Diablo 3 - A Hellraising Preview

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.

Sparkle-horse fantasy

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.