It's been about twenty years since the events of Diablo II. The destruction of the Worldstone reduced Mount Arreat to nothing more than a crater, but the world has, for the most part, seen peace. Tristram has been rebuilt and is now a successful merchant town thanks to the adventurers still searching the ruins of the old cathedral.
Everything's going pretty well until a meteor falls from the sky directly into the cathedral. The dead are rising from their graves, and it's up to you to furiously click until you either break your mouse or get rid of the evil plaguing the world of Sanctuary.
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At Blizzard's recent press event for Diablo III, we were able to play through the upcoming beta. The beta encompasses roughly the first half of Act 1, starting with your arrival in New Tristram and ending with a fight with the Skeleton King Leoric down in the depths of the old cathedral. All of this should bump your hero to around level 10.
Rest assured, Diablo III still feels exactly like a Diablo game, but with a number of significant changes.
First and foremost, storytelling is taking center stage in Diablo III. The Diablo series has always had a decent story, but it was usually background. The playable characters had no backstories, and you had very little interaction with NPCs other than the occasional bit of gossip or quest text. That's changing in Diablo III.
Each of the five character classes now has a full backstory, told through an intro cinematic that explains their reason for being in New Tristram and why they've been driven to fight. As you work your way through the game, you'll find lore books containing background narrative. Some pertain directly to the main questline, others just provide you with some information and lore about the area you're currently in. Deckard Cain will even chime in from time to time to tell you about a monster you just killed or an area you've just arrived at.
Questing is a much bigger part of Diablo III, and the quests extend far beyond the six overarching Act quests we saw in Diablo II. Some of the quests we saw in the beta included the investigation of Adria's old house, helping a townsperson kill his possessed wife, and rescuing Cain from a group of skeletons that had trapped him.
A number of NPCs will also join you as you move through the game and provide dialogue that again helps to further the story. Many are temporary NPCs who will only be with you until the completion of a quest, but there are also three permanent followers you can obtain, train, and equip. Unlike the followers of the past Diablo games, these three followers have names, complete backstories, and unique personalities. As you move through the world, you'll hear different dialogue and get new pieces of information depending on which follower is with you at the time.
The skill and attribute system has also seen a huge overhaul, and is different than anything you've seen in a Diablo game before. Skill points and attribute points are gone completely. Instead, skills are gained in a set order as you level up. To use these skills, though, they need to be set in one of your skill slots. You start the game with two active skill slots, with an additional slot opening every six levels to a maximum of six active slots. There are also three passive skill slots, which open at levels 10, 20, and 30. As it's planned right now, levels 1 through 30 will be spent earning new skills and figuring out your build, and levels 30 through 60 (the official level cap) will be the traditional gear gathering phase that every Diablo player knows and loves.
Skills can be slotted and unslotted at any time without penalty, but it's very difficult to do in the middle of a fight. Generally speaking, you'll find six actives and three passives that work well together, and that will be your primary build. When I spoke to Wyatt Cheng, Technical Game Designer, he said that they wanted to avoid the issue they saw in Diablo II where every character really only used one or two skills. Generally speaking, players would hoard skill points, unwilling to "waste" them in earlier skills, and in Diablo III Blizzard wants to encourage more experimentation. Based on playtesting, they found that the current skill system in place combined with the runestone system that has already been revealed gave rise to the most experimentation and several viable build options.
In terms of the skills themselves, there are three very general categories that most of the skills in the game fall into. Spammables are primary attacks that can be used to build your character classes' resource meter. Breakout attacks are higher damage skills -- or skills with powerful and unique effects -- that require a lot of resources and generally need time to recharge. Escape-type abilites are generally defensive moves that allow you to get out of nasty situations and keep the battlefield under control.
You'll need to utilize all three types of skills to be effective -- the game is difficult enough now that you won't get by just spamming a single skill over and over again. Even regular monsters can require some significant strategy to beat, and encounters have been designed to require much more battlefield management than in prior games. Boss monsters are their own special fights unto themselves, and bosses have unique attacks and strategies you must master in order to defeat them. Cheng described the boss fights as being somewhat inspired by World of Warcraft raid bosses, where you have to do much more than just run in and spam attacks until they die.
Battle.net is also seeing a significant overhaul, designed to make Diablo more social and easier to use. In addition to the new real-currency auction house, there will be a number of new features available to make the multiplayer experience as smooth as possible. Like most of Blizzard's games, Diablo supports the RealID system and cross-game chat, allowing you to invite your friends to games even if they're playing StarCraft or World of Warcraft.
Or, if you don't have any friends (sad!), a public game finder and PvP matchmaking system are in place that will allow you to easily find people close to your skill level. There will be some solid incentives to party up, first and foremost being that drops are now unique for every character. You don't have to worry about that guy in your party stealing that unique he can't even use, because what drops on his screen will be entirely different from the loot you get.
Your friends will be able to easily jump in and out of your games -- they'll spawn in town, where they can easily join your party by clicking on your character's banner, a customizable icon that gives your character some added personality. As you progress through the game, defeating certain bosses and accomplishing certain achievements give you access to new banner icons and styles. At the start of the game, your banner will just be a colored piece of cloth with a simple icon on it. By the time you finish the game on Hell difficulty, it may have a pile of skulls in front of it and all sorts of vicious accessories like spikes and swords attached to it.
Those looking forward to gathering their seven Diablo II friends and plowing through the game may be disappointed -- the maximum party size for Diablo III is four people. Additionally, like StarCraft, Diablo III will require you to always be connected to Battle.net to play, even if you are soloing, and you will not be able to play with friends in other countries.
Having completed the beta, I have to say I'm insanely pumped for Diablo III. The game still feels exactly like a Diablo title, while introducing a ton of new skills, systems, and concepts into the series. While I'm a little concerned about the level cap being 60, Wyatt Cheng told me they were still in the process of designing and implementing enough end-game content to keep people from getting bored. Sadly, we don't have a release date yet for either the full game or the beta itself, but I was told that the team was hopeful that we'd see a release by the very end of this year. Keep your fingers crossed!