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.