Our week of Blizzcon demo articles continues, today with coverage of that Necromancer usurper, the Witch Doctor. I had a chance to play through the entire Blizzcon demo with this character, and have written up the general play style, the strengths and weaknesses, and included some coverage of the skills, the overall character design, the structure of the skill trees, the WD-themed items I saw, and more.

    In conjunction with this report, the Witch Doctor skill trees have all been updated with the most recent info from Blizzcon. Unfortunately, unlike the Wizard and Barbarian, who had more than 50 skills each on display in the Blizzcon build, there were just 11 Witch Doctor abilities enabled. All were active skills and all could be used, but without any of the passives and masteries listed, or any skills from further down than the second tier, it’s hard to do more than guess at how the character will play in the full game.

    The full skill trees can be seen here, and click through to read the detailed gameplay report.

    • Plague Skill Tree
    • Spirit Skill Tree
    • Voodoo Skill Tree

    Witch Doctor Gameplay
    To make the obvious comparison to Diablo II, the Witch Doctor plays a bit like a Necromancer with some low-power Sorceress skills. The WD has some minions that can tank, defensive curse-like spells, and a bunch of cool, short range attack spells. The character was very effective in the Blizzcon demo, and I had little trouble plowing through almost every encounter. Occasionally I’d have to recast my tanking Mongrels, or back off to let my mana refill for a moment, but on the whole the Witch Doctor felt very strong and I was never in danger of dying, thanks to my sturdy Mongrels and my effective, mana-inexpensive attack spells.

    That said, don’t start thinking the WD is overpowered, since the Blizzcon demo is not the final game. It’s not even the current game. Players at Blizzcon were starting off with level 6 characters who had various skill points already distributed, and taking those level 6 chars into battle against the very beginning of the game. Whether from balance of inappropriate skill distribution, I found the Wizard fairly challenging, but the Witch Doctor and Barbarian quite easy. I was never near death with the WD or Barb, and only had to retreat once or twice with those characters, when I found a really large mob around a boss.

    As I say, this was just a nerfed demo version for new players to get their feet wet with; it doesn’t tell us a thing about game difficulty long term.

    A typical battle in the demo involved my two mongrels (2 could be cast with 1 point in the skill, and as with all active skills in the demo, only 1 point could be placed) running up to start biting on some skeletons, zombies, or other monsters. I’d run quickly behind them, and from a safe spot in the back row I’d unload my spells on the enemies. I used Firebats most often, since it had such a cool graphic and sound effect. It was quite effective too; it worked like a short range Inferno spell; dealing constant fire damage to anything in range, and was more than strong enough to finish off all smaller enemies in just a second or two. The flames of the bats spread to my Mongrels as well, as did the poison from Locust Swarm or Plague of Toads. There was no in-game listing of how much damage those effects add to the mongrels, (tool tip documentation was fairly lacking throughout, but that’s not surprising for a game still under heavy development) and I never systematically studied it, counting bites to kill a common monster when a mongrel was enchanted, or not. It certainly wasn’t anything smashingly big; and the vast majority of damage done to the monsters came from my WD’s direct spells. Mongrels were useful tanks, but didn’t do a lot of killing on their own.The attack spells are all fairly inexpensive in mana cost, and with a rapid mana regeneration I was very seldom out of mana, despite using the attack spells (chiefly Firebats, Plague of Toads, and Locust Swarm) constantly. Summoning a Mongrel was more expensive; they cost about 50 mana to summon from my pool of around 100 mana, but they lasted for quite a while, and since my attack spells were sufficient to kill with, I didn’t often have to Sacrifice (explode) a Mongrel for the added damage.

    Plague of Toads were great fun to use too, though less damaging than Firebats. At level 1 (the only level possible for active spells in the Blizzcon demo) the WD tossed out three toads, which then hopped forward like scaly, slimy, living Charged Bolts. They weren’t entirely mindless—they homed in on enemies, and exploded with a splat of green acid (poison) when they hit a target. If there was no target in range, the toads would hop 3 or 4 times, covering maybe half the visible screen, before bursting in air. They left behind splats of acid on the ground that would damage enemies who stood in it. The toads shared their poison to Mongrels, just like the various fire spells and Locust Swarm.

    Spell Effectiveness
    A constant for most of the WD’s attack spells was short range. Plague of Toads, Locust Swarm, Soul Harvest, and Firebats were all effective, but all had a rather short range, extending maybe 3-4 yards from the WD, at most. The design goal there is pretty clear; the D3 team wants WDs to stay active and get right up into the action. The curses, Mass Confusion and Horrify, work much the same, rather than expanding to cover half the screen like most of the D2 Necromancer’s curses do.
    In short, Witch Doctors have a lot of magical toys, but they can’t use them safely from the back row. Only Skull of Flame could be cast (thrown) from a considerable distance, and while that spell dealt substantial fire, it was fairly slow to use, and to strike. It’s not Fireball; it can be thrown over nearby targets to hit ones in the back row, which makes it useful to take out summoners or monster mages behind their minions. On the other hand, it’s got a fairly slow casting rate, and the lobbing trajectory of the skull makes it take longer still to reach the impact spot.

    During longer battles I usually had to cast a new mongrel, to keep my protection intact. The WD had about 100 mana, and while the attack spells were very low cost, the Mongrels were about 50 to cast. I didn’t often blow them up, since the attack spells were damaging enough, and spending the mana to Sacrifice one, then to quickly summon another one for protection was very mana-expensive. The Soul Harvest skill was designed to help with that sort of thing, allowing me to finish off multiple enemies at once, gaining considerable mana from each of them. I seldom needed it, and found it to be less than effective as a killing weapon. It wasn’t that damaging, and wasn’t that cheap to cast either; so I had to make sure it was going to kill at least a few monsters to be cost effective.

    After a long battle, one during which my Mongrels took a lot of damage, I’d summon one or two new ones, before moving off to the next encounter. I tried to remember to do this immediately after the fight, so my mana would have longer to recharge, and could start doing so while I was still picking up and examining loot.

    Witch Doctors weren’t helpless without spells. They weren’t exactly Barbarians, but I found their melee attacks fairly effective, and to save mana I often finished off the last skeleton or zombie with some good old fashioned left clicking. Since items are not going to have strength or other requirements to equip them (other than Clvl, and some class-specifics), it should be possible to play a reasonably-effective combat Witch Doctor. Not as the character’s main thrust, but supplementing weapon damage with spells and minion attacks should be viable. It’s hard to project too far on this yet, until we know more of the WD’s skills. However, since Wizards have some weapon damage boosting skills, it seems pretty likely the Witch Doctor will get some as well.

    One of the design goals of Diablo III is to implement a wide variety of items, including weapons that boost stats (other than magic find) that are useful to mage characters.  I found some evidence of that during my Blizzcon play time, since my Witch Doctor found a number of weapons that boosted my experience gain or my spell damage. I greatly enjoyed a staff that added 19% damage to spells, and definitely noticed the effect when paring that with Firebats.

    Witch Doctor Skills
    The Blizzcon demo only showed off 11 WD skills (compared to 50+ for the Wizard and Barbarian), and only skills from the first two tiers of each skill tree. Here’s a quick listing for reference. All of these skills are detailed on the wiki pages.

    Plague Skill Tree
    Plague of Toads, Locust Swarm, Spider Statue

    Spirit Skill Tree
    Skull of Flame, Soul Harvest, Firebats, Mass Confusion

    Voodoo Skill Tree
    Summon Mongrel, Sacrifice, Horrify, Wall of Zombies

    Since we only know a few skills from each tree, all of them active skills, we can only speculate about what we’ll see from the WD long term. Tier 3, 4, and higher skills may totally change the apparent design focus of the WD. Even the low level passives, none of which were visible at Blizzcon, might work in unexpected ways. That said, we can speculate a bit, since we’ve seen the design concepts for the Barbarian and Wizard, and have some comprehension of how the D3 Team is developing the characters.

    The WD’s skills seem to be oddly organized, at first look. There are attack skills in all trees, and curse-like mind control skills in two trees, though the only minion (so far) is in the Voodoo tree. This is unlike the Diablo II organizational system, which would have had all the curses in one tree, all the summonings in another, and all the attack spells in the third. However, as we’ve seen with the Wizard’s and Barbarian’s skills, the D3 skill trees are much less thematically-linked. This is for an obvious reason, since the higher level skills in each tree require 10, 15, or more points to be spent in that tree. The characters seem to be designed to specialize in just one tree, with perhaps points in one or two low level skills from the other trees. There are a lot of skills in each tree though, enough that every Witch Doctor who specializes in Plague, or Spirit, or Voodoo won’t be identical.

    All of the WD skills on display at Blizzcon were active skills; ones you had to actually click to use, and that did stuff when you clicked them. So even though there were only 11 WD skills, we actually know a lot about how a WD will play at lower levels, since these are all the active skills the character will have available. There might be one or two more, but the Wizard and Barbarian had 11 (or fewer) active skills in their first two tiers, so it seems likely that the other Tier 1 and 2 WD skills will be passives and masteries. It’s not hard to imagine them either, since they’ll follow the format established by the Wizard and Barbarian. The other characters have a few masteries that boost every skill in a given tree, or boost specific skills in those trees, and it’s likely the WD will follow suit. Some speculation:

    Plague Skills: Active Skills: Plague of Toads, Locust Swarm, and Spider Statue. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see a passive that boosts the damage of all skills in this tree, or perhaps all WD poison damage skills. Others will probably improve the individual skills; something like Improved Plague of Toads/Locust Swarm/Spider Statue, with more damage, better odds of critical strike, etc.  It’s also a decent bet that there will be faster casting rate and/or lower mana cost passives for the WD, as there are for the Wizard.

    Spirit Skills: Active Skills: Skull of Flame, Soul Harvest, Firebats, and Mass Confusion. Likely passives will provide boosts to fire damage, boosts to the duration or intensity of the mind control skill(s), and/or a boost to the % of life/mana returned from Soul Harvest.

    Voodoo Skills: Active Skills: Summon Mongrel, Sacrifice, Horrify, and Wall of Zombies. Passives will probably boost the damage/hit points of the mongrels, or of all summoned pets, assuming there are others further down this tree. The explosive damage of a Sacrifice (Mongrel or other unknown minions) could also be boosted, as could the duration and damage of the Zombie Wall.

    It will be interesting to see what additional active skills do. All of the attack spells (except for Skull of Flame) have a short range. So do the curse-like mind control abilities. Will that be the way of all the WD’s skills, balancing their power with short range? Will the WD get one long range spell per tree? Will there be some sort of tanking, summoned creature in every tree, or will most players stick points into a low level summoning from one tree, no matter which tree they specialize in? It didn’t seem likely that the WD could play very effectively without any minions; the character was very mage-like, with low hit points, but without the powerful spells the Wizard can use to survive without assistance.

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