Diablo III Updated Hands-On: Beta

We get a head start with the upcoming open beta of the long-awaited action role-playing game, slated to be out "very shortly."

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With its many years of production, developer Blizzard Entertainment has finally shown concrete signs of fruition that its most anticipated action role-playing game, Diablo III, is close to being finished. Sadly, while no release date announcements were made (Blizzard loves being coy about this subject matter, if gaming history serves), we nonetheless braved through the demon-filled lands of the game by way of the beta at the company's Irvine, California, campus. While a preview of the game is already up, this is a more in-depth look at what we've played.

In this recent version, which will be available to try out on a later-albeit-unannounced date, players get to pick one of the five classes: the closed-ranged hard-hitting barbarian; the companion-reliant witch doctor; the spellcentric wizard; the speedy melee-focused monk; and the ranged combat specialist demon hunter. Each class starts out with two active skills at level one. As players progress and earn experience via killing hordes of demons and completing quests, they can unlock up to a total of six active and three passive skills. The former are class-specific abilities that use up a class's resources while the latter are permanent skill and stat boosters that affects that particular character in the long run.

Laser beats rotting flesh any day of the week.
Laser beats rotting flesh any day of the week.

When the beta starts, you will head down to New Tristram, which is under the invasion of the living dead awakened by falling stars around the vicinity. You will eventually meet prominent main character Leah, Deckard Cain's niece who happens to also be the daughter of Adria (the magic-selling witch from the first Diablo). A short quest later, you will then be tasked to find Deckard Cain who's wandering below the abandoned cathedral ruins filled with all manner of undead beasts. You will also get to participate in a main quest to summon past Diablo villain the Skeleton King (the former King Leoric in Diablo lore) by searching for his crown tucked away in the cemetery and defiled crypt areas. You'll then put him to rest once again in the royal crypts just a few stages below in the cathedral ruins. The beta's inclusion of the first chunk of what obviously represents act one of the game not only helps set the game's narrative tone but also puts action RPG enthusiasts into the fray as the underworld genocide never lets up.

Speaking of which, the plethora of demons we faced were no slouches. The grotesque demons are obese monstrosities that explode upon death and shoot out either corpse worms or imps in their demise. The unburied undead were burly spike-filled powerhouses that took quite a bit of pounding before they fell; ideally, the wizard, demon hunter, and witch doctor need to stay far away from these giants and pelt their long-ranged options. The wretched mothers not only have projectile attacks, but they can also vomit out minor zombies to overrun players. Armor-clad skeletons with staffs in the deeper parts of the cathedral can summon other minor skeletons and sic them on players.

The beta's star, however, was the Skeleton King. After completing the final quest in which we needed to attach his crown onto his skeleton, the boss sprang to life and immediately pelted us with damaging sword swings and a three-hit attack that took a second to wind up, thus making it easy to telegraph. The king can also summon a trio of shield-bearing and melee-focused skeletons while dashing around the screen either to avoid you temporarily or home in onto you. While not as challenging as his first Diablo counterpart, we still had to use a few potions just to survive his onslaught.

The monk has a lot of mantras and fast moves up his arsenal; it's only a matter of how you wish to use it.
The monk has a lot of mantras and fast moves up his arsenal; it's only a matter of how you wish to use it.

It also helped that the main classes we focused on were more than enough to handle the mob-heavy threats. The classes we enjoyed tinkering around with were the witch doctor and the monk. The former was effective because he started off with one of the best skills a constitution-light spellcaster could ask for: the ability to summon three permanent zombie dogs that hit fast and served primarily as distractions. Our witch doctor was content in blowing poison darts using his pipe, shooting out "haunt" bolts that could spread to other targets after killing its previous target, summoning poison frogs that bounced randomly and exploded onto a demon's face, and casting a grasp of death area-of-effect spell that slowed down an enemy's walking speed by 30 percent and damaged him over time. His later moves allowed him to summon an army of tiny fetish monsters and a golem-like gargantuan, as well as cast buffs like the attack speed-increasing big bad voodoo aura. Still, we were content in using our zombie hounds, poison frogs, and grasp of death skill to deal with the majority of enemies.

The latter relied more on building up his spirit meter using spirit-refilling three-part attacks because unlike other classes, the monk's spirit meter does not regenerate slowly by itself. A number of his spirit-using abilities either act as buffs or status-inflicting moves that affect the area. Other times, they're just hard-hitting area-of-effect attacks. We didn't really see much of a point as his sole spirit-using attack, a high-swing kick move, paled in comparison with his combination of the far-hitting deadly reach; small area-of-effect attack electric fist; and ranged tackle move dashing strike, which also served as a quick and cheap way to maneuver around the screen during fights.

Even if we didn't unlock all of his moves, since the beta would be over by the time we reached close to level nine, his high-level attacks and passive skills colored us impressed. His inner sanctuary skill created circular barriers that helped create choke points to funnel enemies for our attacks, while tempest rush created an aura around the monk that made him run faster and knock back nearby enemies, enabling him to flee from a tough situation. While using the monk requires a more active approach, anyone who wishes to see a more diverse version of a standard melee character should experiment with this potentially awesome class.

One would think the town of New Tristram would invest in a cremation business to prevent the undead from rising.
One would think the town of New Tristram would invest in a cremation business to prevent the undead from rising.

The wizard has a lot of tricks up her sleeves. In addition to casting a slew of projectiles, she can cast buffs like diamond skin, which lets her absorb more damage than her frail defense can handle. She can slow time as well, which projects a wide bubble that slows down opponents and enemy projectiles within it. She also has the ability to temporarily transform into an archon, which gives her a new set of moves, a much more powerful disintegration spell, and an ice-based area-of-effect attack. The catch is that she has to consistently kill foes to sustain the ethereal form. When she reaches level 19, she has the ability to summon a three-headed hydra as a potent companion.

The barbarian forgoes all tricks and goes straight for the jugular while also shrugging off damage. While his melee attacks and special moves, which use the fury meter, are great, his best tools for us were his ancient spear and wrath of the berserker. The former attack reels a target enemy in closer a la Scorpion's harpoon attack from the Mortal Kombat series, while the latter boosts his attack and durability further for a huge amount of fury meter. Because he gains fury from dealing and receiving damage, it's not that hard to build up enough meter to unleash a torrent of moves onto foes. Chasing them, however, is another story for him.

Last but not least, the demon hunter established herself as the class with crossbows and arrows. Her resource meter is split into two: hatred and discipline. The former is for her offensive ranged attacks and recharges really fast, while the latter is for defensive maneuvers and replenishes slowly. Her passive abilities sounded interesting; when killing spree is unlocked, it gives her a 30 percent chance to do critical damage to an opponent after previously slaughtering a demon for the duration of five seconds.

Our favorite setup for demon slaying was using a combination of entangling shot, which slowed down enemies by 50 percent and also affected an extra opponent standing close to the target, and bola shot, which wrapped a projectile on a target and exploded within seven yards for fire and weapon damage. Late-game abilities include strafe, which lets her auto-attack with arrows when surrounded by enemies until her hatred meter becomes empty, and rain of arrows, which lets her shoot eight waves of arrow volleys in any direction. We personally felt that among all the classes, the demon hunter's plethora of talents showed off more interest when she got past level 20. There also wasn't much oomph from the damage and attacks dealt by the demon hunter when compared to the monk and witch hunter.

All this beta action can be yours to experience
All this beta action can be yours to experience "very shortly" according to Blizzard.

One could argue that the "streamlined" approach to skill allocation may seem "consolified" (a popular derogatory term thrown by PC elitists in this day and age). The fact that some action RPG tropes from consoles like health blobs from dead enemies and fewer hotkeys made their way for the third game could also reinforce that argument, not to mention past news involving console lead designer job applications on Blizzard's site. However, all of these changes from parts one and two are more of a refined evolution of the genre than anything else and do feel necessary in the scheme of things.

If gamers were to remove their rose-tinted glasses, they may recall some cores of the past titles (commitment-heavy skill-building, no respec options) not aging well, thanks to the appearances of the aforementioned conveniences offered from previous action RPGs. The addition of an official auction house also helps lessen the Wild West mentality of the item-trading economy in past games (stones of Jordan economy, anyone?). One of Blizzard's core philosophies has always been about doing reiterations for its titles, and the current results of the polishing really show in the beta.

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