Diablo III is a game of revolutionary shifts and instant gratification: an RPG built for an audience that craves an almost impossible combination of excess, depth and immediacy. It’s revolutionary in that it seeks to entirely rewrite the fundamentals of character crafting, and it’s gratifying because despite those changes it will feel like you’ve been doing things this way forever, from your first click to your last. The results are also, to use the stage-managed understatement of Blizzard’s vice president of game design, Rob Pardo, “quite fun to play”.
And it’s no paradox, either. Blizzard has the resources to spend the best part of a decade working – and reworking – every last detail of a complex formula, yet it also has the design experience to ensure that such an enormity of interlocking systems and variable mechanics all end up channelled directly into a game that unfolds with no friction and no confusion. As the beta unfolds, every element in Diablo III bows down before the power of one simple click: the click that busts up zombies, vacuums loot, activates audiolog lore books and – now – even allows you to re-spec your character on the fly.
And there lies one of the game’s two big ideas: a reshaping of the RPG progression system that does away with points and trees in favour of simply giving you a new skill – which will grow more powerful as you do – with each new level. Although Diablo III still forces you to focus yourself somewhat, offering at first only two and eventually just six active skill slots (along with three passives, an evolution of the series’ troubled traits system), within that you can then swap abilities in and out to your heart’s content, changing the fundamental nature of your character from one encounter to the next.
The Monk class specialises in fast, close-up combat
It’s startling stuff. Instead of plotting a course through each of the five classes and connecting the dots that would normally spell out ‘tank’ or ‘healer’, Diablo III encourages you to play across the entire class at once. Naturally it helps that, in order to encourage you further in that direction, its various skills generally possess a sugary sweetshop clarity that can leave other games seeming flavourless and ill-defined. The Barbarian, the only class to make the transition from previous games intact, could be your standard melee-master enlivened by some stoneshattering audio, but his skills make him new again, allowing players to chain Frenzy attacks that pick up speed with each blow, or harpoon enemies and then reel them in with Ancient Spear. It’s a move that augments the class’s limited range, but it also turns him into a deadly fisherman, vicious and, to borrow the quiet precision of game director Jay Wilson, “very durable”.