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After nearly twelve years of development, Diablo fans can finally return to Sanctuary to fight the forces of the Burning Hells once more. Diablo III hit store shelves with a great deal of fanfare, and it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it was one of the most eagerly anticipated titles of the decade. But does the game live up to its hype? In a word: yes.
Diablo III follows the same basic formula as its predecessors. Players choose one of five classes (Barbarian, Witch Doctor, Monk, Demon Hunter, and Wizard), each of which has its own unique set of skills. You must then journey through four different acts, ridding the world of Sanctuary of monsters as you go. As you gain more experience, your character gains access to different abilities. He or she also finds progressively greater loot, and the hunt for better items can become a game-within-a-game. Although the default mode is single-player, fans can also team up with up to three other people to fight demons cooperatively. There are four difficulty levels, ranging from Normal to Inferno. Inferno is meant to be brutal, and only characters who have reached the highest level will have a chance of surviving. But it is also where the best loot will be found.
Each of the five classes plays very differently. As you might expect, the Barbarian is a tank who specializes in dealing (and taking) huge amounts of damage. The Wizard, on the other hand, has been described by the design team as a ‘glass cannon’ who can dish out quite a bit of punishment, but cannot take much in return. The Monk is a martial arts master who strikes quickly and deploys special auras to heal himself and his teammates. The Witch Doctor is the spiritual successor to Diablo II’s Necromancer, and he makes use of poison, curses, and pets to kill his foes. The Demon Hunter is a ranged class who plays like a cross between the Amazon and the Assassin from Diablo II. Her primary attacks use bows and crossbows, but she is also capable of laying down deadly traps.
The skill system has been one of the most controversial aspects of the game. In Diablo II, players had to invest skill points to access skills and improve their performance. Now, skills simply unlock based on character level, and players eventually have access to all of their characters’ skills. However, you can only have six skills active at any one time (by default, they are bound to the left and right mouse buttons and the 1-4 keys), and while you can switch skills at any time, there is a 15-second cooldown if you do so outside of town. Because a skill’s damage is now tied to the character’s weapon damage, there is no need to put points into a skill since skills now ‘level up’ as the character gains better gear. This also means that you can continue to use your first skill throughout the game, if you choose.
Skills are divided into categories, and each category is bound to a mouse button or key unless you go into the game options and enable Elective Mode, which gives you the freedom to bind your skills to whichever button/key you please. Unless you are brand new to the action-role-playing genre, you will probably want to go ahead and enable Elective Mode. The default settings are way too restrictive, and can actually make the game more difficult in higher levels.
Each skill also has five runes, which are also unlocked as you progress. Activating a rune modifies the skill in some way. Sometimes, it is as basic as adding more damage, but it can also change the nature of the skill entirely. For instance, the Sleet Storm rune changes the Wizard’s Ray of Frost skill from a beam of cold energy to a swirling vortex that freezes enemies in her vicinity. Runes are an exciting addition to the game, and they help keep the leveling process interesting after you reach level 30 and have unlocked all your basic skills.
Some fans have complained that the skill system does not allow for sufficient customization. They argue that, since everyone has access to everything, players will eventually resort to cookie cutter builds. In actuality, this does not seem to be the case. Because Blizzard has made a concerted effort to ensure that all skills remain viable to some extent throughout the entire game, players have a lot more freedom to tailor their builds to their own particular play style. In my own experience, my friends and I end up using completely different skills, yet our builds still manage to work. In Inferno difficulty, your skill choices become a bit more limited, but Blizzard has said that they plan on rectifying this in a forthcoming patch.
Combat also feels a lot more tactical. In Diablo II, players often focused on spamming a couple of high-level skills, but now you have to be much more careful when deploying your skills. Cooldowns and resource restrictions force you to deploy your skills carefully instead of just mashing buttons. You have to balance offense, defense, and ‘crowd control’ in a way that was largely absent from earlier games. Finding the right combination of skills to defeat a particularly difficult pack of elite monsters is much more rewarding than just blitzing them with one or two skills.
Followers have also received a big upgrade in Diablo III. You can choose either the Templar (a melee character), the Scoundrel (a ranged character), or the Enchantress (a mage). As in the previous game, you can give them weapons and armor, but now you can also choose the skills they use as they gain experience. For example, the Templar can heal you, while the Scoundrel can spray his foes with poisoned arrows. Followers also have distinct personalities, and they will converse with your character throughout the game. Some of their lines are quite amusing, though they can get repetitive after a while.
Stay tuned for part 2 of our in-depth look at Diablo III!