Glancing at preview coverage of the crusader - Diablo 3's new class, who will arrive with the Reaper of Souls expansion - initially had me a little confused. A brooding hard-nut with a melee focus? Isn't that what the barbarian's for?
I should've known, though. Five minutes playing with the closed beta leaves blood red oceans lying between each character. There's a tangible, almost textural, difference in approach here, exchanging the barbarian's seismic rock for the crusader's cold, cruel metal.
Five minutes of playing is probably long enough to hit your first level, too, which in Diablo 3 signals your first trip to the Skills sweet shop. Crusaders are born with Punish as their primary skill - a slightly underwhelming opener, although not without its charms. Punish sees you striking an enemy and gaining an increased ability to block for a short time. It's handy, for sure, but blocking's never quite as cool as blasting things to pieces, so it needs the arrival of the Roar rune a few levels later to bring it to life. To the uninitiated, runes in Diablo 3 are a bit like gems that can slot into the sockets of your skills, mixing things up in exciting ways and allowing for tantalising choices. Roar grants you the chance to "explode with fury" when blocking - and rain down plenty of fiery local damage.
Anyway, if Punish is a low-key starter, hitting that first level grants Shield Bash, and while bashing shields is nothing new in an ARPG (I'm pretty sure Dungeon Siege 3 had a particularly nice one) Blizzard has truly outdone itself. The crusader's shield bash is a marvel: a kind of holy snowplough that sees you rushing at a foe, skidding across the floor, and then busting them to pieces in a flash of golden light. Ka-blammo, as a comic book explosion might put it. Shield Bash is going to be locked into my Secondary Skills slot pretty much forever, and that's before its own first rune comes along and allows you to fragment your shield, doing a wider area of damage.
Shield Bash defines the crusader for me, then - a cold-hearted piston, a melee mastermind fresh and zealous from the church of Jack Kirby. Speaking of melee, the bash is soon joined by Slash, which allows you to ignite the air in front of you, and Sweep Attack, which sends a mystical flail - the best kind - arcing around in the direction you're facing in another glorious burst of gold. Both are abilities that extend your reach, and runes once again are quick to add to the fun. Before you hit level 10, you can trade Slash's fire for electricity. Kirby would be proud.
Early defensive skills are simple and efficient: Shield Glare allows you to stun enemies - a boon for a game that lobs them at you so generously - and Iron Skin turns you to gleaming metal for a few short seconds, rendering you invulnerable. Both will get you out of serious trouble so they come with fairly major cooldowns. At level 10, I'm already learning the crusader's rhythm, slotting defensives in between potions, and chaining cooldowns while I continue laying on the damage.
Level 10 itself opens up the passive skills and leaves you with a wonderfully difficult choice: Fervor, with its short speed boost for every enemy killed nearby, and Heavenly Strength, which allows you to hold a two-handed weapon while also keeping that shield in play. This conjures some slightly amusing images - the crusader's suddenly Clouseau, fumbling with too many bags of groceries - but it's also an absolute treat on the field: the class' axes and flails all see massive boosts in power when they come in two-handed models, so you can basically overclock your damage-dealing with a single passive rune.
So much fun, and so early on: can the crusader continue to provide treats of this hectic, jackhammer nature? A glimpse through the later skills available suggests that it probably can, while the resource system is smartly handled to keep you in check even as your powers grow insane. Your pool of Wrath regenerates fairly quickly, but it disappears in huge gulps, too. It's just like the poet said, really: I was angry with my foe, I smashed him with my shield, and my wrath did end.