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Diablo 3 Previews: Closed Beta Impressions

By William Murphy on September 23, 2011

Put aside the controversy.  Put aside the Real Money AH and the forced internet connection and Battle.net login as a form of anti-piracy. Put aside the “colorful” world that made people jumpy from the word go. Put aside all the crap, and let’s talk about what counts. Is the game fun? Yes. Is it just as good as we’ve been hoping? Yes. Does it make me feel like Blizzard hasn’t lost their touch as WoW ages?

Another resounding and blood-splattering yes.

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I’m a few hours into Diablo 3’s closed beta experience, and I can’t put the thing down. It took an act of heroism to even close the client and come write this. It’s so damned late in the evening and I have to be up at six A.M. and I’m pretty sure that when I close this word document I’m typing I’ll probably log back in and run around as my fists-of-fury wielding Monk for a bit more carnage and looting (Note: I did).

Folks, Diablo 3 is a reminder that Blizzard does what they do better than pretty much anybody.

I’m not hyping. I’m stating a well-known fact. For anyone who thinks they’ve lost it because of some business decisions or an aging MMORPG, they will be silenced when they get their hands on this one. A lot has changed in Diablo, and some may likely say it’s not for the better, but I’m fairly confident that most gamers will love every single second of their time in this one.  It’s not an MMORPG; it’s not even an MMO. We can admit that. It’s more like Vindictus or any number of online Action-RPGs. But that doesn’t stop D3 from being flat-out fun.

Loving the Monk

The game we’re playing in the beta is a stripped down version of what we’ll see come live.  No cinematic intros that we’ll drool over when the game officially launches.  You can’t really tweak the settings all that much in this form either.  It’s a controlled environment, and even the PVP is turned off for now.  So what we have access to is pretty much the First Act of the campaign, co-op play, and the gold auction house (not the RMT one, obviously).  The character creation is really simple too: pick a class (all are available), pick your gender, and there you go.  I’m wondering if more options will be allowed as we progress towards launch, but given this is third Diablo and we just now are able to be either sex on each class, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

From there you pick your game settings (private, invite only, etc.) and begin.  There’s the option to choose which part of the game you begin on, much like D2, though obviously you’ll have to have access to them and have beaten the previous chapters.  I went ahead with the Monk, as something just reeked awesome of a scrawny, bald, and bearded guy with no shirt and no weapons to begin with beating back hordes of hellish minions.

I was not disappointed in my choice.

The monk begins as a hand-to-hand combatant, but as you go you’ll quickly gather more and more weapons for him to use.  I learned soon enough that for my preferred playstyle, the faster weapons were more fun.  Unlike previous Diablo incarnations, different classes have different mechanics. In the Monk’s case he has to gain spirit to perform his skills.  So you wind up with a selection of different ‘builders’ to gain spirit, assigned easily to your left or right click. My favorite, unlocked around level 9 I believe, is the chain of attacks that hits every enemy in front of you and snares them as well.  On top of these effects, it also builds six spirit per hit. What do you use the spirit for? Holy waves of monster-beating fury of course!

You begin the game with one spell: a blinding flash that well, blinds everything around you.  Since the monk relies on cloth and leather armor, avoiding damage is one of the keys to his survival. Blinding flash really helps this early on, and even as I was working my way to the Skeleton King (the game’s first act boss) I found myself still using it quite a lot though other spells were at my disposal.  Combine it with an aura that makes you and party members 40% more likely to dodge attacks and you have a nimble ass-kicking machine.

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

Here’s one change to the Diablo formula many purists might be upset about: the skill trees are gone.  In their place is a system not at all unlike Guild Wars in where you acquire skills at certain levels, and slots in which to place them.  You begin the game with two skill slots, but as you level you gain a handful more, plus three passive skill slots too. This means you can swap out your build at any time, and alter your strategy to fit the situation at hand.  I can understand the folks who might be upset by this, as it’s basically free respecs all the time, but I have to admit I liked it.

By the time I was level 9 I had more skills than I could use, and it’s nice being able to play with them each and figure out what works for my style. Some will love the dash or the roundhouse kick, but I’m a fan of blinding and evasion.  I imagine even as I leveled higher, I’d keep this general build, and that’s the idea behind this system I believe.  One thing I wish they’d add? The ability to store a few builds, so I can swap between them like weapon sets as I go.

There are load of little changes to the formula of the game, really.  So folks wanting just a prettier Diablo II may be disappointed. At first I was taken aback by the skill change, but I quickly grew to like it. Additionally, there seem to be less and less unidentified items, and I think I only found one in my entire play-through of Act One with the Monk.  It was a crappy Legendary item, so I’m left wondering if only higher quality ever need to be identified.  Also, there’s much less reliance on potion-popping.  They’re still in the game, but monsters also drop little instant use pick-ups of health and mana so you’re not so reliant on pressing the potion buttons the whole time.  Instead your hotkeys are more often used for skills, which change the entire dynamic of the game.

New Stuff Galore

And while it may change in the final game, by the end of Act One, I had a few gadgets equipped to my Monk which became immediately invaluable: a magic kettle I can use to sell anything from anywhere, a cube that breaks down items into crafting materials, and a stone that acts as a town portal.  No more scrolls of that sort either.  You also help New Tristram’s blacksmith out and he agrees to be your personal crafting buddy.  You can teach him new recipes, bring him materials, and he’ll make you whatever you want so long as you have the prerequisite materials.  It’s a nice addition to the game, which will likely only enhance the loot aspect of Diablo so long as Blizzard makes it worth the time to invest in.

I haven’t tried the Auctions yet, but they’re filled with postings as far as I can tell.  Additionally, the Versus Mode is locked out, though I’m hoping they open that up before launch so I can see what the fuss is all about. The visuals are gorgeous, without being a system hog.  I was rolling at 100FPS the entire time, and loads took a few seconds tops.  The gameplay itself is just as fast and furious as ever, and the way the screen shakes with critical hits, blood splatters, and the environment breaks… you really feel like a bad mamma-jamma even this early on in the campaign.

One of the newer little touches is seeing things like chandeliers or loose rocks and hitting them to make them fall and kill your enemies.  It’s like the game leaves you little booby traps to fight evil with, and all you have to do is keep your eyes open.  It’s still as randomized as ever, as I witnessed on one “Defiled Crypt” late in the first act.  I completed it once but had to log out, and when I came back later it was completely different, and not in just layout but traps and enemies… the whole shebang.  Glad to see Blizzard hasn’t slacked off there.

And that’s just it.  They haven’t slacked off at all with Diablo III.  I was worried it wouldn’t feel as good as the first two, but I feel confident in saying that the latest installment is going to quickly be up for Game of the Year across the spectrum as soon as it releases… I just want to know when that is.  Given how well this little portion plays, and that we’re all allowed to talk about it? I bet it’s not long from now.  But then again, this is Blizzard, right?

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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