PARIS--The Barbarian sees, and the Barbarian smashes. The Witch Doctor sees and usually lets something else do his dirty work. The two character classes shown off during today’s announcement of Diablo III (unveiled during the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Blizzard Invitational in Paris) is a mixture of old and new, representing the formula that the Blizzard development team seems to be aiming for with the latest installment in its blockbuster action game series.
We'll spend some time recounting our observations of both classes in a bit, but first, we should talk a bit about the trailer that introduced the world to the game for the first time. It started off with your typical dire portents of dread, backed by spooky music and gorgeous visuals. What stood out to us was the variety in those visuals, as well as what they could mean for the gameplay and story. First, we saw a number of different settings in the trailer--including more than one city setting. In addition, the color palette seemed to be much larger than in previous installments; we noticed a grimy, dusty-looking battlefield teeming with soldiers and war machines, as well as at least one night-time landscape, backed by a huge full moon. While maintaining that grim gothic feel to the game, it seems like the Blizzard artists are getting a full chance to explore a larger visual palette that should give the game some variety.
The same impressive look continues on to the actual gameplay. Characters were big and richly detailed (especially when wearing more elaborate armor) but nicely scaled to the environments. In other words, the characters are big, but they can still be easily dwarfed by some of the bigger creatures in the game, as the demo proved with that massive spike-wielding demon at the end. While we thought at first that this was a boss, due to its sheer bulk and the complexity of its attacks, it was later confirmed this was just a run-of-the-mill mob, the likes of which you can expect to see on a fairly regular basis. In addition to monsters of various sizes, the enemies in the game will demonstrate a variety of behaviors. During the demo, we saw the Berserker, a large, mace-wielding monster that’s equal parts strength and bad attitude. During a post-announcement game design panel on Diablo III, we also saw the skeletal shield bearer, a slow-moving skeleton wielding a huge shield. Often accompanying larger enemies as support, the shield bearer will be a tough enemy to deal with, as you’ll first have to take out the monster’s shield before attacking it properly. As a result, shield bearers will be ideal support for enemies who are strictly focused on dealing damage.
With different types of monsters on hand, it's fortunate that the character classes in Diablo III will be just as epically powerful as you remember. The Barbarian is still a melee specialist (though not without his specialized ranged attacks). The Barbarian's skills will be familiar to Diablo II fans--we saw the whirlwind in effect, sweeping through scores of enemies--but he’ll have some other tricks up his sleeves (that is, if he wore sleeves), including the sweep, which can blast multiple enemies around him. During the on-stage demo, the Barbarian managed to take down a stone wall on a group of zombies, pointing to more interactive environments throughout the gameplay. While environments won't be fully destructible, you can look forward to many instances, such as this one, where you can use the environment to your advantage, with a certain amount of real physics involved in the destruction.
If the Barbarian is all about wading into the fray with both weapons blazing, the newly announced Witch Doctor is all about variety. He (or she--Diablo III will let you play as a male or female version of your chosen class but will not offer more advanced customization options) will have more straightforward attacks, like the firebomb, which drops fiery death onto the enemy, as well as more interesting attacks that seem more in keeping with the class.
The Witch Doctor will have control over disease, can summon pets, and can even control the minds of his or her enemies. We saw a few examples of these different approaches in the game demo: Locust swarm is a spell that summons a nasty horde of flying locusts that can overwhelm an opponent. Better yet, the locusts will automatically spawn to attack additional enemies in the area. We saw one pet in use too; the mongrel. This pet can attack enemies and can be buffed with other Witch Doctor spells; during the demo, the player cast locust swarm on his mongrel, giving the pet an attack bonus. We also briefly saw the horrify spell, which causes enemies to temporarily flee in terror. By far, his coolest ability was the wall of zombie, which was truly terrifying. If you've seen a wall of fire or ice in a game before, you probably have a pretty good idea of what this skill involves.
At first glance, the Witch Doctor resembles the Necromancer from Diablo II, both in his relatively skinny appearance (at least, when compared to the Barbarian) and through the class abilities (pet summoning, disease control). When asked about it during the gameplay design seminar, Blizzard developers were quick to point out that the Witch Doctor is very much its own class and that its presence in the game wouldn't necessarily require the removal of the Necromancer in Diablo III. In other words, it's conceivable that both classes could end up in Diablo III, even if it looks unlikely to us at this point.
Using new skills will be easier than ever in Diablo III, thanks to a new combat system and user interface that seems to put a premium on skill usage over potions. As explained during the gameplay seminar, Blizzard developers felt that potion use was too prevalent in the previous game, resulting in combat encounters that were rarely more than wars of attrition because the user kept pounding health potions en masse. In another seminar, Jay Wilson, the lead designer, confirmed that the interface would not be customizable with mods; while this is nigh-on essential for World of Warcraft, Wilson said that it would be detrimental in Diablo III and was not on the table.
In Diablo III, potions will still play a part of the action but their importance has been downplayed, thanks to a couple of changes. The first are health globes, which drop off defeated enemies and will serve to boost the health of your character, as well as those around you if you're playing co-operatively. As the developers put it, the idea of enemies dropping health is one that will keep the player moving forward in the game, as opposed to trying to avoid combat. In addition, a new skill toolbar, similar in location to the old potion belt in Diablo II, will make your skills that much more accessible, easily allowing you to switch between skills on the fly. You’ll even be able to swap skills quickly using the roller on your mouse for even more ease of use. The result is a game you’ll likely be able to play almost completely with your mouse; no more hunting for skills using the F key on your keyboard. Here's one more important addition regarding cooperative play: When a character picks up a health globe, any surrounding allies also benefit from that health globe, which seems like it will encourage players to stick together when hacking and slashing their way throughout the game. To our ears, it also makes it sound like practically any class will be able to tank effectively (as long as someone is picking up the health globes and standing nearby), but we'll have to see how it plays out as the game develops.
Random dungeons will still be a big part of Diablo III. In fact, randomness will prevail throughout the game (and we mean that in a good way). In addition to having randomly created dungeons to explore, the developers have introduced random monsters, random loot droops, and new random scripted events into the game to make each play-through a new experience. In terms of monsters and loot, the stage demo alone was proof of that concept--we saw loads of different types of beasts to fight, from snakelike monsters to hulking brutes, like the final big bad beastie. Blizzard didn't go into much detail regarding loot, but we do know that it's hard at work creating custom-designed armor and weapons that will look great, as well as get the job done in the field of combat. More tie-ins with lore with higher-level drops have been promised than was the case in Diablo II, with items being one of the development teams key focuses in increasing your feeling of involvement with the story as you progress. During the demo, we saw the Barbarian decked out in a suit of golden armor with an imposing-looking helmet and wielding a pair of axes: one enchanted with frost; the other with electricity. We also saw him wielding a fire-enchanted two-handed mace, trailing fire impressively as he spun through a crowd of skeletons.
The random scripted events sound like one of the coolest additions to the game. Each play-through, players will encounter scenarios that are quite different from their previous trip through the game. In one area, you might see a house filled with undead enemies--along with a story about the home's former residents. The second time you play through, that same area might contain a caravan that you'll be prompted to escort to safety. The next time that area might simply be filled with monsters just begging for the opportunity to be killed by you. Scripted events look to greatly increase the level of immersion into the world of Diablo III while keeping the player coming back for more at the same time. There will also be a conversation system in the game, which will give voice to your character in the game; more so than the handful of exclamations your character had in the previous game. We hope to learn more about the conversation system for Diablo III over the weekend and will report back with more details.
Much has yet to be settled in the development of Blizzard's latest game. The pair of character classes we know about are just two in an undetermined (or at least, unreleased) final number of classes that will be in Diablo III, though Blizzard has confirmed that not all the classes from Diablo II are going to make the cut. In addition, while we do know that the online cooperative play will be a huge part of the game, Blizzard hasn't settled on the final number of people that will be able to play together: eight is the current theoretical maximum, but Blizzard made it clear that the final decision was going to be based on what was best for the player and that this number was likely to be lower than the theoretical maximum. Indeed, even the fate of "hardcore" mode is as of yet undecided, though Blizzard devs said they see no reason why it won't be in the final game, given its popularity in Diablo II. As for a secret cow level...when pressed, all Blizzard reps would say was "No comment."
On the other hand, we can confirm the game's release date; it's the same date as for all Blizzard-developed titles: "When it's ready." Until that time--however far in the future it may be--we'll be sure to bring you the latest coverage of the game, including more coverage from this weekend's 2008 Blizzard Invitational, so stay tuned.
[UPDATE] We've just added a wrap-up of this morning's Diablo III discussion panel, regarding the game's art and storyline. Check it out on the GameSpot preview blog, Work in Progress.