Every year, in addition to the hundreds of other games that are released to varying levels of hype, there's one or two which you just know are going to be a big deal. Good or bad, success or failure, the significance of the game is without question.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this that Diablo III is one of those games for this year. The weight of expectation, in part, is because the developer is the legendary Blizzard. It's also partly as a result of the fact that the title has been in development for eight years. It's also sequel to one of the most beloved franchises in PC gaming history...
It is, then, something of a big deal.
For the unaware, Diablo III - like the two titles before it - is an isometric perspective action role-playing game. While the structure follows a narrative, the core drive of your average Diablo player is less about ploughing through the story and more about obliterating hordes of enemies in search of ever better equipment ("loot") with which to equip your character.
Diablo III doesn't stray from this formula, at all. While some of the technical details have changed (and we'll get to that in a moment), the core experience is pure Diablo. If you could find a Diablo II fan from back in the day who was unaware Diablo III even existed, you could pop them in front of the game and know that within seconds they'd have identified exactly what they're playing. That Blizzard have managed to achieve this and still make a game that's (mostly) relevant to 2012 is a testament to their dedication to delivering a game when it's done, rather than when it's time.
So what's changed? One of the more significant differences, and one that caused more forum-based ruckus than almost any other change, is the way in which you build your character. Instead of apportioning stat points each level, attempting to advance down the tree of skills that you think will work best for you, you'll progressively unlock skills and modifiers that you can use at will. Remarkably, instead of reducing your options, this change gives you many, many more decisions to make - and they are decisions you can make on a fight-by-fight basis, if you like, instead of just once per character.
There are some limitations as to which skills you can assign to which button. This takes a bit of adjusting to if you're familiar with similar games (like World of Warcraft), but ultimately this guidance does help to structure the experience. You can switch on a "hardcore" button configuration mode, but after experimenting with my skills (I played through the game as both a Wizard and Barbarian), I found myself using the skills the way Blizzard had intended anyway.
Other changes include the complete removal of scrolls of identification and town portal, a unified stash for all of your characters to use, and numerous other "oh yeah, that's heaps better" improvements. There's achievements, a basic crafting system (including the ability to level your craftsmen - something you only have to do once per account, not per character), and deep social integration to keep you in touch with your other battle.net friends.
Combat, a strong component of the title, is well realised, with the brutal melee combat (the Barbarian plays a lot like this guy) a real highlight. Ranged classes aren't left out, either, with some spectacular (both visually and in effect) spells to rain destruction down on entire groups of enemies at once. If you like to wade in and wage war on dozens of enemies at once, Diablo III caters well to your proclivities.
There are some slight balancing issues in the game, with the Barbarian in particular being very gear-dependent. The Wizard can get away with almost anything, with a combination of ranged damage spells and crowd control that can keep all but the clumsiest gamer safe from harm in any situation. The Barbarian, on the other hand, needs to have great gear to survive the first encounters in Act II (the second of four parts of the game), where the difficulty suddenly spikes and melee classes will always be taking damage.
Continue reading on page 2.