Blizzard says the Necromancer, which arrives as an add-on for Diablo 3 today, is one of the most-requested characters in any of its games. That's no surprise - it's an iconic player character and a fun class to play, and it was always very popular in Diablo 2. But perhaps there is something else going on behind the public demands for the Necromancer's apt resurrection, because the class is pure Diablo 2: none more Gothic, not so much dark as sepulchral, stitched together from sackcloth and bone, pentagrams and guttering candles. A dry, death-metal kind of fantasy horror.
Diablo 3, meanwhile, has always, sometimes in spite of itself, been cock rock. While it ostensibly shares the moody themes of its predecessors, it is almost ridiculously flamboyant, turbo-charging its dark fantasy with explosive gore, coruscating light shows, cartoonish characters and an absurd, antic glee that borders on camp. It is a squealing, tongue out, Nigel Tufnell guitar solo of a game.
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The Diablo community spotted this tonal shift in the art when the game was first revealed, and mocked the new game for its "unicorns and rainbows" aesthetic (which was overstating things quite a bit, but this is the internet). The developers made a joke of it, printing My Little Pony-style T-shirts to wear at BlizzCon and ultimately creating the parodic Whimsydale zone for the game. Once the game was out, concern shifted to other, more serious issues: an initially poor online service, a needless real-money auction house, a turgid item game. Diablo 3 eventually and completely rehabilitated itself through an excellent console edition, the generous 'Loot 2.0' itemisation overhaul, and Reaper of Souls, a genius expansion for which the term 'game-changing' is barely adequate. Everyone, or almost everyone, grew to love it, but the murmurs wouldn't go away: why couldn't they just make it more like Diablo 2?
So the Necromancer arrives laden with meaning. We now assume Diablo 3 development to be winding down (though some more updates and perhaps another class aren't out of the question) as work starts on a sequel in earnest. Is this a late bid to bring things full circle and fulfil the wishes of those Diablo 2 fans who never quite got over the disappointment?
It quite possibly is, but let's not kid ourselves. After mucking around with the class in the beta and chatting to the developers, it is quite apparent to me that the Necromancer, for all his lordly Goth credentials, isn't going to change Diablo 3; Diablo 3 is going to change him. You can't stop the rock.
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That said, if you come looking for your favourite Necro skills from Diablo 2, you will probably find them - few have been cut. Diablo 3 classes are simply much bigger, with more skills to choose from and many more build permutations. As art director John Mueller tells me on a conference call from Blizzard's California HQ: "For the most part, we found a way to translate nearly everything that we felt was really good about the Necromancer in Diablo 2 forward. There were only really one or two things that we dropped along the way. One of those would have been Poison Dagger, and the reason for that was really clear - going around and stabbing guys with a dagger, one at a time, didn't really line up with the rest of the goals for the class. I would argue that it didn't feel that great in Diablo 2 either, and we didn't hear from a lot of fans telling us that they really, really wanted to play Poison Dagger Necros."
So, you'll still be raising an army of skeletons, encasing yourself in Bone Armor, summoning Golems, casting Decrepify, and of course glorying in Corpse Explosion's situational damage. But the feel of the class has changed. In Diablo 2, the Necromancer, with its summons, was the indirect option when it came to combat. In Diablo 3, that mantle was inherited by the Witch Doctor, but that class is divisive and not a little bizarre (not to say culturally insensitive), so many were hoping the Necromancer would go even further in that direction.
Mueller stresses that being in command of an army of the dead is still core to the fantasy of the class - and that's borne out by playing it. But you can't call the playstyle indirect. In fact, it's extremely busy, bordering on RTS-style micromanagement. Even by Diablo 3's frantic standards, there is a lot to do and manage. Looking at ways to set the Necromancer apart from the Witch Doctor, Mueller says, "we hit on the idea of being able to command all of your pets, which is something that the Witch Doctor couldn't do." The commands are quite granular; for example, applying different runes to your skeleton or golem summons will make them behave differently when the skill is triggered, focusing on your target, or exploding, or harvesting corpses for a damage buff. Where the Witch Doctor would effectively conjure a giant, multifarious cloud of area-of-effect damage and wander around with it, the Necromancer acts more like a conductor, making surgical strikes around the battlefield - directed either from himself, from his minions, or from enemies' corpses.
If that sounds like a lot, we're just getting started. "We made it so that your primary resource, Essence, is not something that automatically generates - you have to take action to do it in all cases, and that makes the class feel also a little bit different," Mueller says. "And finally we hit on the idea that all Blood magic comes at a cost - the cost of the Necromancer's health itself, which is something that no other class in Diablo 3 takes advantage of. And these three things, combined with the corpse gameplay that we pulled forward from the Necromancer in Diablo 2, create a very, very different feeling class in terms of the way that it plays."
Different from the Witch Doctor, from all the other Diablo 3 classes, or from the Necromancer in Diablo 2? Realistically, it's all of the above, although as ever with Diablo 3's extreme build flexibility, you can mix and match the parts that work for you. If spending your own health with Blood magic sounds a bit too high-risk, you can avoid it, and if you're having trouble generating enough Essence you can harvest it from corpses. There will always be a lot going on, though - and this is one of the ways Diablo 3 has asserted its own identity on the older class.
Diablo 3 has always had more sophisticated combat than its predecessor, with more layered mechanics, from the deeper and broader class designs to the increased focus on positioning, spatial awareness, movement and crowd control on its busy battlefields. Saving your nostalgia, this game is just better at combat than Diablo 2 - and it always has been. This brilliant core of Diablo 3 has existed since before its troubled launch, and was built by the unfairly vilified designer Jay Wilson, who left the game, and eventually Blizzard, hounded by criticism of the loot (which was probably at least partly his fault) and the auction house (which probably wasn't).
The Necromancer was always going to have to adapt to play at this level, and rightly so. That said, one famous Necro skill turns out to interact gloriously with the Diablo 3 playstyle, taking both the older class and the younger game in an interesting direction. I'm talking, of course, about Corpse Explosion, which in Diablo 3 has blossomed into a whole family of skills that use the corpses of slain monsters, scattered around the screen, as a sort of localised resource that can be converted into multi-target or single-target damage, Essence, or even new summons.
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"It's a very interesting thing to try to freshen up those isometric-style gameplay elements, such as pinning monsters in or repositioning yourself... but also it's really just a common problem of, how do I get the damage that I'm going to do in the place where the monsters are?" says Mueller. "So this is where corpse gameplay mechanics really shine for us, in that they give us a whole new way to express that gameplay. Because now you have an interesting effect where you have to kill monsters in order to earn that resource that you're then going to use to kill more monsters - and that resource is itself spatially located on the ground. We give you lots of options on how to solve that puzzle."
Based on the beta, much more committed players than me have declared themselves broadly satisfied by the Necromancer; it currently has two viable endgame builds, apparently, which is could be better but is just about good enough, and certainly offers plenty for the community to get their teeth into. Charging £13 for just the class and little else might seem steep from an outside perspective, but in Diablo 3 the classes are the only content that really matters. Besides, Blizzard are the unmatched virtuosos of character class design, unfailingly offering interesting, layered and high-impact twists on familiar archetypes across all their games. The Necromancer is no different; just another masterclass in a game that can boast several, from a studio that has dozens more to its name.
There's one thing it can't do, though, and that's bring Diablo 2 back from the dead. But perhaps it's more just that, at this late stage in the game's life, it should instead remind us of everything that is great about Diablo 3.