One of the first games to suck me into a late night zombie state for gaming was the original Diablo. The game had such a wonderfully addictive simplicity. Get a quest, head into a dungeon, cut down swathes of skeletons, goblins, or any other nasty creature you would expect to find in a fantasy dungeon crawl, find loot, complete the quest, start all over again. The magic of Diablo was that each time a new level of a dungeon was visited, everything in it would be different. Sure, the quest may be the same, but the layout and the type and number of enemies would always change. Diablo also allowed friends to join in and battle the never-ending swarms of dungeon baddies and I remember after graduating college, spending nights dialing up a friend who was living in San Diego while I was in Chicago and mowing through level after level.
Due to a growing family and other games and a slight change in taste for games, I missed out on the improvements and new features of Diablo II. I knew friends and family that were deeply devoted (and possibly obsessed) with the sequel, but I held firm my resolve to not revisit the town of Tristram and it’s unfortunate underground denizens. I was pre-occupied with World of Warcraft. One gaming addiction was enough. Time passed and my fever for WoW subsided as I found new games, both on the PC and on the PS3. When Blizzard announced Starcraft II, I was briefly tantalized by the new shiny gloss and the rich complexities of one of the games my wife and I used to play after we were first married. The reason I didn’t take the bite with Starcraft II boils down to the sheer number of units to learn and the rock, paper, scissors nature of each. What almost tipped the scales, however, was Blizzard’s built in social ties. Now friends playing in WoW can chat with friends playing Starcraft II. The online stat tracking, achievements and a greater sense of social community really add a ton of non-game centered features that are enticing “value add” that enrich the overall gaming experience.
This past weekend Blizzard provided an open public beta stress test for their upcoming title Diablo III. As I mentioned above, I avoided playing Diablo II, but after seeing all of the social features that were built into Starcraft II, I wanted to see just how seamlessly integrated those features were added into Diablo III. I am familiar with how Blizzard’s typical log-in screen feels so loading up the Diablo III beta was nothing new, but the second after I had created my first character and heard the gentle strum of guitar chords, I knew I was back in a world I had spent so much time in over 10 years ago. Left clicking to move (or holding down the left mouse button to keep moving), and I was quickly making my way to the town of New Tristram as a Demon Hunter. After a brief introduction to town folk, quest in hand I ventured out to kill, loot and complete quests. Zombies met and dispatched with a quick shot from a crossbow, I made my way through dark, misty forests with shambling corpses, huge bloated deformities that once passed as human, to find a cemetery with a huge crater, glowing blue. My destination. Somewhere within the cemetery and its crypts were my ultimate goal, to kill the Skeleton King.
By the time I had managed to get to the Skeleton King, I had leveled my Demon Hunter almost to level 10. The beta capped out at 13, but during that first run up to 9 I found that combat was easy and addictive. Loot drops offer color distinction as well as a very easy, one-click pick up allowing me the option to not pick up any items I deemed unworthy or unnecessary to loot. What I found to be such a smart addition to loot drops, though, is the fact that gold is automatically picked up as my character walks by. No more needing to click on every single item. If an item is blue (a distinction, in the beta at least, that the item is worth at least minimally something to be salvaged and re-used for crafting items later) I’d click to pick it up, gold would automatically pick up, and I was already moving on to the next batch of enemies. Along the journey, I found a Templar being held captive by cultists and after dispatching the cultists and freeing the Templar, he offered to join in my journey to take out the Skeleton King. AI controlled companions can be a tricky thing, but in the quick paced action of Diablo III, I found having a second body to take damage while dealing damage was a nice touch.
Once the Skeleton King was defeated I wondered just what was next. In large, screen-filling letters, a message appeared congratulating me for beating the beta. At first I thought, “What? That’s it?” But then I realized that it was just the beginning. I could replay the game with my Demon Hunter and start the same quests over, but this time with all of the more powerful weapons and armor I had come by during my first run. Halfway through my second run, a friend of mine joined my game and a wonderful message appeared on screen, “Hell has gotten harder.” LOL. Such a wonderfully tongue in cheek thing to say, but also so appropriate. While the game didn’t completely feel more challenging, I know that the number of enemies appearing on screen seemed to increase quite a bit.
One of the problems I recall having when playing the original Diablo (hell a big problem with WoW too) was fighting over who got whatever loot dropped when an enemy was killed. To solve this, Blizzard has provided a perfect solution. Any loot that drops that I can see, only drops for me. My friend was seeing loot drop, but not the same stuff. No fighting over who gets what. That is awesome. The other thing that I found to be a wonderful addition (at least compared to the original) is the Stash box that sits in New Tristram. Any items I stash there can be accessed by any other character I created. Another nice touch.
After playing through a second run as a Demon Hunter I wanted to try out the Wizard class. Leveling up as the Demon Hunter I realized that the skill spells that I learned and the ability to swap them out virtually on the fly helped to deal with almost any type of creature and their varying attack styles. Re-learning how to play through the same content as a Wizard took a little bit of time, but both classes are so much fun and so unique that the replay options are almost limitless. After running through a third time — my first time as a Wizard — I wanted to try something that was a bit more intimate with the enemies. So I rolled a Barbarian. Holy crap! After playing ten plus hours as a distance based killing machine with the Demon Hunter and Wizard I was giddy as a kid in a candy shop to watch my Barbarian stomp at close range all the enemies as they made their way to me. The distance that enemies fly in the air is completely satisfying. While there is certainly skill in playing the Barbarian, learning when to ground stomp or charge, there is something visceral and stress releasing at the same time playing as a hulking, lumbering wall of pain.
Overall, my time spent with Diablo III was a complete blast. I briefly looked through the in game Auction House (which has been some cause for controversy), but I found that for my initial foray into the game, the Auction House was something that didn’t impact my experience. The level of polish that has been put into the single player and co-op aspects of the game is exceptional. The ability to have friends join games is streamlined and pain free. My only concern is the fact that the game is perpetually online. Since this was a beta stress test, Blizzard wanted to make sure all of the online components worked, but during the times when the servers weren’t available, it was painfully apparent that without online connectivity the game won’t work. Hopefully once the final game is released there will be a way to play the game offline without a need to authenticate via Blizzard’s servers to mitigate concerns of paying for something and then never being able to actually play the game. With the integration of social aspects and the never ending replay promise of levels being randomly generated on each playthrough, Diablo III has the addictive feeling of an MMO, without the recurring monthly charge.