Diablo III – Preview

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For once in the sainted existence of Blizzard Entertainment, the gaming behemoth that can do no wrong, the build-up to its hotly anticipated new release Diablo III has not been smooth.

In the 12 or so years since its famous predecessor came out, a vicious Internet culture of fan entitlement has emerged. Every new morsel of information released on the game has been met with an electronically baying mob of aggrieved fanboys raging that a game they’re so very invested in might not be released in just the state they think best. The higher the profile of the game, the more viscerally upset these fans can get, and nothing has a higher profile than Diablo III.

People howled at each new screenshot or video release, railing against graphics they perceive as too colourful or too simple, an interface being wrong, or even the early gameplay appearing too similar to Diablo II.

This preview probably isn’t the place to comment on the rights and wrongs of fannish entitlement, but it is important to bear in mind the legacy that Blizzard is juggling, and the weight of expectation poking them in the nuts as they try to get on with it.

But yes, changes and any lack thereof, are the order of the day. Has Blizzard managed to negotiate the knife-edge of anticipation? Well, bearing in mind that this was only a two-hour beta which ends with the reaching of the first big boss, with a final character level of between about 10 and 14, the answer is a resounding ‘sort of’.

First up, it’s clear that an awful lot of concessions have been made to modern trends in gaming. Even this tiny little beta has three dozen bloody achievements, an obvious bow to the spirit of the age. More crucially though – and this is where fans are most likely to cry foul – they’ve streamlined everywhere they can, and not every cutback has been to dead wood.

Plenty of these simplifications are welcome: gold now magically flows from ground to wall without any of that dirty mercantile clicking business, and there’s far less tedious inventory management. Each new item clearly compares itself to your current equipment; lore is all voiced and plays itself as you run, while there’s no more tedious trotting back to old Deckard to identify reams of useless blue junk. But with all this ‘well-duh’ removal of past annoyances, Diablo II also casts off a disturbing amount of more welcome complexity.

The skill tree is more focused, more rigid and much less of a ‘tree’. There’s no agony of choice between skills and no assigning skill points; at each level you either get a new skill (primary, secondary, area of effect, passive, etc.) or an improvement to an already held skill. You then pick which ones you want to use, with a long cooldown between each change to prevent switching it up in combat.

Health potions exist, but are also on a cooldown. If you want more health, you generally have to scoop up one of the dumb red orbs that enemies drop with facile regularity. I didn’t die once, and that made it feel eerily easy.

The game feels like it’s on rails, like it has been simplified for mass appeal. This may be a symptom of the fact that the beta only contains the earliest stages of the game, far too soon for any of the bells and whistles to come, but it’s not the greatest showcase for Diablo III’s promise. Enemies are dull, familiar and easily killed, and lewt is not remotely phat. It’s the small things, for example – and I could be wrong – but it felt like only class-specific items would drop, and that killed the variety for me.

There are glimpses of the potential greatness which might come. These are as slick as you’d imagine, and act to fill me with hope. The crafting system, even at a low level, promises much, as you tame a blacksmith and level him up across all your characters. The classes are diverse and have been lavished with typical attention to detail, and skill progression may yet blossom into more flexibility at higher levels. The graphics are lovely, and those additional colours so hated by certain online elements are lush to say the least.

Here’s my big gripe though; I have a dodgy internet connection at times, and Blizzard’s desire for an MMO-ish always on style of DRM leaves me worried. Maybe it will make finding questing buddies easier, and perhaps it’ll facilitate the auction house (a feature that hasn’t been implemented) – all I know is that it kept resetting my games by a few seconds at a time whenever my connection flagged, sending me back a few monsters and a corridor or two. That was annoying.

For: PC
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
When? 15 May 2012

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