Diablo III Beta Impressions

So, Diablo 3. It’s time to talk about that game again.

Once upon a time I was dead set against even giving this game the time of day. Everything that I had heard regarding the game, such as the inclusion of a real money auction house or the removal of stat points and skill trees, made me believe that the crew Blizzard brought in to replace the former Blizzard North developers had no idea what they were doing. I was actively discouraging people I knew from being interested in Diablo 3. Factoring in how I’m a former WoW player who now hatefully rallies against the MMORPG and, gee, it made me look like a pissed off ex-Blizzard fan. To an extent I was, even though I did buy and enjoy Starcraft 2 (I have a review of it up on here for anyone interested).

After applying for the Diablo 3 beta opt-in and not getting in since day one, I finally got a chance last week when Blizzard opened up Diablo 3’s beta to the public in order to perform a stress test. I went into the beta not expecting much, and my incredibly slow download of the beta only increased my nearly unjusitifed disdain for the game. However, after sorting out the issue causing the slow download (which was tied to Internet Explorer even though I use Firefox, go figure), I was able to hop into the world of Diablo 3 and experience a new adventure in the world of Sanctuary for the first time since 2001.

So what is my verdict of Diablo 3 after slamming it for over a year? It is fundamentally a different experience than anything Blizzard North offered up in the first two games but that hasn’t stopped the new development team from creating something really enjoyable. If the small bit of Act 1 that I’ve played is anything to go by, Diablo 3 is going to shape up to be one of Blizzard’s best titles that they have ever produced.

It’s already a known fact that a fair amount of gameplay aspects have changed dramatically since Diablo 2, but just how severe are the changes? As many are aware, stat points are gone and your statistics increase automatically as you level up. This change has been welcomed by almost everyone as just about every internet user I speak to admits that this will help cut back on the amount of “character screw ups” that occurred so often in Diablo 2. Face it, how many of us foolishly sank points into energy and vitality back in the early days of Diablo 2 only to realize that our characters ended up being unable to equip almost any new piece of gear due to low strength or couldn’t even hit monsters half the time as a result of having little dexterity? The only people who seem saddened that stat points can no longer be allocated are the people who felt that it added an extra layer of customization. Did it? No, not really. It just determined if your character was playable or just plain shit. Allocating those points didn’t do anything, they were just numbers that controlled how good your character was playing through the game the way Blizzard intended. That’s not customization!

Skill trees are also a thing of the past, which is surprising to say the least. After they proved to be remarkably popular in Diablo 2, Blizzard adopted them in World of Warcraft. However, talent trees were recently simplified in WoW and they do not appear at all in Diablo 3. So what do we have now? We automatically gain new abilities when we level up. For example, say the the sorceress from Diablo 2 was returning. At level 2 you would receive a message notifying you that you can now use fireball. At level 10, the game would indicate that firewall is now available. As you level, you will gradually unlock more and more powers to use and, since they scale with your level, you will never sink a bunch of points into one or two skills while neglecting many others. This guarantees that all skills are viable later in the game and, again, helps in preventing players from building poor or weak characters. You’ll also unlock runes as you level up that you can combine with your powers. By selecting a rune, you will change the properties of an attack and almost create something brand new. Runes can radically change the animation and performance of just about any skill, so they’re definitely worth experimenting with.

The inventory screen has also been revamped heavily. No longer will players be playing Tetris and shifting gear around to make room for more equipment. This is a fantastic change, as potions and other small items take up only one block on the invenory screen while pieces of equipment take up two. There was nothing good about having pieces of armor taking up upwards of a dozen spaces in Diablo 2 and organizing your inventory became an annoying chore because of it. Anyone who disagrees with the inventory screen revamp and prefers the old system is clearly looking back on Diablo 2 with rose tinted glasses.

Blizzard has also tried to cut back on potion spamming, which isn’t that bad of an idea. My favourite part of Diablo has always been the action and the strategy, and making several trips back to town to buy more potions for a hard boss fight in Diablo 2 was not a part of that. Potions now stack (yes!) and have only ONE slot on your action bar. You can hold as many potions as you want and, to combat potion spam, Blizzard has added a short cooldown on using potions which is also a good idea. Now, here comes something I took a serious stance against before playing the beta. Health orbs. When you’re in a big fight, there is a chance that fallen foes will drop red health orbs that will restore your life when they are touched. I thought that this sounded really gimmicky at first and wondered why an action RPG was being given platformer-esque power-ups. Well, after playing the open beta, I can definitely say that health orbs played a very small part in the overall experience. They never felt necessary to seek out and grab and, because of this, they almost became background objects to me that didn’t matter.

In terms of actual gameplay, things are actually remarkably similar to Blizzard North’s Diablo games. Aside from newer technology allowing more complex character animations and environmental effects, this is definitely the same hack and slash madness that we’ve all grown to love. This is what I was most afraid the new team would mess up, but they did an amazing job. The clickfest battles are as fun as ever, looting works the same as before, and the integrals such as town portals and waypoints are back. Town portals are perhaps my favourite improved aspect of the game since Diablo 2. No longer will we have to deal with scrolls and tomes to take up to town due to anyone being able to make a town portal whenever they wish. The ability to create a town portal is now a spell that characters learn about forty five minutes into the game, and it’s a great thing to have. Having an unlimited number of portals to call upon, in conjunction with the improved inventory screen, makes mass corpse looting a true joy rather than a frightening chore like it was in Diablo 2.

Now, how are the classes? They are wonderfully varied! My personal favourite thus far is the monk, a genius martial artist who is able to obliterate foes with some truly flashy hand to hand techniques. The monk also possesses insane survivability. Aside from being a great melee DPS character, the monk is incredibly agile and also has healing abilities as well as auras that work similarly to what the paladin had in his arsenal in Diablo 2. I can see the monk being a huge fan favourite after release, because there seems to be nothing that this class does not excel at!

Demon hunter is currently my second favourite class. This class is a lot like the amazon of the first two games, a ranged fighter with a very bow/crossbow-centric skill set. The demon hunter has all sorts of cool ranged abilities with one exciting early game ability being a sort of spread shot that fires in three directions and tears through anything in its path. Also, while most classes only have one resource pool to worry about when it comes to using abilities (mana for witch doctors, fury for barbarians, etc.), the demon hunter has two. Hatred, the red resource, governs offensive techniques meant for obliterating foes. Discipline is a blue resource and it is more defensive, allowing the demon hunter to perform acrobatic feats to put distance between him or herself and their foes.

I didn’t spend much time with other classes, but I gave them all a shot at least. The barbarian is exactly what you’d expect, though he now hits harder than ever! Don’t be surprised to see enemies go flying across the screen as you pulverize them with your Hulk-sized arms. The wizard is pretty much the sorceress from Diablo 2 but, thanks to modern technology, the class can perform moe interesting spells such as a ray of frost that will shoot anywhere your mouse goes. The witch doctor is the class I spent the least amount of time with because, even from the get go, it felt really boring to play. Your initial ability as the witch doctor is nothing more than a poison dart gun, but you’ll soon be able to summon hellhounds and such which makes the class a little more bearable.

If I were to rank the classes in order from most to least enjoyable, it would go like this: monk, demon hunter, barbarian/wizard (too close to call), and witch doctor. The monk and demon hunter feel remarkably complete and are a true joy to play as while the witch doctor feels particularly lacking in the beta.

Overall, I had a great deal of fun in the open beta after playing it for as long as my weekend schedule allowed, which was eight or nine hours. The final battle against the Skeleton King (yes, THAT Skeleton King) was insanely enjoyable and, considering that it occurs only a third of the way through Act 1, I can’t wait to see what the big end bosses are like for each of the game’s four acts. I think that we’re all in for quite a treat!

So, is Diablo 3 good? Yes, and I’m ashamed of myself for ever criticizing this game so much. It’s pretty clear that this isn’t the Diablo we played back in the 90s and at the turn of the century, but Blizzard’s new blood created an amazing impersonation of Blizzard North’s successful formula. Diablo 3 is going to be massive when May 15 hits, and I expect it to remain so for many years to come. See you all in Sanctuary in three weeks!

Diablo 2 (Retro Review)

“Few games have aged as gracefully as this colossal hit by Blizzard.”

Diablo 3 is probably still about a year away from release as of this writing, and there are few games available to allow gamers to satisfy their thirst for quality hack and slash action. Sacred, Titan Quest, and several others have attempted to copy Blizzard’s successful formula, but just like those who tried to copy the formulas of Starcraft or World of Warcraft, they have failed to even come close to matching what they are blatantly imitating.

Rewind a full decade to the year 2000. Diablo 2 had just been released, and it drove the hack and slash RPG fanatics absolutely wild as the game became critically acclaimed faster than you can say “stay a while and listen.” Ten years later and no game in the genre is yet to make as big a splash as Diablo 2, and it will likely remain this way until Diablo 3 ships sometime in 2011.

So what made Diablo 2 so good? Why has there not been even a single game released in the past ten years capable of topping it? The simple reason is because what Blizzard does well, they in fact do very well. Blizzard strives for excellence in their games, and it shows. Whether you like or hate their games, it’s impossible to deny that they are high quality sources of entertainment.

I consider World of Warcraft to be my favourite Blizzard product of all time, but Diablo 2 is not far off. Since this is a review for that excellent game, it’s time for me to stop talking about other Blizzard products, which includes Diablo 3.

Diablo 2 picked up shortly after the first game. The hero of the first game (Diablo canon dictates that it was the warrior class) has become nothing but a vessel for Diablo as he seeks to unleash his brothers Baal and Mephisto, which would ultimately allow them to rule Sanctuary (the mortal realm in Diablo). Of course, most people didn’t play Diablo 2 for the story, since the game came out just a few years before story telling became the prime focus of almost every genre. Diablo 2 was able to get away with just having great gameplay alone, and it did just that.

If you’re unfamiliar with how Diablo 2 plays, then you have probably been living under a rock. If you have indeed been living under a rock, then I will explain how the game plays in a simple manner. Players assume the role of one of several different classes (which are all 100% unique) and must adventure across Sanctuary from an isometric view, slaughtering demons and monsters almost the entire way. The game is played mostly with the mouse, as left clicking instructs your character where to go while right clicking performs whatever action you may have assigned to a hot key. The left mouse button can also function as a hot key, but you will only perform whatever ability you have tied to the left button when you click on a hostile creature.

Players take on a variety of quests that point them in the direction of Diablo and his brothers. Experience points are awarded by killing creatures and completing quests. Once you level you are able to distribute five stat points to various attributes, and you also get to put one skill point into anything of your choosing in your talent trees. The sorceress can learn new elemental spells from their trees, while the barbarian can learn powerful physical attacks.

Diablo 2 has more pieces of equipment than any game from 2000 should have, as the different gear combinations number in the thousands. This is excluding possibilities that include socketing pieces of gear with gems and runes (the latter are only in the expansion pack) which increase stats, offer resistances, deal bonus elemental damage, and much more.

For new players, Diablo 2 can be a very overwhelming and difficult game until they fully complete at least two runs of the game before understanding how all of the encounters work and what gear should be used and when. Many creatures have resistances or weaknesses that the player will discover, and boss fights are anything but easy on the first play through the game. Diablo 2’s bosses will, almost all of the time, hit like tanks. Stocking up on health potions is imperative in this game due to the extremely high damage output of many creatures and bosses as well, especially Diablo himself.

The game spans several different geographical regions before the player journeys to Hell to battle Diablo (and then to the snowy mountains in the expansion). All regions are very unique with their own unique creatures and quests, as well as a major quest hub each.

Diablo 2 has some of the creepiest music I’ve ever heard, and if it had been used in any other games (such as survival horror titles) then the effect would have been absolutely terrifying. Fortunately for Diablo 2, it is an action packed hack and slash RPG, so you likely won’t feel any fear when you play this game. Certain areas a little unnerving though, such as when you reach Hell itself. The background music, coupled with the groans and wails you will hear, make it very unsettling while being extremely fun at the same time.

Areas that lack the creepy atmosphere come off just as well. Act 2, which is set in the desert, has some fantastic music that is hauntingly immersive. The sound effects are quite good for a ten year old game. While the sounds aren’t particular realistic (in fact many are quite cartoonish by today’s standards), they set the tone very well and compliment the game’s music and graphical style very well. Voice work, which plays a major part in the game, is quite good. Modern games certainly have more emotional voice work that comes across better, but Diablo 2’s is still very decent for it’s time.

The only part of Diablo 2 that hasn’t aged the best are the graphics. While the game looked stunning when it was first released, it is now borderline ugly in some areas. Characters are blurry and lacking a lot of detail despite being 2D. In fact, the entire game world is 2D. Though you would expect the world to be very beautiful to look at, the only areas that have great attention to detail are the towns. Wilderness areas and dungeons look and feel rather generic most of the time, and due to the areas being randomly generated, they suffer severely from what I call “Copy & Paste Syndrome” where you see familiar surrounding all too frequently, resulting in a few cases of deja vu.

Diablo 2’s positives far outweigh the negatives and the game remains a real pleasure to play even to this day. The game was quite ahead of it’s time and, if it was re-released with modern graphics, it would still score very high with practically every reviewer. Diablo 2 is one of Blizzard’s best games, and the love that they put into it still shows strongly even today. If you’ve never played the game, you owe it to yourself to give the game a play before Diablo 3 hit shelves next year.

Final Score

9.1/10