Blizzcon 2011 – Diablo III Hands-On

Finally getting some playtime with Diablo III feels like the highlight of my Blizzcon. The character selection screen – with its symphonic overture of strings and soft notes – shows the five classes: Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, Witch Doctor and Demon Hunter. I managed to get some time with the Witch Doctor yesterday: he felt ridiculously powerful, able to summon a pack of undead hounds to kill enemies, or a fetish that turns them into chickens. Today I’ll check out the Demon Hunter.

All the classes have male and female versions, both sides with their own distinct look. There aren’t any other press playing at the other demo stations at the moment, so single-player it is.

The opening is very reminiscent of Titan Quest – you, alone, outside a ruined farm building. Except instead of the golden sunshine of ancient Greece, Diablo III opens in foggy darkness, a single lantern illuminating your character. The amount of detail in the environment and its textures is impressive, stand still and the scene looks like a painted backdrop. You can hit Z to zoom the camera in close to your character, presumably to check out your spiffy armour. My emo-looking Demon Hunter is currently sporting just a bad haircut, a vest and some tights.

The first skill available is Impale, mapped to the left mouse button. Clicking on the first zombie I meet shoots the skin off its bones, leaving just a bloody skeleton on the ground. It’s quite violent. Impale uses up the Hatred bar, the Demon Hunter’s resource for offensive abilities. Discipline is used for tactical abilities, so the Demon Hunter has two types of mana, basically. Both regenerate quickly. Killing enemies leaves red health orbs behind, so if you’re careful you don’t have to quaff as many health potions.

The first town you encounter is New Tristram, looking every bit the part. It’s clear that Diablo III is taking more after the first Diablo, in terms of style and tone. One zombie horde later, and a punchy shockwave from the character indicates Level Up. Initially, you only have one skillslot to use. Level 2 unlocks another, the next at level 6, then 12, 18 and 24, making for a total of 6 skillslots. You can swap what skills you have in those slots at any time, but it’s still a strange departure from Diablo II‘s multitool heroes. It’s very reminiscent of Guild Wars actually, in that you build your six-slot “deck” from your available skills (skills unlock as you level). Three Passive Skill slots unlock at level 10, 20 and 30.

You still right-click on your left and right mouse button slots to select which skill goes there, and you have 5 general slots used via their corresponding numbers. My quests take me to a graveyard, checkpoints trigger along the way. The Caltrops skill makes retreating from enemies easy: it’s a 12-second trap that slows enemies by 65% when they trigger it.

Gold is picked up automatically, and the first time you kill an enemy type a little “New Lore” button appears in the lower right. Clicking on it gives you a voice-over description of the monster, narrated by someone compiling a Bestiary, or an adventurer recording his missives. These don’t interrupt the gameplay at all, making them very appealing to listen to as you keep killing monsters.

I can confirm that dungeons, and even parts of the overworld, are indeed still randomly generated just like Diablo II. Blizzard says that in addition to the layout of areas, there are also randomly-generated “scenarios” that may occur as you play, unique events that you’ll have to cope with.

Playing the Demon Hunter after having checked out the Witch Doctor confirms my suspicion that Blizzard is taking a very specific tact with the starting powers of the character classes: you start incredibly powerful, able to dispatch enemies with explosive ease, making it feel almost like you’re a max-level character plowing through a low-level area. The difficulty slowly builds as you play further, and I’m told that once you finish Normal difficulty, the kid gloves come off.

Quest specific monsters show up as bright red dots on the minimap when you’re near them, a small mercy. Hitting TAB brings up the larger map, with a circular ping indicating the location of your main quest objective. Items that you pick up do not automatically equip even if there is nothing in that slot to begin with. Not sure if that’ll be an option you can change or not. Items that are for a different class have a giant red X over them in your inventory. Your character will narrate his actions on occasion, and journals you find on the ground near dead bodies will recount the last thoughts of that character before they were undone.

One of the skills the Hunter has is Hungering Arrow, which seeks out targets and actually generates Hatred as it pierces multiple enemies, making it a great companion to the Hunger-eating Impale shot. Level 3 brings Evasive Fire, which generates 10 Hatred, shoots for 115% weapon damage, but if an enemy gets too close to you, you’ll actually backflip away automatically to safety, using 4 Discipline. It works wonders on the Left Mouse Button, with Impale on the Right Mouse Button. It’s very easy to feel like a total badass with these two skills alone, and I’m not even 5 minutes into the game.

My quest takes me into Old Tristram, recognizable. A waypoint lets me teleport back to New Tristram instantly to hand in my quest. The questlist hangs on the right side of the screen, the World of Warcraft influence obvious. A quest icon next to the New Tristram on the waypoint teleport list lets me know there is a quest I can hand in there. The Stash for storing items makes a return: 1 slot with a few squares open. Seems you can purchase more slots (tabs), and more storage squares.

The environments are surprisingly reactive to your character – bits of abandoned buildings will collapse when you get near, tree branches may break off as you pass through them, the grass moves out of the way of your feet. Reaching the Cathedral, the grey and blue tones give way to more sinister red torches and the neon glows of a “fallen star” that cut a hole through the church. It may not look that way in screenshots, but the game is quite colourful for all its moody palettes.

Level 4 brings a Hatred-generating Bola Shot that wraps around an enemy then explodes for additional area-effect fire damage.You can hit multiple enemies with this, making for large chain-reactions. Killing a large pus-spewing zombie makes it explode into spikes and snakes, a surprise indeed. A well-placed shot on what looked to be a breakable wall brought it down atop a group of enemies, killing them instantly. Experience, regeneration and magic-find shrines make a return, but you can have multiple effects stacked if you find enough of them back to back.

Finding Deckard Cain in the Cathedral triggers an in-game cutscene (skippable), and a bossfight with a giant skeleton who tries to kick you around. Back to New Tristram. NPCs in towns talk to each other, dropping lore and general tidbits of information if you bother to stay awhile and listen. Level 5 brings Rapid Fire, an arrow-hose as long as you hold down the button and have enough Hatred to keep doing it. A quest involving helping the Blacksmith kill his infected-with-evil wife gives me the Nephalem Cube, used to salvage items into components used for crafting. You can shift-click on the cube to salvage several items at once, very convenient.

Running into a unique swarm of Carrion Bats posed a unique problem – their Frozen status meant that each time killed one, they dropped deadly proximity mines that explode, causing a slowing Frozen status effect to my character. I was easy prey for the swarm once one got close and I killed it without getting away quick enough.

Level 6 brings Vault, a quick dodge in the direction of your cursor when activated, making for great escapes out of tricky situations. Unfortunately by this time I was being shoo’ed away from the demo station as other journalists needed it. Bastards. I was having fun.

Closing Thoughts

Diablo III is fantastic. But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, really. While the debate over the Auction House might rage on, and some people still feel the game isn’t colorful enough, the rest can look forward to the quality Diablo experience we’ve been craving for the last 11 years.