Blizzard knows games. Not only do they know how to perfect a formula, if not invent one outright, they know that releasing a bad game does no one any favours - which is why we're yet to play StarCraft Ghost or WarCraft Adventures. It's also why people are passionate about their brand to the point that they wear a Blizzard-themed tattoo, or stand in line for hours just to be amongst the first to get their hands on whatever Blizzard release next.
That next title is Diablo III. More than eleven years since the last game in the series, the game looks set to reinvigorate a genre that Blizzard's other game - World of Warcraft - almost single-handedly trivialized. We don't know when it's coming - although we do expect that they'll fill us in on that at BlizzCon next month - but we did manage to get our hands on the highly sought-after closed beta version of the game, and have been playing it extensively every available moment since.
With the game presenting such a depth of content and wide-ranging class-based mechanics, we've decided to split our preview coverage into parts, with this part discussing the game itself while others will go on to detail class mechanics and other specific material as required.
The game, for those of you who are not familiar with the series, is an isometric-camera action role-playing game (ARPG). You control your chosen character, each of which has a suite of different abilities and mechanics, via a combination of mouse clicks and button presses. The goal is to follow the quest-driven story, kill loads of enemies, and find lots of loot as you attempt to free the world from oppression and heap glory upon yourself.
The classes available in the beta and, as far as we know, the full game itself are as follows: Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor, and Wizard - each of which can be either male or female. Unlike previous games in the series, Diablo III is presented in genuine 3D - making things like gender and armor pop from the screen like never before. The beta also contains a lot of voiced content per character, with your chosen hero able to enter into voiced dialogue with numerous characters in the game, and he'll even chat away to himself / you as he makes his way through the game world.
You can create up to ten characters per account which, if you're not already aware, are all stored online; there's no concept of offline characters, nor is there any way by which you can play this game - at all - without an internet connection. There's no concept of servers to choose from, and there's no way to customize the way your chosen character looks - aside from choosing their gender.
There are two modes listed in the main menu, once you've chosen a character - Campaign and Versus. Versus, however, is not available to be tested in the beta so there's nothing much we can tell you about that for now. Selecting campaign lets you decide how you want to play - by yourself, in a friends-only match, in a public game, or by joining someone else's game. You can also choose to play a specific key quest, so long as you've already played through it once, from the beginning - further underlining the Diablo series' focus on being able to play through the game multiple times, in multiple ways.
The first thing that strikes you on first entering the game is the remarkably detailed and gorgeously stylized visuals. It's like walking through a 3D oil painting by Monet or Constable; vivid, gorgeous colours (despite the generally dark and sombre pallete) and a slightly cartoon-esque edge that creates a visual package that is almost entirely unlike World of Warcraft, or - in fact - anything else. Characters are rim-lit, giving them extra depth and helping them pop off the beautful backdrops.
The next, overwhelming impression is just how many tweaks to the general formula that Blizzard have elected to implement. Very soon after starting the game, you'll embark on a series of quests that provide you with a number of objects that significantly streamline some of the core genre mechanics. You get, for example, a device that lets you vendor items wherever you are - there's no more need to keep popping back to town to clean up your inventory. If you do need to go back, you can do so - at any time - by using your hearthstone-like "Stone of recall" (which still leaves a portal behind so you can get right back where you were), while the Nephalem Cube lets you breakdown unwanted items into components that you can later use via the simple crafting system.
None of these items take up space in your inventory, either, so there's no excuse for leaving them back at your stash in town - nor could you, even if you did want to. The classic "Tetris-like" inventory remains, however, requiring some shuffling around to take advantage of what space is available, should you let the inventory fill up on an extended dungeon crawl.
Another major tweak to the formula is the tight integration of hints and tips in the interface. Quest items are clearly marked on the map most of the time and places you need to go or people you need to talk to are very, very clearly highlighted. Hop on the waypoint teleporter, for example, and a little quest chalice will clue you in on which destination is most convenient for you. Quests are otherwise pretty similar to D2 in terms of frequency and driving the story forward, however there are a few more and a few side quests for you to pursue, which reward extra XP and items to help you along.
The combat remains, at its core, a click-on-things-to-kill-them game. There have been a large number of tweaks to this formula though, including the ability to have up to 5 quick-access abilities on top of your left and right-click functions. How you access them is a little unusual, however, as you have to pre-define which of your gradually unlocked abilities are "Active" - and you can only select from these active abilities for your hotkeys. Presumably this is to prevent the game from being easily abused by modders or allowing it to vary too far from the core formula, but it still comes across as a slightly weird way to go about things.
Achieving certain feats in-game also awards you bonus XP and provides a great way for you to compare your skills with those of others. For example, killing a certain number of enemies within a short time of each other awards you a bonus and reports not only the amount you just managed to obliterate, but also whether or not it's your own personal best. Similarly, if you manage to kill monsters with another monster's explosion, or utilize level interactivity to kill the bad guys with a collapsing wall (or similar), the game tracks, reports, and rewards it all.
There's loads more stuff too, like a scroll that creates a pet that follows you around and gathers up all the gold that drops, journal and lore items that fill you in on the game's backstory (all of which are voiced), new potions, buffs, and - of course - loot. There's even a simple crafting system, complete with recipes for items that drop at various levels of rarity.
It all combines into a package which is bewilderingly complete and far from the typical beta experience. We didn't, for example, spot a single bug in our first play through of the content (which takes an hour or so, depending on how focused you are on tearing through it), nor did we see anything that looked in anyway unfinished. The beta even includes access to the game's gold-based auctionhouse, although with only a small amount of low-level content on offer, it's not being heavily utilized at the time of writing.
So far, we're incredibly impressed with the game, which extends on the original formula in every conceivable way - yet isn't afraid to make significant, potentially controversial changes, for the sake of driving the genre forward.
Keep an eye out for further impressions as we detail the experience of playing each of the five character classes - if you have any specific questions or would like any particular screenshots, etc, be sure to let us know in the comments and we'll do our best to accomodate you!
The Good: Incredibly polished, an improvement in every way
The Bad: Some may decry the simplification in some areas
The Ugly: Fanboy wars