The four hour Gamescom queue for Diablo III is true testament to how gamers revere Blizzard's epic loot-grinding series. Whilst I was luckily able to bypass the lines and get behind the scenes, I was still a little nervous at getting to grips with Diablo's long-awaited return. Imagine meeting an old flame after several years of loneliness. Diablo III is basically designed to emulate the same balanced, beautiful and beloved gameplay of the franchise while making the experience more accessible and graphically capable... and from what we've seen, it's shaping up to accomplish exactly that.
Let's start with the basics. Clicking on an enemy moves your character in for the attack, with the right mouse button used to trigger a spell or skill. Using the numbers and function keys allows players to hotkey their favourite spells, though two frequently-used abilities can be mapped to the Tab key for easy selection in a hectic skirmish. The classic inventory screen and skill points system makes a welcome return, with the familiar red and blue globes informing players how much health and mana they have left.
So far, so Diablo II... except that several new features make the title much more user-friendly and accessible this time around. Enemies frequently drop health and mana orbs that replenish the player on-the-fly, meaning that we can stay in the fight for much longer before needing to haul ass back to town. A new checkpoint system also replaces the need to respawn back in the nearest safe city after death, which simply puts you pack on track when you die (although there will apparently be a gold or durability penalty when the final version goes gold).
Oh, and the graphics are looking great. The arid desert setting didn't give the texturing an opportunity to show off, but enemy animations and art design are rather impressive at this stage.
Four of the classes were available in the demo, and I ended up plumping for the Witch Doctor. This tribal shaman broadly resembles Diablo II's Necromancer in terms of combat role and skill range. Much like his nefarious predecessor, he's capable of resurrecting armies of undead goons to do his bidding and utilising ranged spells to take down key targets. However, whilst I only had access to a single build, he seemed a lot less capable in melee combat than the Necromancer (who could bolster his close combat prowess and equip powerful two handed weapons). A proficiency with daggers and small swords will allow the Witch Doctor to conduct limited hit and run attacks rather than full frontal assaults.
It's time to talk about skills. The demo character was level 12 and had access to a few nifty little tricks. As well as the unsurprising range of passive abilities that buffed everything from spellpower to raw attributes, he could also summon homing poisonous spiders and employ a plethora of other. A flask-throwing ranged skill allowed him to sling an incendiary grenade at opponents, though the delay between hefting the requires some serious target leading. As you'd expect, the Witch Doctor's forte is still summoning minions; with a pair of hellish Zombie Dogs providing tenacious combat support. Whilst their damage output was extremely low, their capacious health bar allowed the Witch Doctor to stay out of range and hurl flasks at enemy shamans, darting in and out of melee range to dispatch targets of opportunity as the dogs tied up the grunts in close combat. Necromancer fans rejoice: since the Witch Doctor is definitely another 'general' who'll need to rely on his nightmarish forces to succeed. On a personal level, I just hope that the minions are made more relevant and powerful in the late game rather than becoming a pointless waste of skill points.
An expanded set of abilities means that we'll be able to create a greater selection of builds- and I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing what players can come up with once the release date finally rolls around. Diablo III is on course to be every bit as expansive and addictive as its revered predecessors, and frankly 2011 can't come soon enough.