Blizzard's President, Mike Morhaime, did his usual event speech following the introduction of the pro gamers who were attending the event to take part in the numerous tournaments over the two days. You could feel the tension in the room, time was running out for an announcement but finally Mike introduced Diablo III as those famous Diablo intro guitar chords were played live across the hall. A cheer roared out from the audience. The introduction movie played and the cinematics were everything you would expect from the awesome Blizzard Film Department. Blizzard are keen to stress that Diablo III is about action, being able to hop on for a complete blast, it's not a complete time-sink like World of Warcraft. This is an action RPG.
The Diablo franchise, of course, is the infinitely replayable action-RPG that helped popularize frenetic combat, randomized maps and loot and (in the case of Diablo II and Battle.net) popularized co-op gameplay years before it became the hot industry buzzword. Diablo III takes place ten years after the events of the original game. Many of the warriors who faced down evil so many years ago are either dead or insane, and the vast majority of the populace doesn't even know how much danger they were in. Now as evil begins to rise again, Blizzard is looking to put a whole bunch of deadly new toys in the hands of gamers. Mike Morhaime is on stage introducing Jay Wilson as the lead designer for the game. He wants to know if we want to go "pound some demons." Judging by the response, the answer would seem to be "yes."
The large screens overhead light up and I feel a familiar sting in my chest and my wrist. The first is a gasp of recognition as I recognize the first true new Diablo images in eight years. There's an almost naked fighter wielding two axes standing in a 3D isometric representation of a haunted cathedral. There's the red health and blue mana orbs and here goes the warrior using a jumping attack to rain down death and destruction on a large group of demons. The second is from my wrist as I remember the pain this game caused through the repetitive motions of pounding approximately 2 kazillion demons to death. Ah, Diablo, it's good to see you again. You look great!
Actually, it does. In the eight years since Diablo II was released graphics technology has come a long way and Diablo III shows it. The game's color scheme is striking but somewhat unusual for a Blizzard game. Unlike the Warcraft franchise or even StarCraft, Diablo II's color scheme tends toward darker shades -- more shadows and distinct but muted colors. The graphics also have a diffuse, almost brushstroke-like quality about them, rather like many of the Renaissance oil painting found in the Louvre here in Paris. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Blizzard held their third World Wide Invitational here.
The presentation continues as the fighter spins like a death-dealing dervish to the cheers of the crowd. It's settled, then: this is the Barbarian using a Whirlwind ability, a fan favorite making a return appearance. As Wilson continues speaking and the game demonstration moves on, it becomes clear that there are some new -- and hopefully welcome -- differences. The new "hotbar" making its way over from World of Warcraft is part of a conscious decision to make the game's combat more tactical (though just as fast-paced) and each of the game's classes distinct. While there will still be health potions in the game, new "health orbs" that drop from creatures along with ready access to skills mean that combat is no longer a game of attrition (and clicking, clicking, clicking!) but more a matter of the ability to read the combat terrain, understand the enemies who have spawned and utilize tactics really fast to pound opponents into goo.
Naturally, anyone who's spent any time at all playing a Diablo game knows that slaughtering a million billion demons is much more fun when done with a friend, therefore Wilson finds one for our barbarian hero. It's a witch doctor, one of the game's new classes. The witch doctor looks exactly the way one would think he should look -- loincloth, hoodoo mask, feathers, bangles and beads.
He also sports more than a few tricks to make him more than equal to the hordes of demons running around on screen. He casts locust swarms on enemies that chew the flesh from their bones, can summon "mongrel" beasts to serve as meat shields that can be buffed with the locusts, he casts a fear spell the looks like a pretty impressive form of crowd control and can use a slow-casting "fire bomb" spell to blast disoriented opponents. Wilson saves his coolest ability until last, though -- the "Wall of Zombies." This is just as it sounds -- an interlocked wall of undead that remains stationary but flails and damages anything that comes near it.
As the on-screen demonstration begins to wind down, Wilson summons two more friends for a final battle, distaff versions of the barbarian and the witch doctor. Their victim of choice turns out to be some gigantic moving trees. It's pretty cool and there's lots of action but I can't help but be a bit disappointed. I'd hoped for something better to close out the presentation. Then it happens. After the trees are down, something comes trampling through the swamp knocking over -- well, everything. Apparently physics, an interactive environment and scripted story events are going to be a much bigger part of gameplay this time around. So's this guy -- a siege breaker assault beast. It's huge, bigger by six, maybe seven times the size of the player avatars. It's also fast, has lots of nasty attacks (I think one of the PCs died by being bitten in half!) and drop all kinds of tasty randomized lot when he dies.
And with that, the demonstration is over. The lights come back up to raucous applause and I'm sitting stunned for a moment. There's so many questions about Diablo III that need to be asked but I need a few seconds to just absorb what I've just seen. Diablo III is back and like the StarCraft II announcement back in Korea, it looks like with was worth every minute of the wait.