It's easy to figure out where Blizzard is going with Diablo III. Or so it seems. Throughout the weekend of press conferences, panels and interviews that followed the game's memorable unveiling in Paris last weekend, the developers' speech was peppered with phrases like this:
"Be an awesome action game." "If you can click a mouse, you can play Diablo." "It's frickin' cool to break stuff." "I don't think we've broken a hundred monsters on screen at a time, but we've flirted with it." "It starts an awesomeness arms race." "Monsters do two things: show up and die." "We wanted to make that really loud." "The only thing better than a zombie dog is an exploding zombie dog."
Diablo III is more. More action, more death, more skills, more colour, more story, more beauty, more top-down, click-hungry, loot-happy, fast-paced, over-the-top, randomly-generated, fantasy-horror slaughter. Eight years after the last instalment in Blizzard's classic action-RPG series - probably ten, by the time it comes out - Diablo III is more of the same. Beneath the waves of excitement generated by its return - in the form of twenty stunning minutes of game footage - there is the slightest undertow of anti-climax. Is 'more of the same' really all there is to it?
Blizzard's chief design guru, Rob Pardo - formerly lead designer on World of Warcraft - argues that traditionalism can't really be a sin when no-one else is upholding the tradition. "If there were a ton of games out in the market that are the isometric action-RPG model, then we probably would have more seriously done a different approach," he says, pointing out that two Blizzard "splinter groups" - Flagship and ArenaNet - have already chosen to take "Diabloesque" gameplay in new directions with Hellgate: London and Guild Wars. "But it just always amazes me, with a game series that's as successful as Diablo's been, that I don't feel like there's a lot of great competing games in that same genre."
So the road well-travelled it was, laid out under the eagle eye of the camera; although Diablo III is fully 3D, its top-down camera perspective apes the isometric 2D bitmaps of the previous games in the series. Art director Bryan Morrisroe isn't equivocal: "Isometric was the best decision we could have made," he says. Blizzard is rock-solid in this conviction, and it's right to be for a host of reasons: the quintessential Diablo point-and-click control scheme, the need for spatial awareness of hordes of monsters attacking from all sides, and the randomised modular maps, to name but three.
Oddly, "random" wasn't a word you heard much during the game's initial presentation at the Worldwide Invitational, but it's a cornerstone of the Diablo franchise - randomly-generated maps and monster spawns making the games as frighteningly replayable as they are addictive. Lead designer Jay Wilson - who previously worked at Relic on Dawn of War and Company of Heroes - later explained that dungeons would still be heavily randomsied, but the overworld much less so in Diablo III.
"We decided we're going to make that a more static geography, because we wanted to also start building a world," Pardo explains. "We want you to learn these places, learn where towns and villages are. But we're still going to randomise the monsters on top of it, and that's where the idea for random adventures came from."
Random adventures are the most intriguing concept in Diablo III at present, although Blizzard is quite vague about them, because it's still deciding exactly how they should be implemented. The idea is that, along with layouts and enemy spawns, actual events - some scripted, some AI-driven - can be dropped into play at random, whether in dungeons or on the set overworld maps. The example in the demo footage is a wall collapsing and blocking a path, but others might take the form of moments of NPC drama, or complex, multi-layered enemy encounters.
We'll have to wait - patiently, as followers of Blizzard always have to wait - to find out more about these. But the implications of random adventures are arresting, to say the least. They promise to grant Diablo III the cinematic impact of a heavily scripted, linear action game in a free-form scenario that never plays the same twice, that's always ready to surprise. Suddenly, Diablo III is starting to look a little less traditional.
It's always this way with Blizzard: conservative, sometimes even derivative on the surface, you have to dig deep into the games' designs to find the modest-sounding innovations that subtly but fundamentally rewrite the rules of whatever genre they're working in. The other example in Diablo III - that we currently know about, again - is health globes.
You've seen it in a hundred action games and platformers before, enemies dropping little red blobs that recharge your health. Simple, right? But think about the context, and the implications. Diablo's health system previously relied on potions that you could trigger at any time, and used up slots in your inventory and your action bar: gone, meaning more items and skills available, and a cleaner interface with more utility. The game now controls when you can recover health, and you don't. The pace, if anything, is even faster, the rhythm altered. Every fight in the scrambling thousands of them you'll have to do has the chance of going down to the wire, but the lower your health, the more you're going to want to fight.
"We kind of took cues from Halo and Call of Duty and first-person shooter games that do this all the time, they've gotten away from the med-pack concept but they both keep the pace high," says Pardo. "So if shooters can do that, it seems like we should be able to do the same thing, because we have the same goals."
It doesn't stop there. The trickle-down impact of health globes reaches into the very core of the game, changing balance, deepening the design the classes, and therefore the enemies they fight, and the situations they fight them in.
"Ultimately, if someone can always replenish their mana and replenish their health, then game balance kind of goes out the window," admits Pardo of the old potion system. "So it also allowed us to do more interesting things with the classes themselves. If you can't always just save yourself with a potion, then it makes other skills suddenly crucial for combat, like escape skills or crowd-control skills or things like that, which didn't really matter in the Diablo series previously."
"I would never put something like [health globes] on the back of the box," Pardo continues. "But I do think it's one of those features that's going to have a larger impact than some of the back-of-the-box features, for sure. The way we handled our death penalty in WOW is an example of that, because out of that decision came PVP being fun for more casual players, more casual players wanting to play and not lose experience when they die. A lot of things that came out of that kind of small decision ended up really having a large impact across the game. I definitely think this is in that category."
Health globes are even being used as a dynamic in the online co-operative play that Diablo III is designed around (although it will be solo-able in its entirety too, of course). When picked up, globes recharge the health of nearby party-members too, encouraging players to stick together and fight as a unit. A simple, brilliant touch, and just the beginning: Wilson promises "more elaborate" party dynamics will be revealed later. As for party size, it's undecided: "technically [the limit is] about eight, but we actually feel the game plays better with slightly fewer than that". Organised player-versus-player combat systems will be introduced later, too.
The more you hear and talk about it, the more it becomes apparent that there isn't a single aspect of Diablo III that isn't both deeper and more accessible than the previous games. That's an incredible design achievement by any yardstick. Wilson is particularly enthusiastic about the monster and boss design, which he promises will be a huge leap forward on what Diablo fans expect. "You will certainly see more complex bosses - we use games like Zelda and World of Warcraft as references for monster design and boss design. We definitely wanted to improve on that from Diablo II. We've made a lot of action-game improvements."
Zelda and Halo are two unexpected references that crop up several times over the weekend. "What I've learned as a designer over the years is it's just as important to play games outside the genre that you're making as it is to play games within it," says Pardo. "A lot of times within a genre, you kind of get in this insular thinking I think. You have to break out of that... I even came up with a little design tweak in StarCraft II that came from Rock Band."
You don't need to take their word for it. Watch the gameplay footage closely. Note how important positioning is, the extreme physicality of the skills: the way the Barbarian class, returning from Diablo II, strings his monstrous slams, whirlwinds and dashes together in criss-crossing combos that intricately, surgically dissect the crowds that overwhelm him.
Look at how ragdoll has been implemented so piles of zombie corpses slip off the edge of bridges in a tangle of flopping limbs. See that environmental destructibility is already more spectacularly and usefully implemented that it has been in a hundred shooters. Watch the ludicrous critical-hit explosions of chunks of monster flesh, straight from a console brawler. Diablo III isn't just Diablo II perfected, it's God of War redefined to boot.
Alongside the Barbarian, Blizzard showed off the Witch Doctor, an all-new class. As with all the other classes, it will be available in both male and female models - a first for the series - but without character customisation, Blizzard remaining focused on instantaneous action with this sequel. The Witch Doctor is a colourful voodoo necromancer who can summon mongrels (those "zombie dogs") out of the ground to do his bidding before detonating them, hurl explosive skulls, belch poisonous locust swarms, scatter enemies in fear, and raise walls of zombies to defend him. He's almost a one-man RTS blitzkrieg tearing through the action-RPG fracas. "We focused on making the characters as over-the-top as possible," says Wilson. No kidding.
"I would say the biggest thing [that will surprise players] is our emphasis on the RPG and the story," says Pardo, however. "That's something that people haven't expected out of the Diablo series, they've kind of palmed it off as a light RPG at best, and I think there's an opportunity to bring a lot more story and RPG elements - without slowing down the action, which is essential."
It's not an easy balance to find. Blizzard is adding a conversation system, and voice to the player characters; key exchanges happen in crisply-defined, inset windows with the participants looming large, similar to comic-book panels. Lead world designer Leonard Boyarsky - previously a creator of the Fallout series at Interplay - says he wants Diablo III's story to be an "opt-in" experience, as it is in other Blizzard games: rich and detailed if you look for it, unobtrusive if you don't.
Diablo III begins 20 years after Diablo II, in New Tristram. Hell's invasion of the world, as prophesied by the series' star NPC Deckard Cain, never happened, and the horrific events of the first two games are regarded as legend by a young population that never experienced them; for psychological and political reasons, the world of Sanctuary, which has built a new capital in the trade centre Caldeum, is in a collective state of denial. Apart from Cain himself, naturally, who, driven by guilt, has been researching the war between heaven and hell, and who kicks the adventure off once more. We know that the rogue angel Tyrael, who helps man against heaven's wishes, will be involved, but we don't know how.
Wilson promises that there are some major new systems that we don't know about yet that will come as "really big surprises". "I'd have to say the coolest feature, we didn't show," he says, and his huge grins and pregnant silences when asked about talent trees and the rune system make us think these might have something to do with it. On top of the mountain of things we don't know about Diablo III, we have to heap what we don't know about Blizzard's online gaming platform, battle.net, which is due a major revamp alongside the launch of StarCraft II and will certainly have a major impact on Diablo III as well.
There are, however, a few more details to hoover up. Co-op play will be drop-in, drop-out. The skills hotbar combines with mouse-wheel selection to make much more tactically diverse play much simpler. All loot that drops will be for the player that sees it, so no more squabbling. There will be some form of new trading system, including easier ways to trade between your own characters, Blizzard recognising that the ad-hoc system in Diablo II wasn't really good enough. There will be "something like" World of Warcraft's Armory, an online database for items, characters and equipment. There will be several difficulty levels, although there's no decision on a permanent-death "hardcore" mode yet. It will be similar in length to Diablo II.
And it won't be appearing on consoles. Well, it's not planned. When asked, Pardo stops well short of slamming the door. "I think it's theoretically possible. It would have some control changes that I think you'd have to make... You'd need to think about a lot of the point-and-click spells, like point to area-of-effect, or things like line-damage in this direction. Target selection is something you're going to lose on console, you're really going to be able to do targeting direction, but not specific targeting." So it would need a complete redesign? "Oh, I don't think it would be a redesigned game," he says firmly. "Out of StarCraft, Warcraft or WOW, Diablo would be the easiest game to translate. But it would still take a bit of work."
Four years into development, in the greatest secrecy, far from its original home in the now-closed Blizzard North studio, with many of its leading lights long gone, Diablo III can't help but be a different game, no matter how similar it looks. It's more, alright: more logical, more sophisticated, more physical, more accessible, more instantly appealing, more like Diablo than either previous Diablo game, if that's possible. And - dare we say it? - it's already looking a whole lot better.