Everything old is new: Diablo 3 beta impressions

I have to admit, I expected something with more panache. With access to Diablo 3’s vaunted beta I expected something daring, something world-shaking. What I got was, well, Starcraft 2: a game of incremental improvements.

This is not to say I didn’t love it. When I think about Diablo 3 my palms get shaky now, even after conquering the beta with two characters, and I want to play with a third, a fourth, a fifth. I’m thinking of interesting skills I could unlock, the wonderfully simple but deep system behind them, and how I could make incredibly broken armor for my character. I keep fiddling idly with the skill set generator, thinking about synergies and how to break the game.

Blizzard games have always been gaming’s comfort food. With the lone, startling exception of Warcraft 3 their games are a sort of non-evil proto-Zynga: they take good ideas other people have and make them better. Warcraft and Starcraft codified and improved upon every Real Time Strategy cliché. Diablo took the roguelike and made it for everybody. And World of Warcraft made Everquest even more addictive; it removed the inconveniences that kept you from playing all day.

So I shouldn’t have expected Diablo 3 to do anything more than take the innovations of Titan Quest, Torchlight, and the like, combine them with a little bit of Blizzard shine, and poof! Diablo 3. Maybe I did because of the talk of major overhauls on the expected eve of release.

Or maybe it’s because of Warcraft 3. The first two Warcrafts were pretty much by the numbers strategy fare: of course, the two titles pretty much put the meaning to those numbers, but to our modern palate they play like very foundational games. Warcraft 3 does, as well, but its ideas—champion characters, experience, persistent units in campaigns—felt fresh and different to people who hadn’t played a lot of RTS games.

The worst thing I can say about Diablo 3 is that it doesn’t feel fresh. Maybe this is just a result of oversaturation. Maybe we’ve played so many games like it, so much World of Warcraft and Torchlight and Dungeon Siege, that we’re numbed to the idea of novelty in the action RPG field. And, to be honest, those games did more to engender feelings of newness than Diablo 3 does. Torchlight felt like a return to some of the genre’s foundational roguelike elements. Even the otherwise flaccid Dungeon Siege 3 gave the player character a nice, hefty roll that felt fun to use.

But, again, the worst thing I can say about Diablo 3 is that it doesn’t feel fresh. It tastes kind of like chicken pot pie: delicious and homey if not particularly elevated beyond its roots. It absolutely crushes all the small things. Like Miranda Lawson it has been designed to be perfect, and by gods it is. It feels old, but at the same time it carries a coat of newness.

Let’s talk classes. In my forays through the beta so far I’ve played two to completion: the Wizard and the Witch Doctor. I’ve given two others a test drive, a quarter beta run-through: the Demon Hunter and the Barbarian (sorry, Monk). They didn’t feel like Diablo 2 classes; instead, they felt new and novel, like completely different things. Each class is given three different “genres” of skills, each representing one of the classes’ roles. The wizard, for instance, gets signature spells, weaker abilities that are completely free to cast and form the backbone of your assault; offensive skills, which include a giant laser beam that obliterates your opponents; and utility, which involves skills designed to keep you from dying.

My favorite class, though, was the Witch Doctor, who I played second, whose skills like “Summon a decaying zombie to run at enemies” and “light a lot of bats on fire and spit them at enemies” are both useful and powerful. Oh, and “Throw one of your endless supply of spider-filled jars”. That’s a good skill. Maybe it was just that I understood better how to make a good character, but I found the game about twice as easy with the good Doctor as I did with the Wizard.

The way it became easier was from through crafting. The crafting system creates a hefty feedback loop, where you are destroying vendor trash you find for its component parts. You use these parts to craft new items, ones better than the ones you can find in the field. It’s a quick turnaround, and it lets you make your character significantly more powerful without too much stress, which makes you feel great. You can even level up the blacksmith so you can craft better items.

That’s the kind of thing that sets Diablo 3 in its beta form apart from Torchlight: it has been consciously designed to make you as happy as possible at every single juncture. There’s no items to identify, no scrolls of town portal to waste your time with. Potions take up one stack no matter how many you have. The game shows you quick breakdowns of your equipped gear with prospective new ones, telling you how they differ. When you’re picking where to go in the waypoint menu the game highlights the one that will advance the plot so that you don’t waste time.

This is the best thing I can say about Diablo 3: it is extremely respectful of your time. It’s like going to a five star hotel and finding that the room you’ve booked has been decorated to look exactly like your favorite place in the world. Even more than that, it’s got an elevator directly from the front desk to your room, and room service has already put your favorite meal—a chicken pot pie—on your nightstand, so the room smells like puff pastry and savory gravy the second you open the door.

Diablo 3 isn’t going to take you anywhere new or different. It’s going to take you to that room, and you’re going to have the time of your life.