An Hour or Two With the Diablo III Demo

In order to get all of the necessary picture content for this article, this playthrough was constructed from the body parts of two separate outings. If any situations in the pictures seem inconsistent, that’s probably why.

Here’s your disclaimer for this article: I don’t care about Diablo. I stopped caring about Diablo when I realized that “grind” and all its variants are bad game mechanics. For that reason, I’ll be looking for reasons to hate Diablo III. I will probably be correct. And for that reason, I am qualified to discuss the “open beta” experience, i.e. the demo. And yes, it’s a demo. Since we’re busy forfeiting all our consumer rights to game developers and companies at-large, they can now call a game demo an “open beta” and then revoke the rights to that demo. This way, rather than allowing players to spend weeks finding flaws in that demo, the company can let consumer interest simmer. The intense urge to purchase the game cannot be contradicted by continued playtime, and people get to find out the game sucks after everybody has purchased a copy. Welcome to game marketing in 2012, children. Well, as long as they’re going to give me three days with the demo, I might as well use them. Let’s be overly critical of Diablo III.

To preserve my own sanity, I’m rolling a Demon Hunter, described as a nimble and agile hero, which implies a lack of toughness, leading me to believe that I’ll have to kite anything that moves. “Click, step back, click, step back” should vaguely resemble some of the micromanagement skills required to play Blizzard’s strategy games. And as you may know, I enjoy playing those. (Well, it’ll look like the micromanagement present in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne and StarCraft: Brood War. If Diablo III played like StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, I’d spend five minutes poking for holes in a ball of 200 monsters, engage the deathball, and quickly discover whether I’ve completed the Act or should restart it.) Obviously, I’ll have to choose a name consistent with Blizzard Naming Policy™, which now classifies inappropriate name choice by varying levels of inappropriateness. Noted in the policy as “inappropriate” are names that “[c]onsist of language existent only in online communication”.* No problem. My friends refer to me as “xXDeMoNGoDXx” in real life, too.

To understand why Diablo III looks like something out of a storybook, look at recent company history. World of Warcraft continued the art design lessons learned from the cartoonish art design in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. After World of Warcraft became the face of the company, StarCraft II scaled down the series’ “gritty” and “realistic” art style (LOL!) in favor of an art design philosophy that could run on everyone’s home computers. Even if you haven’t followed the development of Diablo III, you expected the game to look something like this. And if you didn’t, joke’s on you. Now, the game didn’t have to look like dreamland. What you see in the screenshots is not the work of crappy screenshot compression or picture editing. The environments are simply blurry, from the lowest shade of grass to the highest leaf. Warcraft III had more fidelity in its environments than this game does. Fortunately, in these blurry environments, the game has the foresight to inform me when I’ve run into something I can kill.

That’s right. A video game is explaining that I have stumbled into a monster and the game is explaining how I should kill it. The developers who programmed that useful information fail to realize that if I’ve already operated my mouse to move far enough from the starting point that I can engage with the monster, that if the mouse controls something as important as movement, sheer intuition says that the mouse may also control combat, and that the player should click the monster with a mouse button. There is a reason that the game did not provide a tutorial for movement. It would be stupid. Subsequently, so is this.

Now obviously, the first couple of monsters are a warmup. That’s fine. That “feeling out” process is good game design, just as the first room in the first level of Doom gave players open space to navigate a room and get a feel for controls, for inertia, for collecting items, and even tease the player with a pair of open windows displaying a pair of unreachable items. (And on higher difficulties, the room cut straight to the bullshit and included monsters, i.e. “things that could kill you”.) Tutorials are best designed to hone introductory skills until the player gets it right, even if it risks shaming or humiliating weaker players. That’s a bit more difficult in the Diablo franchise, which makes it clear that death (particularly in the early-game) means you are a failure.

That explains the design theory behind the game’s first quest mission, which takes place right prior to entering New Tristram and talking to Deckard Cain’s adopted daughter Leah. Typical “hold the line” scenario, requiring players to stave off the endless dead, who were so not triggered by my conversation with one Captain Rumford. Not that we have much time to think about who is responsible for summoning the dead, because this is it, man! No going back! The dead are attacking! Fortunately, this is just training wheels. You’ll have allies to work with, and like most situations in role-playing games with computer-controlled allies, you’ll quickly discover that your brothers are far more powerful than you are.

Notice that my Demon Hunter holds the same pose that it did while the enemy was engaging. I completed the mission without pressing a single button. And it’s not even as though my allies provided aggro and distanced me from the dead. They all came after me, my Demon Hunter took a couple of hits, Rumford and the militia killed them. Rumford remarks that he’s never seen anyone fight like that before, and considering I’m the only person playing the game who is not rushing to collect the next shiny, it’s very possible. To Blizzard’s credit, they’re only using this formula in the starter mission. This gives them a serious edge over competing studios, who build an entire game around “LOL MY ALLIES KILL EVERYTHING DON’T WORRY ABOUT SKILLFUL INPUT” and call it Dragon’s Dogma. (I’m basing the Dragon’s Dogma comparison off of the demo. The finished product could fare differently, because that’s a demo. Like the Diablo III demo.) That doesn’t diminish the aggravation. Modern video games have this nasty habit of threading the lessons of non-interactive mediums (in this case, movies and voice acting) into a medium whose best works abide by the choices and decisions of the player. My pathetic, worthless level one Demon Hunter just got into a fight with pathetic monsters, and Rumford is characterizing my idle behavior as unprecedented mastery. While “you are so strong and powerful and you haven’t even done anything yet” has been done long prior to the original Diablo, it’s been taken to absurd lengths in new releases like Batman: Arkham Asylum (sequel included) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Apparently, the video game industry (and the players who demand this kind of nonsense) fails to realize that games should only tell the player they’re a badass if they’ve earned it.

Obviously, we have no loot worth storing, but access to our stash has been placed in a location where we will see it as we head towards Little Miss Deckard™, so it’s worth interacting with. The most interesting quirk? Not the ability to purchase additional slots for large amounts of cash. We know that Diablo III is designed to operate much in the manner that client-server netcode has, where players perform actions locally on their machine that are then double-checked by This allows Diablo III to provide the appearance of running smoothly while being tethered into the consumer rights massacre known as 2.0. So far, the only thing which has perceptible latency is the drag-and-drop feature for the stash, and given the history of item exploits and duplication in the Diablo franchise, I don’t think this is a coincidence. “Interesting quirk? There was nothing interesting about that.” Hmmm, you’re right. Sorry. Moving along.

We also run into the impassable waist-high barrier, long a bane of three-dimensional video game development, portrayed so sincerely in Diablo III. It looks even more absurd when you realize the house providing the impasse on the south side of the wagon is well into the foreground, providing the visual that player passage is only blocked by a rock to the west of the cart, and very poorly. I have two issues with this: Diablo (both its philosophy and its mechanics) were an homage to roguelikes, the genre that derived its replay value and brutal difficulty with random level and dungeon layouts. We can expect this trend of random level layouts to continue in Diablo III. So, what is the harm in allowing players to explore the world? The player is going to have to learn to do that anyway. Not to mention that there is little chance of the player actually getting lost, since they have a map that points directly to the next objective and all pertinent locations. Oh, I forgot. Diablo III is a casino, you can buy shit for real money in this casino, and Vegas doesn’t design their casinos so you get lost on the way to the slot machines, either. Not unless it leads you to the place where you buy twelve-dollar beers.

Leading in towards Little Miss Deckard™, a couple of compliments here: The level of detail in both the inside and outside of the building architecture, while not “supar realistics”, is markedly better than the fauna. This is certainly “Blizzard-quality”. Good lighting makes just about anything look better. The other praise goes to another aesthetic decision, the “trail of light” that accompanies a mouseover of any enterance or exit, a really cool touch in establishing transition from one building or zone to another.

But on to business. Why our conversation with Leah is being interrupted by the merciless undead, I don’t know. It’s tough to keep players on-edge in a “safe zone” with what is clearly a scripted enemy encounter, and one that poses no threat to the player. The difference between this fight and the previous encounter? Whereas Rumford and his men could carry the fight, Leah’s marksmanship is completely useless against the enemy. As in, “doesn’t do a single point of damage”. What one would call “a way of scaling the difficulty between two tutorial fights”, I would call “breaking the consistency of your game world”. In one fight, we learned that NPCs can fight back. In this one, we decided that they are simply for show.

Remember what I said about scripted events? There’s a whole lot more of these. We venture back to Captain Rumford and he asks us to jump on the Monster Cleanup Patrol. Shortly after, the undead plow through a barricade near the city gates and the fight is on. Know what really bothers me about barricades and carts? Think of them in the context of a time paradox, where “If X doesn’t happen, how does history change?” First time I caught onto this, I was playing Metroid Prime back in 2002, where a monster would run into the room and their demise would either lead to the creation or activation of the progress point (door, cliff, etc.) that I need to continue. Theoretically, without that stupid monster’s assistance, Samus would have been unable to continue forward and my mission to complete her mission becomes a total failure.

In five minutes of play, we have two separate examples. We already know that the cart blocking path to the other half of the city will eventually be removed. If it isn’t, Diablo conquers the land because I can’t access the other side of the city. If the undead don’t destroy the barricade leading towards Old Tristram, I can never get there. I don’t see another route towards the ruins. Yeah, it’s stupid. Oh, and “sitting on my ass” didn’t work this time. This time, the undead overwhelmed my character and I had to fight back. The lack of aggro from computer-controlled allies is still in full force. The undead immediately attack me and me first. Well, they’ve never seen anyone fight like that before, so I suppose they’re choosing targets accordingly.

Anyway, Rumford is sending me off to kill Wretched Mothers (sexy undead ladies who give birth to more undead through uncontrolled vomit) and the Wretched Queen, who probably does the same thing but drops a super-cool-awesome sword which I can sell for hundreds of dollars in the Real Money Auction House™. Twelve years after the release of Diablo II, eight years after World of Warcraft familiarized a lot of people with the fetch quest, the first real mission in Diablo III is a fetch quest. And people wonder why Blizzard is developing a reputation for creating the same old shit.

Other than that, nothing appears to be out of the ordinary in our trip through the first portions of the “overworld”, outside of the ridiculous latency for attacks coming from melee monsters, who seem to have no problem hitting my character even as I run away from them. (We’ll have to see if this is fixed in the full version of the game. This is a demo, after all.) Going back to the roguelike comparison, Diablo II‘s pseudo-random game world generation was a big selling point, providing a change of scenery for anyone who wanted to play the game more than once. My first suspicion was that the overworld is a little bit too elegantly constructed to be a randomly-generated environment. After consulting with the YouTubes, it turned out I was correct. The overworlds are no longer randomly generated. Presumably, this is because “exploring the game world” and “having passable navigation skills” and “anything that detracts from the casino mentality of Diablo III” are for casuals. And I know it’s early, but little has provided a challenge so far, since the pre-fabricated nature of the environment also lends itself to set enemy and monster locations, all of which have been positioned in small groups that can be wiped out one at a time.

Instead of randomized environments, the randomization now lies in which pre-constructed mini-dungeons the player is allowed to enter during his playthrough. This is presumably one means by which additional playthroughs are encouraged. The purpose of these dungeons is unclear. The monsters in most of these dungeons are no different than the ones in the overworld and there is little interesting about the dungeons. It’s tough to make the exploration of small, simple dungeons interesting, especially when they’re not dangerous. I haven’t even run into any palette-swapped unique monsters. It’s worth mentioning that I have already collected a journal entry, voiced over in the same manner as those in the BioShock and Batman games. Their presence in these dungeons would be most welcome here, painting a clearer picture of the game world through multiple playthroughs.

Scratch the “lack of unique monsters” thing. One of the random dungeons features this guy. His name is Sarkoth. He is a “Hoarder of Treasure”, and he’s easy to kill. His purpose in the game is to remind you of the real reason you are playing Diablo III: To give in to your inferior urges and hoard shiny shit. Blizzard Entertainment wants you to consume Sarkoth so that you can become Sarkoth.

Skipping forward and past the death of the Wretched Queen, it would be a good time to mention that the level-up animation is pretty god damn cool, sending out a shockwave and shaking any unhinged material strewn about. It looks like I could kill a minor boss just by levelling up next to it. Note that the game automatically allocates my attribute points, and I’m sure there is a fifty-page thread on the Forums complaining about it. After all, it’s a good thing that the developer usurps that control from the player, because the fewer options a video game gives me, the closer it becomes to a movie, and Star Wars was a movie, so that must mean it’s good. And no, “Manual attribute allocation added nothing to the game!” is not a valid excuse. If it is, that it’s better to guide players down a pre-set allocation because Diablo II character-building didn’t provide any options, you are pretty much saying Diablo II sucked. Just letting you know.

Also worth noting that in a game with a level cap of sixty, I’ve managed to get four levels in half-an-hour. Whether the rate of experience gain has been bastardized for the purpose of allowing people to “test the game”, it can’t be determined by the information we have. The more likely answer? In World of Warcraft, hitting the level cap was only one part of getting a powerful character. The second phase is acquiring good weapons and armor. Yeah, there you go. In the game where you can buy weapons and armor, player character strength is going to be determined by weapons and armor.

After killing the Wretched Queen, I have to go back and get Leah. I forget why. She needs to know something about her mom, I think. As far as game mechanics go, her purpose is to introduce unfamiliar players with the companion concept. She’s going to follow me around for a bit, and she is going to remain useless in combat. She doesn’t deal damage, doesn’t receive damage, doesn’t aggro, and she’s not prone to status ailments, as the player finds out in the boss battle with a “Captain Daltyn” in the cellar beneath Adria’s house. This is becoming a common occurrence in this game. The goal of any video game, regardless of genre or intent, is to suck me into your world, whether that world is a galaxy that needs to be rescued or a bunch of falling blocks that need to be neatly arranged. Instead, Leah is completely separated from the universe I inhabit, the one that tries to kick the shit out of me.

After wiping out Captain Daltyn, our next goal is to head to the Cathedral and find the Fallen Star™. Predictably, when we return from the cellar and back into Adria’s Hut, the side wall bursts under the might of the living dead, opening up the only path to the Cathedral. I am the cat and Blizzard is aiming the laser pointer. “Stop being so negative about the game!” I’m not being negative, I’m just being critical. And I’ll stop being critical when game developers stop thinking negatively about my limits as a player. A little bit of freedom in exploration would not hurt.

Into the Cathedral we go. Familiar territory abound, since the Cathedral is the first part of the game which is procedurally-generated. It’s pretty tough to tell, which means Blizzard must be doing their job. The generation of design elements that are not critical to the level design goes a long way in establishing the mood, since these unaccessible backdrops contain their own design elements, chairs and bookshelves that I’ll never get anyplace near. Exploration is often made far more interesting by the things that one cannot reach.

As mentioned, the level layouts in randomly-generated portions of Diablo are pseudo-random, since it introduces random elements and mechanics in an order that the developer wants me to see them. After all, the Lord of Terror isn’t spawning in the middle of the first Act. So before I even fight a single enemy in the Cathedral, the game wants to make it clear that I can drop chandeliers on the enemies of hell and that I’ll be rewarded with an “achievement” for doing so. Fuck achievements. Chandeliers are largely superficial at this difficulty level, since it’s not like any monsters provide a threat that has to be mitigated through more creative means. I doubt that this will change as monsters become faster and more difficult to eliminate with an instant-kill mechanic that (as I discovered while playing through the Cathedral) has varying ranges of delay before the chandelier hits the floor. Some chandeliers are higher above the ground than others, let’s just put it that way.

To my unfortunate disappointment, if you can bring a world of pain to your enemies by hitting them with an antique, one would think that you can do the same to yourself. You cannot. In-fact, the game appears to restrain the player from moving after activating the trap. It can be overriden, but the game does issue a stop command after the chandelier has been activated. “But why would you let the players hit themselves with a fatal trap? How does that benefit the player?” It’s not about benefit. Running under your own trap and hitting yourself with your own trap is one step in making your game world feel real. And yes, you can set it up so you can’t damage allies with the chandelier. We don’t want the carebear kiddie casuals to be placed in an environment where they can actually die.

And here, Diablo III pushes more opportunities to remind us what this game is really about. The first is a Treasure Goblin, which drops gold across the ground as I pursue it, and drops loot as I damage it. If you’re unable to kill the thing, it uses a Town Portal Scroll and heads on with its life. Once again, playing towards the player’s unbridled urges: “GOTTA GO FAST. GOTTA KILL THE GOBLIN. GOTTA CHASE THE DRAGON.” I used to describe World of Warcraft as a stick-and-carrot game, dangling the carrot just far enough out of reach that the player keeps walking towards it. The carrot now Town Portals into another dimension, never to return. I don’t know how much different this game is from Diablo II, but I feel like I’m playing something created by Zynga rather than a premier game development studio.

Just in-case you really haven’t figured it out, here’s a Fortune Shrine, which “blesses” the player with a random bonus for gold and magical loot. The Fortune Shrine is shaped like a penis. That’s the most useful commentary I can provide on the topic.

While not present in the screenshots, the only damage I have taken to this point in the demo has been in the pursuit of experimentation: How monsters attack, how hard they attack, how often they attack. I see no reason that a decent player should not get this far into the first Act without taking a single hit. There’s a lot of confusion on this matter. Act I on Normal Difficulty has been a cakewalk like few cakewalks. In defense of Blizzard, the developers have stated that the first Act is intended to be a tutorial, and that higher difficulty levels will up the ante. That said, they also provided a hilarious defense of Diablo III‘s Normal Difficulty mode at BlizzCon 2011, stating that Diablo II‘s Normal Difficulty mode was also ridiculously easy. In other words, “This game sucks, but so did the other one!” Of course, the entire concept of difficulty in Diablo has been flawed from its inception, since difficulty is more a measure of character strength rather than player skill.

To this point in Diablo III, everything is slow and it doesn’t hit very hard. It seems even easier for the Demon Hunter, who never has to put themselves in a situation where they are anywhere near an enemy. At level four, the Caltrops ability (floor traps that that slow any monsters which walk into them) makes enemies even slower. At level five, the Rapid Fire ability (a ridiculous-looking ability that transforms your crossbow into a machine gun) assures that no enemy will get anywhere near me. Let’s just skip to the end here.

In the second level of the Cathedral, I’ve stumbled into Deckard Cain. No, that’s not him. That’s the dude he’s been picking a fight with, and he looks way too much like Zombor from Chrono Trigger. I’m sure that I’ll be kicking Zombor’s ass later, but right now, he’s sending his minions after Mr. Cain and I have to save him.

Or, at least, that’s what the quest log says. Much like Rumford, much like Leah, Cain is just a placeholder. The skeletons immediately run past Cain and head up the stairs towards me. I did not have the presence of mind to get myself killed and see whether or not I would fail the quest if I couldn’t defend him. I’m sure that would not happen, and I’m sure I would continue to hate heavily-scripted gaming experiences. Saving Deckard was exceptionally easy, with only one entry point for the enemy (the staircase above Deckard) and few enemies to run up that staircase.

This leads into our first true boss fight with some dude named Headcleaver, and after one Caltrops, a little bit of kiting, and a whole mess of Rapid Fire, the threat that was never a threat is dead. And he dropped a cool bow. I can use that. This game rules. Diablo III makes Call of Duty look like Vanquish.

This is the world of Diablo: A magical asteroid crashes through a Cathedral in a game world where bad dudes are always trying to consume the world in hellfire and Little Miss Deckard™ dismisses the possibility that this may be connected to an end-of-the-world event, presumably before turning on her phone and calling “Unky Decky” a doofus on Facebook. Have fun with your “end of the world” thing. I’m done with this. I’m not going to draw an incomplete conclusion of the game from a demo and say that Diablo III is a waste. That said, if anyone played this demo, a single Act described by the developers as a “tutorial”, a single Act featuring a complete lack of challenge or difficulty, and came to the conclusion that they absolutely must have this game, then the End Days truly have come.