I had a chance to sit down with the Diablo III beta during the open beta stress test period last weekend. With less than a month till the game's May 15th release we're starting to get a real sense of how the game and in particular the five available character classes will feel to play.
Much like playing Starcraft II as a Starcraft fan, there's an immediate sense of the familiar when you play Diablo III. The basic gameplay is still here, and you spend the lion's share of your time playing clicking the mouse to move/attack/interact. The art style and third-person omniscient camera angle are still here, though everything is rendered in 3D. But just as with Starcraft II, the claims that Diablo III is just Diablo II with a facelift are ultimately incorrect. On the surface the game borrows a lot from its predecessors (including two entire classes) but under the hood Blizzard has clearly done a ton of work to streamline and improve upon the core gameplay of Diablo II.
Blizzard's games are starting to develop a loose kind of "house feel" similar to the games that come out of Valve. All of the company's games have a very different look to them and their own unique and fun gameplay, but there's a sort of unifying polish and attention to small details that serves as evidence you're playing a Blizzard game.
Some of the similarities between Blizzard games are just superficial; I'm enjoying the Monk class in both Diablo III and the upcoming WoW expansion Mists of Pandaria (check out my Mists of Pandaria Beta Impressions for more on that) but besides sporting the same name these two classes have little in common. No, what really unites Blizzard's different games is a dedication to refining gameplay so that their games are just as fun to learn as they are to play.
With Diablo III Blizzard appears to have taken a lot of the lessons they've learned about character progression over the years working on World of Warcraft and applied it to the Diablo universe. As great as it was, Diablo II could be an unforgiving game that locked you into a set of character choices for all time (or at least until you started over). While this gave a pleasing sense of importance to your character choices, it meant that if you made a mistake when leveling your character or if an ability you relied on was nerfed by a patch you were basically forced to start from scratch.
While Blizzard eventually released a patch that allowed you to retrain your characters in Diablo II, this problem has basically been eliminated in Diablo III. The new skill system gives you access to every character skill automatically as you level, but requires you to customize which of those skills you want to use. Since you can switch out those skills at any time, Diablo III takes away the steep punishment for making a bad guess about how to customize your character while still rewarding players who really want to optimize for the best set of skills.
That same philosophy (make it easier for the new player but still deep enough to engage hardcore fans) can be seen all over the Diablo III beta. Even simple things like picking up items and managing your inventory have been simplified, and trading items is no longer the hassle it seemed to be in Diablo II.
Of course with only a very early section of the game available for beta testing it's hard to say what the final product will play like, but playing the opening of Diablo III feels like meeting up with an old friend you haven't seen in years who turns out to be even more fun than you'd remembered. Hopefully Blizzard follows up that first impression with a fantastic game when Diablo III hits shelves May 15th.