Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Diablo III Beta

I've been playing around in the beta for about a week now. Here are some thoughts in chronological order, oldest first. I culled these reactions from email messages I sent to friends as I was playing. To anyone that's been following other sources, there are probably not many surprises here. Just the viewpoint of a grumpy old video game player.

Early Impressions

These were all from day one:
In the dungeon with the Barbarian and Templar
  • Fixed perspective, no zoom view - man I forgot how that feels after years of WoW and other MMOs with camera movement. Very weird for the first 20 minutes or so. Oh wait, there is a zoom feature, but it's a fixed zoom in, and way too close to actually use in play.
  • Environments are kind of dark and monochromatic. This was apparent in the video clips I've seen, but playing confirms it's not just videos. 
  • Skills work differently. You unlock various skills as you level and pick six to run with. You can (apparently) freely swap skills in and out as you play, but changing skills is on a 30 second cooldown, so you need to do it while in a safe location. Not something you'll be doing mid-battle. I'm not sure how I feel about this, it's a little boring.
  • I started with a barbarian (it is my idiom) and have run to level five. Basic play is run up and hit stuff. Shocking I know. Seems very Diablo-esque.
  • There's the usual selection of treasures flying about, and the typical problem of having ten weapons and not being able to use any of them. There are merchants available right off the bat, and eventually you can salvage gear and give it to artisans who can manufacture stuff for you. I haven't gotten there yet.
There's a bit more voice acting and narration in the game. As you walk past some NPCs they'll trigger little voice vignettes. There's also 'lore' that tells you about monsters and such, some of which are narrated. They're pretty typical Blizzard voice acting, and they don't interfere with play progression, so... cautiously positive.
The Demon Hunter speaks with crazy old Deckard

The first real mission is (surprise!) rescuing Deckard Cain. Stupid old geezer, stay out of the damn dungeon!

The dungeon level was pretty nifty, if a bit small. If you played Torchlight, there are some obvious parallels in the graphic presentation of the dungeon environments. Diablo III's dungeons are a grim-dark version of Torchlight's.

Summary early impression: Not bad, but it hasn't grabbed me like Diablo and Diablo II did. I remember getting the original Diablo demo at work one afternoon, and playing it without pause for about six hours straight. It is a bit telling that I was playing Diablo III in shorter increments and didn't hesitate to drop it in favor of Eve Online.

Day Two

So far game play is not living up to expectations. There are a few problems I've identified and a few I haven't really figured out yet.
  • The graphics are really uninspiring to me. Colors are monochromatic/muted and the art in general is dull.
  • The interiors are interesting, but if the dungeon layouts I've seen are indicative of the overall set of potential randomization, things are going to get boring quickly. I've seen about 6 basic geomorphs.
  • The removal of talent trees has made character development almost a no-brainer. Coupled with incredibly easy combats, there's no reason to think about what you're doing with your character.
  • Did I mention combat is super-easy? Someone on a forum I frequent said they played through the entire game using the default 'click to shoot' skill with a magic-user, and completed the game. I actually used skills when playing, but they were probably not really needed.
Some positive to go with the negative:
  • The artisan stuff seems really nice. Basically you can salvage junk out of items you don't want, and hire an artisan to make something out of it. So far only the blacksmith is in the beta, but there are supposed to be other artisans in game.
  • Soundtrack is nice and eerie. 
  • There's a fair bit of voice over, but it's not intrusive. The UI is up to Blizzard's usual solid standards.
  • ID and Town Portal scrolls are a thing of the past.
  • Stash is shared across all characters, and you can buy up a sizable number of slots in it, much like a World of Warcraft guild bank.
  • There's a World of Warcraft style mini-map in the upper right corner that covers most of your map-reference needs. There's also a full screen map, but it's not really practical to play with it showing (it may not even be possible).

Early Conclusions
Zoomed in view in the dungeon with Wizard and Templar
It feels like the Diablo III team was shooting for a more over the top action RPG and fell short. I can't shake the impression of similarity between Torchlight and Diablo III dungeons. The action strives to be big, but in the end it just doesn't get there. It feels like the game play design team got lazy.

I'm trying to hold on to the hope that this game is better than it feels right now. The beta is really short, and let's face it, Diablo /Diablo II were not super-interesting for the first ten levels. So far I'm giving it a 6.5/10, with a "Needs work" comment on game play.

Later That Week

OK, so... it's still a fun game. Somewhere about halfway through the Wizard play-through I started getting the old Diablo II vibe. Killing things and taking stuff. Yeah, that vibe. The whole limited skills / no talent points thing still feels a bit off, but after playing around with skill setups a bit, I think the fundamental six skills available system is viable. The beta isn't a fair test, since skill slots are level-based and the beta cap of 13th only allows three (maybe four — haven't hit 13 yet) skill slots, plus one passive slot.

Towards the end of the beta you unlock the first follower, a Templar with melee and healing abilities. The conversations with the follower you get are funny. Paraphrased:
  • Templar: Evil is bad and we must fight it because evil is bad. There must be some greater evil power behind all this evil!
  • Demon Hunter: Shut up and kill stuff.
  • Templar: I am glad we are fighting evil together, because evil is evil!
  • Demon Hunter: I prefer to be alone, but if you shut up and kill stuff you can tag along.

Clearly the Templar has a problem with evil.

One big gripe: The skill sound effects really don't fit the setting. The ambiance and music is all creepy and eerie. The skill effects are all BOOM! BANG! EXPLODE! At least for Barbarian and Demon Hunter this is incongruous at best and stupid at worst. The Wizard and Monk are better, but still a bit off to my ear.

Classes - I've finished the beta with Barbarian, Wizard, and Demon Hunter. I'm now playing Monk.
  • Barbarian - run in and put the beat down on stuff. Use fury to kill stuff faster or do AoE attacks.
  • Magic User - glass cannon with more control / AoE skills.
  • Demon Hunter - ranged attacker and controller.
  • Monk - brawler with healing (I need to play more).
Unlike Diablo II, there are some randomly placed dungeons a la Den of Evil that don't appear all the time. Some of these include mini-events that also might/might not be random (again it's hard to tell from the beta since it is so short). These are a nice improvement if they're really random.

Treasure: The whole salvage / forge thing is a nice addition. The blacksmith can make some good stuff and it gives you something to do with all that random junk treasure.

I have shifted my score from 6.5/10 to 7/10 with a 5/10 for sound effects. I still feel this is a weaker game than its predecessors.

Current Thoughts

I've now played through the beta with every character class. I don't think my overall impression has changed much. There are weak points, like skill sound effects, which are just off, the witch doctor avatar that's an amalgam of every bad "black native" stereotype out there, or the demon hunter that's running around in stiletto heels. There are some disturbingly overt parallels between the Diablo III and Torchlight look and feel, like dungeon appearance and the Disintegrate spell, which is almost identical to Ember Beam. But there are some good points too. As expected from Blizzard, the UI is rock solid and clean. Actually going out and killing things for their stuff is pretty fun, and the voice work is a nice touch (and I say that as someone who usually hates voice overs in games).
Ember Bea... I mean Disintegrate!

I have to keep telling myself this is a short beta test, and that work is ongoing. With that in mind I'm still hopeful that Diablo III will live up to expectations, a tall order for a game that was announced four years ago. In the eyes of the fan base Diablo III has some huge shoes to fill and Blizzard has the tough, maybe impossible, task ahead of them to meet those expectations. From this gamer's perspective, they're not there yet, and the Torchlight 2 team is breathing down their neck.

Bottom line: I'm going to revise my overall score to 7.5/10. And keep playing. I still need to try out multiplayer. And there are patches rolling out to the beta from time to time. I'll stay a while and listen.

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