Last weekend, Blizzard opened up its much-coveted “Diablo 3″ Beta experience to the general populace for the first time ever. Although players were only granted a 72-hour opportunity to hack and slash their way through undead hell spawn, it was more than enough time to progress through the first few quests offered … a couple hundred times.

Although it was a brief experience, it was nice to spend some face time with a game I have been personally waiting for my entire adult life. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat anxious about the decade-long hiatus of “Diablo.” A lot can change in 10 years, not to mention the fact that most of the original developers for “Diablo” have long parted ways with Blizzard. When considering these sobering facts, I went into the Beta with an open mind, hoping more for a solid game than a nostalgic, modern-day replica of my favorite video game series of all time. What I found was a pleasant surprise.

My first concern was more aesthetic than anything. After watching countless gameplay videos, I wasn’t convinced “D3″ was even close to capturing the “dark and dreary” gothic feel for which previous games are renowned. If I’m going to be killing bloodthirsty demons, I don’t want to be doing it in bright sunlight. Thankfully, Blizzard took the time to darken the environment, making a perpetual nighttime within the game, just as it should be. It was also nice to see that Blizzard kept the locked-camera angle for which the series is known. “Diablo 3″ is the first of its kind to be rendered in 3D, so this kept the game from feeling like a darker version “World of Warcraft,” which would have been a tragedy, to say the least.

I opted to try my first run of the Beta with the monk character class – basically a heavily-bearded martial artist with a bone to pick with Lord of Hell himself. Unlike “Diablo” 1 and 2, you can now choose between male and female heroes, but the customization stops there. There has never been any character customization in “Diablo,” and “D3″ follows suit. (Some people have complained about this, but, really, what’s the point of changing your chin length or nose position if the camera angles in “D3″ won’t even get close enough to see your character’s face?)

As I began my journey through the bleak city of Tristram, it was nice to find that the storyline (though we still know next to nothing about it) was well-written and compelling. It’s always a breath of fresh air to see good writing in a video game, though I expect nothing less from the “Diablo” series.

As I descended into a giant haunted cathedral, killing a few reanimated dead and leveling up, I soon realized where the most controversy surrounding “D3″ will undoubtedly lie. Blizzard completely did away with the skill tree, and players can no longer spend “attribute points” after each level, making the entire character customization system seem dumbed down. It pains me to say it, but players looking to have absolute control over every skill and attribute point will definitely take offense to this new system.

While at first this might turn off the more hardcore “Diablo” players, with the addition of “skill runes,” which modify existing skills, there is still quite a bit of variation in the combat system. However, the Beta only allowed characters to reach level 13, so it was difficult to make any valid judgments. In Blizzard’s defense, the original skill tree system of “Diablo 2″ really wasn’t as elaborate as many “Diablo” fans claim.

By far the most impressive new feature in the Beta was the crafting system. Although crafting was clearly restricted, I’m hopeful that the ability to make new and unique gear will more than make up for any lack of character customization. You can now break down existing weapons into basal components, and from these components make new and powerful weaponry and armor. It may not seem significant at first glance, but once the full game is released, the possibilities are endless.

The last change that was immediately apparent was the completely new loot system. Considering “Diablo” is quite literally centered on acquiring the best and most impressive gear, this is no small change. Instead of sharing drops and engaging in a frantic click battle for the best drops, loot drops are now randomly assigned to single players, appearing only on their respective screens. Most new games use this method to avoid widespread rage and heartbreak within the community, and I believe it to be a far superior system.

So will “Diablo 3″ live up to its hyped expectations? Unfortunately, I don’t think the Beta had nearly enough content to answer such a lofty question. One thing is for certain: Players will find plenty of new and plenty of old within “Diablo 3.” Players who are simply expecting “Diablo 2″ with better graphics are in for an angry surprise. The outlook is better for those looking for a solid, modern sequel to a beloved series. Regardless of individual expectations, in less than a month we’ll all know just how well “Diablo 3″ stands up to the scrutinizing standards of its loyal fan base.

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