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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.

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).

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.

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.