Published on May 6th, 2012 | by James Kulas
Darkness falls, ceilings get painted, we get old
In 2001, Blizzard North began development of their third instalment of the Diablo series. In 1508, Michelangelo began painting 12,000 square feet of ceiling with a half-inch brush. Four years later, in 1512, Michelangelo was complete. After spending a weekend exploring the open beta, I ask if Diablo III is thrice as good as a renaissance masterpiece.
Before I begin it’s important to note that the beta was limited to the first act, so at this stage I have only seen a fraction of what’s on offer. However, I did make a concerted effort to replay the available content using different classes to get as broad an impression as possible.
Sanctuary is lovingly realised with backdrops conjuring a sense of claustrophobic foreboding, familiar to any Diablo veteran. Animations are fluid, imaginative, and satisfying in typical Blizzard fashion. Dismembered torsos drag themselves along on their remaining limbs, skeletons scatter under heavy blows, and bloated abominations explode in a glimmering shower of silverfish.
It’s evident Blizzard has learned some important lessons from their behemoth MMO. The interface has received a few welcome additions and is generally slick and intuitive. Abilities can now be activated directly with 1-4 giving a familiar MMO feel, and the constant burden of portal and identify scrolls has been relegated to the past. Artisans allow you to reclaim crafting materials from unwanted magical items and reforge them into something more desirable. They can also be upgraded on a per account basis, giving your entire roster access to ever more potent wares.
In an effort to legitimise the shady world of item trading from previous incarnations, Blizzard have chosen to include an auction house in two distinct flavours. Players have the choice of listing their items for in-game currency, or real monies. Personally I have a natural aversion to micro-transactions, never desiring a virtual hat quite enough to cough up. Having said that, it’s nice to know the option is there if I should happen upon a rare and powerful item during my travels.
Teaming up is effortless via the familiar Battle.net friends list, dropping you straight into the action with minimal fuss. I learned the limitations of this new system the hard way when my backup disconnected during a boss fight, and was unable to re-enter the encounter. Fortunately, normal mode appears to have been tuned for the same people keeping health and safety departments in business. No Billy, don’t eat the glue.
Act one is a bit easy in the same way that naked ice diving is a bit chilly. The developers have been quick to assure us of the challenge posed by higher difficulty levels, unfortunately skipping to nightmare mode isn’t possible until you conquer normal. My concern is playing through will reveal the story without sufficiently challenging the player. Hopefully the pace will pick up in later acts.
Player levels award progressively more powerful abilities, as well as runes which modify existing ones in spectacular ways. In an earlier incarnation, runes were items to be discovered rather than level gated. I can’t help but feel something has been lost by giving them away quite so cheaply.
As with previous instalments, terrain is randomly generated making each game a unique experience. Static elements like boss rooms and set pieces are interspersed with procedural content and mini-bosses, helping to keep dungeoneering fresh.
Overall I came away from the beta weekend fairly satisfied, but a dissenting voice in the back of my head is determined to draw my attention to an eleven year development cycle and ask “Is this it?”. Of course I will more than likely play the hell out of it, and no doubt enjoy it, but at the same time I can’t help but feel this is something of a sequel by the numbers.
Diablo III is due for global release on May 15th. Check back for a full review once we’ve had time to sink our murderous fangs into it’s unsuspecting throat.