The Diablo III closed beta has just begun, and we're fortunate enough to have access to it. (Which is a shame, as I was supposed to be getting married on Saturday.) So I've of course put aside that silly plan of going to sleep and blitzed through the first couple of hours to bring you the very earliest of impressions of what's on offer.
I'm writing this as someone who played Diablo 2 long ago, thoroughly enjoyed it, but never obsessed over it. And certainly only ever played solo. (Which may well describe my life after this weekend if I'm not careful.) Here I'm going to give you my initial reaction to playing the third game of the series, tonight.
Playing as a Demon Hunter, because I always prefer ranged, non-magic when I'm crawling through dungeons, the opening of the game has mostly been about shooting arrows into zombies. (A highlight of that so far? One of the walking dead falling to the ground after I'd re-killed him, then the top half of his torso ripping away from the bottom as it desperately clawed its way along the ground via the accompanying arms.)
It's a bit more of an RPG than my withered hack-n-slash brain was thinking it would be. That's not to say it doesn't get straight into the attacking - it certainly does. But it's regularly interspersed by chats with the locals, all fully voiced of course, setting you your quests, or giving colour to the world. Things begin in the New Tristram, where after a star fell from the sky, the dead have started rising, and the villagers are understandably concerned. But you, whoever you are, have turned up and prove a surprisingly decent combatant to this attack. You seem the right person for everybody in the world to ask to do everything.
I'm also loving how loot springs from dead bodies like a geyser, gold erupting from a corpse then splashing down next to it. And the journals you find. Rather than a screen of text to awkwardly read in the midst of battle, instead they're narrated as you play on. Also narrated is lore, appearing as an optional button, and explained to you, again, as you play. What a splendid touch. And you can blow up the pumpkins.
In fact, much of the scenery is destructible, wagons can be pulverised, and even buildings can crumble as you explore them. It's bizarre to experience, doubled by its being bizarre for destructible environments to feel so unusual in this genre. But this of course means I now feel obliged to demolish every table, cart and chair I encounter. I must smash. Smash all. And it's worth keeping an eye out of any interesting switches or levers, as giving these a tug might bring down some more ceiling furniture on nearby mobs.
Killing my first Grotesque, a giant, stumbling, bloated zombie, I instinctively knew to run away once it hit the deck. That's the sort of thing that messily explodes. Although I didn't predict the Corpse Worms that would come crawling out of it and slither toward me. Ew. In fact, there's a lot of ew here - it's impressively creepy from the off. And for those fearful that this was going to be Rainbow Brite meets Crayola, it's also pretty dingy. Clearly I'm in spookily infected towns, attacked by greying corpses, at night time, so it's possible it could brighten up. But this is definitely not the Nickelodeon affair many were rather zealously fearing.
Pretty early on you're rewarded with the Cauldron Of Jordan - this sits neatly in the bottom left of your inventory and acts as a portable shop. It magically melts any object down to gold, you see. But not so melted that you cannot buy the last few back by visiting a merchant. Magical. And neat, too. And that's helpful, since after the first few areas the locations start to get pretty big. Large, sprawling dungeons, multiple wings, occasional distractions into smaller side-lairs, and nothing but the all important application of your assigned skills to take out the uninvited company.
The skills work pretty traditionally. You have your basic attack, improved as you level, and then can assign two special skills on top. Either mapping one to replace your standard attack on the mouse, or as a number key press. So I'm currently enjoying a standard attack on the left mouse, and Fan Of Knives on the right, that sprays out an insane circle of blades when I'm dangerously surrounded. Bola Shot, that fires an explosive "bola" at enemies is on 1. But I'm promised that at level 6 I'll get an extra skill slot available, with more at 12, 18 and 24, as well as passive skills at 10, 20 and 30.
A bit later comes the Nephalem Cube - another inventory add-on that lets you break down unwanted items to their constituent parts. Which can then be used for crafting. But that shall wait until we've all had a bit longer with the game to tell you all about.
What I'm noticing most of all is just how right everything feels. In my experience, dungeon crawling hackfests (as I believe the genre should be known) tend to frustrate in a few niggly ways. Perhaps they make loot gathering a chore, or forget to let you usefully compare items. Sometimes it's simply the screen furniture, or the frustration of having to read so much in a game focused on frantic fighting. But Blizzard, perhaps not too surprisingly, really are getting it right here.
The map is zoomed just right. The camera angle and distance from the character is spot on. Loot is instantly accessible, and easily gathered. Combat feels extremely powerful, but there's still a sense of battling against being overwhelmed. Levels come incredibly fast at first, letting you quickly expand your attacks, making sure it's very quickly interesting. The inventory has abandoned the tertris in favour of simple rectangles for almost everything. And the item comparison windows have been designed so brilliantly to let you see which is better in a split-second, thanks to absolutely giant damage or armour numbers. Very simple, very clever. Talking of which, and this one's tiny but so excellent, when equipping inventory items you don't have to click the replaced item back into your inventory. It just pops there, because - well - what else was going to happen? Streamlining things like this makes the whole experience more fluid, and more fun.
The only frustration for me so far has been not being able to find a way to hold down a button to see everything interactive on the screen. It's a bit of a shame when there's an awful lot of irrelevant decoration around, meaning you have to sweep the cursor around a lot if you want to distinguish between someone's journal and the other papers scattered around the rest of the tables. It's possible that such a button does exist and I'm just being thick, of course. (There is a key for labelling items on the ground, but it doesn't seem to cover anything other than already exposed loot.)
It's already great at making me feel powerful. Finding those traps for taking out mobs is a great treat, perhaps shooting out a beam that holds up the wall, so it collapses on them and I avoid the fight. But on top of that, it then throws up "records", letting you know that you've pulverised more enemies in one go than previously, and giving you some bonus XP. But crucially, they don't feel like "achievements", but instead like personal bests.
Oh good grief, it's half an hour since I wrote anything and it's 2am and I just want to finish this crypt and I... Oh dear. It's got me.
We will have lots more to say about Diablo III over the next few days, going into more depth about what the new game offers.