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Diablo III Beta Preview

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Diablo III Beta Preview
October 4, 2011
by Stephen "Blue" Heaslip

So What's It Like?

Each class is enjoyable in its own right. The Barbarian seems much more barbaric, as his powerful attacks often shake the earth and send enemies flying backwards. The Monk is quite badass in his ability to beat things senseless with his fists and he also has side skills that aid parties greatly, including the ability to blind mobs and to heal everyone. The Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor all have ranged attacks, with the latter being fun as his darts are poisoned, so enemies sometimes fall after appearing to survive being shot. The Witch Doctor starts off with a pack of zombie dogs, who effectively occupy opponents for the dart treatment. There is less of a need to concentrate on armor than in past games, making two-handed weapons and dual-wielding more useful than before.

Much Too Easy, Except When It's Too Hard
"Normal" is the only difficulty mode in the beta, which for the most part seems too easy. You quickly learn how to take out mobs, and combat is rarely challenging. Unfortunately, the handful of times when this was not the case and I got overwhelmed, things happened so fast there was almost no chance to react. When things got bad, my health would drain so quickly that I was dead before I could do much to save myself. Hopefully difficulty levels will be tweaked. I also hope harder difficulty levels will be added to the beta so we can be confident those have been properly tuned.

As before, you can create parties, either with friends or with players found through matchmaking. In what seems like a strange omission, the beta does not support voice chat, so you either need to work that out through an external program, or make do with the game's text chat. To my frustration, I could not see my own or other players' text chat, though they could see theirs and mine. I found a thread about this on the forums so it's not just me; hopefully this, too, will be addressed. More importantly, I hope they bring in-game communication into the 21st Century and add some sort of VOIP support. Communications issues aside, playing in a group is a blast and the classes offer rewarding combinations. In a major and welcome change, loot drops are no longer every man for himself: Items or gold produced by dead monsters, chests, and (oddly) tree trunks and stumps are only visible to each player. If you can see something, you can pick it up, as it is not visible or available to anyone else—so no more worries that someone is going to go all Daffy Duck and greedily pick up all the loot. If you want to give items to other players, dropped loot will be visible to all or you can open a trade window.

Always Online
A great deal has been made of the potential for disaster of requiring the game to be played online through, even when soloing. I was surprised to find that in playing for dozens of hours I experienced only two glitches that caused me to lose any progress, and one was about a minute after starting a new game right after the servers came back online following an update so I didn't lose much (and it seemed fairly understandable since I had joined about the second the server came back). The couple of hours waiting for the servers to come back online were far more of an annoyance—it will be very frustrating if one wants to play a single-player game and cannot because the servers are not available. It is forgivable for game servers to go offline for updates in a beta, but if this happens often in the live game it is going to make for some unhappy players. (In playing the game several times over the course of a week, I only encountered the servers being down once, so it's hard to say how often this might happen going forward.) The other glitch was in the middle of a longer session, and I lost a more significant chunk of progress. Again, it's hard to say if this will happen once the game is live, but it seems logical it will not be impossible, and at some point someone is going to lose a rare item like the epic doodad of killing everything, and if it is me, I'll surely blow my top. The game saves your progress at checkpoints, a monumentally dreadful choice in combination with the requirement of playing online. I pray Blizzard reconsiders this and offers the ability to actively save your game. If they don't, I expect cautious players will learn the habit of transporting back to town immediately after scoring excellent gear and other goodies.

As expected in any beta, there are some bugs. At one point you're directed to talk with Haedrig the blacksmith, but when you go to talk with him, he has nothing to say. Then you notice the arrow on your mini-map pointing to the north end of town where you find him again, offering you the quest. In solo play you pick up a follower who also occasionally seems to be in two places at once. Speaking of Haedrig, he bestows the Cauldron of Jordan right off the bat, saying it's for all you've done for him, which at that point is exactly nothing (while not clear, it may be because this segment is inserted into the beta from a later point in the game). I also experienced one crash-to-desktop and was met with a little form to tell Blizzard what I was doing when it happened (which was exiting a cellar). All these things can be ironed out, but they also help to explain why the game's full release was pushed into next year, as there is polishing left to do.

In Conclusion
In many ways, Diablo III is what a fan of the series is hoping for: A slicker, modernized variation on the action/RPG's addictive loot-acquiring gameplay. My main concern is that without enough challenge, this new installment might not hold the same lasting appeal as its forebears—since one of the objects of better loot is becoming more powerful, which doesn't matter as much if you can still succeed without being as mighty. Lack of difficulty also doesn't go well with the absence of a significant death penalty, or an auction house where players will be able to buy new gear for cash money. Since this is the very beginning of the game, it may ramp up. It also may be that the intent is to make the "normal" difficulty level more accessible to newer or casual players, and those of us who want more challenge will be satisfied by a harder mode. Blizzard has shown no hesitation to continually rebalance World of Warcraft in its live version after all these years, so it's likely that Diablo III balance tweaks will be plentiful as well, making assessing the game's difficulty like hitting a moving target.

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