The Diablo III closed beta has been underway now for about two weeks. If you’ve been follow my live stream on the NGNT Twitch.tv channel, you’ll know that I’ve put in about 6 hours of game time in two run-throughs the game across a Monk and a Barbarian, enough to get a good feel of the beta. Read on for my thoughts of Blizzard’s would-be action RPG masterpiece.
If you were worried about the hardware requirements for Diablo III, you can definitely rest easy. My two year-old PC, running on an Intel Core i5-750 processor with 4GB of RAM and an ATI 5870 graphics card, handled the game with no issues. For reference, I set most graphical settings to high and ran the game in windowed full-screen mode at a resolution of 1920 x 1080. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the game and gameplay!
The Diablo III closed beta sees you lead your chosen hero through part of the first act of the game. You’re first tasked to defend New Tristam from the risen dead, resurrected by some kind of falling star that portends the end times. You then rescue good (and still) old Deckard Cain from the clutches of King Leoric, the Skeleton King, eventually defeating Leoric, marking the end of the content available in the closed beta.
From the moment you start the game proper, you definitely feel like you’re playing a game from the Diablo franchise. The art direction is grimmy and dark; none of the cartoon fantasy of Torchlight or the Warcraft series makes an appearance here. The voice acting is superbly done, and all NPCs, even the random ones, are voiced. NPCs also have plot and lore-enhancing conversations between themselves that you can eavesdrop on. It never gets old, and is an attention to detail that really helps flesh out the world of Diablo III.
Long-time Diablo players will also be happy to know that randomisation is still a big part of the game. Randomised equipment stats, randomised loot drops, random dungeon placements in the overworld, random dungeon layouts, random rare mob placements, everything from Diablo II makes a return. As a result, no two playthroughs feel exactly the same.
Much has been said about Blizzard decision to remove player-determined stat distribution. Personally, I’ve come to believe it’s a good move. No longer will I have to worry about my hero being gimped late game because I added points to the wrong stats early in the game; I can concentrate fully on playing the game instead of having that thought at the back of my head.
Similarly, Blizzard has removed the entire skill tree concept Diablo II introduced, giving everyone access to all skills instead. What has changed is that instead of customising your hero by picking a limited set of skills, you customise the skills by socketing them with runestones. These runestones grant additional game-changing attributes to your spells, such as extra damage, AOE stuns or self-heals. While it sounds like a good idea, sadly, the runestone system is not available in the closed beta and I’m not able to comment on it.
What I do have a problem with, however, is that you only get limited slots to “equip” abilities for use. You start the game with two slots, then unlock an additional slot by the end of the beta. It’s a system that feels unnecessarily restrictive, no matter which hero you play. Despite the fact that you’ve gained 10 to 15 abilities and skills throughout the game, you never get to use more than two or three; to do otherwise would be to lose too much. For example, as the Barbarian, one ability slot was permanently taken up by an energy-generation skill, while I had the second slot occupied by a damage-increasing self-buff. When the third slot was unlocked, I went with an AOE stunning rage-generation skill for crowd control. Not to pick those three abilities would be to seriously gimp my hero.
I consistently felt that Blizzard was taking away my ability to take risks by using different skills in different situations. I ended up using the same skills in almost every situation. Sure, there were instances where I was forced to swap out the damage-increasing buff for an ability that would reduce the damage I took, but occasions like those were few and far between, and opening up the skills menu to reselect my skills for just a few minutes of action was totally not worth the trouble.
Coming from World of Warcraft and other less celebrated MMORPGs, I felt that the fights were pretty shallow in nature. Maybe it’s the way I’ve been playing, but all fights, even the big boss fight against Leoric, consists only of:
- kiting the heavy hitters away from the pack to divide and conquer
- applying aoe stuns to big groups of mobs while you lay the smackdown
- attempting to deal as much damage as possible before running away when you’re low on health
In fact, the general rule is: when in doubt, just apply stuns. Coming from playing games with well thought-out mechanics and skills where you have different viable options for every situation, I felt the choices I could make were severely limited.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a little underwhelmed by the gameplay revealed in the Diablo III closed beta. Still, it’s too early to draw conclusions about how the final game will turn out. The total length of gameplay is about 2 hours per run and only getting to about level 8 at the end of the first act means many skills and abilities are out of your reach. Additionally, key features, such as the runestone skill customisation system, have not been implemented yet, making it even more difficult to judge the true depth and complexity the final game may offer.
Ultimately, what the Diablo III closed beta reveals is that there has been little improvement upon the basic formula that made Diablo II so successful. Depending on your tastes, that might be a good thing. But for me, while that formula worked 10 years ago, the bar for action RPG games has since been raised — in some cases by Blizzard themselves. In those 10 years, we’ve been bombarded by legions of games that play very similarly to Diablo II. Competition has certainly increased. Will Blizzard step up to it? We’ll see in the coming months, when more gameplay features are added to the beta in the build-up to the final release of Diablo III. What Blizzard wants to tell you now, in the immortal words of Deckard Cain, is to stay awhile and listen…