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.