Diablo III Beta Impressions - Preview

By Craig Snow, March 28, 2012
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You may already have read our first Beta Impressions piece by Diablo newcomer Arthur Kabrick. If not, you should definitely give it a read, even if you're a Diablo veteran, because it paints a good picture of what was on show in the Beta. This article differs in that I have a long history with both Diablo and, to a much greater extent, Diablo II (I played the latter regularly online for five years straight, to the exclusion of most other games), so I'll be running through some of the key changes to the series from the perspective of a long-time fan who hasn't actually been folowing Diablo III's development very closely.

Certain aspects of Diablo have progressed noticeably: the storytelling elements are a clear step up from Diablo II; the voice acting is still fantastic, but this time around there seems to be a lot more dialogue, and you tend to be able to complete tasks whilst the characters are conversing rather than having to stand still while the text scrolls. The graphics are, of course, much stronger. The much talked about and oft-controversial art style works well in my opinion; those hoping for a return to the dark atmosphere of the original Diablo were always going to be disappointed on this front, but I really don’t think it detracts from what the Diablo series now is. The game looks great, sounds fantastic, and certainly feels like a Diablo title.



This is true of the player characters as well. Each of the five classes feels right at home in the game. The Barbarian and Wizard of course mirror existing Diablo II classes, but even the others feel somewhat familiar. The Demon Hunter feels like a bad-ass Amazon, the Witch Doctor has shades of the Necromancer about him, and even the Monk feels a little like Diablo II's Assassin class; each character class is still distinct from any available in Diablo II, but at the same time very much familiar.

Diablo III also removes a few pet annoyances of Diablo II’s: you no longer need to buy identification scrolls, or town portals (TPs) for that matter (you essentially have an unlimited supply of town portals and you self-identify items). Don’t expect to find people begging for you to create TPs any more either (gone are the days of people screaming ‘TOWN PORTAL PLZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!!!!’ at you), because they’ll be able to teleport to your position from town by clicking on your banner. Smaller items of the same type, like crafting materials and gems, now automatically stack. And it's far easier to compare items: the game will display both the complete stats for the item your mouse is hovering over and the equivalent that you have equipped on your character at the same time. Combine all of this with a universal stash and auction house and you have a recipe for some very happy Diablo traders. Minor improvements like these remove a lot of tedium from the game, sometimes even fixing problems you didn't even know existed.

Crafting this time around involves the use of Artisans, NPCs who are master craftsmen. In the Beta you're given access to the first Artisan, the Blacksmith. In order to craft items you first need crafting materials. These are obtained by 'Salvaging' unwanted magical items. The rarer the item you salvage, the rarer the crafting materials you receive in return. Naturally, the best items you can craft require the rarest crafting materials to produce, making for a balanced trade-off. The Blacksmith provides you with a list of items he can potentially craft for you and certain indications of the magical properties each will have, as well as the materials he needs in order to create the item for you. It's a great system, with a simple and easy-to-use interface, and the ability to upgrade the Artisans at a hefty price opens the way for them to potentially be useful in the late game and offer truly high-tier items, though only time will tell on that front.



So far so positive, then. What about the negative stuff? I'll start with a minor gripe: Diablo III features a lot of partially destructible scenery and trigger events. For example, there may be some wooden scaffolding in a dungeon which is keeping a massive pile of rocks at bay. By attacking the structure you can trigger its collapse and the pile of rocks will fall on any enemies who happen to be conveniently positioned right next to it. In any dungeon there may be, say, half a dozen or so of these scattered around. The concept itself feels very gimmicky (and therefore out of place), but they're also highly repetitive; sure, the actual event itself may be different from one you saw 5 minutes ago, but the execution is always the same. Another gimmicky feature is the new combo bonus system, where you receive extra experience for netting multiple kills in quick succession, but unlike the trigger events the combo system actuallly... works. It's undoubtedly a gimmick, but it feels surprisingly well suited to the game, and you soon find yourself compelled to net as many kills as possible when you enter a new area full of enemies.

A more pressing concern for me is related to Battle.net. I must confess, I stopped playing StarCraft II a few months after launch and haven't gone back despite being a big fan of the original game, and that was primarily because of the new Battle.net's lack of chat rooms and restrictions on custom maps - Blizzard made a huge mistake creating a new Battle.net that was worse than the original, killing off the feeling of community you got with the original chat room system and making you feel isolated and cut off from everyone else. I'm assured that Battle.net has improved since then, but not enough, and it shows with Diablo III. So whilst in theory there are chat rooms, you're not thrown into a lobby when you go online, and there's still a feeling that you're isolated from everyone else; something that's even more problematic in Diablo (where it's fun to show off your character) than it was in StarCraft II. The friend system, which was a pain in StarCraft II, is back (though Diablo III is confirmed to be region free), but it's kind of broken - I could connect to one of the other members of writing staff who received Beta access, but not the other. Usually I'd put it down to a Beta bug that would be ironed out for release, but given how Blizzard handled the development of Battle.net for StarCraft III all bets are off on that front.



There are seemingly no custom games either - public games are available but rigid level and quest requirements have been put in place. I can understand the theory behind this: it allows people to easily match up with others to carry on main quest lines without griefers ruining the experience, but a custom game option should also be available in my view. Once again, it seems, Blizzard are intent on removing options and freedom from the online multiplayer aspect of one of their series.

I come away from the Beta with mixed feelings. I'm reassured that things I thought would be problematic are actually working out well, and the End Game trading potential (more on that in the next article) is definitely there, but it's disappointing to see Blizzard persist with such a restrictive approach to online gaming; it simply makes me long for the old Battle.net, warts and all. In short: the game itself is shaping up to be fantastic, but Battle.net is a potential dark cloud on the horizon.

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