Thanks to day to day work and some real life complications, I’ve not had time to properly write up much of the D3 information I gathered at Blizzcon. As a result, aside from my Barbarian gameplay report, MedievalDragon’s Gameplay Impressions, and our coverage of the Barbarian and Wizard skills, we’ve not posted the this site has long been known for. That’s about to change.
I’ll be posting an articles each day this week, articles that will feature in depth discussion of various elements of the Blizzcon demo. Besides the demo info, I’ll be incorporating what we learned from panels, Q&A sessions, and personal communication with the D3 Team. Today’s the first and least of these reports, and it sets the scene with basic information about the Blizzcon demo, dungeon levels, gore and horror elements, and NPCs found in the demo. If that doesn’t sound like much, click through and be surprised at much much there is to cover on those aspects of things. Later this week I’ll get to Witch Doctor and Wizard gameplay overviews, and also address topics such as quests, combat, items, skill runes, active and passive skill design, the game interface and controls, critical hits, basic game strategy and pace, and much, much more.
Click through to enjoy…
Basic Blizzcon Game Information
The build at Blizzcon was set up to emphasize combat and leaping right into the action gameplay, rather than exploring a town or building a character. New characters started out at level 6, with all of their skill points already distributed across the three skill trees. Each character type had a couple of active skills set to their hotkeys, and various passive skills enabled to improve their performance. None of the characters were built wisely for the real game, where players will (apparently) want to specialize in just one skill tree, and will be spending all their early points in just a few important skills
Other factors emphasized the speed and action design of the demo. There were no NPC merchants at all. No one selling or buying items, potions, or anything else. The only potions to be found were health pots, which dropped very infrequently (I found 4 or 5 per character from clearing out the entire demo dungeon.), and even rarer were elixirs of strength and dexterity that boosted one attribute for 300 seconds. There was no NPC to provide item identification, but ID scrolls dropped quite frequently. There were no town portal scrolls at all though, and the only town portal seen in the demo was cast by an NPC. Players could not pass through it.
The demo was not greatly nerfed, but the characters were boosted. I was told that this was the starting area of the game, just as the D3 team has been playing it, but of course their characters start off at level 1, not level 6. So of course the demo was fairly easy; the D3 team wanted new players and media and others to have fun and kill, without it being so easy that god mode boredom set in. But they didn’t achieve that by nerfing everything; they just gave players a considerable head start. I found the Barbarian and Witch Doctor fairly easy all through the demo, but the Wizard was a struggle on the lower levels of the dungeon. Active skills were capped at level 1 in the Blizzcon build, and with a variety of those, and her not-very-powerful low level passives, the Wizard was quite fragile. Well, she was probably about as durable as the Witch Doctor, but the WD had Mongrels to tank, which made a huge difference.
The dungeon levels in the demo were quite small, compared to how large the dungeons are in the full game. Leonard Boyarsky told me that the dungeons in the Blizzcon build were 6-8 rooms, while the full ones are 12-15, or larger. The definition of “rooms” in this context is hard to express to people who haven’t played yet, but it’s not just one literal room; it means a square, a block of the randomly generated levels. A “room” as Blizzard uses the term during D3’s development is about as much as you’d see on oh, 8 or 10 screens. (Rough estimate by me.) Within those “rooms” you’ll find numerous individual chambers, stairways up and down, special event elements, traps, destructibles, etc.
I was also told by Leonard that players were getting through far more of the dungeons than the team expected. Players were given about 15 minutes per play session on the main floor, and the D3 Team didn’t think that would be enough to finish the demo. Leonard said they’d been playing it for a couple of weeks, and it usually took them 20-30 minutes to clear out. His explanation was that Blizzard employees were clearing out everything to build up their characters and find loot, while players were more interested in seeing as much as they could see, and they (we) were just running through things, skipping NPC conversations, not bothering to pick up items, etc, in order to find the stairs and move deeper into the dungeons and reach the Skeleton King.
Leonard also told me that there were two random quest events in the demo, and that they varied from game to game, just like such elements will in the real game. And he confirmed what I’d figured by playing it myself. The layout of Tristram was fixed and non-random, though the monsters found in it and some of the elements like clickable corpses could vary. The top two levels of the dungeon were fully random, including the quest events found in them, but the third level was a set design, with several events on the way to reaching the throne room, where you awakened and then battled the Skeleton King and his minions.
Blood, Guts, and an M-Rating
One of my questions going into Blizzcon was about Diablo III’s tone and mood, and how much gruesome background art and blood would be present. Most players feel that Diablo I was much more of a horror game than Diablo II. Everyone who played the first title has a very clear memory of how scared they were when they first heard the Butcher give his “Ahh, Fresh Meat!” battle cry, and the dungeons, especially the Hell levels, were well-decorated by bloody, naked, dismembered bodies on stakes. Diablo II had plenty of blood and gore and horror elements too, (check out the tortured corpses and moats of blood in the Act 2 Sewers and Durance of Hate on your next Mephisto run, and there are some nice gory wall decorations in Nihlathak’s dungeon as well), but it didn’t have the same sort of creepy, ominous, horror tone that D1 had.
The D3 team has often said that they were going to recreate the mood and theme of D1 more than D2, and that they wanted to make D3 more of a horror game. I was dubious of this claim going into Blizzcon, but was pleasantly surprised by how horror-filled D3 is. The tone was set with gore and corpses in the very first scene. New players started off in a tiny encampment with just two NPCs. One of them was a talkative soldier, but the other was a silent meat wagon driver who spent his time endlessly shuffling between a wagon stacked high with bodies, from which he kept pulling corpses that he carried over and dumped onto a burning pyre. The animation was great, and the bodies were very well drawn as well. They looked like corpses, bloody and murdered ones.
The mood continued as soon as a player moved out into the ruins of Tristram. The scenery was dark and oppressive, and no, the screenshots don’t at all do it justice. The floating, partially transparent mist looks so much better in the game than in the screenshots, where it just makes things look smudged and blurry. The black, gnarled trees, clusters of crows that flew away when the player got close enough to trigger them, dozens of ruined, blasted houses you could run through, bodies lying here and there, and small bunches of zombies to rout gave the area a great, creepy, doomed mood.
Playing in the Blizzcon press room with crowds of journalists around, bright lights overhead, the only game sound through tinny headphones, and my attention mostly on gathering information, rather than enjoying myself, I didn’t feel any tension or atmosphere. I still enjoyed the visuals and theme, and found myself wishing I could play it at home, in a dark room with some candles burning, and the sound up high. It would be shivery. It will be shivery. I just hope Blizzard doesn’t have to tone down the gore and gruesome visuals too much, for the ratings boards.
There were a number of nice set pieces elsewhere in Tristram that added to the mood. A human hand is seen at one point, clawing at the earth, before being yanked down into a dark cellar from which come horrible screams and a fountain of blood. Ghosts wander the streets, sobbing quietly and pathetically. Zombies are seen gnawing on corpses, and their moans and groans are very horror movie appropriate. The gruesome mood isn’t continued into the dungeon, but the design and graphics of the dungeon areas were very effective. They weren’t trying to be scary, but the monsters are so well animated and formed that they are threatening and very real. You want to destroy them, and even though the zombies you find early on are basically just walking experience pots, they’re loathsome and a little bit scary. I was again reminded of Diablo I, where even the weakest starting monsters were somewhat threatening, emotionally, if not from a survival standpoint.
The death animations of the monsters are well done, and they’re very visceral and bloody. Normal deaths are quite messy, with body parts breaking off in gratuitous fashion and blood spilling, but the real fun comes from critical hit deaths. When monsters die from critical hit damage, (which happens quite often), they get an extra special death animation. They literally explode, in appropriate fashion for the type of damage that did them in. You’ll see frost on the shattered pieces, or lightning flickering along with an extra nova blast, or flames charring the chunks of meat, or gouts of blood from the corpse explosion like critical hits with physical damage. I was frequently impressed with how much blood spilled onto the floor during battles, and the ensanguinated stone and scattered arms, legs, heads, chunks of rib cage, and various internal organs left lying around after a big fight was just awesome. (In the game I mean. Not real life. Do not want FBI visit!)
On the whole I was quite pleasantly surprised by the gruesome nature of D3. Much more than I’d expected, and more reminiscent of the mood of D1 than D2.
The Blizzcon demo had very little NPC interaction, and was not like any of the towns in Diablo or Diablo II. There were no NPC merchants at all, so players had no way to buy or sell equipment, purchase potions, or make repairs. These aren’t complaints since such actions weren’t required in the Blizzcon version of the game. They’re just useful for fans to know, to put the information into context.
There were several NPCs in the demo, though none were merchants. The most visible and interesting was Captain Rumford who functioned as the town greeter. The D3 Team has promised that the characters in Diablo 3 will be full of personality, and that the NPCs will react very differently to each of them, as part of their unique stories. This was demonstrated very nicely by Captain Rumford’s dialogue, which varied quite a bit between the three classes. (We couldn’t get enough game time to play both genders for all of the characters, so can’t comment on how much the dialogue varies from the male to female. It was fairly similar for the M/F Barbarian, at least.)
Rumford’s dialogues differed quite a bit, but in all of them he imparted the essential game-starting plot info. A flaming object had recently fallen from the sky and crashed through the roof of the Tristram Cathedral. Great evil had awakened since then, and the area was now overrun with monsters. All of the characters knew this much, and said they’d come after hearing news of the fire from the sky.
One thing I wanted to find out was if Rumford said anything different to players who returned to town after completing a quest. There were no town portals in the Blizzcon demo, and since dead characters respawned at the last checkpoint reached in the dungeon, the only way to go back to town was to run all the way up through the dungeon, and then through ruined Tristram. That wasn’t the best expenditure of our limited play time, and in any event, the Blizzcon demo ended when the Skeleton King was defeated, so there was no time to see if Rumford had any witty remarks to share upon that event.
Mr. Meat Wagon
Besides Rumford, there was a meat wagon driver in the town area. He had no important dialogue, but did a nice job setting the mood as he shuffled between the wagon and a blazing fire pit, carrying bleeding corpses from the wagon and throwing them onto the pyre. The bodies he produced came from behind the wagon, out of sight of the player, and when he threw them down on the other bodies on the fire they landed in the rear, again our of sight. So no, you don’t actually see the pile of corpses in the wagon decrease, nor the pile on the fire grow. But it’s a nice piece of animation and the background art is great. The screenshots don’t do it justice, since you don’t get the visuals of the floating mist over all of Tristram, the crackling fire, the flames flickering up around the bodies, the thudding sounds of the corpses as they’re dropped, etc
Moving into the ruined Tristram, there was a nice piece of scripted visual. A human arm is seen reaching up from an open cellar, and as the player watches the hand clutches at the ground as panicked screams burst forth. The hand is then yanked down into the cellar while ferocious, bestial sound effects play, and a fountain of blood squirts out of the cellar, splatting down on the dark earth. The cellar isn’t clickable; you can’t go down and fight whatever claimed the human, but it’s a great little visual.
Another NPC (sort of) found in the town is a wandering female ghost. Her graphics are very impressive in the game, with great transparency and subtle colors. She can’t be clicked on or interacted with, and just wanders along, moaning and wailing about how “She’s lost down there. She’ll never find her way without the doll.” This section shows off one of the nice sound/dialogue techniques in D3, since you can see the ghost from a distance, but you can’t hear her words unless/until you are standing very near her. This ghost’s daughter is seen later on in the demo, when the quest is finished. More on that in the quests section.
There was also an injured villager found near the entrance to the Tristram Cathedral. He essentially recreated the opening quest from Diablo I, telling of a powerful monster within who must be destroyed. The Skeleton King, this time, when it was the Butcher in D1. (The Skeleton King was a later quest in that game.)
The scene is more fun in D3, since when you find the man he’s being gnawed on by three zombies, who are squatting around his almost-corpse and enjoying the tender parts. Once you destroy the zombies the man is clickable, and when given the chance he gasps out his last words, warning of the power of the awakened Skeleton King. Your character says a few words about avenging his death, and here again the dialogues differ between the classes. Not that much though, since it’s just a short “You will be avenged.” type remark.
An interesting sort of quest that presented story info was found shortly after entering the dungeon. When walking along one level, two human monster could be seen down below. One who looks like some type of Dark Cultist is seen standing and waiting, while the other, who is basically an Igor-type minion, runs up. Igor is excited, shouting about having at last found some sort of magical item. The Cultist gloats, and says something about how they can use this to finally awake him, or call him back from his sleep.
The conversation hints at the awakening of the Skeleton King, and you can read more about this in the section on quests. The dialogue is entirely optional to listen to, and it can only be heard while your character is within about half a screen of the two monsters/NPCs. You can hang around on the passageway above them and listen, or run off and kill monsters. It’s up to you. There’s no way down to their passageway at that point, and it’s fairly clear, even to a brand new player that there’s information being presented here, that you may or may not choose to listen to. You encounter these monsters again, later in the demo.
Lost NPC Fighters
Another quest in the Blizzcon demo was a sort of escort quest. While working through the dungeon, the player comes upon a swarm of monsters working over a fallen human. After engaging and destroying the zombies and skeletons, the human gets up and announces that he’s a commanding solder (didn’t get his name) who was cut off from his men. He asks your help in rejoining them, and follows you as you run away. Not too far away you find half a dozen of his men fighting off a large mob of monsters. You and the commander join the battle and his men shout a welcome and give cries of encouragement as the battle rages. The NPC warriors look like the ones we’ve seen in other screenshots, like this one.
Once the monsters are cleared out the commander thanks you for your help, and then he and his men vanish through a town portal that you can not pass through yourself. It’s a bit insulting; “Thanks for saving us, but we’re going to leave you here to die while we head back to town, ale, and whores now. Kthxbye!”