For me, the biggest news over spring break wasn’t Mitt Romney winning the Illinois primary or even the recent release of The Hunger Games. In fact, ironically, it was something much less significant. The release date for Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo III was finally announced: May 15, 2012.
Although Diablo isn’t exactly a household name (yet?), nearly every gamer has at least heard of it. The series started in 1996 and continued in 2000. It’s been nearly 12 years since the release of Diablo II (which, at year of release, held the record of fastest-selling computer game). The game revolutionized the dungeon-crawling, role-playing experience with fast-paced gameplay, seven customizable classes and nearly endless loot.
Diablo III is the long-awaited successor to the throne of hack-and-slash king. Some lucky gamers have already had a chance to participate in beta testing a limited version of the game, which opened last September, containing the entire first act with mainly story-progressing quests. The beta keys were distributed through numerous giveaways, and it was possible to simply be sent a key from Blizzard (equivalent to winning a lottery). I was lucky enough to have a chance to play it in February, after five months of arduous waiting and multiple delays in the game’s anticipated release date.
Set in a medieval fantastic world called Sanctuary, Diablo is traditionally divided into acts. With the eternal battle between Heaven and Hell as the backdrop, the player’s role is to slay demons. The second game’s story, for example, focused on the hero chasing the titular demon Diablo to prevent him from regaining power and resurrecting his brothers, the other Prime Evils. In Diablo III, the big daddy of demons is coming back, and you have a choice of spunky Wizard, ravaging Barbarian, crafty Demon Hunter, stylish Monk or commanding Witch Doctor.
My choice was Wizard, and soon Lara entered the world with nothing but a wand and a Magic Missile spell. The flow, to those less attuned to gaming, is surprisingly simple. Pointing and clicking makes the character move to the designated spot, attack enemies, pick up loot and interact with objects. This is hardly news to veterans, but newcomers should feel pleasantly at ease.
Returning gamers, however, will find many more simplifications in the user interface. Gone are skill trees, in which you used to deposit points every level to unlock new abilities, proceeding further and further to stronger assortments of devil-slaying ways. You no longer have to distribute attribute points in statistics such as intelligence and vitality. In fact, out of a character’s portfolio of abilities, numbering up to 25-30, only six can be selected at a time, divided into categories specific to the class.
For example, after leveling up Lara a little bit, I could assign one left mouse skill button, Magic Missile, another one on the right mouse button and then one more in the “Defensive Skill” slot. I had to decide between Frost Nova to stop my enemies in their tracks and Diamond Skin which would temporarily encase the wizard in protective armor. Upon unlocking Arcane Orb, which launches a deadly sphere of energy at enemies, Lara blew through zombies, skeletons and countless other abominations with incredible ease. Once I crafted a stronger wand with the new blacksmith, Hell’s minions cowered at my sight. For a second. Because then they were blown to bits.
At first look, Diablo III is simpler and easier than before, but the promise of complexity is definitely there. While only few skills can be selected to use at a time, this will make strategic combinations key to being not only effective but unique as well. Further, each skill can be customized with runes, which create variations in every attack. Multiply this by nearly endless gear, five distinct character classes and four increasing difficulty levels, and there’s a game to last for years.
Timelessness is certainly also a factor to the Diablo series. Diablo II servers are running to this day and get patches from time to time. Will Diablo III servers be overrun by millions of gamers, risking crashes at initial release? Will the release make a bigger splash in the “real world” than elections, celebrity marriages and new phone releases do? Perhaps. I certainly hope so.