Diablo III - Beta Patch 14 Review
[SPOILER-FREE: This article discusses gameplay systems but does not spoil any storyline elements.]
Yesterday, Blizzard announced Diablo III’s launch date to be May 15, 2012.
WellPlayed first received beta keys for Diablo III in late September, in between patches 3 and 4. I played through it many more times over the past six months but it wasn’t until the latest patch that I decided to do a complete follow-up article to describe where the game stands presently. As of these latest patch notes (14), Blizzard has announced that the beta is “Feature Locked”, which I take it to mean they’re no longer experimenting with the internal systems and are polishing up and completing everything on their plate to prepare for launch.
In an effort to make the most of our beta keys, over the past week I played through the beta in it’s entirety ten times, including once with each class from level one, once on Hardcore mode (where death is permanent), and once with other WellPlayed staffers in a 4 man group. Each run starting from level one took around two hours to complete. While I wasn’t trying to reveal every corner of the map in every playthrough, I wasn’t rushing past enemies to get to the end, either.
- Difficulty levels
The only available difficulty level in the beta was Normal, and playing the game on Hardcore mode did not seem to make the enemies harder or more numerous, nor were the rewards any better or dropping more frequently.
Overall, the game has gotten slightly harder from the original version of the beta. My feeling is that it is about 10-15% harder. All enemies hit harder, have more health, and you can’t always just mindlessly grind your way through every area as every class (most of the time, you absolutely can). While I never died in any of my recent playthroughs, I have played through this content probably 30 times in the past six months and at this point it’s safe to say I simply wasn’t being surprised by anything. I did run into about 6-7 new encounters, named minibosses, dungeons and items, so I was still seeing something new every so often. I did get below 10% health three or four times in my recent seven playthroughs and popped a health potion to survive, but this was the result of intentional recklessness on my part. Engaging a final boss as a Wizard at point blank range with an AoE spell while blocking his two-handed mace with my face is obviously not supposed to be a successful strategy. While he didn’t kill me in one hit like a harder difficulty probably does, he can probably kill me in 4-5 hits on Normal difficulty.
Although my playthrough time was about the same as it was in September, the amount of time I spent doing things that I find fun (killing things, exploring and crafting upgrades) was probably increased from 75% to 95%. Many systems were streamlined and cleaned up and I just didn’t notice as many minor annoyances in these playthroughs. There was less clutter in my inventory and I spent less time managing it. Everything felt a little bit funner and a little bit faster. The pacing is almost completely nonstop just as this game style demands it to be. Overall, the slightly increased strength of the monsters and my slightly more cautious combat approaches slowed me down about the same amount of time that I had previously wasted fiddling with my interface and “Scrolls of whatever.”
- Skill Runes - Ability Customization
During the beta, there was a time when Runes were items that were collected and stored in your inventory and were spent to change spells in various ways, I think. I actually never played the beta while this patch was active. However, every version of the beta that I did play prior to this most recent patch had Skill systems that were clunky and confusing. They didn’t feel intuitive and I was constantly wondering what the best abilities were. At one point I had to swap my abilities only at set places, like the entrance of dungeons or in town. This made it really annoying to try out new spells and spell combinations to gauge their effectiveness and determine if I liked them.
The current system of skills in Diablo III is greatly improved and stone cold simple. Runes are simply a different version of an existing ability you already have. Some runes change the damage type of an ability, some change single target spells into AoEs, some reduce the costs or cooldowns of the abilities, and so on. Not every level will bring you revolutionary new abilities, but every single level from 1--60 will give you at least one new version of a spell worth experimenting with.
When you level up, if your new ability is an activated ability like a spell or an attack, you can place it on your hotbar and then you have to wait about 15-20 seconds until you can use it. This cooldown is in place to prevent the effectiveness of swapping spells from your hotbar in the middle of combat. You cannot cast spells from your spellbook, either. The Diablo III combat system is designed with the expectation that your hotbar is properly prepared when you begin a fight, but if you do make a mistake and forget an ability you want to use during a fight, you can correct it mid-fight as needed. The only penalty is a 15-20 second cooldown.
All of the Barbarian’s abilities either generate or require a resource called Fury. Fury is also generated when you receive or deal damage. Using your abilities optimally is a ping-pong minigame of building and spending Fury effectively during combat. As of this recent patch, Barbarians (and Monks) also take 30% less damage from all sources. This new perk was presumably added to make up for how punishing being a melee class in a game like this can be.
Overall, the Barbarian is a fun beast and to my surprise, lack of Fury really wasn’t an issue. The two best abilities I used were Cleave and Leap and both of these generated Fury in addition to doing AoE damage. The ability requiring Fury that I used the most summoned a bigass Hammer that slammed into the ground in a decent size AoE for even better damage than any of my Fury generating abilities.
In general, being a melee character can be punishing in certain situations in games like this. There are also some enemies that run away from you while summoning additional enemies - chasing these down can be annoying and if you’re not careful, they can lead you into a bigger mass of enemies than you cannot handle. While I find this to be great game design, it is almost completely a non-issue for ranged classes. Perhaps there will be different problems for the ranged classes to deal with that are a non-issue for the Barbarian. Perhaps that would be even better game design.
The Barbarian cannot use ranged weapons, and sometimes, when equipping a weapon with a much different speed, it can affect how you use your abilities. For example, I switched to a higher DPS, two-handed polearm and noticed my Cleave cooldown felt like it was twice as long. As I had been relying on spamming cleave through generic, easy opponents and barrels, I found this to be pretty annoying. Even though aesthetically I prefer two-handed swords, it was often more convenient and efficient to dual wield one-handers.
All classes gain additional Armor from the Strength stat. The Barbarian is the only class whose DPS benefits from Strength.
The Wizard class is a fairly straightforward class with one powerful twist. They are fairly squishy ranged spellcasters that wield spells from various spell schools that deal damage and/or control the flow of combat. The twist is that in Diablo III, Wizards do not use a traditional Mana pool that gets bigger and slower to regenerate over the course of the game. Wizards have a new approach to managing their ability usage in Arcane Power, a fast regenerating resource pool similar to the Rogue’s Energy bar from World of Warcraft. Wizards have a 100 Arcane Power resource pool which regenerates quickly at all times. All spells other than the Wizard’s Primary abilities require a certain amount of Arcane Power to be cast.
While it is hard to compare the classes to each other while only being able to reach level 13 in the beta, the Wizard feels like the strongest class so far. Wizards have high-DPS spells, multiple AoE spells with high DPS, an AoE stun and various damage spells at all ranges. I like the fact that she can equip two-handed swords, two-handed bows and crossbows, almost every 1-hand weapon, shields, and as each class has it’s own class specific weapons, a Wizard can also equip wands and orbs. Like all classes, the damage of her abilities scales directly with her weapon’s DPS. I found this to be very convenient while on the hunt for upgrades to my damage. I can have a two-handed sword equipped and find a one-handed weapon and equip it immediately, while also changing my offhand to either an orb or a shield. Overall it feels like they have great equipment options, yet they don’t seem to impede the effectiveness of her abilities.
Playing a squishy character means you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Ensuring that you reserve Arcane Power for defensive abilities doesn’t always come to mind when it’s easy to get carried away AoEing large packs of enemies at close range. If you happen to get too close to an enemy that casts a Fear spell on you, you can mindless run into a pack of hard-hitting enemies and die in a heartbeat - I’m sure this will be even more pronounced at higher difficulty levels.
While I didn’t feel limited in the beta, Arcane Power could potentially limit your ability to burst things down in the long game. You run out of Arcane Power after 3-4 casts of most spells that require it, which at higher levels that might mean that you are doing a lot more kiting than you might enjoy. It’s hard to say for sure because at the difficulty level available in beta, I found myself obliterating everything faster than any other class. I speculate that her survivability will not scale quite as well into the deepest reaches of the game, but her DPS will probably make up for it.
All classes gain magic resistance from the Intelligence stat. The Wizard’s DPS benefits from the Intelligence stat.
-- Witch Doctor
The Witch Doctor is an interesting class that approaches combat in a slightly less straightforward fashion. They have many abilities that summon pets and minions to attack and distract enemies for them, as well as multiple abilities that allow them to throw damage over the heads of nearby monsters to hit the high-value targets. Their damage abilities are ranged and vary in distance, damage and randomness. Describing the Witch Doctor’s gameplay style is difficult, but I’ll give it a shot: their playstyle is to make a ridiculous mess of the screen with all kinds of summoned creatures and hilarious animations flying all over the place while firing ranged attacks into the general direction of the chaos from a safe distance. There are definitely times where there are more creatures on the screen fighting for you than against you. While the Witch Doctor can summon pets, they have no control over them, and so the best you can hope for is to actively support the decisions they make.
The Witch Doctor’s primary resource for all abilities is a fast-regenerating Mana pool. Their Primary abilities cost so little mana that they are essentially free, as their mana regeneration rate is actually faster than their cost. You can spam your Primary ability and actually still be restoring mana overall. Most other abilities cost much more, like 10-15% of the mana pool. Some of their abilities have longer cooldowns as well, such as 10 seconds or so. The optimal gameplay as a Witch Doctor sometimes requires a little more care and forethought than other classes. It is easy to get carried away throwing all kinds of chaos at hordes of enemies, but when something goes bad and you’ll need to use defensive abilities - you could be out of mana and they needed abilities could be on cooldown.
One aspect of the Witch Doctor’s playstyle I dislike is that in bossfights, one usually needs to keep a safe distance from certain enemies or abilities to avoid taking major damage. Your mindless zombie servants don’t pay attention to this sort of thing and get themselves killed quickly yet you are relying on them to tank for you so you can deal serious damage. You can help them by picking up health globes left behind by enemies you kill, but this means you have to leave the safety of distance to run in and risk greater damage to yourself. If this all sounds counterintuitive, that’s because it is.
For example on Normal difficulty, your Zombie Dogs crumble to a strong enemy's AoE abilities quickly and you are forced to resummon them often in order to safely nuke from range again. It presents a bit of a gameplay challenge as the class is largely based on having summoned minions to keep your enemies occupied. You can switch out the Zombie Dogs spell for another spell, but if every spell you are using has a large mana cost and if nothing is tanking for you, you might end up playing ring-around-the-rosie as your mana regenerates more often than you like.
All classes gain magic resistance from the Intelligence stat. The Witch Doctor’s DPS benefits from the Intelligence stat.
Monks are designed to be a flexible melee class in Diablo III. Like Barbarians, they are comfortable being in the middle of huge packs of enemies, yet their power lies is in their ability to control the flow of battle and adapt to situations. They have an AoE Blind, many knockback abilities, multiple dash abilities to quickly engage high-priority targets and an AoE heal spell for the party. They are able to adapt to a greater variety of situations better than any other class.
The Monk’s resource pool for abilities is called Spirit. Spirit is similar to the Barbarian’s Fury pool in that it is actively generated by using Primary, Spirit-generating abilities, while most Monk abilities require Spirit to use. Optimally, the Monk will be generating and spending Spirit constantly to deal as much damage as possible to enemies while minimizing damage coming in to himself or his party.
Unlike Fury, Spirit doesn’t decay naturally. Unlike Mana or Arcane Power, Spirit doesn’t naturally regenerate. The absolutely only way to generate Spirit is by using Spirit-generating attacks on enemies. Curiously, Spirit doesn’t even generate as a result of hitting barrels or other inanimate objects with Spirit-generating abilities. However, I did notice on the Character Details page there is a stat line called ‘Spirit Regeneration rate’ (which was zero), so I assume this is either something gained through an ability or gear later in the game.
Personally, I felt like the problem with Spirit is that it doesn’t feel like an elegant, interesting or fun system. To me, it’s another system that will sometimes prevent me from being able to use my character’s abilities in the optimal way if a particular battle demands it such as interrupting an enemy landing a devastating attack or casting a heal. Additionally, the Monk is probably the most impactful class to play in a group, as you are always capable of adapting to your group, regardless of composition. Having an AoE heal at low levels isn’t something to forget, either.
All classes gain Dodge % from the Dexterity stat. The Monk’s DPS benefits from the Dexterity stat.
-- Demon Hunter
The Demon Hunter is a “glass cannon” type ranged character. She has offensive abilities to deal damage from long range and evasive maneuvers to escape dangerous situations. I would say she feels the squishiest out of all the classes yet in the beta doesn’t necessarily do the most damage as an expected tradeoff. I went into the Diablo III beta expecting to prefer the Demon Hunter to all other classes, but it ended up being the opposite. I feel the Demon hunter is the class that could use the most improvement.
The Demon Hunter uses two different resource pools for their abilities. Hatred, which is a 125 point resource pool, is used for offensive abilities. It regenerates naturally and quickly. Discipline, which is capped at 30 points, regenerates much slower and is used for exclusively for evasive abilities. The Demon Hunter also has Primary attacks that generate Hatred, giving it the best of both worlds from the design of the other classes - active and passive generation of their primary offensive resource.
The way Hatred is designed, with natural regeneration at all times in addition to active generation from Primary abilities, it sounds like it would be easy to dish out large, consistent damage. I didn’t find this to be true. By playing through the beta with each classes in tight succession over the past few days, it was easy to feel that the Demon Hunter stands out as the class that was less able to do significant damage either to single targets or for groups of enemies.
Perhaps the perceived benefits of having so much Hatred generation made it so her pure damage numbers were balanced lower as a result? Perhaps she just does too much damage too safely compared to other classes? Perhaps my testing is skewed by my playstyle? Maybe the abilities get a lot better as she levels up a bit more beyond the beta level cap?
I remember playing the Demon Hunter in early beta in September, and I feel like I was able to deal much more damage due to having access to abilities like Bola Shot and Fan of Knives.
I also wasn’t excited about the fact that the Demon Hunter is pretty much limited to using ranged weapons like bows and crossbows. It was nice they can get one-handed crossbows and use the offhand slot for a quiver or a shield, but realistically she cannot equip any other one-handed weapons because it disables most of her abilities. Now obviously this makes sense as she is a Demon Hunter and the class design is all about doing ranged attacks with ranged weapons.
However, when compared to how easily other classes can find and equip various weapons and immediately improve their DPS, the Demon Hunter sort of felt left out. Maybe I simply need to see more types of ranged weapons for me to fall in love with the class. Perhaps crossbows that regularly fire 2-3 shots in a cone at reduced damage or something.
In any case, I look forward to leveling a Demon Hunter deeper into the game to see how she holds up through significant levels and gear improvements.
All classes gain Dodge % from the Dexterity stat. The Demon Hunter’s DPS benefits from the Dexterity stat.
- Inventory / Quality of Life Improvements
‘Stash’ is a shared inventory space for all your characters within a specific game mode. Regular and Hardcore modes are essentially separated and do not share items. This system is designed to prevent you from getting gear easily in regular modes and passing it to Hardcore characters in any way.
You can purchase additional Stash space (14 additional slots of shared space to use) for 10k gold at any time on any character. Interestingly, if you buy this extra space in a Regular game mode, the extra space is granted to your Hardcore character’s Stash allowance as well. [EDIT: March 17th 2012 Patch 15 changed this after this article was written, modes no longer share Stash space upgrades either.] It still doesn’t allow you to share any actual items between modes, but essentially the purchase of additional stash space is permanent and account-wide.
There are no more Scrolls of Identify found in the game or needed. Rarer, unidentified items (yellows) can still be found randomly dropped throughout the game as well as on major bosses. These items are identified simply by right-clicking on them.
They also removed Scrolls of Companion. Previously in the beta, these scrolls when used would spawn a small critter at your side that would scurry around and pick up gold for you anywhere on the screen, but only lasted 10 minutes or so. While it was nice to have gold picked up automatically even at longer ranges, it was just another “Scroll of whatever” to me, something I had to keep a stack of to be as efficient as possible in my travels. Forgetting and remembering to re-summon my gold gathering critter wasn’t a gameplay element that I will miss.
Pages of Training were also removed, thankfully. Previously in the beta, you felt obliged to scour every bookshelf at every opportunity to increase the changes you would find one of these scrolls so when you got back to town, you could level up your Blacksmith’s abilities so he could unlock new crafting recipes. Maybe this is still a part of the game again in later levels, but in the beta at level 10, upgrading the Blacksmith’s abilities simply costs a a few thousand gold, and the price seems to rise progressively. Training your Blacksmith also carries over to your other characters within the same game mode, so just as with Stash space, you gain a small sense of investment as you improve Tristram as your base of operations.
The Blacksmith in town is the place where you can have magical items salvaged into raw magical reagents as well as new items crafted. Personally, I enjoy collecting a whole bunch of magical items, salvaging the ones not worth keeping and reviewing the Blacksmith’s recipes to see if he can craft any upgrades for me. Crafting is very simple as they also removed the generic scraps from the crafting process. Now, the only items you can salvage are magical ones and the only resources produced are magical dusts and reagents. These stack to 100 ensuring inventory management is always a breeze. If you put these in your stash on one character, you can pick them up on another character and use them to quickly craft upgrades. It is through this system that it is very easy to gear up your other characters.
- Auction House
There are two auction houses that each use a different currency: one using Diablo III in-game gold and the other currently using Blizzard BetaBucks. These BetaBucks will likely be replaced with your country’s national currency upon your successful purchase and registration of the game with your Ballte.net account. You can only have 10 items actively for sale in each auction house at a time. When items are bought or go unsold on the auction house, they are placed in a 50 item storage area in the auction house itself. You need to manually visit this storage space and move items back into your stash space before you can give them to your characters or resell them. I would love it if they allowed you to relist items directly from the Auction House storage box, but I didn’t see a way to do this at this time.
From the Sell screen, you can also flip through your characters individually and see their current inventory and equipped items. You can sell these items right off the character’s back or even from their inventory. The only catch is that you cannot sell items that are not fully repaired, so you might have to log into your character after all, just to repair the item, to then go back to the auction house and sell it. Honestly, it seems completely absent-minded for Blizzard to come so close to a perfect system only to prevent you from being able to repair an item as you list it. All it would take is an extra pop-up box confirming you want to spent X gold pieces to repair the item as you list it.
There are also a few lingering bugs with the auction house that I assume will be corrected before launch. When you place items on sale, they are not always visually removed from your Stash inventory every time. You sometimes have to close and reopen the AH for you to know what items you have already listed. When searching for equipment, the dropdown box to choose an optional stat to search for is filled with a lot of redundant effects, yet doesn’t even have the primary stats like Intelligence and Dexterity. The search options in general could use a little polish, the scroll boxes bigger and the scrolling speed adjusted. Most people are simply looking for upgrades for their character. There should probably be a one-button option that simply shows all items above or below your character by a few levels so you can consider buying upgrades for slots that haven’t been upgraded recently and to buy upgrades you will use in a level or two. In addition, there should be an interface that allows advanced searches to be customized for those truly interested.
I don’t know if there are any advantages to playing the game on Hardcore mode other than the emotional prospect of success in the face of unforgiving consequences for failure. The disadvantages as I understand them are that death is permanent and you cannot buy or sell items on any auction house. I’ve heard rumors that some form of auction house will be available for Hardcore characters when the game goes live but it was disabled for the beta so I can’t say for sure.
Hardcore mode doesn’t appear to increase the difficulty level or offer any additional rewards. It appears to simply be a drawback where if you die once you cannot continue. Because the entire game’s progress is saved exclusively to Battlenet, there is no way to save and reload your character locally on a disk like Diablo II. When you do die in Diablo III Hardcore mode, your only option is to return to the character selection screen, where you can see the ghost of your dead hero. If you are level 10, you can save your hero to a “Hall of Fallen Heroes” before deleting them from your roster forever.
While I enjoy rising to meet a challenge, I’m curious if a game offering more risk with no additional reward is going to be enticing enough for me to spend a lot of time with. I’m guessing this option is a lot more interesting in co-op mode with friends that can protect you. They might even be able to resurrect you, I’m not sure. I know friends can resurrect you in Regular mode.
Grouping in Diablo III is simple and straightforward. With their permission, you can quickly join and leave your friend’s games without interrupting gameplay. As soon as you arrive you can teleport to anyone in your group, as well as leave whenever you want. The game’s enemies automatically get stronger or weaker depending on how many players are in the game at once. You can even make your game Public, which allows random people to hop in and out of your game at any time.
One excellent feature of grouping in Diablo III is that each player sees their own gold and loot drops and they are not shared with each other. There is no competition with other players to see who can pick up items faster. If you pick up 10 gold, it is not automatically divided among your group. If you want to give an item to another player, simply pick it up and drop it again. Once you drop an item on the ground, your whole group can see it and anyone in your group can loot it.
Overall there appears to be a lot of ton of smart improvements since the beta I played in September. I definitely agree they have made steady and strong progress over the past six months, and once again Blizzard has shown that taking the time to fix their games before they release them is worth the wait.
Good luck to everyone on May 15th and I’ll see you all in hell!
- Written by Scraps ([email protected])
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