From the beginning of the game through its first major boss encounter, a battle with the Skeleton King, the Diablo III closed beta offers the chance to play through an early portion of Blizzard's action/RPG sequel. 

You can choose from five character classes, Barbarian, Demon Hunter, Monk, Witch Doctor, and Wizard, with choice of gender the only customization option. Specifics on each class are outlined here.

Typical of previous games in the series, this game begins with your ill-equipped self standing in the middle of the forest with no explanation of where you came from or how you got there. Things are clarified pretty quickly though, as after fighting your way past a few minor foes you find your way to the gates of New Tristram, which is populated by talkative townies who clearly have been waiting for some near-naked level-one stranger to solve their various problems. These problems seem to stem from the questionable choice of building New Tristram on the borders of old Tristram, which fans of the series will recall was prone to demonic problems. The town name is not the only connection to the past (besides the obvious implication that Diablo has somehow returned, of course). One of the first principle characters you encounter is Leah, niece of Deckard Cain, and one of your first quests is to rescue Deckard from a misadventure—though sadly he no longer sounds like Sean Connery, and at no point after being reunited does he beckon, "Stay awhile, and listen."

What Hasn't Changed

Much will be familiar to those who have played either or both of the earlier Diablo games: The isometric point-of-view, follow-the-mouse movement, point-and-click combat, health and mana globes (though each class now has its own version of mana), shopkeepers offering goods and services, and quests from the troubled populace are all here. You are charged with various tasks that involve killing mobs of zombies, skeletons, and other creatures so you can fetch items or kill targets, and the game is filled with the wide variety of glorious loot that makes the experience such an addictive skinner box.

What Has Changed

Some of what's different is cosmetic, as the graphics have vastly improved over the 20th Century Diablo II. A 3D graphics card is now required, and the game runs smoothly at 1920x1200 on my not terribly current rig, which has an E8500 CPU, a 216 core 896 MB NVIDIA GTX 260 GPU, and 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Windows Vista. While the graphics are not world class, the game is very pretty, and there are nice ambient effects like mist to give atmosphere. Everything is seamless: Entering dungeons and other transitions take almost no time at all, so no loading screens or noticeable pauses will break your immersion.

Tedious aspects of Diablos past are eliminated in a number of ways. Perhaps most notable is an artifact called the Cauldron of Jordan, which allows you to sell items for gold directly from your inventory without returning to town. While not plausible (even in  the context of a game such as this), this welcome addition allows you to spend more time playing with less schlepping. Since gold is rather easy to come by, one quickly begins to make use of another new toy, the Nephalem Cube, which allows items to be turned into scrap for use in crafting. Artisans can learn to make new items when you give them tomes of training and after leveling up with pages of training found in loot drops. Another appreciated change is how your stash in town is common to all your characters, so you can exchange loot between them, and your gold supply is likewise shared between all your characters.

Changes to combat are mostly nuances: It's easier to attack groups of enemies with a single mouse-click, moving from creature to creature as your targets fall before your attacks. Some new fun-factor bonuses offer XP rewards for killing large groups in a string, killing multiple enemies with one shot, and crushing them under easily identifiable sections of destructible wall or falling chandeliers. Potions and spells now feature cooldowns and require more strategy and judgment. Creatures have a surprisingly limited degree of awareness, so you can do battle without being mobbed by other groups, even when they are fairly nearby.

Less Fear of Screwing Up
There is less fear of making mistakes that will go on your permanent record and follow you around for the rest of your life, as my elementary school principal used to say. There are no choices for characteristics—this is all automatic. As you level up, you earn active and passive skills but you can change them any time you want. Skills are no longer tree-based, so you don't have to pick a crappy one to get the better one that follows. The death penalty is now almost non-existent: You respawn at the last checkpoint with a ten-percent loss of durability to your equipment, which seems fairly trivial and removes the fear of venturing too far past your current abilities. I find this regrettable: One of the most memorable experiences of my gaming life was a late night when my party got killed in the depths of a Diablo dungeon: We literally spent hours working out how to retrieve our items from where they dropped. I prefer it much more where you dread dying, but I don't know how realistic it is to expect this to be changed.

Returning to town is made simpler through the addition of a Stone of Recall, similar to a town portal though you must stay motionless for a few seconds before it sends you back to New Tristram, so it can't be used to escape from hairy situations. In multiplayer mode a banner in town can transport you to another player's position, so getting separated is quickly solved by using the Stone of Recall followed by a banner. Waypoints come up frequently, so you can avoid lots of trudging by beaming back and forth.

Blizzard has followed through on indications it would replace mana with a resource specific to each class: Mana for the Witch Doctor, Arcane Power for the Wizard, Spirit for the Monk, Fury for the Barbarian, and Hatred and Discipline for the Demon Hunter. All seem to renew pretty quickly over time or as you kill things, and while some items regenerate mana, nowhere in the beta did I find any mana potions.

Next: So What's It Like?