Tuesday 21 February, 2012 16:26
Note: I originally posted this article in the diablo.incgamers.com forums. As such, it’s written in such a way as to be geared towards those who already have a reasonable understanding of the game’s mechanics and recent developments in the ongoing beta.
Last night, a friend gave me the use of his account for a few hours to let me try out the DIABLO III beta. I just thought I’d share a few impressions while they’re still reasonably fresh in my mind.
A bit about me
Played Blizzard games since THE LOST VIKINGS and became what I’d consider a fan after the original WARCRAFT. Loved every subsequent Blizzard game with the exception of WOW, which I’ve tried to get into a few times but just find to be boring as hell and a sad bastardisation of a once brilliant RTS series. Played DIABLO and DIABLO II extensively, racking up more hours with D2 but probably having a slight preference for D1, which I thought was a more impressive achievement in terms of its atmosphere and singularity of focus. D2 always struck me as a bit more sloppy, lacking that bleak gothic atmosphere and at times suffering slightly from “ice cream on the hotdogs” syndrome - i.e. so all-encompassing in its scope that you had elements that didn’t fit rubbing shoulders.
I’m adding my voice for the calls for a class selection screen more like D2, with all classes visible on the same screen. Funnily enough, they had a screen like this implemented for the various previews at Blizzcon etc.
I agree that the skills panel needs work. I actually don’t have too much of a problem with the current implementation of skills and runes (more on that later), but the huge panel that takes up most of the screen needs to go. It’s clunky, and it doesn’t fit with the interface as a whole (the quest, lore and inventory panels are positioned on either the right or left and take up less than half the screen). I do think we need to be able to see, on a single screen, all our skills, including the ones we haven’t unlocked yet.
PLEASE Blizzard, add an option to toggle the minimap on and off, as well as the chat window at the bottom left corner.
I’d also like to see the return of the dedicated character screen. This is admittedly more for nostalgic than functional reasons, but for some reason it just doesn’t feel right having your stats share the same screen as the inventory. And while we’re at it, I’d like to have a way of seeing my hit point and mana/fury/whatever numbers at a glance without having to mouse over the health or resource orbs.
One other thing: please, Blizzard, standardise the fonts. I’ve counted at least four: the standard “Diablo” font with the crosses through the Os, Arial, a serif font, and that vaguely Arabic-looking one that also showed up in D2. It just looks sloppy having so many different typefaces in play.
Other than that, I’m happy with the interface. It’s polished, functional, and instantly reminiscent of the previous games while also making improvements.
I played for about five hours and in that time took three characters from scratch through to killing Leoric: the Barbarian, the Wizard and the Demon Hunter. I didn’t have time to try out the Monk or Witch Doctor. If I get a chance to play again, I’ll definitely be checking them out.
I played the Barb first and took him on more or less a full clear, going pretty methodically through each area and listening to every bit of dialogue in full. He’s certainly a visceral class and I found it fun to wade into large groups of enemies and get stuck in, although he did start to feel a bit repetitive after a while. Things perked up when I unlocked Leap Attack, which allowed me to be a bit more mobile and mix up my strategy a bit. Overall the Barb feels tough, no-nonsense and fairly straightforward - a lot like his D2 counterpart but with more damage dealing options available from an earlier stage.
Next I rolled a Wizard and blasted through the whole thing in about an hour. This was partly because I was anxious to see as much of the game as possible and partly because this seems to be the sort of gameplay the Wizard encourages. Whereas with the Barb I found myself feeling compelled to fairly methodically clear out each area, with the Wizard I often found myself simply running past stray zombies or skeletons and not worrying too much about them (they all move so slowly there was no chance of them catching up with me). With AoE skills like Arcane Orb, the Wizard dispatches enemies considerably more quickly than the Barb. Add to that the insane regeneration speed of her arcane power, and you almost never find yourself stopping blasting enemies for more than a couple of seconds. If the Barb was a fairly straightforward class to play (more on difficulty later), the Wizard was an absolute breeze. She feels different from the D2 Sorceress, and I think that’s down to two things: the lack of fire skills (at least at this stage in the game) and the abundance of arcane power. In the D1 and D2 days, my Sorcs were constantly hungry for mana. Here, there almost seems to be too much of it. I very rarely ran my arcane power orb down, and if I did, I could simply switch back to Magic Missile, which, when socketed with its first rune, became ridiculously powerful for a skill with no arcane power costs attached to it.
My last class was the Demon Hunter. I slowed down a bit for him, still skipping over the dialogue I’d already heard but generally taking my time to do a full clear. Occasionally, if I came to the end of a dungeon and knew there was a corridor back near the beginning that I hadn’t explored, I’d just leave it and move on to the next level, but by and large I was pretty thorough. This playthrough took me under two hours. I immediately noticed that he dealt less damage per second than the previous two classes. I understand he’s been beefed up with this patch, but he still found myself doing a lot more clicking to achieve the same results than I did with the Barb or Wizard. The DH, dare I say it, plays more like I would expect a class in a Diablo game to play. That’s not to say that the game was any more of a challenge with him (the beta is, on the whole, ridiculously easy), but I no longer felt like I was simply steamrolling through everything. I occasionally had to actually back up and thin a horde of monsters out from a distance, which made this class feel more tactical than the other two.
Back when D3 was originally unveiled, with that original gameplay trailer showcasing the Barb and Witch Doctor, I immediately knew the first character I’d roll would be a Barb due to the sheer visceral nature of his combat. I kept my promise to myself and wasn’t disappointed, but having taken a Barb through to completion of the beta, I’m no longer so sure I’ll be playing him first in the retail version. It’s not that I didn’t have fun, but the other two classes I played simply seemed to have a far more interesting arsenal at their disposal.
If I have a favourite at the moment, it’s probably the DH, because he actually forced me to take a step back from the carnage and think about what I was doing. That’s not to say I ever felt I was in any significant danger of being overwhelmed, but as a ranged fighter you can’t simply run up to a summoner and one-shot or two-shot them, meaning that you actually have to position yourself in such a way as to pick them off from afar, otherwise you face an endless stream of minions soaking up all your arrows.
Unlike some people, I’ve always been reasonably happy with the art direction. True, some of the armour and helmets look a tad ridiculous (I hate, hate, HATE the pointy wizard hat), put overall I like the painterly approach they’ve gone for in terms of the backgrounds. The initial outdoor zones, with their blue tint and twisted, gnarled trees are among the most graphically atmospheric work Blizzard has ever done. I love the way the individual blades of grass move in reaction to you walking through them, or how tapestries hanging on the walls of the cathedral billow if you swing your weapon near them. This is definitely one of those games where static screen captures can’t convey what it looks and feels like in motion. Even the various HD gameplay movies on the likes of YouTube don’t do the game justice due to how compressed the visuals are.
With all that said, the game definitely lacks that old “hairs standing up on the back of your neck” feeling of the original DIABLO… but then again, D2 lacked that as well and I didn’t hear too many complaints about it. D3 definitely has oodles more atmosphere than D2, and there are several areas where you’ll actually want to break off from combat for a bit to stare at the scenery. I’m thinking of the glowing blue crater in the cathedral where the Fallen Star fell, and the chasm in Leoric’s chamber where the carpet on the floor dangles off the precipice.
My system is fairly high end - Intel Core i7 930 clocked at 3.36 GHz, 6 GB RAM, 80 GB SSD (with D3 installed on it), overclocked AMD Radeon 7950 video card, Hazro HZ27WB 27” monitor. I mention this because I played at 2560x1440 with all settings maxed (including anti-aliasing) and had no complaints about performance, but am aware that my system is quite a bit more powerful than the norm. It definitely performs better than STARCRAFT II, which still drops below 60 fps for me on certain story mode maps (e.g. the “zombie hordes” one) even with a near state of the art GPU.
I also have no complaints about lag. I live in Scotland and the servers are obviously all US-based at the moment. I was averaging a ping between the high 100s and low 200s throughout but was never aware of any latency. Whatever model they’re using for combat (and I know there’s been a lot of back and forth about this), it certainly works, and this is coming from someone who only ever played D2 offline because I found a ping of 80 to be unplayable. I’d rather the online-only restriction wasn’t there (for a multitude of reasons, not least an occasionally flaky internet connection), and find it quite bizarre that Blizzard has gone down this online-only route but then sets the default game setting to private, meaning you’re essentially being encouraged to play a single player game that requires a broadband internet connection, but that’s an argument for another time.
Let’s get something out of the way first: I really dislike the removal of manual stat and skill point allocation. I’m not one of those people who thinks this game should be DIABLO 2.5, but when the changes to automatic stat points and the removal of skill points were announced, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns. Having now actually sat down and playing around with the game for a few hours, these concerns haven’t been allayed. On a first playthrough, when you’re getting access to a new active/passive skill or rune at every level, there’s plenty to look forward to as you level up because you’re constantly getting new toys to play with. On a second playthrough, though, I get the feeling that a lot of the excitement will be gone. Sure, you can decide whether you want to use skill X or socket it with rune Y that becomes available at level Z, but apart from that I do worry that the leveling up process will feel a bit hollow and uneventful. And because they’ve removed stat requirements on items, I found myself more or less ignoring my STR/DEX/VIT/WIS numbers, even though they were staring me in the face every time I opened the inventory. To an extent it felt like they were just arbitrary numbers that could have been replaced with anything.
That said, I for one am actually glad that runes are now unlocked rather than being items. Previously, it looked as if the only form of character customisation in the game was going to be itemisation; now at least it feels like there is more of a semblance of skill choice, even if the actual change is 99% interface-related. I basically like the idea of the skill system in its present state, and I PARTICULARLY like that they seem to have solved the clvl 30-60 dead zone problem by constantly unlocking new runes right up to clvl 60.
The skill interface needs work, though. Visually it’s as polished as anything else in the game, but functionally it’s incredibly clunky. This is especially true in elective mode, where you have a great deal more freedom of choice but that freedom feels as if it’s been hacked in. At the very least they need to get rid of the skill slot names when you’re playing in elective mode and sort the skills in a way that makes sense. Having Arcane Orb not show up in the Arcane list is frankly just confusing - ironic, considering Blizzard’s push for simplification that grandma can understand.
(NOTE: I actually played the Barb with elective mode turned off purely to see what it felt like. Restrictive is the answer, particularly early on in the game when you have limited skill slots available and are restricted to a single primary skill.)
The globes work. I’m fine with them, and they give a very satisfying “clunk-glug” sound effect when you pick them up. At the moment, I’d say they drop way more than are actually necessary, but I expect this will change as the difficulty ramps up further into the game. In my six hours or so of playing, I only used a single health potion - when my Barb dropped into the red after I let myself get surrounded by a mobs of skeletons that suddenly emerged from the ground in one of the outdoor locations. In fact, when I rolled my Wizard, I actually made a point of leaving the potions I started with in my stash and not picking up any that dropped, purely to see if it was possible to play through the beta without them. It was.
Not crazy about this. Personally I like the feeling of rolling a brand new character and having to start from scratch. If your blacksmith is already leveled up, you can craft high-end equipment right from the get go, which leaves me feeling that the game is steering you towards twinking your characters, which personally speaking goes against my whole Diablo playing philosophy. Ditto for shared gold. It would be nice if an option was provided to roll a character not tied to your account-wide artisans, but I’m not holding my breath.
Interface needs to be tweaked a bit and I’m still concerned about the limited character customisation, but overall great game, extremely fun and showing a lot of promise. Now hurry the hell up and release it!