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.
These effects are all intended to create an immersive story for players to dive into or avoid without much fuss either way. Blizzard has also taken every opportunity to impart story through its classes' personalities, giving them each a voice and a character which changes how NPCs respond to them. The same guard who chastises Wizard players as being boozed-up glory-hogs, and regards Witch Doctors as bizarre curiosities, will act sycophantically to Barbarians - a satisfying experience if you have played as the former two classes first.
In Diablo, each class has ultimately never been anything more than your vehicle to loot, and this has been furthered by the introduction of runes - items that drop in the world and alter the effect and appearance of skills and abilities. Inspired by the original skill system used in Diablo, whereby characters would learn new skills from book drops throughout the game, runes, according to Wilson, will allow gamers the ability to customise their characters to greater depths.
"In Diablo II, you could have a Barbarian and I could have a Barbarian and they would look different based on the skills that we choose," he said. "We wanted to enhance that even more, so that if you had a whirlwind Barbarian and I had a whirlwind Barbarian they actually still look different because you chose to do a particular skill, versus a skill that I did."
Runes are what I can only assume to be Blizzard's attempt to drive the final nail into the coffin of your social life by creating an eternally repayable game. Apply the multi-strike rune to the Wizard's electrocute ability, and you'll create chain lightning; or combine the skill with a lethality rune and it causes creatures to blow up, damaging surrounding enemies. The runes are entirely interchangeable and can drastically alter the utility of a skill, granting each different combination a different style of gameplay.
So far only three classes have been shown, the Barbarian, the Witch Doctor and the Wizard. Each one of these classes carries a distinct personality: the Barbarian is clearly represented as the 'noble savage' - he talks softly, but carries a big stick. As the main tanking class, the Barbarian comes with a host of smashing attacks that devastate a single opponent or send waves of minions flying back. The class also features a range of buffs that become accessible when the character reaches a certain level of rage.
The Witch Doctor, the first new character introduced, is an iteration of the Necromancer from Diablo II. Although he controls zombies, plagued toads and summons flurries of firebats, the character is far more spiritualistic and concerned about doing good than his appearance would suggest. The zombie dogs raised by the Witchdoctor can be further enhanced when other abilities are on them. For example: fire abilities catch the dogs alight, causing damage to all mobs and scenery.
The Wizard is by far the most developed class in terms of character and skills. She is presented as headstrong, arrogant and individualistic. The Wizard represents the ideal 'glass cannon', inflicting insane amounts of damage, but being relatively weak herself. One of the highlights of playing the character is in using the 'disintegrate' skill down a packed corridor and watching as the enemy explodes in a vain attempt to reach you - it's incredibly violent, easy, satisfying and can instantly cause you to bellow menacing laughter.
While most casting characters are based around elemental powers, the Wizard owes its dues to cosmology. Energy and time seem to be the weapons of choice, and this reflects a concerted effort on the part of Wilson and his team to create something different.
"When we dived into the source material that inspired [the Wizard], which was really old-school, pen-and-paper role-playing-game type magic users, those magic users were not the traditional elementalists that the mage and sorcerer turned into," Wilson told us. "They really did all kinds of crazy things, like disintegrating, controlling time and conjuring things out of nothing... That's what really inspired it."
Levelling up these characters has been given an extra dash of visceral thrill - there is an explosion of light (nothing new) but this is followed by a shockwave that kills or seriously injures nearby enemies. The experience of climbing a level with an explosion that takes out a group of mobs is a brilliantly inspired layer of polish that only Blizzard could think of - it's not necessary, it's just amazingly fun.
However, not all is as it should be - yet. The Barbarian is currently lacking in any really interesting skills that are playable, and the Witch Doctor has the least customisable appearance. All the classes also seemed to be too powerful; after making my way through the dungeon without dying (partly thanks to the red health orbs that mobs now drop), I had reached a high enough level to face the Skeleton King without much of a challenge. I toyed with him for some time, trying to raise character's level one more notch before finishing him off, but in the end I put the Thriller reject out of his misery and finished the dungeon.
Controls are important to Blizzard, whose mantra is "easy to learn, hard to master"; and they're also important to Jay Wilson. "I love interface and controls, they're some of my favourite pats of the game, and I'm a big believer that good interface is less interface," he says.
The simple one-click nature of Diablo remains intact: left click to attack, right click to attack, click to pick up items, click to walk, etc. Players are faced with a choice of three skills to equip: one for the left click, one for the right and another in reserve that can be used to substitute the right mouse button's spell by pressing tab. To change to any other skill you right click on the abilities' icon attached to either mouse button and select a replacement, while certain buffs are automatically assigned to the number bar.
Wilson explained the interface and control design, saying: "By forcing yourself to be simple, it really makes your depth have to come from somewhere else, which some people find really interesting."
Diablo III is already shaping up to be everything you want the title to be; it's different enough to show a real improvement on the originals but respectful enough to play off their strengths. As with most things Blizzard develops, the innovation comes in new combinations of previously tried and tested ideas, polished to a high degree. There are some areas that need balancing, but this is early days yet, and if the title's development continues to progress in the right direction then Diablo III looks set to join its predecessors as a gaming icon.