The other night in the pub, my (otherwise quite bright) editor suggested that there was something festive, something Christmassy, about Diablo, Blizzard's famously bloody series of fantasy-horror action RPGs.
His argument (such as it was) hinged on the assertion that "it's about the devil or something and that's sort of Christian isn't it," which we will gloss over as the product of an over-tired brain steeped in too much Asahi. But the thing is – as I look out at the snow prettily carpeting London and think over the frankly magnificent game I played at BlizzCon a month ago – I think he might have a point. Sort of.
It's not really about a spurious connection to the religious themes of a game that's set in a place called Sanctuary. It's certainly not, in this traditional season of bounty for the games industry, about having to wait another year or so (hopefully no more) for Diablo III to come out.
It's because Diablo games constantly shower you in presents. Weapons, armour, trinkets, skills, money, experience points and levels come gushing out of them in a magnanimous torrent, and in true gift-giving tradition, unwrapping your new toys (by frantically clicking on millions of monsters until they die in explosions of gore and gold) is more than half the fun.
Diablo is a perpetual Christmas morning for the lover of loot. Ho ho ho! Goodwill to all men! Death to all demons.
The challenge for the team making Diablo III is to find a way to make this experience – which, in Diablo II, was mercilessly addictive but, let's face it, rather unrefined – more sophisticated, more involving and better balanced without losing that wild, over-the-top reward. We would like Diablo to be better, of course, but not if that means it has to start exercising moderation.
They're up to the task. Game director Jay Wilson recently told us all about his theory of randomness and frustration with tooltips of less than infinite size. At BlizzCon, I met four more developers – lead technical artist Julian Love, lead programmer Jason Regier, senior world designer Leonard Boyarsky and technical game designer Wyatt Cheng – who displayed an equally impressive commitment to excess. Most importantly, I got to play all five of its classes, including the freshly unveiled Demon Hunter, in both single- and multiplayer campaign scenarios and in the new player-versus-player Battle Arenas.
The Demon Hunter is the fifth and final class to be revealed (I examined the other four last year) and is the team's twisted take on the classic ranger – nimble, swift, cowled; using shadow magic, traps, gadgets and trick shots; able to dual-wield crossbows. It's the darkest and most mysterious of the classes, with a medieval Gothic feel close to Diablo II's, and an unquenchable thirst for revenge on all demons.
"She's the obsessed hero, the classic, lone, revenge-driven hero who's out to make the demons pay for what they did to her family and friends... Almost an anti-hero," says Boyarsky. "We really want to straddle that line."
The question of character is another line they have to straddle. The classes all have a clearly defined style and personality and sketched-out back-stories; you can't craft your look or role-play your morality in what remains a brutal action game at heart. But they're all still nameless enigmas, empty vessels for you to pour own perceptions into, not to mention tweak and customise to the very limit.
In Diablo, nothing must come between you and the ceaseless slaughter and looting, so Boyarsky's job is to create a deep well of story and character for the game and then hide it – or at least, resist any temptation to force it on the player. A good example is the quest log, which will offer your character's take on events in their voice, but which you never have to open thanks to clear on-screen objective tracking and fluid vocal delivery of the salient points.
The BlizzCon demo takes us into a haunted dungeon where a King once cruelly executed his own Queen. There are no cut-scenes or reams of text to explain this. Find and click on a lore book and the King's voice will narrate his dark suspicions to you as you mow through crowds of monsters; enter one room just off the beaten path and you'll see the decapitation played out for you by a theatre troupe of ghosts. It's beautifully seamless. "It's kind of an opt-in thing," says Boyarsky, using a favourite Blizzard term. "It's not like you're sitting listening to someone telling you the story, it's like you're seeing something play out."
Either way, your Demon Hunter, just like the other classes, will be defined by her skills, not her motivation (there will be a male model, by the way, and the silhouette on the login screen suggests he'll be similarly svelte and sexy, like a World of Warcraft Blood Elf). The Demon Hunter shows all the flair for dramatic and engaging skill design we've already come to expect from Diablo III, with greater emphasis on timing, positioning and physicality than the previous games. Bola Shot wraps itself around an enemy and blows up after a short delay, and can be used with skill for multiple takedowns. Multi-shot sprays out a cone of arrows, turning your Demon Hunter into a strafing attack ship from a Treasure shmup.
The Grenades skill defines the Diablo III difference; it unleashes three bombs which bounce past your click-point with momentum appropriate to how far they've been thrown, fanning out and bounding off walls and other objects, then exploding after a delay of a second or so. They seem random at first, but can be used with timing, skill and inventivess to absolutely murder crowds of demons at doors, corners and other choke points.
It's as crisply-tuned, involving, tactile and satisfying to use as a skill in any console shooter or action adventure. Despite its mouse interface, Diablo III tears down the traditional barrier between RPG character and player.
Blizzard cheekily grabbed headlines during BlizzCon with the assertion that there are 97 billion possible builds per character class, not counting equipment or the new passive Traits. A silly piece of performance maths this may be, but the point is, there are many skills, they are all viable, you do have to choose between them, and you can customise them. A lot.
The interface is disarmingly simple. Skill trees are gone; you simply pick skills from a list on the right and plug them into slots on the left which unlock as you level up. Skill points awarded every level are spent on purchasing new skills or ranking up existing ones.
"We've put a lot of effort into making sure that every one of those skills aren't throwaway skills," says Love. "Diablo II has a design where the skills are intentionally built for you to use them and move on, throw them away. None of ours are designed with that in mind. We try to make them viable throughout the whole game in some way.
"So just by the nature of the large number set and the fact that so many of them are useful, I think you're just inherently going to have, compared to past games or any other action RPG, a ginormous number of builds, which kind of gets us an out from the cookie-cutter syndrome. If you're a player who really wants to set themselves apart, not look like everybody else and not be like everybody else, I think you'll be able to do it in this game."
Further customisation comes from Skill Runes, which come in five flavours and seven ranks within each, and change the effect of your skills. These aren't always mere bonuses to damage or speed; each rune has a hand-crafted, often visual effect for each skill. The Witch Doctor's Plague of Toads can be altered so that the amphibians are on fire, rain from the sky, or take the form of one giant toad that eats your enemy and spits out loot.
"We want them to be maximally interesting from a conceptual point of view, but at the same time never losing that readability," says Love. "That process involves doing something that we call finding the line by crossing it. Our number one goal when sitting down to design an effect is to go too far. Where do we think the line is? Go way past it."
That said, not everything is extreme; Diablo III achieves its astonishing depth of customisation through a breadth of interlocking systems, each of which has been ruthlessly stripped down and simplified. Spending attribute points when you level up has been binned in favour of the more characterful Traits, passive bonuses you can select to fit your play style. Futher passive effects come from Chrams, items which are plugged into a new Talisman board which grows as you level, rather than taking space in your inventory.
Although the Blizzard community has a habit of "theorycrafting" its way to perfect class builds and tactics, the options here are simply too great. "I think one important thing to keep in mind about the appeal of Diablo... is it isn't so much the hardcore progression but the exploration," says Cheng.
"People might try to get level 99 characters in Diablo II, but it was far more common to hear people having multiple level 80s. 'Now I want to try a Frenzy Barb... Now I want to try a Multi-shot Amazon.' That's always been so much more the focus." It's evident even from the bite-sized BlizzCon demo, where picking Grenades or Multi-shot for the Demon Hunter led to a radically different experience.
BlizzCon's final big reveal was Battle Arenas, the first time Diablo has had a dedicated home for PVP. The team is adamant that playing through the campaign on its multiple difficulties, solo or in four-player co-op, is the focus. However, Blizzard has never been a developer to stand in the way of players fighting each other – unless, as it did in Diablo II, it spoils things for everyone else.
"In Diablo II, PVP itself was very unstructured – you'd have people that would just be in the middle of the game world then go hostile on one another, and for people who wanted a safe PVE experience, it wasn't very fun," says Regier.
"The game really became not actually fair PVP, what it was was social engineering," adds Love. "How can I socially engineer this person into letting down his guard so I can obliterate him? So obviously there's a desire to PVP and there's a desire for some people to not have to engage in it."
In other words, Battle Arenas are a ghetto to contain PVP, and as that might suggest, they're pretty simplistic, if frantic and enjoyable. They take the form of three-on-three team deathmatches over multiple short rounds, on a tight map with a few pillars littered about. You don't earn experience or material rewards for PVP, but there will be matchmaking and a progression-based ranking system offering titles, vanity rewards and Achievements, and some of the classes' skills (particularly crowd control and counters for it) are being designed with PVP in mind.
It's not well balanced – a team of three Wizards appeared able to destroy any other combination at BlizzCon – but will Blizzard's community eventually mould an e-sport out of it, as it does most of the companies' games? Love doesn't think so. "With 97 billion builds possible per character, it's pretty clear that there's no way that we could really realistically balance it enough to make it a serious e-sport, at least in the current incarnation that we have now."
It's sociable, fast-paced and fun enough that it doesn't matter too much, as I discover with a couple of friends as BlizzCon winds down on the Saturday night. Then we merrily butcher our way through the campaign demo together for the umpteenth time, ignoring the free Tenacious D concert in the hall next door just to spend another few minutes with this murderously pretty and playable game.
It's hard to imagine not wanting to play it all the time, or to countenance waiting another year for it to arrive. Diablo III is for life – not just for Christmas.