Hands On with the Diablo III Beta

I have defeated Diablo III's Skeleton King and, in doing so, also bested the upcoming Blizzard game's multiplayer beta. Soon, many of us will have the privilege to do so, hacking and slashing our way through an early portion of the next Diablo, over and over again, seeing its randomness and testing its new improvements.

We'll explore its new player progression system, which eliminates the skill tree of Diablo II and its skill points in favor of something more flexible, more player friendly. We'll play with Diablo III's five new classes, the Monk, Demon Hunter, Barbarian, Witch Doctor and Wizard. We'll play it together, connecting with our monster slaying friends through an overhauled Battle.net.

But I've already done all this. So stay awhile and listen to what I've seen of Diablo III's Sanctuary.

Before we get into what I've played of Diablo III's beta—about four hours' worth—I'll explain what Blizzard showed a group of game journalists and Diablo enthusiast fan sites at its Irvine, CA headquarters last week. Blizzard's Rob Pardo, Leonard Boyarsky and Jay Wilson showed off an early version of Diablo III, which the developer says is now in a "fully playable alpha state."

We started in New Tristram, a town built by merchants, our starting point in Diablo III. We meet Leah, the adopted niece of Deckard Cain—the wizened "Gandalf of the Diablo universe." She's featured in early trailers for the Blizzard game and acts as the player's sounding board, Boyarsky says. We learn of an early conflict, a sad tale of the Skeleton King, once the King Leoric and father of the Dark Wanderer from Diablo II. Later, we kill that Skeleton King and enjoy doing so more than once.

Then we learn a little bit more about the five playable character classes that feature in Diablo III. Jay Wilson, design director for the next Diablo, starts with the Barbarian class, a burly man or woman fueled by "frenzy" (Barbarians don't believe in mana!), the energy that powers attacks like the enraged Frenzy spammable attack and the Ancient Spear, abilities that unlock as players level up. We see the Barbarian's Wrath of the Berserker, a special ability that transforms him or her into a dark giant beast capable of slicing through Diablo's minion hordes.

We're introduced to the Witch Doctor, Diablo III's "pet class," who can summon firebats ("a flamethrower with bats in it"), an army of Fetishes, a massive brawler pet named the Gargantuan and other sidekicks that attack teams of enemies. One can even turn Diablo's soldiers into squawking chickens.

Hands On with the Diablo III Beta

We meet the Wizard, a class fueled by arcane power. She can slow time with a magical bubble, summon diamonds that coat the surface of her skin and fire powerful beams of energy at foes. She can even transform into an Archon, a deadly alternate form that magnifies her powers.

We see more of the Monk, the melee class that thrives on spirit, a resource that refills as the player attacks. He can perform powerful martial arts moves that strike through enemies. He can buff allies with Mantras. He can cast the defensive Arcane Sanctuary, a blocking spell that helps divide and conquer the demonic swarms of Diablo III.

We learn more about the Demon Hunter, the character class that excels with long range weapons like bows, grenades and crossbows. She is powered not by mana—only the game's Witch Doctor is—but by a split resource divided into hatred and discipline, the former a resource that fuels offensive abilities, the latter a resource that powers defensive skills. The Demon Hunter's offensive skills include the ability to drop caltrops and auto-firing sentries. Defensively, he or she can use a skill named Smokescreen for a stealthy escape from hordes of monsters.

The people making Diablo III showed us these character classes and their broad range of spammable attacks, breakout abilities and escape methods to illustrate the combat changes coming to their PC and Mac role-playing game. It was also a re-education on the changes coming to Diablo III's combat.

Blizzard has done away with the talent trees and skill points of games past, giving players new active and passive skills every level or so. Players may only employ a set number of skills at a time, up to a maximum of six active skills and up to three passive skills. They can be swapped in and out at any time, opening up the option for experimentation and flexibility. In the beta version I played, I had the option to use just two active skills at once. After reaching level 10, I had unlocked one more active skill and the ability to use a passive skill.

Those skills can be complemented with Runes, special stones that can be socketed into a skill to boost or alter its abilities. Blizzard illustrated this by designing a "Melee Wizard," changing the fragile Wizard class—which typically keeps enemies at arm's length—into a deadly close-range build. Into the Wizard's Spectral Blade skill was socketed a rune that added a healing attribute to each hand-to-hand attack. The Diamond Skin defense skill was boosted by reflecting damage back at the Wizard's attacker. Frost Nova, a freezing area of effect skill, was runed to create a chilling cloud that damaged enemies over time. Explosive Blast, also socketed with a rune, turned a fiery explosion spell into an instant killer. Arcane Orb, normally a projectile attack, was altered by a rune that caused those projectiles to orbit the Wizard, making it even deadlier up close.

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I later learned of other rune-based effects on skills, specifically for the Witch Doctor. His poison dart projectile attack can be updated with a rune that alters that skill to shoot poisonous snakes, not darts. Another Witch Doctor skill that summons human zombies can be boosted to summon zombie bears instead, if the player matches the right rune with the skill. Expect five rune variations per skill, Blizzard says, opening up a wide spectrum of new player class builds and specialized classes.

Unfortunately, in the Diablo III beta version, players won't see much of that system at play. It's introduced after the first act, which players will experience portions of during the beta.

Players will, however, see many of Diablo III's other improvements, like the Cauldron of Jordan, a player item that magically turns loot into gold—no need to travel back to town to sell your gear to a vendor. Players will also have access to the Nephalim Cube, an artifact that breaks down weapons, armor, rings and amulets into raw materials that players can use to craft new items via their local blacksmith.

Diablo III beta participants will also have a chance to toy with the game's Quests, events that happen outside of the game's story-driven events. Some Quests guide the player through randomized dungeons, offering scripted and localized events. One event that I experienced during a second playthrough of the beta tasked my Demon Hunter and her Templar sidekick with surviving a massive wave of skeletons. Another I witnessed asked the player to defend a monument from an undead invasion.

Story-driven quests are plenty, with some putting the player through multi-stage kill and fetch jobs, all of them complemented with enjoyable NPC interactions and numerous dungeon-crawling adventures.

During my own sprint through the beta, which ends after the player dispatches the Skeleton King in a hard-fought battle, I enjoyed the thrill of using the Monk more than any other. Her quick, powerful strikes and melee combinations were a treat to use when disposing monsters. The Demon Hunter was almost equally as enjoyable, particularly during a four-player cooperative run against the former King Leoric, in which we were slicing through enemies like a hot knife through butter. That four-player co-op game was simple to set up and customize, with a trio of invites sent to my Battle.net buddies for the day, then a hasty meet up in Tristram near my customizable player banner.

Hands On with the Diablo III Beta

At its core, the Diablo III beta feels like the click and kill experience that made the previous games so immediately gratifying more than a decade ago. Diablo III's early acts feel atmospherically in tune with the previous entries, filled with runs through undead spewing graveyards, infested cathedrals and dark caves overflowing with creepy crawlies. Already, it feels infinitely replayable, thanks to the now standard stuff—randomly dropping loot, randomized dungeons and a strong cooperative multiplayer experience.

Blizzard has not yet announced the release date for Diablo III or exactly when the game's beta will begin or end. Just don't get too attached to your demon-slayer. He or she will be wiped when the beta ends.


Hands On with the Diablo III Beta

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You can contact Michael McWhertor, the author of this post, at mike@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.