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Diablo 3 Retail First Impressions

Posted 15 May 2012 by

So, how are you guys liking the full release of Diablo III? Aside from some initial realm stability tech problems, it seemed like the launch went pretty well. Do you feel differently about the game now that you’ve put in 4 or 6 or 10 or 12 hours, beyond the limited Beta content?

This article contains no spoilers. There aren’t any spoilers in terms of plot details or the like in the screenshots, but most of them show things that haven’t been seen thus far in Blizzard released media, so if you want to see every area for the first time with your own eyes, don’t click to view them bigger.

Treasure Goblin trail.

As I type this it’s been 22 hours since the Asian realm went online, 15 hours since the European one, and 6 hours since the US server. I started playing with Elly shortly after the EU server went up, and so far I’ve put in about 10 hours, all with a Wizard who is now level 22.

I started playing in a two-person game with Elly on our live stream about 90 minutes after the EU servers went up, played about 5 hours straight then, put in another hour after Elly crashed, and then just did about 3 more after a break for dinner and decompressing. In total I’ve put in about 9 hours of non-rushing play time, and my Wizard is level 23 and most of the way through Act Two.

This article contains a variety of quick observations and general pro/con comments (mostly pro), without going into any specifics that might be spoilery. You can read assured of not ruining your first play through.

General Impressions

I’m very impressed, on the whole. The game is much deeper and larger and more varied (there’s an amazing amount and variety of dungeon tile sets) and more difficult than I’d expected, and certainly more than the training wheels Beta content led me to believe. If Diablo 3 hadn’t been so long and widely-anticipated, I’d say that Blizzard choose poorly by only including early Act One in the beta (and the Guest Pass/demo), since that content is by far the least interesting material in the game.

Elly and I went long enough in our first session that we were both getting a little worn down and exhausted from hunger, so it felt tiring and grindy at the end. But after I logged out and cleared my head, and starting making some dinner while sipping some champagne (if not on D3’s launch night, then when?), I found myself thinking about the game, about what I’d done, about the areas I’d seen, about how awesome the end of Act One and the start of Act Two looked, and I found found myself laughing — and not entirely from three quickly-sipped glasses of bubbly!

Once I had some time to reflect, and wasn’t pressing grimly onwards at the end of a too-long play session, I could remember and evaluate the depth and variety of the play experience, and think about what it promised for the rest of the game. (Which I’d hardly scratched the surface of.) And that made me happy. (Only for a moment, though, I swear. I got right over it.)

The happy was mixed with relief; relief that this game I’ve spent so many years working to support, and building a community for, and writing about… doesn’t suck. Not only that, but it looks like it’ll be really good. Obviously it’s too soon to speak of the end game balance, item slot machine function, build variety, etc, but the actual quality of the content and presentation and structure is excellent.

The attention to detail everywhere is great, the amount of lore and tomes and little side quests and events is awesome, the writing and variety of character types and dialogues is good (for a video game), the monster types and varieties and assortments and abilities, and level designs change constantly and are nicely-varied and interspersed. The world feels fairly real as well, and big — you don’t (entirely) get that sense that’s common to games and bad movies that your character is the only *real* person in the whole world, and that everyone else exists solely to provide you with an obstacle or a tool on your mission.

The difficulty and speed of action is really well done. Even in the early going Elly and I noticed that things were a lot hairier than in the beta; we had about 33% more monsters than we expected in the early areas, especially the Weeping Hollow and the Crypts, and while it wasn’t exactly “hard” up to that point, it certainly got real once we reached the Field of Misery just past the Skeleton King, and the next levels after that were challenging. We even managed to die, largely through carelessness, on the last surface area of Act One to a boss pack of Beasts. Their charge attacks hit for a good 40% of a character’s health at that point in the game, and when four of them charge at once… well let’s just say you need to not offer a stationary target for more than a second when such enemies have you in visual range.

The difficulty increased considerably at the start of Act Two; the monsters dealt a lot more damage, they had new types of attacks, sneakier movement styles, and they had a lot more hit points so they weren’t dying as easily.

Click through for more on items and the economy, monsters, and a few other quick hits, and it remains spoiler free. (Everyone hurry up and get through the game so we can talk about all the monsters and skills and strategy and stuff w/o spoiling things!)

Items and Economy

The leveling curve and the economy are well-balanced for your first character. I was constantly on the edge of broke as I tried to upgrade gear, train up the blacksmith, craft some goodies, buy rings (and amulets, not long after), etc. Admittedly, this will only ever matter for your first character, since every game after that you’ll inherit a leveled up smith, items in the shared stash, and shared gold. But for the first character, it’s a nice challenge, which you can at least get again by starting Hardcore, and/or starting out on the other realms.

By level 16 or so, fairly early into Act Two, Elly and me both started selling almost all the blue items we found, since we needed gold more than we needed materials for crafting. That ratio started to change once my Wizard got into the 20s, and I trained the Smith up to better crafting recipes with 3 and 4 random mods. By that level the affixes are powerful and varied enough to make rerolling an item worth the trouble, and the material costs are fairly high. The first rare item you can craft, the Journeyman Arming Cap, has nice potential mods but costs 19/4 (blue/yellow) materials to create. That’s compared to all the previous items costing more like 3 blues in total.)

Rare Amulet drop

As for item drops, rares remain very rare all through Act One, just as they were during the Beta. I only got 5 rares in all of Act One, and they all came from the three special event bosses (Leoric, a second special Elite, and then the Act Boss). Rares became more common in Act Two, and by level 22 I’d found maybe 8 or 10 rares from random monsters and chests, plus several more from the special event bosses. (I’m not to the Act Boss yet. I’ve never yet seen a Set or Legendary item drop, though my Magic Find is doing nothing to help, as it’s around 15% at best.)

Skills and Strategy

Obviously I can only speak to the Wizard thus far, and I have to do it in very general terms to avoid being spoilery. But really, the skill variety is enormous. Obviously we knew that from looking at the rune effects lists, but when you’re actually playing and experimenting with the different builds, it’s just crazy how many styles you can play with, and how quickly more options appear as you level into the teens and twenties and another 2 or 3 skills and runes come online every level.

Which skills you use varies greatly by the area, by your play style, by the party you’re in, by how much attention you want to pay to the action, etc. I also noticed a huge difference between going solo and with another person. In no way is Diablo 3 easier with two people, unless you stay so close together that you’re both hitting the same monsters most of the time. If you’re fighting separately, even just a half screen apart or so, it’s much more difficult, especially for a Wizard.

This is largely due to the Arcane Power resource. AP regenerates very quickly, and skills tend to cost a big chunk, a heavy drain per second, or nothing at all. There aren’t really any regular use skills that have a low, steady cost. They’re free, or they’re expensive, with little in between. (Medium cost skills tend to have long cooldowns and are not the spammy combat attacks.)

As a result of this the general way to play a Wizard is to mix no-cost Signature Skills with bigger nuke type skills that devour your Arcane Power, and to aim to kill off each bunch of monsters with approximately zero AP left. It will all regenerate in just a few seconds, so it’s almost always back to full by the time you pick up some gold and an item, and run to the next group.

That strategy gets very tweaked when there’s another player in the game, since the monsters have 175% of their usual hit points, and thus your timing is off. You do the same sort of attack you’ve been doing, and instead of dying neatly, the monsters all still have 1/3 of their hit points left when you’re dry and gasping like a fish on the dock. The Wizard therefore has to pace herself, use more Signature Skills, use more slowing and debuff skills, retreat during battles, etc, much more than when playing alone.

Slow Time vs. a Waller

Also, by late Act One when the difficulty starts to become real, defensive skills become important, and they are mandatory by Act Two. Even aside from running into large groups or bosses, numerous dungeons and in-game cinematic scenes past the middle of Act One set your characters right into a small area with a bunch of enemies, which requires you to very quickly deal with a lot of bad guys at close range. And that definitely takes a mixture of slowing skills, defensive skills, debuffs, and fast killing AoE.

Even when you learn to use defensive skills, you have to do it right. A real danger is when you use your defensive skills in a semi-emergency, and then find yourself in a real emergency with them on cooldown, or with no resource. I nearly died several times in Act Two when I used some combination of Frost Nova / Wave of Force / Slow Time, and then the Vortex or Teleporter boss/champions weren’t dead, and pulled me in or teleported right on top of me in their enraged state with my defense on cooldown. I learned to always keep a defensive or escape skill in reserve, and tried not to cast two of them right at the same time, putting them both on cooldown at once. (It’s awesomely fun to use Slow Time and then Wave of Force, but you’d better not get into trouble for about 10 seconds afterwards.)

I don’t want to get too much into strategy since it won’t make much sense if you haven’t played a Wizard yet, and I’m sure we’ll all have better builds than this experiment in a few weeks, but by mid-Act Two I found myself generally using two Signature Skills on the LMB/RMB, with 2 or 3 defensive skills and just one nuke damage type AP-spender that I mixed into combat for bigger damage to a single/few targets.

This was not the best damage output, but runes in the Signature Skills give them pretty good killing power, and I found that nasty boss packs, especially in two-player games, necessitated that I keep enough resource in reserve to instantly use two or even three skills in rapid succession for defense and escape. The beta play style, where a Wizard can use one or none of the Signature Skills (which are all free to cast) since you can one-shot everything with spendy skills, is not even close to feasible once the monsters start to hit back.

This is very good thing, IMHO. The fact that I had to think about my skill choices, arrange ones that supplemented each other, use them strategically, hold some in reserve for escape and defense, etc, made the play experience much more fun.

Ironically, the difficulty actually makes experimenting more difficult than most of us thought. With the rune effects coming in so regularly, many players (me included0 figured we’d try each new skill and rune effect as soon as they were available. I always did that in the beta, since there was no reason not to, and it was fun. It wasn’t like you needed to play smart to survive or thrive in the Beta, after all. In the full game though, that’s not going to work. You can not just toss any old skills together and blast away; not if you want to succeed and stay alive, at least.


I’d love to go into details on some specific enemies and their AI and other tricks, but I guess that would be spoilery. So I’ll just say that there’s a nice variety of attacks and AI types, and that returning ones that you might expect to be easy meat, like Fallen, probably are not. (Beware the Fallen Shaman; they should really be thought of as Fallen Summoners, or even “Fallen Semi-Bosses who Cast Really Damaging Fireballs and Stay on the Edge of the Screen out of Range while Creating new Enemies Non-Stop in Annoying Fashion.”) *cough*

Oasis scenery

The overall monster pacing and attack speed is nicely balanced as well. You get clusters at times, with enough open space between them that you have time to breathe. There do seem to be fewer swarm type events than I remember from playing late Act One and Act Two areas in Blizzcon demos in 2009 and 2010, and I miss those. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw that I haven’t had any of those yet, but I love the big swarms of enemies you get in early Act One, from the Matriarch’s Bones, Leoric’s Skeleton Pillar room, and especially the Jar of Souls. I haven’t gotten any quests or levels or events that felt like that anywhere in the game, since I passed the Skeleton King.

One cool thing that Leoric is the first example of, is the cage match style boss fights. In those the heroes enter a special level from which there is no escape. It’s just you in a small area with a special boss, you can not leave (not even by Town Portal) and if anyone dies they can not rejoin the fight until it’s over, or until all the other players die as well when the whole even respawns.

There are three of those in Act One; Leoric, a later big boss, and then the Act Boss, and more of the same battle format in Act Two.

Incidentally, I forsee new players getting almost as annoyed by those as anyone who doesn’t know about Elective Mode gets when they use the new Skill UI. Elly and me had done the Skeleton King a million times in the beta, but neither of us had ever died against him in an MP game. So she was surprised when she died against the Act One boss, and then had to just sit and wait, unable to rejoin the battle as long as I was alive and still at it. I won, after several very close calls, and even then she didn’t feel that she deserved her rares and blues for the battle when the game let her back in afterwards, as she’d not been there for the kill. (She was able to overcome that feeling in time to snatch up her drops, mind you.)


Glancing back over this somewhat disjointed essay, I’m surprised by how positive I am about most things. It’s my honest assessment though, and it’s colored by happiness, but also a lot of relief. I had high hopes for D3, but a lot of doubts as well, due to the overly casual-friendly nature of a lot of the features, and the very easy Beta test difficulty.

Most of those worries have been alleviated by playing through most of Act Two, and while the jury is still out on the later Acts and the end game skill and item balance (lots of fans are disappointed by the fairly bland Unique/ Set Items), I’m feeling pretty good about the overall game quality, skills, polish, difficulty curve, economy, etc. At least in the early going, all is well, and better than well.

I’m curious to hear what you guys think though, especially after you get well past the Beta content and can get more of a sense of what the full game offers. I’m even more curious to see the rest of the game myself!

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