Saturday, April 21, 2012

Adventures in Beta: Diablo III

On April 20th, 2012 (that's yesterday), Blizzard Entertainment released the beta version of their upcoming dungeon crawler, Diablo III, to the public.  This demo is only playable until the 23rd, so if you're reading this too far in the future, you'll probably have to pay to play this one.  But since I have friends who are on the ball about these sort of things, I got to give the new Diablo a whirl for free, and now I'm going to tell you all about it.

For those unfamiliar, the basis of Diablo is an adventure/role playing game, with an interface somewhat similar to Blizzard's other big hit, World of Warcraft, but from a top-down perspective.  The setting is a sort of fantasy dark age period, and the story follows the player's struggle to defeat the forces of evil, headed by Diablo, the ruler of hell.  Gameplay consists of exploring randomly-generated maps and slaying the demons and monsters which emerge from the landscape, while collecting the weapons and armor that gradually transform you into a greater badass.

Those are the basics, anyway.  The truth is, though I've played plenty of other Blizzard games (particularly the Warcraft and Starcraft series), I'm just a noob to Diablo.  So this beta served as my own introduction to the series, much as I feel ashamed to admit it to my gaming friends.  The first step of course was to create my character.  Unlike in WoW, this doesn't entail a lot of cosmetic customization.  It boils down to three choices: name, character class, and gender.  For my first outing, I decided to go with the male witch doctor.
Exceptionally trained by a fully accredited witch medical school.
My first hour or so consisted of running around blindly, not really knowing what the hell I was up to.  I actually missed a good deal of the early story, because I was in a party with my friend Bau, who knew what he was doing and kept advancing story moments and quest objectives while I tried to figure out how to use the dagger I'd equipped.  Online multiplayer is a core part of the Diablo experience (I'm told), but it wasn't until I started playing solo that I started to get my bearings on the world.

The graphics are recognizably in Blizzard's fantasy style, but somewhat darker and less cartoon-like than the art in World of Warcraft.  The environment is appropriately misty and shadowy, with lots of gloom and doom to bring across an apocalyptic atmosphere.  Things don't get too dark, though, and that's a blessing because I like to be able to see what I'm doing.  The visuals are very well designed, and I seldom lost track of where an enemy or an item was.  The sound design is also very good; that fine balance of voice overs, sound effects, and music is one of Blizzard's more under-appreciated strengths.  The music by itself isn't much beyond your typical spooky ambiance, but that's just where it needs to be.

I don't know if the events seen in the beginning constitute a major piece of the story, so I'll try to be as vague as I can, but the main quest revolves around my witch doctor's attempt to relieve the townsfolk of the menace posed by their undead ex-sovereign, Leoric the Skeleton King.  After leveling up in graveyards and crypts for a while, assembling key items and gathering bits of lore, I acquired a number of useful spells and skills for accomplishing this task, including the ability to summon a pack of zombie dogs to tank my damage and do much of my fighting for me.
They might not actually be dogs, but they are definitely zombies.
The last stage of the beta took me through the subterranean floors of a spooky cathedral, where the Skeleton King lay entombed.  For a penultimate challenge, however, the monsters in this area didn't pose much of a challenge.  It might just be because it's a beta, but once you've figured out what you're doing the "normal" difficulty mode is essentially a piece of cake.  With the rare exception of lumbering abominations, few enemies could stand up to my flaming bat attacks.
The only thing worse than a wall of fire is a wall of bats.  On fire.
It was around this point that Diablo III started really bugging out on me.  I'll give the game a pass because it's beta, but being randomly disconnected from the server is a pretty big issue.  The dungeons are randomized and regenerate with each log in, so I had to do a lot of leg work over again once they finally let me back in.  It wasn't the end of the world, but it was annoying.

In fact, there were a number of smaller glitches that I noticed throughout my time with the beta.  The basic functionality of the game is point and click; one click of a mouse button should cause your character to attack a monster, pick up an item, or interact with the environment.  In multiple situations, however, I had to click two or three times before the game actually performed the desired action, and occasionally the lag was so bad that I could hardly take two steps without being sent back to my starting point.

When the game isn't losing its mind, the action is extremely fluid and fast paced.  It's also very simple; click an enemy to cast some kind of spell, and continue to do so until he is your enemy no more.  Other spells and abilities can be used with a small number of hot keys, but with the relative difficulty thus far I found that I could usually get away fine with just mouse clicks.  Occasionally you encounter elite or boss characters, who throw a little variety into the mix with their bizarre personalities and longer HP bars.  Still, they don't pose too much of a challenge.
Lloigor here doesn't appreciate people reading over his shoulder.
Fighting Leoric himself, however, was a little bit of a shock.  I suffered my first in game death at the hands of the Skeleton King, for being too slow on the healing potions. I wouldn't necessarily describe this battle as very hard, because I took him out on my second try, but there is a distinct increase in difficulty.  In fact, this fight more closely resembled the game I had been expecting, with a greater amount of strategy and skill than in slaying hordes of mindless zombies.  Sending off this boss took a little more careful micromanagement, and a lot more running away from his whirling-mace-of-death attack.
That thing he's holding there?  He swings it at your head.
After taking the big bad down, I was informed by helpfully large white text that I had beaten the Diablo III beta.  Hooray!  A few short hours of play time, and I had accomplished just about all that Blizzard was willing to let me do for free.  To see more, I'll have to hand over cash money for the full game; otherwise, I'll simply be left wondering forever.  For now I can just replay this quest, leveling up my witch doctor with more fantastical witch doctor powers, or try out some of the other character classes.  At least I can until Monday, when the open beta closes.

Will I take the plunge and buy the full game?  At this point, I'm not sure.  There's no doubt that it's fun, and at a higher difficulty setting it will probably be a real challenge.  It has a lot of elements that I liked about World of Warcraft, without being as much of an unavoidable time sink (not to mention a money sink; fifteen dollars every month can add up).  On the other hand, I don't have the same personal attachment to the Diablo franchise that other people have, and I wasn't exactly waiting for this one with bated breath.  I might hold off for a while, since it seems like there are a few glitches with the servers that need to be worked out anyway.

It looks to me like Diablo III is on track to be a very entertaining and very popular game; I can't say if it's better than the first two, but I think newcomers will find something worthwhile in the experience.  The fans I know seem to like it too; sounds like a hit to me.

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