Last weekend I had a chance to play through the entire BlizzCon demo with a Barbarian, and you can read my report on that experience below the fold. Also in this post is a discussion of the Barbarian’s overall balance and design, and a profile of some of his more interesting, creative, and controversial skills. Self-resurrection, anyone? The skills are linked to the appropriate pages in the DiabloWiki, since we’ve compiled our notes and massively updated the Barbarian Skills. Every single skill in all three trees (as seen at BlizzCon) is now listed; and since there are about 18 per tree, there are now more than 50 skills named, described, and discussed.

    Check out the Berserker, Battlemaster, and Juggernaut skill trees in the wiki, and read on to see the Barbarian play report and skill discussion. The report contains a lot of first hand Blizzcon play info that has not previously been posted.

    BlizzCon Demo Impressions

    Like most people at BlizzCon (at least everyone playing D3 on one of the in the press room), my first character was a Wizard. I wanted to see the newest of the new, and I did, and there will be a report on that character later this week. Today though, it’s all about the Barbarian. I’m not going to go into detail over the exact functions and my first impressions of the BlizzCon build, since MD did such a thorough job of that in his gameplay report, and since everyone reading this has seen the D3 gameplay movies and played D2. Not to reduce it too much, but D3 "feels" like D2, with a few tweaks. If you are familiar with D2 (or D1, or any other isometric view RPG) the controls, movement, speed, mouse fluidity, etc, all feel very natural. I was immediately comfortable at the controls, with only the altered hotkeys and skill interface giving me any pause.

    I tried out the D3 version of our grunting, illiterate, smash-happy friend on Friday morning, some time after my opening salvo with the Wizard, and I found the experience much as I’d anticipated. That’s not an entirely good thing, since while I played a number of types of Barbarians in D2, (and most enjoyed horking Magic Finders) I tended to find the Clvl 1-30 process somewhat tedious, and only began to enjoy my Barbs when they had WW, or at least Frenzy, and enough good equipment to rock and roll. I think I’ll feel more or less the same about the D3 Barbarian. He’s (she’s) got a wider variety of skills, and the lower level ones look a lot more fun than the early ones in D2. But they’re still basically single strike, melee attacks, and those don’t exactly fill me with”woot.

    Let me stress that I’m not advocating a major character remodel. It’s perfectly fair to reserve the powerful, multi-target, skills like Whirlwind, Seismic Slam, and  Furious Charge for higher levels. The Barbarian would be overpowered and poorly-designed if he could unleash mega-death type skills like those right off the bat. I just don’t find slow, melee-fighting much fun. I didn’t especially care for the D1 Warrior, and in D2 I could never play a Werebear Druid or Assassin. Your mileage (kilometerage) may, and probably will, vary.

    That said, the D3 Barb wasn’t horrible, or boring. I enjoyed playing her, and will certainly play a Barbarian in the final game. It won’t be my first character, but it won’t be my last either. For what it is, the D3 Barbarian is very well-executed. The animations are great, the sound effects are massive (buy a new woofer to prepare for D3; the bass is worth it), the skill graphics are nice, the monsters are varied and enjoyable to slaughter. Even the dialogue, as heard through the one lengthy NPC conversation in the Blizzcon build, was interesting and very character-appropriate.

    I listened to the full dialogue, with Captain Rumford in the tiny Tristram encampment new characters started out in, but I was bouncing on my toes during it, since I wanted to get out and kill some zombies. And soon enough… I did.

    Blizzcon Demo Gameplay

    The Blizzcon demo was fun, but it wasn’t exactly challenging. At least not with the Barbarian or the Witch Doctor. The Barb was strong enough to just bash (figuratively and literally) his (or her) way through the monsters, and the Witch Doctor had several spells that were quite effective when used while standing behind the tanking Mongrels
    The Wizard was more of a challenge, but that’s for another report.

    Before anyone starts worrying about D3 being too "carebear," remember one thing. The Blizzcon demo was supposed to be easy:

    This was the first hands-on for anyone outside of Blizzard, and the D3 Team knew that lots of the fans and media at BlizzCon would be eager to play, despite not having touched D2 in years. I heard many people in the press room laugh as they said something like, "I keep wanting to scroll the camera around." Predictable comments from WoW players slipping back into the isometric saddle for the first time in half a decade, and the sort of thing the D3 Team would have planned on. Also, the play sessions only lasted about 15 minutes on the slow floor, and the devs didn’t want new players running out and dying as they struggled with the controls. So characters started off at level 6 in the Blizzcon build, with a variety of skills already enabled. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team had also turned down the difficulty and/or turned up the character stats/hps as well.

    As a result, "new" characters in the BlizzCon build were essentially starting off the game at level 6, and while that was an advantage, it wasn’t enough to turn the game into a boring, god-mode-esque slaughter. Still, I only had to retreat from combat a couple of times with my Barbarian, both times when I found a random boss monster who had nasty ranged attacks, skeleton archer wingmen, and a lot of melee skeletons and zombies to tank. On those occasions I just ran back down the hallway a bit, stringing out the melee attackers and getting out of range of the archers and the bosses’ spells. (The encounter was somewhat reminiscent of fighting Radament, in the Act 2 Sewers, if Radament had better magic and was slower to resurrect dead skeletons.) It was easy to slaughter the skeleton minions once they were spread out, and with them gone I rushed back down the hallway and finished off the boss.

    Leoric the Skeleton King, the boss whose defeat ended the Blizzcon demo, was actually easier than some of the random bosses. I was level 9 by the time I reached his throne room, and with some decent armor on, I could just stand there and whack away at him, ignoring his summoned minions and his own mighty maul attack. I ended up running around his level a bit just to extend the experience, but my Barbarian was never in serious risk of death in the BlizzCon demo, so I wouldn’t have been able to test out the Barb’s controversial resurrection skill, even if it had been enabled for use at Blizzcon.

    Barbarian Skills and Controls

    The biggest change to the Barbarian’s interface and controls comes from Fury. See the Fury page in the Diablo Wiki for full details. In brief, Fury is the new mana, but only (so far) for Barbarians. Fury replaces mana, but unlike the old blue bulb, it does not fill up when not in use. Barbarians have zero Fury to start with, and only build it up during combat, when they land successful strikes to their enemies. As soon as the Barb is not fighting, the Fury starts to drain away, and it seeps out quite quickly. I frequently filled my Fury bulb completely during a fight, paused to pick up an item or two, then ran to find more monsters, and arrived just as my Fury went down to nothing.

    My Barbarian had about 100 Fury at level 7 or 8, and while I didn’t get to experiment with it that persistently, I could see enough to like the concept. The Barbarian is designed to be a melee battling character. He gets all sorts of bonuses while in combat, and many of his skills only trigger when he scores critical hits. With that design goal, the fact that he has to fight to build up Fury, and has to expend Fury to use most of his skills, is only natural. It looks like an expert Barbarian player will be most at home when surrounded by enemies, and will have to learn to cycle quickly through a variety of attack skills and war cry-style buffs to stay alive and able to smash his enemies.

    The only big Fury expenditure available in the Blizzcon build was Battle Rage, a wary cry that boosted the Barbarian’s damage by 100%, increased critical damage by 30%, and lasted for 15 seconds. (With one point in it, which was all the BlizzCon build allowed to active skills.) That was half, or more, of my total Rage, but I never minded spending it. The combat improvements were substantial, and since Rage faded away so quickly, I had a constant feeling of "use it or lose it."  Whenever I finished a battle with a full Rage bulb, I tried to remember to cast this war cry, since the precious juice would all be gone by the time I got to the next battle anyway.

    As for the skills available, I mentioned earlier that the Barbarian played like a D2 Barbarian with better graphics. The starter skills were quite similar as well, at least superficially. The new characters were level 6, and already had some skills placed, to make things quicker and easier for the fans. Therefore all Barbarians started out with a point or two in two passives in each of the three skill trees. The skills were all Tier 1 passives, such as Power of the Battlemaster, Iron Skin, Power of the Berserker, Heightened Senses, and Power of the Juggernaut. This gave the characters some survivability, so the new players wouldn’t die immediately, or feel like they didn’t have any skills to play with In addition to those passives, there were some active skills with a point in them, and others that could be enabled as soon as your character leveled up a time or two.

    I got to use or watch other players use Frenzy, Bash, Cleave, Battle Rage, and Hammer of the Ancients. All of them were fun and visceral and had great sound effects, but using them wasn’t much different than seeing them in a gameplay movie. They’re all familiar to anyone who played a Barbarian in D2, in function and form if not name. They’re mostly melee attacks, and whether they hit a single target or two, hit a little faster or knock back the monster, or swing a magical hammer overhead for huge damage, they all involve standing toe to toe and clicking away until the zombies or skeletons are dead Which they were, usually after just 2 or 3 hits.

    The skills did make a difference. I used Bash, Frenzy, and Cleave constantly, and noticed considerable differences between them. Damage shows up on the screen in D3, so every time I’d whack a skeleton or zombie I’d see a little number showing that I’d just done 22, or 34, or 51 damage. It varied, of course, and I was constantly plugging in the different weapons I found, until I eventually settled on a two-handed sword . It did by far the most damage of anything my Barb found at Blizzcon, and that big weapon was more useful than dual wielding, or using a sword/shield, at least against the slow swinging, low-damage early game enemies.

    The sword showed me something new, too—D3 Barbarians can not hold a two-handed sword in one hand. Only one-handed weapons could be dual-wielded or used with a shield. That change aside, dual-wielding is still a big part of the game. I kept doing it accidentally, as I tried to hold a single one-handed sword, and found myself automatically equipping every other one-handed weapon I tried to pick up. In the early stages of the game dual wielding isn’t much more damaging than simply using one one-handed weapon, since the hit rate isn’t that much faster with two weapons than with one.  That will change later, of course, since there are a variety of skills to boost the Barbarian’s dual weapon abilities scattered through the three skill trees.

    Skill Trees and Signature Skills

    Reviewing the Barbarian skill trees, which are now online and covered in great detail (18+ skills in each) in the wiki, it’s possible to gain more insight into the D3 Team’s overall design goal.

    Jay Wilson (and others) have repeatedly stated that they intend players to (regularly) use 6-8 active skills on their character in D3. These active skills will be supported by numerous passive skills, and the game and interface are designed to compliment each other. There are 6 belt spots (which can hold skills or potions to drink, along with the right mouse button, left mouse button, and tab. This gives a character up to 9 buttons that will provide instant access to a skill or spell. Likely players will want to store some potions or other items in some slots of their belt, but that seems to be a designed trade off.

    Most of the skills in each tree are passive. As the trees are now formed (they are very subject to change), each tier has 4 or 5 skills, of which just 1 or 2 are active. The Barbarian’s active skills are mostly melee attacks and war cry-like spells that serve to boost the his abilities or to cripple his enemies. These active skills are all enhanced in various ways by the passives. Low level skills are designed to be used throughout the game, though how they will scale up to remain viable isn’t yet known. Long term, it looks like most Barbarians will pick one tree to spend most of their points in, and use 4 or 5 active skills from that tree, while supporting them with a variety of passives. Especially useful passives from the lower tiers of other trees will probably be mixed in as well. Active skills from other trees seem like they’ll be less useful, since there will not be enough skill points to load up the passives required to enhance those borrowed active skills.

    It’s also interesting to compare our early skill lists to the signature skills the D3 team has demonstrated at various panels at the WWI and BlizzCon. Surprisingly, virtually every one of the Barbarian’s active skills has profiled by Jay Wilson or some other D3 Team member, though this becomes less surprising when you consider how few active skills there are on the trees. There’s no guarantee things will remain this way through to the final game, of course. The D3 Team’s goal seems to be to develop 10 or 12 top quality active skills for each character, spread them throughout the 3 skill trees, and let players pick and choose. The team could think up more skills, but as they’ve stressed in the Signature Skills demonstrations, they want the D3 characters to have powerful, impressive, memorable abilities. And they want to make all of these abilities useful long term, whether though scaling with Clvl, multiple skill points in the active skill, or tweaking of the bonuses provided by the passives. 

    Skills of Note

    Read over all the skills yourself, when you’ve got the time. They’re listed with their names, locations, and some commentary on each. That’s the best way to get a feel for the character design. That said, here are a few of the more interesting ones.

    Attack Rating: One thing that’s glaring, in its omission, is Attack Rating. While there are at least 20 Barbarian skills that boost damage, there are zero that boost to/hit.. Damage is boosted by many skills, and in many ways. There are straight damage increases, +damage to all the skills in a tree, +damage to one or two particular skills, +critical hit damage and frequency, and much more. Yet nothing boosts Attack Rating, or to/hit, or whatever they’re calling it in D3. It’s not just Barbarian skills either—there are no values listed for to/hit in the character window.  Perhaps AR is a hidden stat now, or based on Clvl, or boosted solely by equipment, or any/all of the above, but it hasn’t been implemented into the game yet, or wasn’t for the BlizzCon build. If anyone bumps into Jay Wilson, feel free to bring this one up.

    Shield Specialization: Not a very impressive skill, but the description hints at at major change from D2. This skill is said to increase the % chance to block, and the amount of damage blocked. So shields in D3 don’t block 100% of the damage anymore? Just some amount of it, an amount that increases with shield type and the appropriate shield skill?  This remains to be confirmed.

    Deliberate Defense: This skill boosts the Barbarian’s armor when he lands a successful critical hit. D3 barbarians are truly designed to thrive in combat. Hit enemies with devastating critical strikes, and raise your defense in the process.

    Death Proof: Probably the most controversial skill the Barbarian possesses; this one works as a sort of auto-resurrection. The changes this would bring to the balance of character power in Hardcore is hard to underestimate. Here’s the description, as best it could be read from the skill hover. "The barbarian overcomes death. Upon receiving fatal damage the Barbarian is kept alive and gains back 30% of his maximum hit points. The effect can not occur more than every 300 seconds."

    Stubborn: This one lets the Barbarian resist "all slowing effects." So there will be a lot of such effects, we can assume?

    Revenge: This skill is an offensive war cry (Actually a ground stomp, but same thing.) that has a % chance to hit every monster in range with 100% of the Barbarian’s weapon damage, as well as granting him 2% of his maximum health for everything hit. Better than life leech? Best used in a mob?

    Bad Temper: Reduces Fury drain by 3% at level one. There’s no telling if players will find this worth investing in, or if it’ll just be easier to get Fury drain reduced on equipment, or simply to ignore the property and concentrate on better techniques to harvest more fury as soon as possible as a new battle begins.

    Enrage: A sort of companion to Bad Temper, Enrage is a buff that increases the Fury gained for a short time, but also increases the damage the Barbarian takes during that same time.

    Savage: Another Fury-booster from the Berserker Tree; this one increases all Fury generation for X seconds after scoring a critical hit. There are a lot of passives that boost critical damage too, so those big damage strikes look like they’ll be a large part of the game, especially for the Barbarian.

    Finally, it’s worth noting that the skill trees we now see are far from complete. Even if there are no skills added or removed from now until the game is released (a laughably unlikely scenario), the levels and requirements and stats of all the skills we now see are likely to be tweaked and modified all throughout the design process. There were only Tier 1, 5, 10, and 15 skills at Blizzcon, and only Tier 1 and 5 were usable, but clearly characters won’t access the last skills in the game at level 15, or even 20 (there was another tier in the skill trees, but with no skills listed on it). More skills will be added, existing skills will be moved up or down the tree, and many, many changes will be made, both to prime functions and to minor figures.

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