Diablo III has hardly been under wraps since its Paris unveiling three years ago. It's been playable at BlizzCons and other events, and Blizzard's currently open mood has allowed press and punters to follow its development in some detail.
But last week was the first time the studio has invited press to its Orange County campus for a full briefing on the game - from first principles to latest developments, including a hands-on preview of the coming public beta. Despite the game's familiarity, we emerged from a 100-minute presentation and Q&A with our heads spinning - from the accumulated mountain of detail on this apparently simple and visceral game, from its quite dizzying quality, but also from the boldness of the thinking behind it.
The big shock is an officially sanctioned real money auction house - an in-game eBay - where players will be able to sell loot to each other in their local currency. This development is so daring, complex and potentially controversial, we'll discuss it separately in a full article soon. There'll be a separate but functionally identical auction house where players can trade using game gold.
The game's online features on the Battle.net platform were also confirmed. It will, of course, support achievements and the same Real ID centralised friends list as StarCraft II and World of Warcraft. You'll be able to broadcast invites to all your Real ID friends simultaneously and join each other immediately at any point in the game, the difficulty and rewards dynamically scaling to the number of players. There'll be a public game finder for co-op with strangers, and matchmaking similar to StarCraft II's for the 'Versus' competitive multiplayer mode.
A 'banner' system visually represents your play style and achievements to other players in a customisable pennant that stands behind your chosen character on select screens. Game characters are persistent and cloud-saved, and you can instantly swap items between them using an account-level shared stash, accessible in any town.
All of this comes at a considerable cost: Diablo III will not be playable offline in any form. Blizzard points to the deep integration of the online features (especially the character persistence) and to its zero-tolerance approach to cheating and account security to excuse this decision. It's a good argument - but it's no coincidence that it makes the game impervious to piracy, too.
The famous five
Lucky players who've registered interest on their Battle.net profile will be able to experience much of the above, excluding Versus but including the game gold auction house, in the beta test soon. This very short but alarmingly replayable snapshot covers the very beginning of the game - around 8 levels or so - and offers all five character classes to play: the barbarian, monk, wizard, witch doctor and demon hunter.
It's primarily a hardware test for the game's server infrastructure, says lead designer Jay Wilson, and its brevity is to save players from spoilers. "Really, we just don't want to ruin the story."
So you can beat the beta in an hour or so - although you can spend many more trying it out with friends online and experimenting with the five characters, who even at this early stage of the game, with few skills unlocked, display a breadth of tactical choice and an inventive capacity for spectacular slaughter. It will be very, very hard to choose which of these to roll first when Diablo III is finally released (and no, we still don't know when that is). The crossbow-slinging demon hunter, so impressive at BlizzCon last year, is a little muted at this early stage. But the barbarian has been given a huge boost by recent changes, while the martial-artist monk has recovered from a recent slump in form ("he was getting the crap kicked out of him" in the internal alpha, according to Wilson) to become an instant favourite with the visiting press.
The witch doctor's voodoo zoo of weird pets gets more insane with every viewing: human ladders of body-slamming zombies, totems that turn enemies into chickens. I spend the most time with the wizard, a class that instantly obliterates the quaint echoes in its name in a storm of withering lightning.
In previous demos, most classes were using placeholder mana pools to fire off skills, but they've all now had distinctive resource mechanics ironed out. The wizard spams spells with fast-regenerating arcane mana (I typed 'arcade mana' - a telling slip) while the demon hunter has a curious split pool of of Hate (fast-regenerating, offensive skills) and Discipline (slow, defensive).
Wilson's team has achieved an exquisite balance between the relentless, onrushing slaughter of traditional Diablo with a more tactically sophisticated and spatially aware style of play. "Spammable" attacks are blended with big-spending "breakout" skills and a new focus on defensive and crowd-control abilities, slowing being a favourite tactic. And thanks to the latest brave revision of the game's skill system, you can experiment with them all with complete freedom.