Seeking Sanctuary: The Definitive Diablo III Preview

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Long-time fans of the series will recall Lachdanan, the heroic knight who resisted the evil that corrupted his comrades, even as Leoric's dying curse warped his body. There's no direct encounter with him -- Aidan released his soul back in Diablo I -- but you'll come across his journals in Diablo III and even see a ghostly echo of the murder of Leoric. Even the Mad King is as much to be pitied as scorned. Unlike his son, Leoric refused to serve Diablo, even as the Lord of Terror's whispering drove him mad.

His transformation from footnote to significant player is emblematic of the storytelling changes in Diablo III as compared to its predecessors. Blizzard wants Diablo III to tell a better, deeper story than Diablo II did. The good news, for those who prefer minimum encumbrance to their hack-and-slash, is that the details are optional. Lore entries are archived in the player's journal, and while they're worth a small amount of XP, players who don't know Lachdanan from a latte won't have to sweat the minor details.

So how's the gameplay?

In a word, fantastic. The game's mechanics have evolved considerably since Diablo II, and almost entirely for the better. Skills, for example, have been entirely redesigned. Unlike Diablo II, where skill points were invested and locked-in ever-after (until Patch 1.13), Diablo III's skills are entirely dynamic. Various attacks, AoE abilities, and passive skills become available as you level -- as do hotkey options. In the beginning of the game, you're confined to the two mouse buttons and a potion key; hotkeys 1-4 unlock as you gain experience. Players can have up to six skills available at any time.

Skills can be Active or Passive, with new passive skills unlocked every 10 levels

Unlike in previous games, you're free to switch your hotkeyed skills out in any combination, but there's a time delay before the new skills can be used. Unlike in Diablo II (post-Lord of Destruction), there's no fast switching between weapon sets; skill swaps are meant to provide this flexibility while the time delay prevents mindless min/maxing.

Skills are further modified by the use of runes. Runes also unlock as you level and change the function of a basic skill. The beginning Barbarian skill Bash, for example, normally knocks an opponent backwards. The first rune you gain, Clobber, changes the effect from a knockback to a chance to stun. Swapping runes also triggers a cooldown on the related skill. As in many games, certain endgame skills are on a timer and can only be used every few minutes. Skills and runes are linked -- you can't bind Bash+Clobber to one key and Bash+Onslaught to another.

The Hammer is her...erm. Nevermind.

All this talk of timers might leave some fans nervous that Diablo III eschewed D2's frantic gameplay, but in practice, that's not what happens. D3 puts a much greater emphasis on strategy than Diablo II did, but it does so in a way that caters to fast combat. Got a nasty group of Elites to tackle? Lead them down a corridor with a badly reinforced wall and drop it on them. Need a fast escape? If you're a Barbarian, you can use Leap to move between various levels in the dungeon, provided you lead the mobs to an appropriate spot.

Heading Backstage
Diablo III is poised to deliver all the slaughtery goodness of the original while simultaneously updating and expanding on D2's core gameplay.We've focused on the Barbarian in our screenshots, but we've spent time with all the classes and they're both distinctive and a lot of fun. Each feels different, and it's easy to see why Blizzard is talking up co-operative multiplayer--there's a lot of fun to be had in teaming up with others.

If all you wanted was a quick look at the game, we hope you've enjoyed this. If you want to know more about why we think Diablo III will be a great game, keep reading.

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I don't think I ever touched multiplayer in any Diablo game, yet I still put a hundred or so hours into each. I don't think my hands can survive a clickathon like they could years ago, so I'll have to pace myself, but I'm totally pscyhed about this release.

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Excellent preview of Diablo III, my friend. I’ve read scores of online articles about this game, but none of them have been written by anyone with the deep understanding you have of this franchise and the numbers behind it. I have been obsessed with the Diablo series for a long time, and I desperately want to love D3 as much as I’ve loved its predecessors.

Since the original announcement of D3, I’ve become increasingly disappointed/bitter about anything in D3 that seems inconsistent with D2. Changes in feel, style and game mechanics have really worried me. Last fall I reached the point where I was bracing for a Star Wars: Episode 1-like heart break.

Fortunately, I gained access to the D3 Beta in February. Spending 50+ hours playing the game has been nostalgic bliss, and has given me the chance to come to terms with changes to the franchise. I don’t know that I’ll ever reach a point where I can say my heart belongs to this game the way it has to previous installments in the series, but your article has been a big help. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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I'm glad you liked it. As someone who invested so much time into Diablo 2 relatively early in its life, it was extremely interesting to see how Blizzard evolved the game in later years. I have wondered if there's a reason why these schematics: have the name they do. I honestly don't know. I do know that some of the skills we invented for the Sorceress (Volcano, Frostbite) showed up in Lord of Destruction. Hard to say.

I have some balance concerns about D3, but what got me started on the road to modding Diablo 2 was frankly anger. I decided to start modding when I had a Barbarian character get one-shot in Hell by an aura -- Fire, I think -- and lose more than 4 hours of playtime XP.

Back in town I grabbed all my +HP gear, used Battle Orders or whatever the equivalent spell was to boost HP temporarily), walked back, and died as soon as I was in range again. Because the mob was on an island I had to walk across to continue the level, I had no way to get past it. I tried two leaps in quick succession, I tried to find an alternate route by using Leap to cross a gulf..nothing worked.

I tried until I'd lost the entire level's worth of XP; I'd been about to level up and was all the way back to the beginning. I started modding because I'd felt the game had changed from difficult to cheap. One-shot kills and the like aren't fun and they aren't challenging, they just leave people feeling cheated, at least when they come with such a penalty attached.

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Now I'm really looking forward to May 15!

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Life leech isn't a problem, it's a necessity. The problem is that ranged characters may be able to kill by kiting and take no damage, whereas melee characters generally can't avoid taking damage. Health globes are a great solution for random monsters, but boss fights are long and can exhaust the health of a melee character. Life per hit is good in that it doesn't scale too well with gear, though it does scale somewhat with attack speed. Lifesteal % is good in that it scales with your damage overall. This can be balanced as long as the leech % is kept low and in balance with incoming damage, but it is certainly a necessity, especially for the barbarian. From what I've seen in beta, life leech is under 2%, so stacking it would give you maybe as high as 10%, but I've only seen it on weapons. Normal is quite easy and the incoming damage so low that the lifesteal doesn't matter, so we can't really judge if it's a problem, we can only predict. I think it's going to be very easy to die even with lifesteal on items as a barbarian (which I plan to play primarily) and that we will need to rely on skills that grant healing on attack/crit/kill or that grant lifesteal (runed ignore pain) to survive tough battles.

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The problem with life leach in Diablo 2 was that it was the *only* percentage-based boost that tied directly to an absolutely essential game function (healing). Other % modifiers, like +talents that increased your mastery levels, or %MF, had an indirect impact. The reason LL scaling didn't work was because of the following: 

  • Player health scales linearly.
  • Player damage scales supra-linearly.
  • Life leech, being percentage based, is both stackable and dependent on weapon damage. 

It leads to the following situation: Assume, at level 20, you have 200 life and 10% life leach. You deal 100 damage per hit, which means you steal 10 HP, or 5% of your total HP per strike. This overwhelmingly favors fast weapons, because the value of the weapon is in how much it heals you per second, *not* how much damage it does. (Granted, this is not an absolute).

The problem is that your damage output will scale much more quickly than your HP. This leads to scenarios in which the value of life leech *increases* as far as how much healing you get from it, even if you don't increase the amount of LL that you carry. This was exacerbated by skills like Whirlwind, which hit multiple times per contact with a mob.

As you've said, life leech becomes essential to healing because Blizzard assumes everyone stacks life leech, and therefore increases damage output to the point that using life leech is the only way to survive. This is *not* an unbreakable chain, but fixing it required a different approach to the problem. 

This can be balanced as long as the leech % is kept low and in balance with incoming damage

In Cold Fusion, we balanced Life Leech by confining it to unique weapons, very specific pieces of armor, and Skulls. We also rebalanced gems such that Perfect gems were still useful in Hell Difficulty. The Forgemaster in Act IV of Normal (I forget his actual name)'s anvil still gave a variety of gem drops, and if you played your cards right and got a few lucky shrines / drops throughout Normal, you might end with a flawless or a perfect gem.

If we'd been able to work with some of the abilities that Blizzard added in Lord of Destruction, particularly skill synergy, we would've taken a further look at restricting LL still further. Wesson wanted to, I favored keeping it. 

Low, rare, life leech will not be a problem. That said, there *are* ways to balance without using it. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we got on Cold Fusion was that people greatly liked the difficulty because the game was consistently hard without tipping over and becoming enormously frustrating or degenerating into a mindless slaughterfest you could play with 1/4 of your attention or while watching ***. 

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Player health wasn't entirely linear. Damage went up with base item damage, multiplied by ED, multiplied by skill damage bonuses, and multiplied by aura buffs. Health went up with vitality and +life, multiplied by +%health skills, of which there were several. It didn't scale as well as damage, but people still had HP in the thousands or tens of thousands. Healing outside of life leech was rare and ineffective, and the only % based one I can find is carrion vine. Life leech only became a necessity when they made the game harder. Before 1.1, you could beat everything with just potions, but after the improved difficulty and addition of new, much harder bosses, even life leech from items may not have been enough, and a reliance on life tap became crucial to some.

It's possible for Blizzard to make D3 work without lifesteal, but I see many of the same problems. Globes only heal you after battle, which doesn't help vs bosses unless they spawn adds like Leoric. Healing abilities don't seem to scale with items at all, but I'm not sure if this is the case. It looks like Barbarians are stuck being dependent on life leech (or similar effects), so it has to exist at least for them, but it doesn't look like the other classes will have much to choose from, nor would they be as reliant on it. Either way, it doesn't look like lifesteal will get as high (for non-barbarian) as it was in D2, and it sounds like damage from monsters in Inferno will be pretty intense.

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Do remember that a lot of things changed in Lord of Destruction -- I explicitly note at several points that my data sets are old and that D2 evolved considerably. Skills like Carrion Vine didn't exist in classic D2. You are correct that HP didn't scale perfectly linearly -- the more accurate way to express the situation is that HP (including the max amount of HP you could *practically* carry before gimping yourself) was far more linear than life leech. 

There are no "bad" abilities, life leech included; there are simply abilities that are more difficult to balance and can distort gameplay as a result. Could Blizzard balance life leech in a way that makes it available without making it overwhelming? Yes. Certainly D3 contains more alternate approaches to the problem than D2 did; Diablo II's life-restoration mechanisms were very crude, particularly in the original game. Spamming pots (and later rejuvs) and an over-reliance on LL was not a particularly elegant solution.

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Love the review and thanks for all the juicy details about the mechanics. I can't wait to get my hands on this game and the fact that I will have some time in June to actually play makes it even better.

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Thank-you for being the one person on the internet that truly KNOWS Diablo when talking about Diablo 3.

I am so tired of hearing in Diablo 3 articles:

"The gates of sanctuary are open again and are calling all all the action lovers out there for another click fest."

We know its a *** ARPG and that it is coming soon... why do these people bother writing these articles?

Thanks again.

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