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    Motivated by the new patch and the variety it brought to the gameplay experience, I put in several hours of intensive “testing” last night, and tried out all five classes, with special focus on the Wizard. (Because she was really fun.) This isn’t a huge, organized, super-detailed report; just a quick one with some first impressions and screenshots.

    General Changes and Issues

    Something Jay didn’t mention in his skills and runes article: they lowered the levels for the Active Skill Slots by quite a bit. Formerly the six active skills became available at 1, 2, 6, 12, 18, and 24. In the new patch, all five classes get their active skill slots at 1, 2, 4, 9, 14, 19. Thus you’ve got three skills very early on, and if you do anything like a full clear you’ve got your fourth before you even get to Leoric on your first play-through. This early, accelerated rate makes sense with the way they’ve arranged them in the noob-friendly, forced cookie cutter system, or whatever you want to call it. (Seriously, think up a better name. Jay didn’t offer one, and I can’t think of anything catchy.)

    Much more on how the odd tutorial/cookie-cutter skill assignment system works, on page two. For all that the skills are awesome, the interface is really annoying, even when you’re in “Elective Mode.”

    Before I get into any criticisms, I want to say that I played as much D3 tonight as I have at any time since I first got beta access, back in the F&F period. The gameplay isn’t much different, other than subtle adjustments and tweaks, but having skill runes available starting at level 6, and having new skills mixed into the rearranged system, made it so much more fun that I really enjoyed the experience. I powered a Wizard all the way up to 13 just to see the new stuff (multishot Magic Missile skillrune, at 13, is awesome), and then very quickly played all the other classes up to 6 or 7, just to try out their first skill runes. Ironically, the first skill rune for the Wizard is the most boring in the whole game, as it just adds damage to the same single shot Magic Missile. But the first rune for Arcane Orb, which turns it into Arcane Nova and raises the blast radius from 10y to 20y, is amazing.

    The overall speed and pacing seems to have been improved also. It’s still very easy, in terms of “you will not die unless you are very careless,” but the monsters have a bit more hit points, you get larger packs, and the progression seems smoother. There are even a few almost challenging portions, especially before you have a decent weapon and have to retreat from bosses. Not that you’re running for your life — all the bosses early on move very slowly — but in my first game with a Wizard I had to kite out zombie bosses and retreat from bat bosses several times early on.

    The other most noticeable monster change is to the Skeletal Summoners, who now appear with more skeletons around them, and summon more quite quickly. I had some enjoyable moments against those guys on Cathedral 4, when they were able to make enough minions to keep any of my projectiles from reaching them. I was in no real danger, but neither could I kill them, and it was fun to feel my Wizard treading water to hold her ground against the onslaught of incoming skeletons.


    Click through for much more on basics, rundowns of all five classes with detailed coverage of the Wizard’s new skills and skillrune options, and much discussion of what works and what doesn’t about the new skill system and interface.

    Blue item frequency has finally been turned down to a point that you notice it. My first game my Wizard had found just 4 blue items all the way through Cathedral level 1 — one pair of magically boots, and 3 class specific items… for other classes. My first decent weapon was actually purchased from a town vendor, which was a first for me, but that 10.7 fire mace was enough of an upgrade over the 5.2 hand axe that it was worth the high price. (Vendor prices have been increased greatly, and it now costs much more to buy an item than to craft something of the same type that will turn out with far better stats 99% of the time.)

    The blues became much more common further down into the dungeons, and by Cathedral 3, the drops looked about the same as always. The affixes have been tweaked; I hardly saw any of the “gathering” modifier (which increases your radius of gold and health orb pickup), and the Adventuring modifer, that adds +1-4 experience per kill, was also much turned down. Less common, and less rewarding, with most of them popping at just +1 experience.

    The weirdest thing was how many rings I found. Multiple runs with my Wizard, I got back to town with like 1/4 of my blues in the form of finger jewelry. These had very limited stats; all were just a prefix or a suffix, and mostly low stuff like +1-2 damage, +2 thorns, +1 experience per kill, etc. Way lower quality than good rings from previous patches, when they dropped less often.


    Wizard In Depth

    I played a Wizard to 13 and tried out all the new skills and all the skillrune versions of existing skills. I may write up something longer and more detailed at some point, but for now here are quick comments on all the new Wizard skills, skillrunes, and general gameplay issues.

    The biggest change for Wizards is not the new skills; it’s the big decrease to Arcane Power regen. The resource now comes back at 10 per second, down from 12.5. This makes a VERY noticeable difference, especially with the 35 cost Arcane Orb moved to level 2. My Wizard was constantly out of AP; early on from Arcane Orb, and then later as I got my first hands on with Ray of Frost and Arcane Torrent (both used to have much higher level requirements and were thus unusable in the beta), both of which are great skills, but very resource-expensive.

    On the whole though, the Wizard was hugely fun, even more than in earlier patches. New skills to experiment with, tweaks to monsters making it harder to just kill everything with a single spell, and changes to existing skills. For instance, Frost Nova no longer does any damage. None. It can’t even break barrels. It’s purely a debuff, freezing monsters for 3 seconds, during which you’d better use some other skills, or at least run and take advantage of the AP regen time.


    DiabloWikiRay of Frost feels just like DiabloWikiDisintegrate (which is now too high level to use in the beta), except that it chills targets, and has no pierce. It’s fun to use, but it’s such a huge AP hog that I can’t really recommend it early on. Sadly, the skillrune variants are out of reach in the beta.


    DiabloWikiArcane Torrent, on the other hand, is a whole new thing; it’s basically a faster casting version of the WD’s Firebomb, and it allows the Wizard to target a location and bombard it with sparkly Arcane bombs. This is the highest damage for the AP cost of any Wizard skill in the game, and since you can fire it over the front row to a specific spot, it’s awesome to kill bosses in the back row. The targeting isn’t super precise, which is kind of cool as the slight splash lets you hit even small, fast enemies like Scavengers.


    One skillrune I didn’t try out was the Frost Nova effect, Shatter. It sounds fun; enemies that die while frozen have a 50% chance of casting another Frost Nova (victims of it would presumably also have a 50% chance of popping if they died while frozen). Remember though, that Frozen Nova doesn’t do ANY damage anymore, so you’d always have to get those kills with another skill.

    Something like Wave of Force is ideal, with good damage and a larger radius than Frost Nova, but this kills almost everything in the beta with a single cast, especially in a single player game. Thus those awesome second stage Frost Novas would mostly hit nothing, since everything would already be dead.

    This one sounds more fun for party games, actually; just keep popping off Frost Novas on the most monsters you can hit, and as you kill them, or another player does, enjoy the show.


    I mentioned it earlier, but Split, the triple-shot skillrune version of Magic Missile, is also great fun. The tooltip seems discouraging; 3 shots that do 50% dmg each, vs 1 shot that does 143% dmg with the first Magic Missile skillrune. Seems bad; you’ve got to hit all three to do more damage? Not exactly.

    Yes, that’s the math, but the three shots go out in a fairly tight group which lets at least two hit any nearby target, and often all three. I had no trouble hitting large monsters like Grotesques and Unburied with all 3 shots almost every time, and I never missed entirely with three shots, making them more useful against quick or small enemies. Better yet, each shot has a chance at popping a critical hit, which provides at big damage bonus and usually staggers the monster. I could stand up advancing Unburied with Split MM, killing them in their tracks while I would not have been able to do that with the Charged Blast skillrune variant in MM, which just adds damage to the single shot.


    The other really fun skillrune Shock Pulse (formerly known as Charged Bolt) gets a skill rune at level 9, Explosive Bolts, and it is just awesome. Shock Pulse seems to have been nerfed a bit, with the range of the bolts turned down yet again, and the casting rate still fairly slow. It’s nothing like the D2 version of the skill, that let you carpet the ground with sparks. In D3 the sparks don’t go more than 25 or 30y (which is about 1/3 of the screen in a high resolution), and you can only cast 3 of them at once; so just as you cast it a 3rd time, the 1st 3 bolts are reaching their maximum range and vanishing. Furthermore, the bolts come out quite widely-spaced; even at melee range you can only hit a large target with two of them, and in fact you’ll often miss entirely a target right in front of you.

    The saving grace? The Explosive Bolts skillrune, which causes any enemy killed by the bolts to explode in a small dome of electricity, which deals considerable damage to anything within about 10y. Once I was high enough level to use this, with some decent gear on, a single cast of Shock Pulse was enough to kill every normal monster within about 20y. And the explosions of lightning are very Barbarian-esque in their kick, as every one sends a dead monster flying end over end, up into the air or off to the sides. It’s a legitimate LOL time, with a visual that’s amusing and an effect that’s powerful.

    With this skillrune, plus Arcane Torrent, plus Electrocute (still probably the best skill in the entire beta), plus the mega-blast of Arcane Nova (which turns the orbs blue and basically gives each one a Wave of Force impact you can fire from a great distance) plus Ray of Frost, plus Spectral Strike… I really didn’t know what to use first with my Wizard.

    The class has half a dozen super fun, very effective skills to use by Clvl 13, and I can hardly imagine how many awesome options there are going to be for a high level Wizard in Diablo III. I almost felt guilty for devastating the monsters so quickly and in such a wide variety of ways.


    The Monk

    I only played the Monk long enough to see his Bounding Light skillrune effect in Fists of Thunder, and was surprised how cool it was. It adds a Chain Lightning effect, but of course there is no Chain Lightning skill in the game, so who knew what that meant?

    We’ll post a video of it in the days to come, since you really need to see it in action to appreciate it, but basically it’s a squiggly sort of yellow thing, that snakes between multiple targets, and quite quickly. It’s fun, too; the Chain leaps from monster to monster, and it will damage several of them per use; it’s not stingy.

    Better yet, it even chains through destructibles. I got to Clvl 6 right at the end of the Weeping Hollow, which was perfect since when I started using this effect, I was near the graveyards on that level. I didn’t expect it, but was pleased to see the Lightning chaining through skeletons, zombies, and tombstones, all in the same eye-blink fast effect. I’m curious to try it against larger bunches of enemies, to see just how powerful it can be.


    The Witch Doctor

    Like the others, I only played long enough to see how the early skills were arranged and to try out the first skillrune. It’s in Poison Dart, and it ups the skill to a triple shot, fired very quickly and at the same target. The damage isn’t actually tripled since while the three shots go out very quickly, they take at least the time of 1.5 shots normally. It’s a lot more fun though.

    Sadly, I got to use this one in the 2009 Blizzcon demo when skillrunes were in the game, and at that point just a level 2 rune was enough to give the WD a quadruple shot in this skill. Back then the levle 7 rune was something like 10 shots, so settling for 3 in this version is a bit of a downer.


    The Demon Hunter

    I wanted to play this class all the way through 13, or at least up to 9 to try out Strafe. A friend of mine was playing at the same time and kept raving about it. “It’s like Whirlwind as a ranged attack!” was his best description, which I have to admit sounds pretty cool.

    I did play to level 6 though, and got to try out the improved skillrune version of Hungering Arrow. It doesn’t sound like much from the description, just 55% piercing, up from 35%, but in practice that’s a lot. The arrow turn black and have little jaggedy looking things on them, but that 20% more piercing makes a huge difference. The arrows/bolts can pierce more than once each, and the odds seem to increase if you fire right at something, rather than off to the side, so I was soon targeting enemies directly, dealing full damage to them, and tearing up monsters behind them, or even getting two or three hits on the front target, if there arrow reversed direction and homed in for a second or third hit.

    It’s not quite v1.09 Guided Arrow with a Buriza, with the infamous 100% Pierce and the capability of hitting a single target 4 or 5 times, but it’s quite a bit of fun.

    Other than that, I didn’t notice any big changes to the Demon Hunter. The patch notes list slightly higher damage for almost all of the skills; the exception is Impale, which remains a misnamed and fairly useless “throw a dagger” Hatred Spender that I see no reason to pay any further attention to, barring some miraculously-juicy high level runestone improvements.


    The Barbarian

    No. Just no. I knew there was some class I hadn’t taken the time to play up to 6, and here he is. In D2 I was very bored by Barbs until they got to be high level and started to kick ass. So far in D3 I’m following the same pattern, though I have no idea if the high level kick ass part will ever come in.

    I don’t see much attraction to the class thus far, unless you just REALLY like the grunting sounds and the fact that almost every Barb attack will send zombie corpses flying off into the distance.


    The New Skill Interface System Rants and Raves

    The new skill interface works, but it’s got some issues.

    For one thing, it’s too closely-focused. There’s no way to see all of your skills in a glance, which is a good feature of the previous system. You see the previous skill interface to the right, and while it wasn’t perfect either, that little box with all of your skills visible, grouped by type was nice. It gave you a quick reference and let you take in the whole range of possibilities, and Blizzard said they liked it in part since you could see all your skills without scrolling.

    Yet the new system requires massive scrolling; worse than scrolling! It requires clicking buttons to move left or right through a long menu of skills, classified into different families, most of which vary widely between the classes. You never see all a character’s skills at once, you can only see the skillrune effects for one skill at a time, and it’s very hard to keep all the options in your head.

    This portion of the interface seems designed to drive players to reference with wikis or other external info sources.


    The other odd and inconvenient thing is how skills are selected for use. Let me explain the basic system first, for those of you who are not yet beta testing.

    A new character gets one skill to start with, which is assigned to the LMB. These are all basic “kill things with a click” skills — the Wizard gets Magic Missile, the WD gets Poison Dart, the Monk gets Fists of Thunder, the Barbarian gets Bash, and the Demon Hunter gets Hungering Arrow. This skill can not be changed, or moved to the right click or any of the 1234 buttons. Not even if you’ve gone with the Elective Mode. (Which I STRONGLY recommend if you know what you’re doing, or even if you don’t.)

    When your character levels up to two, which should happen in the Inn, during the five zombie fight with Leah, you gain your second active skill slot. This skill must be assigned to the RMB (the 1234 remain locked), and there is only one additional skill available. In every case, this second skill is another attack skill, but one that’s a bit more complicated in function. Impale for the DH, which is a Hatred Spender. Dashing Strike for the Monk, which spends Spirit and is more about movement than attack, etc. This skill is also mandatory. You don’t have to assign it, but you can’t pick anything else yet, and you can’t switch the left and right click.

    I’ll explain why you can’t switch the LMB and RMB assignments in a minute, and I might use words that turn into asterisks, since that *feature* is driving me crazy.

    Most (all?) classes gain a third skill at level three, and can switch it out for one of the first two, if they so desire. Then at level four you get your third active skill slot, along with a fourth skill to choose from. This fourth skill is some kind of buff or debuff (Caltrops, Blinding Flash, Frost Nova, or Mongrels), and it is the ONLY skill you can assign to the 1 slot, unless you’re in Elective Mode.

    More skills continue to come online every level or two, and early on they’re all primary or secondary attack skills. None of the characters get another defensive type skill for a few levels, and if you’re not on Elective Mode, you can not change our your skill in the 1 slot until you get another option of the same type.

    Let me repeat that. You can not change out the skill in the 1 slot until you get another one of the defensive type. For instance, the Wizard gets Frost Nova at lvl 4, and that is the ONLY skill the game will let you put into the 1 slot. You literally can not select any other Wizard skill for that slot, at that point. (Unless you are on Elective Mode.) Not until level 8 do you get another option, when Diamond Skin comes online. Then you’ve got Slow Time at 16, and Teleport at 22. And that’s it. You can not map any other skills to the 1 key. Ever. I don’t know how this works once you’re up to the 5th and 6th skill slot (you can’t level that high in the beta) so maybe those slots allow players to map any skills at all. But for the first three or four active skill slots, you are forced to pick from fairly limited options.

    What’s really annoying about this is the limits the devs have put on your skill selection options. If you’ve seen a lot of screenshots or gameplay movies in the past, you’ve probably noticed that many beta testers put the same skill on multiple hotkeys. There’s no real reason for this except convenience. I don’t like to use the left click for anything but movement or maybe clicking on barrels (and even then I almost always use some AoE attack to smash multiple barrels at once). So in previous patch versions, I’d usually put the same skill on my RMB and LMB at the start, and then add the other skill options to the 1234 keys as I gained more skill slots.

    This can not be done anymore. Even in Elective Mode, the RMB and 1234 keys only become available once you’ve unlocked those skill slots. So you can not put your second skill on the 1 key. You just can’t.

    You also can not put the same skill on multiple hotkeys. Again, you just can’t. The interface doesn’t support it. And you can’t just right click the RMB or LMB or 1234 keys and select a skill to use with that key. You have to go through the skills interface, which is slow, cumbersome, and often frustrating or even impossible.


    For example: I got to level 5 with my Demon Hunter. At that point I had Hungering Arrow on the LMB, Impale on the RMB, and nothing on the 1 key since I had no need of Caltrops. I wanted to put Rapid Fire on the RMB and Impale on the 1 key, which wouldn’t have been possible if I had not been in Elective Mode. But even in EM, the game does not allow you to set the same skill to multiple hotkeys, which makes it difficult to switch things around, especially early on when you don’t have many skills. Later in the game, say at level 10, you have like 8 skills and 4 skill slots. If you want to move a skill from the RMB to the 1 key, you can’t just select it on both, and then select something else on the RMB. You have to select something else on the RMB first, and then select the initial skill to the 1 key. And you have to do this through the cumbersome skill menu, where it’s easy to screw up which skill is mapped to which key (though you can just look down at the interface to see).

    This became farcical for my level 5 Demon Hunter, since I had 4 skills, 3 skill slots, and the game would not let me put Caltrops, even just to remove one of the skills I actually wanted from the current selection. So I had to shuffle them along, moving one skill from LMB to RMB, then the RMB skill to 1, then 1 to the LMB, etc. But at no time could I select the same skill on two hotkeys, and each time I changed one I had to wait 15 seconds for the cooldown to change that hotkey again. It’s hard to relate with words, but when you try it you’re just amazed at how stupid it is. Basically, when you enable a new skill and want to rearrange your hotkeys, you have to plan ahead to do it.


    I don’t really mind the cookie cutter build guide being in the game, but the way it controls and restrains the hotkey choices of an experienced player is maddening. I actually spent some part of my first game thinking my Elective Mode selection was broken, since even with it on, I couldn’t right click the belt slots to select a skill, had to keep scrolling through the whole interface to find a new skill, etc. It very much gave me that feeling you get with a new piece of hardware or software that seems familiar, but has changed all the hotkeys or menus, and you get that “I will throw this thing through the *&^%ing wall!” frustration where the goddamned device just will not do what you want it to do, and what it’s always done before.

    And I don’t think that even casuals, trained to hate software by their years on Facebook, will like that very much.


    Conclusion

    I wasn’t real impressed by the rune and skill changes from Jay Wilson’s write up, but having played them, I am much more excited than before. The early game is definitely improved, with new skills and each time you reach one of the new skillrune options it’s hard not to try it out immediately.

    How that’ll work long term, I have no idea. This will help to spice up the Clvl 30-60 “deadzone,” but so would finding runes, in the old system. Will it prove more or less beneficial long term? I have no idea, but I do know that Blizzard’s much more concerned with the normal difficulty experience than with the end game, at least at this point. We’ve seen that philosophy reflected in countless game systems and features, over the past couple of years.

    So yes, this skill and skillrune system revision definitely improves the early game. The overall early game is feeling more and more playable, too. I was pretty bored playing during beta patch 12 (and 11, and 10, and 9, etc) since I’d already tried all the classes and skills, the items aren’t interesting that early in the game, and the easy difficulty got even easier in patch 12, with the huge character hit point increases.

    The character hit points are still huge, but somehow the play speed is smoother and more fun, and while there’s no real danger of death in the beta, it’s got a better speed and rhythm than it ever has before. I’m looking forward to playing more tonight, and trying out more of the new skill effects on the other characters. Even boring, simple ones like the Barbarian!

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