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Diablo 3 Preview

With the release announced for May we take a look at the first part of Act One with the Monk.

Critics of the Diablo 2 may have been dissatisfied with the lack of atmosphere: yes it was addictive to play, but it was never that scary. Blizzard has made a point of creating the horror tone from the opening menu. At times perhaps it’s more B-movie horror, than Blair Witch, but atmosphere there is. I’m greeted to the Beta with haunting music and the cries of a crow. It may not sound much, but it is this subtle detail that is seen and heard throughout that creates a constant undertone of horror.

There are five classes available for selection, and all able to be played as a male or female character. For my first exploration I select the male Monk, offering a mix a quick damage and magic. Unlike other games, in which I’d then be taken to a customization screen to alter my character’s eyebrows and cheekbones, Diablo 3 jumps straight into the action, providing my monk, Raven, with nothing more than a loincloth and knuckledusters.

The game begins in Overlook Road, where a very simple tutorial tells me that left click moves my character and attacks. The area is littered with bodies of dead villagers. Moonlight highlights the corpses. As in previous titles the camera looks down on the character, but the interesting and varied details of the world are clear even from this distance. A battered sign reads New Tristram, so I head up the road toward it until I stumble across a group of zombies feeding on a corpse. My first battle is simple, the controls feel instinctive. A primary skill is controlled by the left click and a secondary, more powerful skill, to the right mouse button. I make short work of the undead.

Raven isn’t a silent character, and comments on his surroundings as I make my way up the road. He speaks in a deep Russian accent, well suited to his toned body and skin-headed appearance. He reveals that a star has fallen nearby which may well be the cause of the dead rising up. The tone is almost like the start of a Left 4 Dead campaign, with that sense of foreboding; the calm before the storm. Subtle music tones intensify that mood.

Arriving at New Tristram I’m greeted the Captain of the guard and enter a brief conversation. The voice acting is clear and matches the tone I’ve experienced so far. Serious, but fitting. Something isn’t right in the area and we need to find out why, but before I learn much the town is attacked by a horde of undead. In larger battles there is a greater reliance on skills. Knowing when to wait until you are almost surrounded before unleashing a Lashing Tail Kick is satisfying. Corpses fall to the group and crumple. At other times Raven’s Fists of Thunder deal lighting damage that result in a severed corpse continuing to fight on after having lost its legs. Its gruesome stuff that looks beautiful and feels rewarding.

Walking the streets of New Tristram images of the blitz mixed with Dawn of the Dead are scattered. The wounded line the floor of the tavern. Houses empty. People gather by fires discussing the curse the land is under. Guilt, horror and sadness fill the residents’ hearts. Raven has entered, and with stern Russian determination seeks to heal New Tristram.

My first task if to rid the immediate area of the zombie horde. Exiting town towards the graveyard I cross a bridge, the water rushing beneath my feet. For a moment I’m transported to the peaceful rural setting that New Tristram once was. Then rats scurry beneath me, fleeing the monsters who have risen from the graves. Even at this early stage enemies vary. There are slow moving Grotesques that explode upon death, unleashing leach-like worms. Other undead rush me in a group, like velociraptors, only to flee once their number has been reduced. Another foe, the wretched mother, summons more undead from the earth to fight me.

The monk’s fists deal damage to individual opponents quickly, racking up killing sprees that add to my experience gained as enemies fall. Loot dropped includes gold, weapons and armour. Experimenting with an axe and shield combination results in Raven blocking the occasional incoming attack and dealing significant, if slightly slower damage. Equally the monk can dual wield, a club and sword combo utilizes Raven’s fast attack speed, but not as successfully as dual knuckledusters. A crossbow falls from a destroyed barrel, but can’t be employed. Unfortunately only melee weapons.

However levelling up unlocks a dash attack to close in and root the undead to the spot. Combat can be a click-fest, similar to the previous games, and when surrounded by fifteen rotting, gnashing corpses it can get chaotic. But it’s always clear who the enemy are, and even though a constant connection to the internet is required, the frame rate doesn’t suffer when a large pack attacks, even on lower-end computers.

Attributes are automatically improved on levelling up. Instead time is spent choosing skills. For the monk, as I mentioned earlier, these include melee moves that make use of magical qualities. Be it punches that unleash lightning or send shockwaves through the air. Other abilities available heal the player or blind their adversaries. The use of these skills depletes the spirit pool, a commodity replenished through defeating more opponents. Rarely does it reach zero, unless facing overwhelming odds.

Each skill can be further developed by unlocking runes at higher levels. These give added abilities to attacks, such as setting the target on fire, or spreading poison. Each rune is accompanied by stunning visual effects. Finishing a fight and watching the corpses burn all around never gets old.

A unique aspect of the monk is the mantra skill. They act as a buff to constantly increase aspects that suit particular styles. Some benefit defensive options, such as healing and dodging, while others help deal huge amounts of damage. Unlike other RPGs, in Diablo 3 you aren’t ever forced to make one definite decision. Instead you can change between chosen skills, matras and runes, meaning you are able to adapt to the environment around you.

On returning to New Tristram a young woman, Leah, approaches me. Her uncle, Deckard Cain, has gone missing. He was last seen near the Cathedral, which also happens to be where the star fell. We decide to team up and head into the wilderness.

During this first hands-on with Diablo I’ve been charmed by the detail in the visuals, the gameplay and the music. Already I’ve been drawn in, and it’s pleasing to see that the latest title is as immersive and addictive as previous Diablos. Next time I’ll look at the follower system, the next part of the story and experiment with a different class.

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