BlizzCon 2008: thousands of people travelled from all around the world and crammed themselves into a convention hall in sun-baked California. Many were hoping to be thrilled by the opening ceremony where Blizzard traditionally make a highly anticipated, but not always unexpected, announcement. The ceremony went by without any new games or projects unveiled, yet these dedicated fans walked away all the more excited - Diablo III has a new class, the Wizard, and the crowd at BlizzCon would be the first to play it. Such is the furore this game inspires in fans that any chance to get hands-on more than justifies their trip.
"When you get into something as popular as Diablo, you can't make everyone happy, and you just kind of have to accept that," says Jay Wilson, Diablo III's unassuming game director.
Blizzard unveiled Diablo III at the World Wide Invitational in Paris nack in June, showcasing a lush woodland level. To a certain group of all-or-nothing, reactionary fans, this was an outrage. "What next," they cried, "unicorns and Care Bears?" It seems they spoke far too soon.
At points, Diablo III becomes so unrelentingly dark that the carping seems utterly ridiculous. Dead children wait at the bottom of wells calling out for help, while the mutilated corpses of tortured townsfolk hang from the bare branches of black trees. It's all rather creepy. The game's developers are so confident of Diablo III's tone that they mocked the armchair critics throughout BlizzCon by wearing baby blue t-shirts with fluffy clouds, pink ponies, rainbows and the title 'Diablo III' wedged in the centre.
Diablo III attempts to blend the best of the two previous games, while adding a fresh spin to them and throwing new ideas into the mix to create something that at once feels different, but comfortably familiar. It's like returning home from years abroad to find your mum has shacked up with the Italian shop keeper and learnt to cook Mediterranean food - it's still Mum's cooking, but with that new, garlicky edge.
Perhaps the biggest focus of the new Diablo is its effort to tell its story through the environment. While cut-scenes still book-end significant segments, character interaction, scripted events, interactive scenery and drops play a far bigger role than before. Walk past a certain area and a man struggling to drag his beaten body out of a cellar will be pulled in, screaming; or eavesdrop on a conversation between a minion and his master, alerting you to a part of his plan and what lays ahead for you.
Diablo III also includes audio diaries, similar to those found in BioShock, that can be picked up throughout the world and add a layer of detail to the story that would otherwise go ignored in a block of text. Those I discovered while playing through the game revealed the back-story of the Skeleton King. Rather than a meaningless monster looking vaguely like Michael Jackson and from which I could steal loot (probably a single white rhinestone glove), I was given a fully fleshed-out character of a once-good king turned into an evil undead creature.