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Last weekend, Blizzard released Patch 13 for the Diablo III beta. At long last, fans have a chance to try the new skill and rune system the developers have been working on over the past few months.
The introduction of runes is probably the biggest change in Patch 13. Like almost every aspect of the game, runes have had a rather convoluted history. Originally introduced as ‘runestones’, they were supposed to be loot items that could be socketed into skills in order to modify that skill in some way.
They came in five colors, and their effects ranged from the mundane (putting an Alabaster runestone into the Wizard’s Magic Missile increased its damage) to the bizarre (putting a Crimson runestone into the Witch Doctor’s Zombie Charger turned it into a zombie bear). Each stone had seven ranks, with the higher-level ones becoming progressively rarer. This system was never incorporated into the beta, and few people outside of Blizzard had the chance to experiment with it.
But Patch 13 unveiled a dramatically-revamped system. Runestones have become ‘skill runes,’ and they are no longer droppable items. Now, they are part of the redesigned skill interface and they automatically unlock based on your character level. The color-coding is gone too, as are the different ranks. Each skill still has five possible runes that can be applied to it, but you will not be able to level them up. But their base effects remain more or less unchanged.
Given the limited scope of the beta, players only get to experience a fraction of the total number of runes. Even though the sample is limited, I was impressed with how they radically altered the gameplay. Take the Witch Doctor’s Poison Dart skill, for example. It is the first skill a Witch Doctor receives, but there is nothing particularly special about it to begin with.
Before Patch 13, I usually switched to something else as soon as possible. But when you equip the Splinters rune, you shoot several darts in quick succession, sort of like a machine gun. It is a dramatic improvement, and I kept Poison Dart as my main attack throughout the beta.
Runes can also alter a skill’s basic properties. Adding the Bounding Light rune to the Monk’s Fists of Thunder skill removes the knockback and adds a chain of lightning that strikes nearby foes, so players have to decide if they would rather have added damage or knockback. In theory, runes will help keep skills viable throughout the entire game, unlike in Diablo II where most skills became obsolete at some point. They also add a welcome element of customization.
Because runes offer so many potential changes, you can eventually adjust every skill to fit your play style. Of course not everybody is happy with the new rune system. Some fans are up in arms, claiming that there is now less customization since everybody automatically gets the same runes instead of having to find them as loot. I disagree. Chances are, lower-level runes would have dropped quite frequently, so it would have been easy for players to get all five colors.
Higher level runes of each color would have been rarer, but they would only increase the skill’s power. The rune’s underlying mechanic would stay the same. So the difference between individual rune levels would probably not have been terribly dramatic, and I am not sure they constituted meaningful customization (“Your Wizard’s Magic Missile can do 126% weapon damage? Ha! Mine can do 128%!”). The rune system does allow players to adjust a skill to fit their preferred play style, and I think that is much more important than fussing over numbers.
The only real complaint I have about the system is the new skill interface. It is horrible. Horrible, horrible, horrible. Part of the problem is that Blizzard has decided to implement a new ‘guided mode’ where certain skills are automatically mapped to certain buttons. Now, skills are divided into categories. There are three general categories that all characters share (primary, secondary, and defensive), plus three class-specific categories (in the Wizard’s case, they are arcane, conjuration, and mastery).
When you are in guided mode, primary skills are bound to your left mouse button, secondary skills to your right mouse button, defensive skills are bound to the ‘1’ key, and so on and so forth. But if you want to bind primary skills to both mouse buttons, or put a defensive spell on the mouse instead of the keyboard, you are out of luck unless you go into the game options and check the box for ‘Elective Mode.’ Even then, the process of switching skills from one button/key to another is terribly awkward.
I am not one to QQ about things, but this new skill interface needs to go. While they are at it, I think they could safely do away with guided mode too. I realize they are just doing it to make life easier for casual gamers and people who are brand new to action RPGs, but I think they are offering help where it is not really needed.
The game already assigns skills to certain keys by default. If you do not want to mess around with your keybindings, you do not have to. But forcing people to use the defaults unless they enable a different game mode is just stupid. Check back soon for the second part of our coverage of Patch 13, including a look at how each character’s skills have changed.
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