UPDATE: It appears we have missed a fairly major option called "elective mode", which allows any skill to be placed in any slot. I thank the people of Reddit for bringing this to my attention. I will test it out and update this accordingly when server maintenance has ended and I have had the opportunity to test it. We apologise profusely for the misinformation.
UPDATE 2: The preview has been updated with details of the elective mode and clarification of the skill system.
Full disclosure: I have never played Diablo or its sequel. However, we at gamrReview figured that many of you won’t have played them either, so I was assigned the task of evaluating the Diablo III beta from the point of view of a gamer new to the series.
Of course, I am not new to RPGs, and my love of RPGs combined with a deep admiration for Blizzard has kept Diablo III on my radar for quite a while, and I relished the opportunity to give it a try a few months before release (which, in case you hadn’t heard, is 15th May). Naturally, I can’t compare it to earlier games in the series, but a later article from our biggest Diablo fan will follow shortly. Meanwhile, I can certainly compare it to other games in the genre.
Diablo III is a contemporary and technically advanced take on a very old genre, and its homage to the early games not only in its own series but in role-playing gaming as a whole is clear. It foregoes the new-fangled over-the-shoulder camera perspective with WASD controls in favour of classic top-down mouse control. It’s a sensible decision, too: Diablo III would be practically unplayable if it tried to emulate the style of newer games.
No enormous effort was made to inform me as to what was going on and what had already taken place, so I was left feeling somewhat confused by the story. Quite a few journals are scattered around the world, and the characters speak to you about events, but nothing really links them together. Hopefully, the full game will include some more background information, but if not, new Diablo inductees may wish to read up before May. You start at level 1 a short walk away from New Tristram, a fairly small town near which a star has fallen, and you are tasked with investigating the star and helping the town’s inhabitants. You quickly discover that an army of undead soldiers is attacking New Tristram and wants to prevent you from reaching the star. The beta thus has you undertake a fairly brief quest line which takes you through some short dungeons and a few hundred enemies.
The first thing that struck me was how much simpler Diablo III was than other RPGs I had played, particularly when playing the spellcaster class, the Wizard. You begin the game with only one spell and a wand, as would perhaps be expected, but when you begin, you can only use keep two spells active at any one time - you only have two skill slots. However, as you level up, you unlock new skill slots. One is unlocked at level 4, and another at level 9, so by the beta cap of level 13, I had four slots in total. Initially, it seems that you have to stick to the category specified by each spell slot. You do not. An option called elective mode (so obscure that all three reviewers who were working on this beta initially missed it completely) allows you to put any ability in any slot. Therefore, by the higher levels, you have six slots available, and a total of around 25 spells that can be equipped to these six slots. More slots would have been helpful, and the delay when you change the skill in a slot should not be as long as it is, but it is now clear that some freedom is allowed. On the whole, however, the Wizard is still a little disappointing. The fun of a spellcaster class in any game is micromanagement and choosing the right tools for the job, and this is practically impossible until the higher levels, and inconvenient even then. The lack of freedom, though not as great as it initially seems, hurts Diablo III's wizard in my eyes, but many may even prefer a system in which you have to choose what you can use from your pool of abilities outside of a fight.
Far better are the melee classes, in particular the monk. This is quite clearly a game built around such classes – indeed, abilities are supposed to be secondary to placing and timing when you are playing as a class which focuses on short-range combat. The game is still simple, but it matters much less and you’ll find it far more enjoyable. The beta is still irritatingly easy, but this is to be expected: only the lowest difficulty setting is unlocked. Don’t expect to be choosing it.
The monk’s equivalent of the mana bar only fills up with successful attacks, so you have to use your weak attacks and endanger yourself (or, at least, you would be endangering yourself on higher difficulties) in order to unlock your powerful abilities. By contrast, the wizard’s mana bar fills very quickly over time and you can send out powerful attacks in quick succession until the bar runs out (at which point you wait a few seconds to find that it is full again).
There are also four defensive abilities, which do not use mana at all, but which have independent cooldowns. These will undoubtedly be handy to get out of sticky situations, on higher difficulties and later in the game when such sticky situations exist.
Customisation is rather limited. As previously mentioned, you are more or less stuck with the same handful of spells. You can give each spell a “rune” to give it some sort of secondary ability or increase damage, but this is simply a matter of choosing the strongest rune available – the one which has been unlocked most recently. Equipment fares better: handily, the game automatically tells you whether a given piece of gear is better than that which you currently have equipped, and gently prods you if any of your equipment slots are empty. The appearance of your character itself is completely static, which is a real shame in a genre filled with interesting physical customisation options. Appearance customisation has been confirmed as absent from the full game.
Refreshingly, the forging of armour and weapons isn’t just a slog to reach mastery at which point you can create things even comparable to what you find in any dungeon. From the get-go, the items you create are among the most powerful you can find. The catch is that creating items is much harder than in most games: you need to disenchant and destroy magical items (which are rather rare) that you find to gain the raw materials required to forge new weapons. This is a handy way of disposing of items that your chosen class cannot use. Naturally, however, your abilities do improve. Paying a certain amount of gold improves your skill and allows you to craft superior items. These items have a level cap, however, so don't expect to become indestructible with exceptional gear just because you've invested all of your money in forging.
There will be a full article on the multiplayer, so I will only mention it briefly. I haven’t put much time into it, partially because the friend-adding system isn’t fully functional, and partially because the handful of games I played involved no co-operation whatsoever. It’s a single-player game with some companionship. Once again, this will hopefully change on higher difficulties.
It is difficult to judge Diablo III at this stage, because it is incomplete and, intentionally, extremely easy. I will, however, say this: if you feel that RPGs are becoming too complicated, it might be right up your alley. If, however, you loved the difficulty and complexity of the Baldur’s Gate series or even the original Dragon Age, you may not find Diablo III’s action-heavy and simplistic gameplay to your liking. I would almost go so far as to call it a third-person action game rather than a true RPG.
I’m not jumping out of my seat with excitement at the prospect of Diablo III’s release, but at the same time I am somewhat intrigued. A lot depends on how the game changes as your progress. From what I’ve seen, although Diablo III is not the deepest RPG around, it is satisfying and smooth, so with some minor reservations, I advise gamers new to the series to keep an eye on Diablo III, and I will reserve full judgement until the full game is released on 15th May.