We had limited hands-on with an earlier version of Diablo III at BlizzCon in October last year. Thanks to the folks over at Megarom, we got some time with the current Diablo III beta. The full game (which started development in 2001), is already available for pre-order and launches on May 15. Hit the jump for some brief impressions of Diablo III‘s current state.

We tried all five character classes (Witch Doctor / Barbarian / Wizard / Monk / Demon Hunter) up to level 13, through the first Act up to its concluding fight with the Skeleton King. The Blacksmith, one of the two Artisans, was available for breaking down weapons for components and crafting new gear from it, and we could fiddle with the Auction House using “BetaBucks”as a stand-in for real money. Hosting and joining multiplayer games was enabled, as were some beta-specific achievements, mostly there to add flavour.

Two things stand out, being the largest departures from Diablo II: the skill progression system and weapon stats. Instead of a skill tree for spending points to unlock new abilities and their upgrades, you’re simply given a new skill every few levels. The World of Warcraft influence is clear. Occasionally, you’re given a Rune unlock for a skill that modifies how the skill works. You can change which skills you have equipped into one of six slots at any time, each slot having access to three or four abilities (unless you enable Elective Mode which allows any skill in any slot). All skills rely on weapon stats such as damage and speed, making weapons feel more like accessories to improve skills.

Even this close to launch, things change often. The order in which you gain skills, the difficulty, frequency and amount of monsters, and the values on random items.

Some may see the new skill system as a step backwards and too simplistic. The way weapons are devalued into trinkets needed to improve skills, perhaps to force trading them on the Auction House, is of mild monetary concern. The real issue is how playable Diablo III will be from South Africa, since even its single-player is played online via Blizzard’s servers. Some people have claimed the beta “unplayable” others that the lag is “barely tolerable”. Even when playing from the United States (as I was), there were times the lag made me “rubber-band” back and fourth across the screen, even when playing by myself.

No Player vs. Player

There will be no player versus player at launch. Blizzard claims they had difficulty balancing the system. It will be added back in later via a patch. We had some hands-on time with the PvP at Blizzcon 2011 and it was quite a bit of fun. It reminded us strongly of the multiplayer in Westwood Studio’s forgotten Nox (2000).

When PvP is finally added back in, players will duke it out in special arenas using their campaign characters, earning advancement points which unlock multiplayer achievements and titles. There will be ranked and unranked gametypes, both with automatic matchmaking.