BlizzCon 2008: Diablo III Hands-On

We spend some quality time with a demo version of Blizzard's upcoming action RPG.

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ANAHEIM, California--There are long queues for everything, merchandise is pricey, and the exclusive in-game mounts for World of Warcraft that were included in the price of admission can't be claimed yet. Nevertheless, the trip to this year's BlizzCon event has definitely been worthwhile because Diablo III is playable here for the first time anywhere outside of Blizzard's office.

The demo station that we were allocated on this occasion was set up for us to play as a barbarian, so, although we fully intend to check out the witch doctor and the newly announced wizard class before this show is over, that was who we played as. The level that we played through was set in the catacombs of a cathedral in which, after jumping through a few hoops to fulfill quest objectives along the way, our ultimate goal was to defeat a large boss by the name of Skeleton King.

En route to the king's tomb, we had to do battle with countless skeletons and other enemies that, unlike their counterparts in previous games, attacked us using a variety of different tactics. For example, the skeleton shield-bearers behaved almost like MMOG players in a tanking role; they stepped up to the front line and soaked up damage to protect other enemies with ranged attacks who were positioned behind them. Skeleton summoners also made for some memorable encounters. These puny enemies are extremely easy to kill, but you have to get to them first, and that's not always easy when there are a dozen or so skeletons doing their best to stand between them and you. Of course, you can kill the skeletons, but the summoners can replace them almost as quickly as you can kill them, so you really have to find a way to either create a path through the skeletons or to lead them away from the summoners that they're protecting.

We played as a level 10 barbarian, and the skills at our disposal included a few different melee attacks and a couple of buffs that could be activated anytime we amassed enough rage. One of the melee attacks was mapped to the left mouse button, which is used for movement anytime your cursor isn't hovering over an enemy. The remaining two melee attacks were mapped to the right button, and could be switched between using either the Tab key or the mouse wheel. Furthermore, keys 1 through 4 can have abilities mapped to them, and keys 5 and 6 are used for potions. It's certainly a more complex system than anything used in previous Diablo games, but it still looks very accessible by today's standards.

As we explored the labyrinthine catacombs, we were pleased to find that there were lots of environmental objects that we could interact with. Loose floor stones invariably had coins hidden under them, bookshelves could be searched for scrolls, locked doors could be smashed, and inconspicuous switches triggered traps such as falling chandeliers. Of course, there were also plenty of treasure chests to find, though the severely limited bag space afforded to us in the demo (not to mention the limited time that we had with the game) meant that we weren't able to pick up and examine everything that we found. Discarding items is as easy as dragging them out of the bag, but when you're playing Diablo III for the first time ever, item storage isn't really what you want to be concerning yourself with.

One of the high points of the demo was undoubtedly the soundtrack, which was suitably creepy and, although at times it seemed to get quite loud, it never interfered with the satisfying sounds of our mace crushing bones or our barbarian speaking up to let us know that her backpack was full. Diablo III's visuals also impressed, though the fixed camera angle didn't always afford us a great view of the action and, on one occasion, the lighting in a corridor was so dark that we couldn't make out a giant door at one end of it until we stood almost right next to it.

We were told during one of today's Diablo III panels that the BlizzCon demo of the game is different every time you play it. We'll let you know if that's true once we've had a chance to check it out as both the witch doctor and the wizard tomorrow.

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