This preview originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 231.
A few months ago I was at Blizzard headquarters, where I found out that Diablo III will let players buy and sell items for real cash , forbids mods , and will only be playable online . The news was pretty bad, bad, and very bad respectively. And yet I ended up leaving the building more excited about the game than I ever have been – because I played it.
For most, I think these bizarre rules will end up as an inconvenience. But Diablo III is a game worth being inconvenienced for. It remains a brisk and kill-happy action RPG, but the classes are now powerful and exciting in a way that they simply haven't been before, and how you set about developing them has been altered in an extraordinary way.
What's gone is actually one of my most distinctive memories of Diablo II: the agony of deciding where to spend a newly gleaned skill point. Skill points are now a thing of the past. Rather than developing one particular configuration of a class over dozens of hours, Diablo III lets you try out every possible build of that class at every level.
Each time you level up, you get a new skill for your class. But you can't equip them all at once: you start with two skill slots, which steadily expand to six by level 24. At any time, you can choose which skills to fit into those slots. These are then the ones that you can make use of in battle, via the mouse buttons or hotkeys.
Because there's no cost for changing which skills you put in these slots, you're free to try out every possible configuration. You never commit to anything: if you reach level 60 focusing your Witch Doctor purely on curses and poisons, you can switch over to an all-pets build and be just as good with it as if you'd been using it all along.
You no longer upgrade skills by pumping extra points into them. Instead, each skill can be fitted with one Runestone, and each type of Runestone has a different effect on each skill. I still haven't had a chance to try this myself: the build I played, the beta, is part of the opening chapter, before you find any of these. But lead designer Jay Wilson showed me how the Wizard, usually a long-range class, could be turned into an unstoppable melee monster by subverting six different skills with various Runestones.
Skill Runestones may end up being one choice you do commit to, in a way. The idea Blizzard are now toying with is that when you put one into a skill, it will become 'attuned' to that skill. You can still remove it freely at any time, but the Runestone won't work in any other skills. That way, you can't try every possibility as soon as you find one Runestone, but you can always go back to a combination you tried and liked.
The beta takes you from the start of the game to about level nine: a quest through the rebuilt town of Tristram, the surrounding fields, and the randomly generated depths of the town's cathedral – Diablo III is set in a far fantasy world where having a cathedral does not qualify you as a city. Tristram has been rebuilt from the ruin it was in Diablo II, only to be hit by a meteor that immediately starts bringing the dead back to life. Return from the dead once, shame on you. Return from the dead three times, shame on the anti-cremation lobbyists.
When I played it through as the Monk, it was with a Witch Doctor friend. The Monk is a martial artist, and mystic forces enhance his blows. My favourite skill was Deadly Reach: a three-hit combo in which every jab and swipe is extended with a magical shockwave that lets you hit a whole line of enemies in front of you. It added a level of smallscale tactics to every fight that I got hooked on: filtering enemies into queues, blinding them with an area of effect spell to keep them still, then shredding them with the vicious snapping of my skinny limbs.
Once I had three slots, a teleport and a heal skill, I shelved the blinding one to take both. I'd zap in to the fray, punch spikes of damage through the fleshy throngs of undead, then zap out to my Witch Doctor accomplice and heal us both. The Monk doesn't feel like any class I've played in Diablo before – not even the, er, Monk (in Hellfire, the expansion for the original). He's ferociously fast, and his moves chain in sequences rather than simply repeating, giving them a sense of flow.
Some skills even twist that rhythm to add strategy: the first blow of The Way of a Hundred Fists lets you leap into a group of enemies, the next hits them rapidly, and the final one creates an actual explosion – before looping back to the leap attack. Later on, the Monk can cast huge glyphs on the ground that bounce enemies out of their radius, and prevent them from entering again – much like the Protoss Forcefields in StarCraft II.
While I was punching through three zombies at once, my Witch Doctor friend was spitting poison from a blow dart and summoning undead dogs, frogs and spiders. He also used Grasping Dead, a spell that makes zombie arms rise from the ground to injure and slow enemies, and I'd then make use of my roundhouse kick to knock them right back into it when they escaped.
When I tried the Witch Doctor for myself, I really liked his devious style. He has to hang back while his hideous creatures go to work, and cast curses and area effect spells to swing the battle in their favour. He only dips into the fray to pick off priority targets such as bosses: like most classes, he can use lots of different weapon types, and the damage he can do is significant.
The Witch Doctor's best skill in the early levels: he summons a tiny Fetish Shaman who wanders around turning random enemies into chickens.
I also played the beta through as a Wizard, in co-op with a Demon Hunter. The slot system was relevant almost immediately: pretty soon I unlocked the Diamond Armour skill, which makes you invulnerable for a time. You'll always want to try a new skill when you get it, but in my case Diamond Armour didn't last long enough to be of use to me. If I'd been struggling with this section, it would have been worth a slot to get me out of a scrape: you can no longer spam potions to survive in Diablo III. Later, as the game hopefully gets tougher, it's the kind of skill I might want to slot back in. New situations and other new skills often make a discarded one useful once again.
Instead I focused on damage and crowd control. I'd run into large groups of enemies, cast Frost Nova to freeze them solid, then hit them with the shotgun-like Charged Bolt spell while my Demon Hunter friend helped out by pelting them from a distance. It was incredibly satisfying. The Wizard flings her spells like they're physical objects – most setups I tried involved crackling electricity pouring out of her.
Sadly her characteristic bright red Disintegrate beam was too high level to unlock in this beta, but I did see Blizzard socket it with a Runestone enabling the Wizard to fire one from each hand. My favourite spell in the early levels was Electrocute, an arc of lightning that sizzles enemies, leaps onto others nearby and sometimes jolts them into burnt corpses.
Her resource, Arcane Energy, regenerates at a rate Diablo I and II's Sorcerers couldn't dream of. Spells flow fast and free without having to mainline mana potions, and it's a hell of a lot more fun as a result.
The Barbarian was probably the biggest surprise, though: he's hugely, immediately fun. Other classes just hit with their normal attacks, but the Barbarian knocks people flying. It's a while before you find anything you can ragdoll or eviscerate in a single blow. And when you do, you realise just how fast the Barbarian can hit.
His skills are just funny. Hammer of the Ancients comes from nowhere, in an instant, to slam everything in front of you with astonishing force. One of the toughest enemy types in the beta is a Grotesque, partly because of the horde of repulsive corpse worms that spill out of him on death. Kill him with your other attacks, and save Hammer of the Ancients for the moment he explodes: it obliterates all the worms. Leap, as in Diablo II, gives the class the flexibility he needs to deal with ranged opponents quickly. But most of the fun of the Barbarian is in his conventional attacks – I can't wait to try giving him the biggest two-handed axe I can find.
The Demon Hunter is almost the opposite: the only really fragile class, and one restricted to ranged weapons if she wants to use any of her main attack skills. This event was the first time Blizzard had shown her resource system: unlike the other classes, she has two. Hatred is spent using attacking skills, and Discipline by defensive ones. It's an interesting system: unless you're using your most powerful attack continuously, you rarely run out of Hatred. But Discipline ends up drained any time you're in trouble and use your skills to get out of it, so you can't afford to be in trouble twice in a row.
One skill drains both: Evasive Shot deals extra damage, and backflips if an enemy is close when you fire. It's fun to use as your basic attack, because it's tricky to keep clicking ahead to attack while clicking behind to retreat.
I think it's a class that will come into its own with the higher damage attacks that get unlocked later on. Up to the point I played, the Demon Hunter dealt less damage than the Wizard and felt more vulnerable.
The other things I couldn't try in the early levels were the passive skills. A previously planned Traits system has been condensed to something simpler. At level ten you get your first Passive slot, into which you can place any of the auras, buffs and effects you have access to. You eventually unlock three slots for these, so you can have three active at once by level 30.
You can't play offline, but you can play alone. You just need to be connected to Blizzard's servers – they say this is partly to prevent cheating, and that an offline mode would be problematic if people changed their minds about wanting to take their characters online. Whatever. It's a significant departure from previous games, and we don't agree with their justifications for it.
If you do play co-op, the maximum group size is four people. Sounds small, but even playing with one other person, it was surprising how chaotic the fights became. I had a hard enough time finding my Witch Doctor friend among his pets, enemy zombies, and temporary chickens. Four Witch Doctors would be madness.
That Diablo III will let players buy and sell weapons for real money is the biggest question mark over how it will play. Even once the beta is out, we won't know the effects: the auction house in that build will use in-game gold. When the game itself launches, I predict prices will crash: for in-game gold, which you're allowed to trade for real money on the auction house, and for great items.
Anyone can sell the stuff they find for real money, every player can list a few items a week without paying the normal listing fee, and you do find a lot of items that aren't useful to your class. The influx of great loot will be a monsoon, and prices will drop until there's no more room for players to undercut one another. When you find that one-in-a-million axe with phenomenal stats, I'll be surprised if there aren't a hundred better ones on the auction house for under 50p. I may be wrong, and good items will be appropriately expensive – in which I'd avoid them on those grounds anyway.
You can boycott Diablo III if you like, because of the online-only setup, the real-money auction house or the prohibition of mods. Personally, I don't think it will help – publishers can't distinguish reliably between a sale boycotted and a sale that would never have been made. And believe me, having played it, this is not a game I could conceive of missing out on.
Instead, I plan to boycott the auction house – at least until I've finished the game. If you can tell yourself it's not an option, the real-world prices of great loot don't have to devalue the great stuff you find or trade with friends.
For me, Diablo has always been about finding cool stuff. Diablo III's classes, skill customisation and progression are so exciting that it may also become about builds and abilities. But I'm not ready to bypass that compulsive loot lottery with an easily searchable system that gives me incredible stuff for no in-game cost. And I think for those of us who can stick to that, this needn't spoil what's already becoming an incredible game.