straight to hell boys

“There is no cow level”  –Diablo III beta tooltip

On the last day of the year in 1996 Blizzard Entertainment released Diablo, a horror/fantasy game in which players hunted demons and the undead through the tunnels and catacombs beneath the doomed town of Tristram in the country of Khanduras in the world known as Sanctuary.   It is a tale of monsters and angels, betrayal and nightmares, and at the end players fell into Hell itself where they faced and defeated Diablo, the Lord of Terror.   Diablo II was released four years later and continued the story line with new character classes and expanded multiplayer options.

There were any number of things about the Diablo franchise that made it stand out among other games.  More of a role-playing action game than a FPS, it used a point-and-click interface; attacking mobs and using items were simple mouse clicks and maneuvering through the dungeon was accomplished by clicking on the area where you wanted to go.  In an unusual feature for the time, the game allowed for multiple play-throughs and would change each time you reloaded the map.  Different monsters might spawn, treasure locations and items could change, and you could replay levels to gain xp and gear and advance your character.  In Diablo II once you completed the game you could play it all over again, only much, much harder, or you could chose to play in Hardcore mode (a gamestyle not for the weak), in which character death is absolutely permanent.  Both Diablo games were immensely popular when they came out and remain surprisingly relevant; 15 years after Diablo’s initial release 11 million people are still playing Diablo II over Battle.net (thanks wikipedia!)

In 2008 Blizzard announced that Diablo III had gone into development and four years later we are now few weeks away from launch day (May 15).  I’ve been playing the beta for a couple of weeks and I’m pleased to report that this will be yet another of Blizzard’s massive time-sucks.   There  may be some SPOILERS below, but not many because 1) you can’t play terribly far through the beta so not a lot is revealed; and 2) I’m not really sure how much lore really matters to most people (the best story line won’t matter if gameplay bites and cheesy plots  are merely an annoyance if a game absolutely rocks, you know?).  So, off we go!

First off, Diablo III  is not anything wonderfully new and exciting.  Except for the nicely enhanced graphics (which look great on my Cinema Display and which will most likely look fantastic  on my 52″ LCD TV screen) the game looks much like its predecessors.   It takes place initially in and around “New Tristram” a small town founded near the ruins of Tristram, which has been overrun with undead after a meteor hit the old Cathedral.  Deckard Cain is back and serves as the focus of the initial quest chains.  There are five character classes (barbarian, demon hunter, wizard, monk, witch doctor) with different abilities and skill sets.  You can choose gender and name but beyond that there is no character creation to speak of.  As you advance your character will develop different skill sets which are somewhat customizable depending on your style of play and which probably matter far more in multiplayer than in single player.  Once you’ve opened quests you can reload the game at any point in the quest chain that you’ve completed and also join multiplayer games in those quest chains.  So far I’ve played all classes but the monk all the way through the beta and while I am constitutionally partial to ranged DPS classes I must say that the barbarian kicks all kinds of ass.

Gameplay is very similar to the previous versions of the game, from what I remember of them.  Your view of your character is from sort of an oblique, top down angle and you once again move via clicking wherever you want to go.  You can’t change camera angles or change direction or spin your character with key strokes (as in WoW) which, to me at least, feels a bit limiting.  You run over gold and health bubbles to pick them up; everything else is picked up by clicking on it.  You can interact with the environment a little bit, primarily by shooting stuff and looting whatever falls out of it.  This includes logs and bone piles and old coffins and funeral urns and lamp posts (and apparently the populace of New Tristram is very fond of hiding its gold in tree stumps.)  Always remember, “if you can shoot it, you can loot it,” because you are going to need a LOT of  money if you want to get anywhere with crafting or have a reasonably sized stash.   Once again, loading the same maps multiple times will (randomly?) open different options: different elite mobs, different quests, different side dungeons.  I played one of the initial levels several times before coming across the Jar of Souls event; completing this turns out to be an achievement (see below) so it does pay to redo the content.  Fortunately you can do this on different characters, since all your characters (except for Hardcore characters) will share achievements, stashes, crafters, etc.

Aside from the new character classes, there are a few other new things in the game.  First, and the thing that will probably upset the most  people, is that you will not be able to play without being online and logged into Battle.net, even in single player mode.  This sucks but apparently it is the only way to level the multiplayer playing field (apparently there were problems in Diablo II with cheats and hacks).   The other somewhat controversial thing is the Auction house, which will work both in the usual way (you buy in game items with in game gold) and in an unusual way (you buy in game items with real world money).  I am entirely uninterested in spending any real world money in the game but I can see it possibly becoming a necessity for people serious about multiplayer mode at higher difficulty levels.   Blizz has also added an achievement system into Diablo 3 similar to the one in WoW, where you can essentially gain bragging rights by completing certain tasks (like killing X number of elite mobs, creating X number of crafted items, or finishing special side events).  Some of these happen naturally during the course of game play and some take extra effort or require players to step outside their comfort zone (PvP modes, for example).  I really enjoy the achievement system in WoW so I’m looking forward to Diablo‘s.   They’ve simplified item identification, made travel a little easier by providing a town portal, and instituted a crafting system via a blacksmith and jeweler you can use to create and repair gear and enhance it. Your stash (bank) and crafters are shared among your normal mode characters, making it simple to transfer gear and crafting mats to whoever needs them most.

Another fun innovation is followers, NPCs you meet in the game that will travel with you and fight along side of you.   There are three, a warrior, a  rogue, and an enchantress, although only the warrior is available in the beta.  You meet these characters as you travel through the levels and you can keep one of them with you and switch among them as needed for different challenges.  They will level with you and gain access to different skill chains as they gain experience.  For instance, the warrior can choose either offensive skills (taunt, charge) or regenerative skills (healing, mana restore).  You can also give them equipment.  The only real downside to them is that they cannot be controlled.  What this means is that if you are fighting a huge pack of demons and you barely win and your health is desperately low and your Templar spots a skeleton roaming around the edge of your screen he’ll give a mighty battle cry and aggro it and all its friends.  This can be fun. Or not.

In general single player mode is easy, almost too easy, and I suspect most serious players will finish it in a couple of days at most.   However, the beta doesn’t let you get too far and later sections of the game may be substantially more difficult.  Multiplayer mode may also be more challenging and the harder difficulty levels will almost surely kill you over and over.  Unlike most linear story-line games there is some replay value, both in terms of different content loading whenever you restart a level and in harder difficulty levels.  Once you finish the game (most likely by killing poor Diablo yet again…) you can play it again on Nightmare difficulty, Hell difficulty, and the new Inferno difficulty level.  Each of these can also be played as a Hardcore character and people are already speculating on just how long it will take someone to beat the game on Inferno difficulty in Hardcore mode.

As usual with Blizzard games there are a lot of little touches that don’t really matter one way or the other to your character’s success but that make the experience of playing the game a bit more fun.  Kormac’s flavor text can be amusing; he is absolutely exuberant whenever you kill an elite mob (“Can we find another one like that?!”) and if you stand around too long he will become a bit exasperated (“There must be someone somewhere who needs us right now“).  Also, I think he was flirting with my demon hunter  (as well he might; she is dead sexy in those six inch spiked heels).  Armor looks different depending on which class equips it so that your character always looks, well, in character.  The different character classes have different ways of killing monsters; with the barbarian when you smash into a whole group of mobs they essentially splat everywhere and a few seconds later body parts rain down from the sky.  You can destroy multiple things with one blow (there are achievements for this) and AOE attacks in particular will devastate whatever part of the environment gets in your way (tombstones, furniture, walls, bodies).  The townspeople, however, are unfazed when you click the wrong mouse button and spray them with flaming bats.

There are some nice environmental touches.  Ravens pick at corpses and fly off in distress when disturbed.  The undead literally pour from the earth in the cemetery and crypts, crawling out of cracks in the ground, tumbling from broken tombs, and occasionally tripping over their own bony feet.  Treasure pygmies scurry around the dungeons and spray loot everywhere as you shoot them.  In a fun twist, you can use parts of the environment to kill mobs, by dropping chandeliers on them, for  instance, or collapsing pieces of masonry.  For those of us for whom lore is a guilty pleasure there are books and letters and the like scattered about the world that tell a little bit about the background of the quests, the world, and the NPCs.  These are narrated in the voices of the NPCs and the developers have put noticeable effort into what is essentially background noise.  Some of them point you toward side dungeons or quests and some are actually pretty sad.  Given Blizz’s inordinate fondness for puns and cultural references I’m fairly sure Diablo III will be smack full of those as well so it will be fun to run across those in game.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed the beta and I think this will be a decent diversion from WoW for as long as I can keep interested in it. It doesn’t really break any new ground mechanics-wise and the few new things they’ve added (followers, new classes, achievements, an extra difficulty level, etc) are for the most part barely past cosmetic.  Given the lack of profound innovation it’s not really clear to me why they took so long to develop it but whatever, the long dry spell is almost over.

I have a bad tendency to just shrug and say “If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this,” but it usually turns out to be true, so what the heck?  If this style of gaming is not your cup of tea I doubt Diablo III will change your mind.  However, if you liked the first two games,  if you’ve been waiting eight long years for a new excuse to chase evil through a blackened world, if your hammer hand is itchy and your crossbow is already locked and loaded, then you’re gonna want this.  Go buy it.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on April 21, 2012.

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