosion takes it out.
The demo continues. As a team, we pass slicing and dicing traps. We lead hordes of zombies into a fire pit. We find a man caught in a guillotine. We all left click, hoping to rescue him. His head flops into the bucket. Oops.
This is a dark, dark world. And to think the fans were worried that Diablo was going to be sucked into WoW's sparkle-horse fantasy land.
Away from the show floor, Christian talks about the art style – which to our eyes has deepened and darkened since the initial reveal. “Diablo II was ten years ago,” he says. “We've had a lot of opportunities to improve on the tech. Visually, it's a bit more mature rated, and we use the 3D a lot. The Demon Hunter class, for instance, can bounce grenades off walls.”
Yes, you can bounce grenades off walls. It takes skill and timing, but when it works, it's supremely satisfying. A puddle of claret and loot is all that's left of a group of zombie archers.
Loot is the point of Diablo. Clicking and killing is all fun, but it's the spoils, not the victory, that drives us forward. And, already, you can see that the loot systems and mechanics within Diablo III are extraordinarily compulsive. There are 18 distinct tiers of armour to collect, and you can carry each set over into a harder difficulty. You'll also want to gem your armour and optimise it for certain stats. Good luck with that. There are 14 levels of gems, but only five drop in the world. The rest are combined by artisans – you have to craft and upgrade them yourself. The perfect build is going to take time.
Speaking of which, as we exit the dungeon and head outside, we level up. There isn't a ding, or a chorus of angels. Levelling up is like being gut-punched by an upgrade. The screen explodes in white light, there's a deep bass, a crack and your health meter is suddenly refilled. It's a traumatic joy.
There's no tree of abilities in Diablo – you don't pick talents like in WoW. Instead, you just choose from a list. And they're all good options. You're going to want Fan of Knives, Grenades, Bola Shot and Entangling Shot. You can equip up to seven skills, but there are over 20 to choose from. You'll want to upgrade them to their full potential, but you can't if you want them all, too. Making that choice is hard. It's complicated by the addition of runes. Every skill can have a rune added to it – sidegrades that turn something relatively fun into something gloriously absurd. Every other level, you'll also get to upgrade some of your passive abilities. Make fire-damage more burny. Make your armourstronger. Do more damage every time you swing an axe. The interface for making these upgrades is simple, but it masks a deep complexity.
There are five types of rune, each with seven skill levels. They're grouped into themes of colour; Crimson, Indigo, Obsidian, Golden and Alabaster. Applying a rune alters the skill, and although the Diablo III team have yet to drop the full list of what they do and what each theme means, there are examples. An Indigo rune applied to the Wizard's mirror image spell means that you'll get more than one mirror image. And the higher the level rune, the higher the number of mirror images. These runes apply universally. So if you get a level four Crimson rune, you'll have to make a choice. What skill do you put it in?
The level of sheer brain-melting complexity on display is joyous. A Wizard's magic missile skill goes from a single shot to a barrage of projectiles. A plague of toads goes from a few hopping monsters to a swarm, then to a single giant toad that eats zombies and shits out loot. Runes are hilarious – by far the best part of skilling up.
The power of this system is extraordinary. Combine the different skill builds, the passive abilities, the runes and where players spend points, and you're left with a big number ofpossible builds. Over 97 billion, in fact. Wyatt starts laughing as we talk this number over. “Yeah, it's silly. But we're convinced that at least 80 billion of those will be fun. Heads are going to explode with the possibilities.”
Aren't they going to be overpowered? Aren't they going to devastate your PvP? World of Warcraft has spent years trying to balance PvP powers with PvE powers. “Part of the appeal,” says Wyatt, “is finding that overpowered build. So we're not worried about someone finding a really good build.”
And PvP? “We're primarily a PvE game. We're not going to alter any of our PvE balance for PvP reasons.”
And that gets to the heart of why our PvP encounters in the Diablo III arena are such awesome fun, and why we're not smarting from repeated losses like we normally would. Instead, we're eager to dive back in for more.
The Diablo III arena is throwaway. It's there for shits and giggles, not to be some kind of drama-filled competitive, noob-unfriendly game. “The thing we want to really try and avoid,” says Jay, “is the natural instinct for everyone to turn it into a super uber hardcore e-sport. The problem is that it's never, ever, because of the nature of our game, going to be balanced for that. The point of it is to have some fun.”
Yes, there will be matchmaking. Yes, you'll get experience and ranks and rewards, like it's a Meteor Spellenhanced RPG version of Call of Duty. “But we're never going to compete with arena battles in WoW or StarCraft.”
As we complete our run through the Diablo III demo, the screen fades to black. The background is replaced by a black screen, over which a rainbow appears. We dance to avoid flaming meteors before, finally, we're splatted. It's hilarious. A bloody good time.
The queue is massive. But we're press. We call the attendant over.
“Can we have another go?”