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Though every cocky conspiracy theorist this side of Irvine, California was telling us that this announcement was inevitable, in reality you can only try to predict Blizzard's plans, as their lips remain sealed until the moment when rumour and conjecture become reality.
Diablo III is the real, true-blood sequel to Diablo 2 and its expansion, Lord of Destruction. For those who joined the Blizzard fanbase with World of Warcraft, Diablo is a popular hack 'n' slash series where you slice up hordes of monsters, gaining experience in a multitude of randomly generated and static dungeons. These games are all about epic, large-scale battles with you (and maybe a pal or two) in the centre, or on top, of a pile of corpses. Essentially, it's the isometric megainstance from hell.
If It Ain't Broke...
"The core philosophies of this game are based on what we did with the franchise so far, and that's our launching point," explains Brian Morrisroe, self-confessed Diablo fanboy and Diablo Ill's art director. "At the same time, it's been a while since we launched Lord of Destruction. The fans are expecting new things, and we're going to give them a fresh, fun experience. Things like the new classes, animated environments, the 3D engine and the new health globe system really freshen up the experience."
Said health globe system replaces piles of potions with glowing red orbs, dropped by slain enemies, that heal you and anyone near you when they're touched. This makes the game more mobile and in co-operative situations lets you save your partner from a quick death, rewarding those who keep close to each other.
While this sounds like a naff idea on paper, it fits well into the Diablo system. You'll spend more time fighting across the battlefield than hoping you've hotkeyed your potions. And more importantly, it removes the slog of having to go to town to replenish your stocks of healing potions. The orbs are intended to keep you in the place you want to be - the thick of a gigantic battle.
Another trick Blizzard have up their sleeves is a destructible, animated environment - even if much of the dungeon design will remain as randomly-generated as ever. Players can bring walls down upon enemies and smack them off bridges. Pots shake as you stomp the floor and explosions blow up furniture. "We're really hoping to push the interactive environments throughout the game as a true tactical motif. It's something we committed ourselves to early on in development, because we wanted to bring them to life and make them a core part of the experience," beams Morrisroe.
Though details of the story are light on the ground, we do know that it's been 20 years since the Archangel Tyrael destroyed the corrupted Worldstone at the end of Lord of Destruction. This event was supposed to ensure that the forces of Hell were released upon mankind, but this apocalypse didn't pan out. As nobody has heard from the Archangel since, no-one believes the ramblings of the now-aged Deckard Cain and everything has turned into a somewhat baffling legend. But it's fair to guess that mankind hasn't seen the last of those hellish brutes this time round.
Blizzard's challenge now is to successfully refresh the series without removing what makes it Diablo. "Everything we do is about staying true to the franchise. Across the board, we want to keep it old, but bring a new life to it," nods Morrisroe. And like it or not, Diablo is a series that has always succeeded in doing the basic hack and slashery well, as proven by the various pretenders over the years that have lacked the special quality that has made your correspondent play through the single-player campaign of Diablo 2 eight times.
Leaving the interview, Morrisroe and I exchange a final pleasantries, and he notices my shaking hands and glazed expression. He just grins at me and says, "Man, I wish you could play it. If you liked Diablo II, you're going to love this."
I certainly think I might.
Witchdoctor has arrived
Diablo 3's first new class
Diablo Ill's first announced new class is The Witchdoctor (shown off alongside Diablo /fs Barbarian), a pet class with a few tricks of its own.
Hopefully different from the annoying bastards from act three of Diablo 2, they're able to summon weird little creatures that can lie detonated at will, or buffed to do a little more damage. You can also raise a gigantic totem pole alx)ve your head, terrifying enemies and scattering them across the battlefield. If you're good those fleeing may even collide with another Witchdoctor skill, the Wall of Zombies. Much like Diablo Il's Necromancer Bone Wall, you can use it to block any one area with a wall of tearing, clawing undead.
As well as these base abilities, he's able to do your classic damage-overtime moves, as well as make enemies attack each other in a fit of madness, and, of course, blow things up with gigantic f ireballs.
How he'll fit in with the similar-ish Necromancer (who I hear is still a part of the game) is not immediately obvious, but we're sure that Blizzard will find a way to define each class with their usual astuteness.
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Say Hello To the monk, the recently revealed Diablo III class who rather than sitting cross-legged in a hill-top monastery, is far more likely to slap you 100 times in a second before appearing behind you and kicking you in the arse. That's his trick, and he sidles up to the three revealed classes - the Barbarian, Witch Doctor and Wizard - filling the fourth slot on the Diablo III character selection screen and shuffling next to the question mark obscuring the yet-to-be unveiled fifth guy.
While my peers sipped champagne with a man dressed as the Licli King (Blizzard's stand in Cologne was celebrating the launch of BlizzCon on the other side of the planet), I instead resigned myself to the booth's back room, where machines running Blizzard's click-a-thon were duly whirring away, oblivious to the frivolities happening all around them.
The guest on show involved finding a path to the doomed city of Alcarnus, through a desert with menacing location names like The Howling Plateau and The Scything Winds.
The ambiguously titled Fallen formed the desert's cannon fodder enemy, small impish creatures wielding clubs and short swords who'd attack in packs of around 12. Occasionally they'd be led by a mage who'd attempt to resurrect fallen Fallen, but these creatures are little more than the area's XP bubblewrap. The real menaces are the dune dervishes, whose whirling blades force you into a hasty retreat. There was also something big that tore me to bits far too quickly for me to notice what it was.
The monk himself is a melee combat specialist, less lumbering than the rippling mass of twitching muscle that's the barbarian, blit more physically able than the other two spellcasters, and potentially more gory than the rest combined. His main attack (at level 12 at least, the point at which I was allowed take lip the reins) is the Exploding Palm, which I will now discuss in excruciating detail because honestly, I haven't played anything like Diablo since completing Divine Divinity and, when it conies to clicking on things to make them dead, I'm feeling a little underqualified.
Exploding Palm is a three-part attack, the first part landing a blow to the tune of 40% of your weapon's maximum damage. Part two does the same, but at 60% of your maximum damage. Part three is where things get interesting, causing bleeding for 70 seconds on your chosen target and, if they succumb to your onslaught, causes them to explode in a rapidly expanding hemisphere of globulous blood, stringy, burnt flesh and bony shrapnel. Absurdly, that's the third click of one of your most basic attacks - a move that makes enemies disintegrate with explosive force, taking out bystanders and leaving a wide, bloody smear across the floor. The sort of spectacle usually reserved for a high-end, mana-sapping superpower in other games happens pretty much on every third click of the left mouse button in Diablo III, and needless to say, you'll be seeing a lot of it.
Driving my monk onwards, I happen upon a quest from Poltahr the treasure hunter. This would lead me into some underground ruins to retrieve the idol of Rygnar with the cheering, blood-thirsty Poltahr in tow. Loot spewed from downed enemies. Unidentified skullcaps and magical swords (unequippable by the monk class, who uses two-handed staffs) were left littering the dungeon floor. I wasn't interested in vendor junk, given the time I had, but sifting through the detritus threw up some nice finds. My Monster Clutches gloves gave me a 13% increased chance of finding magical items, while my "Amulet of Devouring" awarded me one life point per hit. Which was nice.
The monk's defensive abilities are highlighted in the class's cinematic introduction. His Impenetrable Defense skill protects him from damage for three seconds while he spins his staff about in all directions. This is replaced later by Inner Sanctuary, which paints a ring around the monk into which enemies can't enter, creating breathing space while you dish out area-of-effect attacks without fear of retribution. Retrieving the idol of Rygnar and completing the quest levelled me up - an event that carries with it a shockwave that lops limbs from enemies - and I dropped my new skill point into Way of the Hundred Fists. Similar to the monk's basic attack, this is made up of three parts: a dash, six rapid-fire hits (not 100, the lying bastards) and then a radial attack hitting all nearby enemies for 80% weapon damage.
Use this inside your Inner Sanctuary and, if you're anything like me, you'll feel pleased that you've managed to thread two abilities together. I looked around to see if any impressed developers were nodding in appreciation, instead a sad-looking woman in a Blizzard T-shirt took my beer away and told me off for bringing it into a room full of electronics.
Talking in such detail about the intricately balanced skillset detracts from the visceral thrill of simply playing Diablo III though, and to an extent (especially as the barbarian) you can run through the game without paying attention to your buffs.
The old stereotypes prove true: Diablo III is a game about clicking. Click to attack, click to move, click to pick up items and gold. Attacks are bound to the left and right mouse buttons, with buffs and spells laid out across the number keys, while the tab key swaps in a third attack skill to replace whatever's bound to the right mouse button.
Simplicity is what drives Diablo III. It's an immediately engaging adventure, now bolstered by the fine detail covering every inch of its world and the weightier narrative given to each of the character classes. They're a chatty bunch now, with NPCs responding appropriately to the class you've chosen. Wizards aren't trusted, while Barbarians are feared. The monk's a brooding sort, but no matter what class you choose you can be certain thousands of hovering exclamation marks will want your attention.
Crumbling architecture brings a level of physicality to your more powerful abilities, while swarms of enemies demonstrate the game's brutality and gore. Blasting a host of enemies from a bridge using Way of the Hundred Fists never fails to satisfy, and though you'll wonder how half the masonry you encounter has managed to stay upright for as long as it has (especially when a stiff breeze seems to be all that's needed to bring things tumbling down), the flashy physics are a welcome spectacle -even if the isolated way in which they're employed can be off-putting.
Diablo III is not a tectonic shift forwards for the click-a-thon genre, rather it's a refined, updated stab at it. And with the series' revival Blizzard will undoubtedly lead the genre with as much authority as they demanded from us almost a decade ago. What's really astounding is how effortless they've made it all look.
If You Listened diligently during all the huff and puff over the release of StorCraft II, you might've heard latent buzz of 100,000 abandoned dungeon crawl fans whinging in unison.
Spaceships and zerglings are all very well, but what about the lovely way loot springs from a chest in Dioblo II? What about defensive walls made of zombies, tumbling masonry, fat blokes that explode into a floor of slithering snake-gut things? Where is the hack and slash we were promised back in the misty days of 2008? Whither the Barbarian? When shall the Witch Doctor create skinless mongrels then explode them next to a crowd of skellingtons? Well, when it's done.
As ever. But Diablo III is probably most likely to emerge at this time next year -the exact timing of which should be outlined over the course of BlizzCon in October.
Much like StarCraftll, Diablo III may not prove the future of gaming, but it will be a supremely polished and honed update of its past. It will also, no doubt, come with some fairly snazzy online options in its ties to Battle, net to make your co-op adventuring sing.