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It is no exaggeration to say that Diablo III is one of the most-anticipated games around. First announced in 2008, it has been mired in a lengthy development cycle that has seen Blizzard’s obsession with iteration reach new heights.
Last September, the game finally entered the beta testing phase, and thanks to the generosity of a friend, I have been able to spend some quality time with the Wizard, Monk, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter, and Barbarian as they take the first few steps on the road to defeating the Lord of Terror.
The Diablo III beta test consists of the very beginning of the game (roughly one third of the first act). Not only that, but Blizzard seems to have edited the game to remove as many potential spoilers as possible, so beta testers are only seeing a tiny sliver of the total content. Character progression is capped at level 13, so you can only experience a handful of the available skills.
Despite the limited scope, the beta sucks you in right from the get-go, and you will find yourself fighting monsters within the first few seconds of starting a new game. Unlike previous games in the series, each character starts with a skill, so you feel powerful from the outset.
Blizzard has gone out of their way to make sure that even first-tier skills are satisfying: the Barbarian’s Bash skill can literally knock a monster’s skeleton out of its body, while the Monk’s Fists of Thunder sizzles enemies with a satisfying display of lightning damage. RPG purists might object to this on the grounds that new characters should start the game weak and defenseless, but the Diablo III approach certainly livens up the first minutes of the game.
In terms of gameplay, Diablo III shares many similarities with its illustrious predecessors. At its heart, it is a point-and-click dungeon crawler. But character progression is handled much differently than it was in previous games. It used to be that, upon leveling up, you received a certain number of attribute points that you could allocate to traits such as vitality, dexterity, strength, etc.
Now, the game does the allocation for you. Some players have complained that this removes an important method of customization, but I cannot say that I missed manually assigning my attribute points. In practice, you had to adhere to fairly rigid guidelines if you wanted your character to be viable in Diablo II, so most characters ended up having similar attribute distributions.
The way in which you acquire new skills has also changed. Skills in Diablo III are linked to character level, and you no longer have to allocate skill points to make them more powerful. Now, their damage scales as your stats improve, and you acquire better weapons (even spells are tied to weapon damage).
However, you can only have a certain number of skills active at any one time. You start the game with one active skill slot, which soon increases to two. By the end of the beta, you can have three skills active, though that number will rise to seven when you are playing the full game.
It is possible to change your active skills, though the mechanism for doing so is up in the air. When the beta first started, you could change your skills at any time, but the designers decided that that was too much of an exploit. A patch changed things so that you had to use something called the Nephalem Altar to change skills.
Since the altar was only found in town and at the beginning of one dungeon, changing skills was something of a production. Now, with Patch 10, the Nephalem Altar is gone, and you can once again change skills whenever you want, though there is a 30-second cooldown period for newly-switched skills.
Blizzard has made it clear that this current system is a work-in-progress, which is good since it leaves something to be desired. I can understand why they do not want to allow unfettered skill switches; that would make a mockery of the whole idea of limiting the number of active skills.
However, the 30-second cooldown just seems arbitrary, and it is odd that you have the same cooldown whether you are in the field or in town. Surely skills switched in town should not have any cooldown at all.
Going into the beta, I was a little bit concerned that the current skill system will lead to cookie-cutter builds since players no longer have to worry about spending skill points or investing in prerequisites. Playing the beta has convinced me that those fears are probably baseless.
People are always going to have differing play styles, and that, in turn, is going to influence which skills they choose to activate. For example, when my friend plays the Wizard, he likes to use Disintegrate, a skill that causes a beam of red energy to shoot forth from the Wizard’s hand in a straight line of death and destruction.
I, on the other hand, would much rather use Arcane Orb, which lobs a large galaxy-like ball of arcane energy across the screen until it explodes on contact with a monster. Even within the limited confines of the beta, the two of us were able to take different approaches to the same character. When you add runes (which are not even available in the beta) into the mix, you will have even more opportunities for customization.
Be sure to stay tuned for the second part of our coverage of the Diablo III beta!