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Pondering the Diablo 3 Beta

No High Scores

Note: I uploaded these images full-size. Click for the full-res version.

I’m among the last people to hop on this particular bandwagon, but last last week I finally received a Diablo 3 beta invite and have since put in several hours with it, finishing it once with the Barbarian character class and following that up with another half-completed run using the Demon Hunter. My initial reaction to the game is that it felt underwhelming. I played a disgusting amount of Diablo 2 and, given the success Blizzard has had since then, it’s impossible not to boot this up and want it to blow me completely out of the water with its undeniable brilliance.

It’s possible that’s not an entirely realistic bar.

As I settled into the experience, however, the game continued to grow on me. I don’t see anything here that suggests this game is going to be in any way remarkable, aside from its potential scope and production values, but if you just want to run around with some different character variants and whack beasties over the head, I think it’s safe to say, even at this early point, that you could do a lot worse than what we’re going to get with Diablo 3. That may be faint praise, but it is praise nonetheless.

This established, here’s some general thoughts on the game…

No High Scores

Ultimately, this is still Diablo. It’s moody and beautiful and you’ve got some tres-cool combat animations. There’s a horde of disgusting and vile monsters that you chase after with the aim of reducing them to gory kibbles and bits. It’s jolly good fun. And when you locate Deckard Cain and he does his familiar shpeel about portents and signs and the Lord of Terror, it’s like slipping into comfortable old shoes. We’re not talking about something that’s going to win awards for massive innovation here. It’s Diablo.

I have not played with the Witch Doctor, Wizard, or Monk classes. The Demon Hunter is pretty bad ass when wielding matching hand crossbows. There’s a neat skill that allows her to shoot and automagically flip away from danger when fighting a monster that’s closed in too close. This is a character design that oozes cool factor. The Barbarian, the lone true holdover from Diablo 2, is every bit the melee grandmaster of funk that he was in that game. I still get a charge out of leaping into a group of nasties and yelling, “It’s clobber’n time!” at my monitor. (Note: I do not actually do this, although I might start.) There is no longer a two-weapon fighting skill for him, though. You simply choose to equip two weapons or you don’t.

READ ALSO:  Diablo 3 is Still The Same Old Waste of Time

This, in terms of the design direction, is the aspect of Diablo 3 for which fans of Diablo 2 should be most prepared – there are no character attributes (strength, dexterity, etc.) and no skill trees.

You probably know this already, but let’s talk about the effect of their omission because it’s really rather disconcerting and it’s tempting to say the game’s design has been simplified to play better on an eventual console release. That’s a bit too easy and I’m not laying this at the foot of tired “console tard” cliches. There’s nothing in the Diablo 2 game mechanics to speak of that would prevent it from being workable on a console. If I had to draw a conclusion about the design philosophy at work here it’s that Diablo 3 is simplified for the sake of making it more accessible. There’s a considered effort here to remove overtly redundant or repetitive tasks that don’t add a lot of value to the core gameplay. It’s almost the opposite of what Blizzard did with Starcraft 2, which, by reputation, is every bit as fiddly as the original.

Sometimes this works. I really don’t miss having to manage how many town scroll scrolls I have on hand. I don’t especially miss that feeling of realizing the points I just put into Intelligence are entirely wasted on the character I’m building. I don’t miss having to do umpteen calculations in my head to determine if this sword ultimately does more damage than that sword or which armor best protects me from freeze attacks. Diablo 3 is very slick and very efficient and it generally makes sure you know what you need to know when you need to know it, although the final product does need to be a bit clearer about assigning skills and whatnot. Sure, I like attribute assignment points as much as the next RPG nerd, but let’s be honest: There was an optimum way to assign these points in Diablo 2, based on your character class. All Blizzard has done here is put everyone on the same playing field by having the game manage the most redundant and math intensive tasks for us. Weapons tell you specifically what their DPS is. When you change armor, you’ll see exactly what percentage of damage reduction you stand to lose or gain. While there obviously is an inventory page and a skill page, there is no character sheet whatsoever. There are no attributes that you can see (or that I could find).

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No High Scores

Likewise, skills just unlock as you hit their requisite level. Once they do, also based on your level, you have a certain number of skills you can keep active at any given time. This, again, takes a lot of decision making out of your hands because it won’t be the case anymore that your level 32 Wizard can’t use a particular skill -one you chose to ignore or not buff up with skill points- but rather that you simply chose not to use it. So, if you change your mind about how you want to play after devoting 30 hours to a build and now want to use Skill X, there it is ready and waiting and it’s no less effective for your having ignored it all that time. For the player who just wants to sit down and throw a bit of time at the game, this is probably a really smart change.

That established, I really do miss the fiddly bits. My gut is Blizzard missed the mark on this one. I think part of the legs of Diablo 2 lies directly with the fact that character builds are so diverse and you have to devote a lot of time to trying any particular build out. “Hey, I’ve been running a Javelin-based Amazon for forever. Now, I’m going to do a completely different Amazon build that focuses on bows.” Then you restart the game and you go about it all from scratch. I think for a lot of players, that’s a perk rather than a flaw. Assigning attributes and putting points into skill trees may have been a repetitive process that only served to undermine your build should you make a mistake, but it’s just not as much fun not having those choices to make. Perhaps this is the RPG-elitist in me, but I think it would have been more interesting if they had made character building more complicated, rather than simpler. By all means, do more to put the information in front of us and take all the math work out of our hands. Just don’t forget that the real opportunity here is to let the player be creative and make choices.

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No High Scores

More and more games don’t seem to think the player is interested in making choices and they’d rather just keep hitting the same feeder bar over and over again. I think that’s a mistake. I hope that, when we get the final produc
t, Diablo 3 will not just prove me wrong, but prove me ridiculously wrong. I hope it’s riddled with choices and novel ways to develop your character’s abilities. This would not be a shock. Those people are incredibly good at what they do. But if the Diablo 3 beta (which is not under any kind of NDA; players are encouraged to write about their experiences) is meant to set the tone for all the wonderfulness to come, I have to say I’m pretty firmly lukewarm to it all. I want to play it, let there be no doubt, but at this point I don’t expect the kind of long-tail experience we got from Diablo 2.

EDIT: More thoughts on this topic here.

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at

15 thoughts to “Pondering the Diablo 3 Beta”

  1. This started sounding familiar as I read through it. It echoes some things that have been said about WoW recently. Mostly that Blizzard is trimming back options, apparently with the intent of keeping people from bad choices. Here, they’re taking out attribue assignment to keep people from making frustrating mistakes where that necessitate a character restart. In WoW they’ve killed off cross-tree talent specing apparently to keep people from just scattershotting around and making an ‘ineffective’ build.

    It’s starting to seem to me that Blizzard is getting risk-adverse, or more properly, adverse to letting players risk a poor experience through their choices. They seem to have forgotten that Sid Meier said that ‘a good game is a series of interesting choices’.

  2. This really sums up my experience as well.

    I have yet to play the Diablo III beta, am not likely to, and have no interest in trying it because I am getting really tired of developers talking to me like I’m a stupid child.

    Consider the WoW talent trees. People came up with some spectacularly bizarre builds and made them work. Is it wrong inspiring creative thinking? They could have just pointed out with talent points that it is possible to make the game harder on yourself by not optimizing.

    Your choice if you choose to go your own way. Instead, the trees are stripped and it’s all ‘oh you can’t do this for yourself, let uncle Blizzard make these tough old choices for you’.

    It’s not like Blizzard is the only company guilty of this, but nothing makes me want to touch this instead of Torchlight.

    Blizzard reminds me a lot of Square. Back in the day they could bring spectacle like nobody’s business and we all ooh’d and ahh’d and loved it when they brought us a new shiny. Well, lots of other companies do that now too, and neither company has seriously advanced its design skills in the interim.

  3. I agree with the other posters. One of the things that killed WoW was the way the things were stripped out. It was more fun to see If I should build a mega DEF build tank or an avoidance tank. Should I go for mega armor or try some talents no one uses.

    The options and choices are what made blizzard games great. Simple yet complex is what I have always said. Now They seem to be going with just simple. They are knocking off hundreds of hours of gameplay enjoyment. Well This little review sealed the deal. I was pretty sure I wasnt getting diablo3, Now I dont care if it hits the shelves. I havent been playing games anyway, I thought maybe this would bring me back to life. This coming form someone who played the crap out of Diablo on PC and also the PSone version(which was great btw) And Diablo2.

  4. It’s frustrating that so many journalists and beta reviewers seem to overlook the incredible customization and complexity that is built into the game systems of Diablo 3. Yes, they are trying to make it more accessible and ‘easy to pick up’ – but they have really done an amazing job creating something with tremendous depth. For example:

    -Did you know that there is really only a single weapon type that is specialized for each class? That means that almost every single weapon is available to all classes. In Diablo 2, if you played an Amazon, you used a bow or a spear – and that was it. In Diablo 3, with a Witch Doctor, you can take a melee weapon and shield and tank if you select defensive passives and abilities, you can equip a bow and fire away while throwing area dots, you can take daggers and go for close-range dps. The customization of every class is incredible – and the variety of skills allow for it, even in the sub-lvl-14 beta!

    -A significant part of the design complexity is in the skill-rune system, which is not in Beta. Look at this, to see an example of what I’m talking about:  Every ability actually has six different versions (with graphically different appearances) that drastically changes the functionality and use of each skill.

    So yes, the game limits you to only a small handful of abilities – and yes, the beta is just silly easy (which fails to push people to really investigate their options) – but the complexity is definitly there. It’s easy to play and seems simple – but after factoring item builds, companion skills, and multiplayer skill interactions… the game is exceptionally deep.

  5. Honestly I’m not very excited by D3, even though I played D2 a lot. The reason is probably that while I did enjoy D2, the game I go back when I want to have some fun in the genre is Titan Quest IT. Diablo has a better setting and tone, but TQ was just funnier. While it lacked the random levels, the amount of available classes , and the multitude of builds you could create around them (a few examples) and the way they changed gameplay gives it more longevity than Diablo IMO. The amount of possible minmaxing for the OCD oriented is impressive.

    Also, it was just FUN. Seeing a skeleton blown to bits, with bones flying all over the screen as a result of an overpowering hit never fails to make me laugh. D2 was interesting for the first few playthroughs, then it became boring. I find it sad that the game didn’t get the attention it deserved, and that we’ll probably never see a sequel improving the original.

    As a result, I’ll probably play D3 when the price goes down (which will probably be in a few years, considering greedy Blizzard has the courage to ask 20 EUR for D2+expansion, now over 10 years old), but I really feel no compulsion to get it for full price.

    Finally, what the hell is wrong with the demon hunter’s legs in the character selection screen? How can anyone stand in that pose, with so much air between the thights?

  6. First, thanks very much for the detailed info and feedback. I do appreciate you pointing that out (both to me and to the readers.) That established, I would say people commenting on the beta -and this is not a review; you don’t review betas- are doing so based on what they see that’s actually *in* the beta. I understand frustration over people not factoring in content that will be in the game eventually, but Blizzard is inviting people into, and to comment on, this specific beta. 

    From the summary paragraph:

    I hope that, when we get the final product, Diablo 3 will not just prove me wrong, but prove me ridiculously wrong. I hope it’s riddled with choices and novel ways to develop your character’s abilities. This would not be a shock. Those people are incredibly good at what they do. But if the Diablo 3 beta (which is not under any kind of NDA; players are encouraged to write about their experiences) is meant to set the tone for all the wonderfulness to come, I have to say I’m pretty firmly lukewarm to it all.

    That said, the crux of my argument isn’t about item mods, companion skills, or multiplayer skill interactions. All that stuff could be wonderful. But what I loved about Diablo 2, and what I suspect a lot of people loved about the game, were the character development options. This is my avatar. This is what I want to turn this avatar into. Hey, that’s great that my I can customize my magic sword sixteen ways from Sunday, but what I loved was making choices about skills and abilities that set the tone for who my character is to become.

    I enjoyed starting a new character and seeing how a crazy build might work or not work. If it didn’t, and it wasn’t fun, I’d throw it away and start again. I don’t see how what you’re talking about here restores that. I think that’s great that if I can build my Witch Doctor to do funky things, like wield a sword and shield, but I find it less great that completely changing him up is just a matter of swapping out equipment and skills. I don’t see consequences in that at all when you can completely change your a character’s play style whenever you like.

    And even this isn’t to say that I’m not open to embracing this system. I won’t know that until I actually get to play it the way its intended to be played. If I do that and I dig it then fantastic. The point of this post is to call out something that’s very different about how this game operates versus something I liked a great deal about Diablo 2 and to question whether that’s a good change or not. Maybe it will be. I’m certainly not looking to dislike the game. 

  7. I actually think I prefer the approach of no choice in skill assignment over Diablo II, where one ill-thought click could spoil, or even ruin, your entire character build. And let’s be honest it’s not like 99% of players sat and thought carefully about the potential character builds, because a lot of the pertinent information was lacking. No, what actually happened was that a tiny minority of die-hard fans tried the builds, ran the maps, and reported the results for everyone else to copy. 

    And don’t get me started on the nerd rage that resulted when certain skills got tweaked in updates and entire builds got nerfed.

    What I’m slightly more puzzled about is why the obvious compromise of allowing players to choose their skills but also to re-assign skill points at a later date hasn’t been considered. With that option you could still have auto-assignment for the more casual players. It’s almost too obvious as a solution, and yet it hasn’t been taken by the look of things.

    Whatever. The game does look a million dollars, but I’ll still be playing Angband instead.

  8. Who asked you, Thrower?!?!  😉 

    Truthfully, I think you’re overselling the degree to which you make your D2 character unplayable with a misassigned skill or attribute point. Normal difficulty in that game is, for the most part, relatively easy. You can put together a pretty bad build and still finish the game. Also, I think what those dedicated min/max build guides did was generate further interest in trying new ideas and alternate ways to make characters. The number of guides I read and enjoyed that started with, “This is not an uber powereful build, just something I was messing with,” outnumbered the optimized stuff. I loved that and while I agree the casual player never exposed themseves to that stuff (nor should they), the game had long coattails because of that sort  of thing. The casual players come and go regardless. The game had legs because of the dedicated 1% (or whatever the right number is. (Not unlike how micro-transaction games make most of their money.) 

    Anyway, see today’s X-COM post for some more thoughts on this that I’m sure you’ll be able to poke some worthy holes in.

  9. Fair enough. I can’t really argue as regards the idea that there were as many builds inspired by curiosity as there were optimisation builds. But I found it terribly annoying how the game required a very serious investment of play time to even try something out and see if it worked – and then on top of that you could find that a build which worked fine in normal was a liability at higher difficulty levels just because of the way certain skills stacked or synergised. I would have much preferred that I could have tampered with my builds to check out different combinations than to have to start a whole new game to do it.

    I shall go and read the X-Com post now. The original game passed me by somewhat so I’ve not been reading much of the column inches devoted to the reboot.

    EDIT – read it and again I can’t really disagree. I think the core issue here is the time it took to explore this stuff in Diablo II. That’s just not true of a lot of strategy/role-playing games which allow you to experiement different tactics much more easily.

  10. My only real soft spot in the whack-a-mole RPG genre was Darkstone. And that was purely becuase of the fun of the Sorceress class, which had a werewolf form that traded the Int and Str stats. (Which was a fun mechanic, but really, the attraction was stomping around as big furry anthropomorphic wolf.)

  11. The problem I have with Diablo2 is that some of the skill choices limit the game too early. I have a singleplayer barbarian somewhere around level 75. I read some guides and decided I wanted to try a babarian with the concentrate skill and a 2-handed hammer. So early on I put 20 skill points into the hammer skill. And everything but hammers is useless (or not that good). If I find a great 2-handed sword, I can’t use that. And since the weapon skills are the once you can pick early this lock-in occurs in the middle of normal difficulty.

    I would like a system between what they patched in in one of the last patches (reskilling is possible, but you have to earn the right to do it) and the system of Titan Quest (you can reskill in town, costs increase every time you do so). The result should be that you don’t need to start from the beginning, if your build turns out bad, but you cannot just reskill every few minutes to get past certain monster types or end bosses.

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