Diablo 3 beta preview

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.

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