Kotaku has posted 17 screenshots taken from the early/canceled version of Diablo III, developed at Blizzard North from 2000-2005. There’s nothing in the post about where the shots came from, not even one of those, “an unnamed source” type mentions, so we’ve got only the visuals to go with.
At least those are gorgeous, in terms of the level artwork and design. The interface is a rough draft, and the characters and monsters (some of which were leaked previously) don’t look as far along in the development as the backgrounds, and they don’t really seem to “fit” properly into the levels, but I feel confident in asserting that it looked better in motion than it does in still images.
The most detailed rumor about Diablo III came in 2005 from a bridge-burning ex-Blizzard employee named Chris Hartgraves, (details in the Diablo 3 History article) in which he reported that Diablo III was set largely in the High Heavens. That’s where most of these screenshots were taken, and we even see Tyrael and another archangel in one shot.
I’ve uploaded all of the shots into our growing Diablo III: Blizzard North version gallery, where you can click through them if you’d prefer to avoid the new and much-reviled Kotaku layout. A few sample images are included below. Thanks to TheButcher for the news tip.
Update: A lot of readers have asked if this is what I saw during my BlizNorth visits in 2003 and 2005. Not exactly, but I can’t go into more detail. Besides, I’m sure my memories are suspect and tinged with golden nostalgia, 8 years later.
In a more general sense, I think it would help to think of Diablo III as a game developed at Blizzard North from 2000-2005. That game stalled and was ultimately canceled due to heavy staff turnover (caused by a variety of personal and financial reasons). That project was a direct sequel to Diablo II, carrying over most of the characters, continuing most of the gameplay mechanics, retaining a similar artistic style, etc.
The version of Diablo III that’s been under heavy development at Blizzard Irvine since 2006 is not really a sequel to Diablo II. It’s more like a reboot or a remake.
The core game is the same, it’s still a fast-paced isometric clicker with a deep item-game in which every class can kick ass, but the characters are almost all new, and most of the gameplay mechanics have been radically revised, as has the art style. I don’t mean this as a criticism—the new game is going to be massively fun and I think a lot of the gameplay mechanics/changes are big improvements over what D2 offered and D3 was set to elaborate upon. But a lot of the complaints about “ugly graphics” and other complaints stem from a false paradigm, that the new D3 is meant to be D2, with a few new things added. It’s not. It’s a whole new game with a ton of new features.