Confession: I've completed the public(ish) Diablo 3 beta six or seven times. I really, really like Diablo 3. I also thought, as I've played, that the game is basically done - that the systems are cool, fun and exciting to play. And, weirdly, the more I played, the more I enjoyed. Mastering each of the classes was a project in itself, simply grinding each of the classes up to the level cap was a pointless but endearing little exercise. I've even been playing the real-money auction house a little bit, with my theoretical “beta bucks”.
The latest update then adds onto an already great game. Yet when I read the latest notes for the beta , I was worried: it appeared that the developers were removing complexity by altering the way runes: subtle (or not so) alterations to how each of your skills performed, were presented to the player. Previously they'd drop like loot. Now they're earned at level up points.
Turns out, Blizzard were right. And I was wrong.
Diablo is all about loot, yes. But it's also about taking a character through to level cap. As I've played, I've started to worry that the pleasure of levelling up would gradually dissipate as the number of new skills available topped out. Previously, you'd stop earning new skills at level 30 - despite the level cap reaching 60. It's impossible to see in the beta, but I was concerned that the later levels would turn into a pure grind. You'd start losing one of the core reasons to level up: discovery of new stuff.
Runes change that. Now, it feels like runes are additive to the skill tree. As a Barbarian , you learn Bash at the start of the game. But you start to learn the runed iterations of Bash as you level the character - and suddenly, you're drowning in new stuff every level. There's the bash that adds a shockwave, or the bash that generates additional fury. This new way of thinking about the skills has me hooked. I can see another five playthroughs of the beta coming just to discover the runes available for each skill on all the classes.
The second big change that's worth addressing: the game in it's default state prescribes builds to you from the start by defining where certain skills should appear on your ability bars. For my Barbarian, Bash and Cleave were assigned to my left mouse button, rend and hammer of the ancients (a giant AoE smash) to my right. Support abilities are on the 1 key, health potions on Q.
I can see exactly why this direction is in place: it's to prevent newcomers from creating degenerative builds. And it works. It's a nice piece of design where the interface directs smart choices. It's optional, too - a set of armbands for those who want to paddle in D3's bottomless loot pool.
There's one criticism I still have, though. Right now, you can swap your skills in and out at any time. But when you do swap them in, they're hit by a cooldown, meaning you can't use them for about 30 seconds. This is rubbish: too often I've been excited by a new skill and its inherent possibilities for hilarious axe based experimentation on the nearest zombie. Instead I've got to wait for the cooldown to pass.
Oh, another criticism. It's not out yet. Dammit.