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Hands-on with the Diablo III beta

Wherein we walk our monk, Punchface, through Blizzard's brief Diablo III beta trial.

Our monk, Punchface.
Our monk, Punchface. Rich Brown/CNET

Blizzard Entertainment opened its Diablo III beta trial to the press yesterday, giving us and many other outlets the chance to try out its forthcoming action role playing game. After taking a monk character through the beta content in single-player mode on normal difficulty, we have an overall positive impression of Blizzard's new take on its long-running franchise.

The Diablo series is known for fast, click-based combat, complex character development decisions, and a near-constant stream of monsters, gold, and loot thrown in your character's path. Diablo games also have a reputation for replayability because of randomized dungeon layouts and the number of possible character classes and skills. The series is also notorious for its ability to hook gamers into playing long into the night.

If the beta is any indication of the final product, Blizzard has successfully captured that "Diablo-ness" in Diablo III, while introducing some streamlined new game elements that make the experience more accessible than earlier titles. We need to play through the final product game before we decide whether that accessibility comes at the expense of depth, but we'll be interested to see how the more hard-core players adapt to some of Blizzard's new design decisions.

The environments in the new game, now fully 3D-rendered, are richer than in the previous two, both in terms of graphics quality (which you'd expect given the 10 years since Diablo II), as well as in the level of interactivity. The gloomy atmosphere is not unlike that of a Frank Frazetta fantasy painting.

Diablo III's environments are gloomy, foreboding, and gorgeous.
Diablo III's environments are gloomy, foreboding, and gorgeous. Rich Brown/CNET

Background props like rotting logs, pottery, and even furniture all break believably, and you can even use randomly distributed environmental elements like falling walls and hanging light fixtures to damage your enemies. It also helps that at least in the first part of the first act, we've had meaningful, plot-driven interactions with three different nonplayer characters, engaging us in the narrative more than the earlier titles did.

One of the big changes in Diablo III comes from the character development. Previously, as you leveled your character you distributed points to strength, intelligence, and other attributes according to your class, and then picked certain class-specific skills. A limited number of skill points forced you to focus on a specific skill set within each class, so a magic-using character might be a master of fire-type spells, but less competent at throwing lightning around.

In Diablo III, your attributes increase automatically, and you can access all available class skills as you gain levels. The trick is that you can only use a certain number of skills at any one time, which is the main choice you have to make in terms of character development, aside from equipment.

Your primary character development decisions focus on selecting active skills.
Your primary character development decisions focus on selecting active skills. Rich Brown/CNET

We can see benefits to this system. With automatic attribute leveling and open skill access, Blizzard assures the viability of every character throughout its Diablo III career. No one can build a monk with inappropriate stats for certain content since his or her strength and other attributes will always have certain base figures. And no one will complain about feeling locked into a certain skill path with a character, since you can always swap your skills around once you've attained the proper level. The challenge for Blizzard with this new system is that the skills really need to shine, since you don't get that extra layer of character investment by allocating attribute points.

In addition to benefiting gamers, those character development changes make it easier for Blizzard to balance the difficulty of Diablo III. The game designers will always have a rough idea of how strong a character will be at a given level of plot progression. We're not sure Blizzard has totally nailed the balance yet, though. We found that our monk tore through both the regular monsters and the harder elite and boss monsters easily, and we only needed to think strategically in a few circumstances.

It's also interesting to note the traits Diablo III has inherited from Blizzard's World of Warcraft series. The game's starting screens look remarkably similar to those of WoW, down to the large model of your last active character on display before you launch the game. You now carry a portal stone around with you to travel back to town, instead of consumable town portal scrolls, and using the stone triggers a very WoW-like character animation. You will also find similarities in Diablo III's resource and crafting system.

Nonplayer characters feel well-developed in Diablo III.
Nonplayer characters feel well-developed in Diablo III. Rich Brown/CNET

We experienced no obvious gameplay bugs with the Diablo III beta, at least in our roughly 3-hour single-player run with our monk. Still, we ran into one prominent hiccup: around 30 minutes into testing, Blizzard's servers kicked us out of the game, causing us to lose some progress.

Diablo III is not a massive multiplayer game like Blizzard's World of Warcraft, and does not require a monthly fee, but it does demand that you maintain a constant connection to the Internet while you play, even in single-player mode. Always-on requirements can be frustrating when your network or that of the host isn't cooperating, and we expect Diablo III connection complaints will become at least a semi-regular customer issue for Blizzard.

Most importantly, our experience with the Diablo III beta was fun. Punchface, our melee-driven monk, felt powerful from the start of beta content, with fast-flying, mystic-powered punches and kicks, and satisfyingly deep sound effects. We look forward to testing the other classes, and to trying the game's multiplayer mode. Perhaps the best hint of effectiveness for any preview is the level of anticipation it builds for the final release. At least for us, Blizzard can consider this beta a success.