Diablo 3 first impressions

Is the auction house truly deserving of internet rage? We'll know next year.

The Diablo 3 beta has been released. And the team have been obsessively playing since last night. Here's what four members of the PC Gamer team think so far. Hint: they like it.

Tim Edwards : So, we've played through the campaign as a group of four. Tom, you and I have completed a game as a two-some. The beta is about an hour-to-two hours long and runs up until the first boss: a skeleton king. Tom, you first. You've played it a few times now. What class did you pick, and what did you think?

Tom Francis : I went Barbarian. I didn't get much time with him when Blizzard let me play an early build of this beta at their offices a while back, and as soon as I hit something with him I wished I'd tried him first.

There's never any reason to 'attack' - the default skill that just swings your weapon normally. You start with a skill called Bash that does the same thing, but with tremendous force, extra damage, a manly grunt and spectacular knockback. And it doesn't cost any of your resource, Fury - it builds it. So you're this angry ball of muscle batting flimsy zombies away with one brutal crunch each. You hit some of them so hard their skin falls off.

Now that I've had more time to level up and mix in some of his later skills, what I'm loving about him is this very simple layer of strategy. Do you want to hit everyone quite hard, or one guy very hard? Cleave does the former, sweeping through everyone in front of you, and Bash does the latter. I burst rotting Grotesques with Bash, then slice the slithering corpseworms that spill out with Cleave.

He gets even better once you get Leap Attack. Clusters of enemies are like Christmas, a big giftwrapped parcel of potential damage you can slam into from anywhere. They're damaged when you land, stunned when you Stomp, then shredded when you Cleave. And if anyone's left standing: BASH.

Very, very early on, when they showed the first video of Diablo 3 at that big reveal I totally predicted, my main worry was that the weapon impacts didn't feel as tactile and heavy as Diablo 1's - that was the first thing I loved about the series. I don't know what they've changed since then, but suddenly it's brutal .

Tim : The leap attack is utterly brilliant, yes. But when I grow up, I want to be a wizard. I want to fire electricity from my hands, shoot icicles from my arse, and make corpses quiver with my sonic boom.

The Wizard feels like a conduit for raw energy. He crackles with power. I found a great trick where I'd kite a group of enemies until they were in a nice big pot, then run right into the centre and freeze them with Frost Nova. Use the Wave of Force to hammer them in place. Then finish up with electricity. Easy. Fun. Fast.

I'm finding the skill system interesting - it's way different from what we expect from RPGs. It feels much closer to a perk system from modern shooters. New skills unlock every level on a purely linear progression. You then unlock slots into which you can equip them as you level up. At the start, you can equip two skills. By level 30, you'll get to eight skills available on your action bars at any one time - from a pool of between 20 and 30 skills. Switching them is really easy - you don't need to respec - you just bring up the interface and drag them into position. By the end of the beta, we were all level 8, and could equip three skills at any one time.

The good side of this: you get to experiment very quickly. I very quickly found a build I enjoyed and seemed to be effective: the lightening, frost nova and wave of force combo. The bad side: I dunno. I don't actually feel like I'm making any choices early on. I like making choices. I think that the real choices will come from rune choice and armour equipment - most of which can't really be judged from such a small slice of the game.

Graham Smith : I agree that there's not many decisions to make in the early game. I chose Monk, because when I played the game at Gamescom two years ago, that's the class I immediately fell in love with. He has a skill, unlocked at Level 12, where the first two hits deal 100% damage, and the third hit triggers a countdown towards explosion. If you use it correctly, you can use that explosion to trigger further ticking monster timebombs. Also, he has a beard.

The problem: that skill unlocks at Level 12, but in completing the beta with Tim, Rich and Tom, I only got as far as Level 8. Those opening skills turned out not to be as amazing as the later abilities I had already become used to through two years of mental use. There was a lot of punching, some kicking, and some cool dashing moves, but I was a little underwhelmed.

That said, it hasn't dampened my excitement for the game. I'm now looking forward to going home tonight, putting my feet up, and digging in. I want to check to see if I was just missing something with the Monk, and then get stuck in to trying the Witch Doctor, Barbarian and Wizard.

Don't give a shit about the Demon Hunter, though.

Rich McCormick : Yeah, well she doesn't give a shit about you either. I asked her, when I was leading her around the dungeons. She said “that Graham guy? With his piddly melee attacks? Hah! Can he chuck grenades into a glob of skeletons? Can he vault into combat, spray knives everywhere, drop spiky lego-things on the floor, then hop away without getting touched? Can he? Bet he can't. The bald twat.”

Graham : I can whoosh into combat, hit people from three different sides at once, and then leave an exploding golden idol to distract everyone while I roundhouse them in the chops, you weak, too-scared-to-just-punch-people knob.

Rich : She also told you to shut up. Jumping around is for chumps, anyway. My Demon Hunter had the potential to be a bouncy little character: two skills I unlocked in our hour-and-a-bit playthrough saw her hopping pointedly away from close conflict. But with Tim's lumbering frame occupying most of the frontline assault, I wasn't too worried about being swarmed - I'll save those skills for singleplayer. In a group of four, I was free to focus on my true love: hurting things as much as possible from quite far away.

Decked out with hand crossbows, my base attack did a surprisingly large amount of damage. At level one and with only two skill slots to play with, I augmented that with caltrops that stunned enemies stupid enough to step into their radius, and a homing arrow. The homing arrow was particularly useful on shielded enemies: the first flight would often thwack off their shield, only to come around for a second pass to pierce the back of their skulls.

Firing the homing bolt - and other damage-first attacks - required 'hatred'. Hatred lives in a little jar on the side of the screen next to another Demon Hunter resource: discipline. Red skills - including the homing bolt, a pinning shot, and a hurled bolas that explodes after wrapping itself around an enemy neck - need enough of your constantly refilling hatred to fire. Blue skills need discipline, and the kind of planning that my advanced strategy of “stand at the back and spam the homing shot” didn't have room for.

With four people chucking all they can at Diablo III's bigger enemies, it's hard to tell exactly what damage /you/ are doing, but I'm fairly upbeat about my contribution to our multi-man murder. The Demon Hunter provides less visual feedback than the other classes seem to - you're further out from the action, and often can't see or feel your bolts tear through flesh - but the potential for pure damage output sets her as the kind of sensible class to get shit done.

Tim : Did you notice that when you start a campaign you're automatically online? There simply isn't an offline mode for the game. It's a funny semantic thing; but there's no such thing as a single player game. There's just “invite only”, “friends only”, or “public”. Single players can obviously choose not to invite anyone in to play, but the online element is threaded right through the game.

What did you guys think of the Battlenet infrastructure anyway? I know Blizzard have spent ages and ages making that feel smooth and slick. It's a point of massive emphasis for them.

Rich : It feels like StarCraft II's front end. I like StarCraft II's front end, it's got big shiny buttons that make comforting wooshy noises when you press them. I like StarCraft too, have I mentioned that?

Graham : I got a party invite from Tim, accepted it and was in the game. I didn't even see any infrastructure, which is what I want from a game. The thing that got me, though, was the "Customer Support" button under Options. Customer Support? That's normally the thing I have to dig the phone number out for, from the bottom of the developer's website, and it's in an American line, and it's expensive, and it's useless. Here, it's right there under Options, like an MMO. This really isn't a singleplayer game, is it?

I kind of wanted to click it just to have a nice chat. Hello Blizzard! How are you?

Tom Francis : I don't think they do emotional support. I agree, though - it's been seamless for me.

Tim : They do give emotional support. Blizzard employees give great hugs. Now: the gold auction house. The beta includes a first pass at the standard auction house. Playing around with it... I think it needs work. For one, I couldn't find an option to search for a specfic item - only to narrow down the search to a range of different items. If, for instance, I want to find a specific sword, say, “Griswold's Edge”, I can't just type that in, and compare auctions. I'm bidding on Griswold's Edge, by the way. Only two hours to go. Come on. Tom, you've got some strong opinions about the way the economy is going to play out. What do you think?

Tom : I think there are weird times ahead. We've only got access to the gold auction house, which doesn't let you buy stuff for real money, but the beta is already making me realise some strange stuff about Diablo 3's economy.

Gold is shared between all your characters. So I just started a Witch Doctor, and I had 4,500 gold at level 1. I could buy everything all the vendors in town had for sale. I also had a 10 DPS electric cudgel in my shared stash from my Barbarian, and that was better for my Witch Doctor than anything I found in the course of that character's life.

I didn't have to use that, of course, but I did have to inherit that money. It seems like gold is just going to mass up for everyone. The gold economy crashed in the last two games, and I think it will again.

I'm starting to think that's why they're doing the real-money auction house, because they can't stop the gold one from crashing. But I'd just rather not have either - I like having to scrimp and save for something cool from a vendor, and I don't want this ridiculous nest egg every time I start a new hero.

Tim : Last nitpick: I don't like the way the front-end is set up. I don't like the opening art (just a boring backdrop with your character superimposed, and I don't like that you have to pick your character before you decide to join a game. I'm convinced there should be an option to pick your character on the same screen as picking the section of the game you're going to play through. Man, I'm reaching for criticisms.

Last question. Are you having fun playing? I am. I think it's fantastic.

Graham : Sort of. I don't think playing it with you guys was the best way to experience my first playthrough. I missed a lot of the quest text, and ended up with no idea what we were doing, who for, and what we'd done to complete each task. The fighting ended up with no context and, even though it looked cool, was totally chaotic. It was sometimes hard to tell whether it was my punch that had thrown the skeleton across the room, or whether it was Tim's Barbarian axe, or Tom's hopping frogs.

I only knew it wasn't Rich. Because Demon Hunters are rubbish.

Rich : More like NOT rubbish. Yes, I am having fun. My dalliances with Diablos I and II were limited, but I've already been bitten by the numbers bat and turned into a vile numberpire. Tom has a 12.1 DPS bow? That's 0.7 DPS better than my current bow. Tom, come here to trade! Tom! TOM! GIEF BOW! TOOOOM! The actual act of killing stuff currently feels like a means to getting fresher and more exciting loot. I think I'm doing action-RPGs right.

Tom : I'm definitely having fun. I love figuring out new builds and exploring all the classes, and I'm enjoying each of them more than I did at the preview event. I do agree with Graham, though, that playing in a group of four actually isn't as fun as playing alone or as a pair. It's spectacular, but it's not really clear what's going on. I think when it comes out, we should each pair up with someone playing a complimentary class, like Wizard and Barbarian. That's the most fun I've had so far.

Tim : The Diablo 3 beta then: it is fun.