PlayStation 3 Diablo III Hands-on Preview

Delving into a Diablo III that is familiar, and yet so very different!

Diablo III for PlayStation 3
As part of the fan site mixer at Blizzard, we had a chance to sit down and play the PlayStation 3 version of Diablo III. After hearing so much about the console versions of the game, it was great to try it out. It is initially a little strange to try out the PS3 version of Diablo III after having been steeped in the PC version. The game provides the core of the Diablo III experience, but in a manner that plays quite differently from the PC version.

PS3 Diablo III Controls: Better Than You Might Think
The Diablo III commands have been remapped to the PS3 controller, as seen in the picture below. What that image can't show is how smoothly the game control feels when you are playing. There's a normal learning curve, especially jumping in and playing a Diablo III character with all their skills like we did, unlike regular players who will gain access to their skills through the leveling process. But once the basics are picked up, the direct control of a Diablo III character feels quite natural using the PS3 controller.
PS3 Diablo III Control Scheme
After our PS3 Diablo III play session, the comment was made by more than one of the fan site representatives, "This played better than I expected." The console Diablo III development team members found that idea amusing, as if we were expecting it to play poorly. But the surprise that the controls were so solid is a natural reaction to the fact that all of us visiting there have played Diablo III for hundreds (if not thousands) of hours, solely on the PC version. From that perspective, it can be hard to imagine that the game could translate cleanly to an entirely different control mechanism. The fact that it only takes a short amount of time for Diablo III to feel natural with a controller is testament to the work that the console D3 team has done, as they moved the game from PC to the PS3 and Xbox 360.

Revamped Skill Controls
The console team didn't just map the basic Diablo III controls to the PS3 controller and call it a day. Each skill has been reviewed and adjusted as needed, to make sure that it fits cohesively within the console Diablo III framework; skills can end up playing differently on the console than the PC. This is one of the reasons why controller support isn't something that could be easily added to the PC version of Diablo III. To reach the same quality of control and play the game properly with a controller, all of the skill changes would also have to be implemented.

Playing a Wizard on the PS3 Diablo III, I saw this most keenly with the Blizzard skill. When that skill is used on the PC version, the Blizzard lands wherever the mouse is currently located. Since the console does not have a cursor to move around, the skill there is set up differently. When you press the button assigned to Blizzard on the PS3, by default it puts the Blizzard all around the Wizard, if there is nothing to target. On the PS3 the left analog stick controls character movement. It also controls where a skill like Blizzard will go; holding down the Blizzard action button and pushing the movement stick specifies where the Blizzard lands on the map. The skill also seems to be the sort that is designed to automatically target a group of creatures in a specific direction, and jump to landing on top of them. There are also finer levels of control available in those situations. An arrow automatically moves from monster to monster for each player, to show what their character is currently targeting, but that automatic targeting can be overridden to take manual control of selecting opponents.

Another example of the way skills are changed for the console is with the popular Barbarian skill Whirlwind. Using the skill on the PC automatically moves the Barbarian, and the Barbarian player chooses which direction to Whirlwind away. In the PS3 version the Barbarian can Whirlwind standing completely still, and it is only when the player moves the movement stick while using the skill, that the Barbarian whirlwinds across the screen.

Some of the skill control changes are still in flux, as the Diablo III console team polishes up the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of Diablo III, before the big release on September 3. These changes in control also extend to the movement of the characters while casting. In order to keep movement from feeling abrupt when casting while moving, the console D3 designers added a very small character movement that can happen if you are casting while moving in a direction. It's not quite a full stutter step, but it does provide fluidity to the entire casting sequence.

The one major addition to character movement on the console versions of Diablo III is the new Evade move. This is a roll moves that dodges attacks, controlled by the right analog stick. The move can be repeated infinitely, but of course a character can't attack while performing an Evade. The Evade does do 1 point of damage, so it can be used to break barrels and other environmental caches along the way.

Evade was handy for moving safely away from groups of monsters, especially as a mid-level Wizard who wasn't interested in going toe to toe with them. It does feel like ranged characters will necessarily be closer to the action on the console version than the PC. It wasn't easy to hang back and nuke, although that may have simply been my lack of skill with the controller. The monsters throughout did a great job of pushing in and forcing movement, and Evade is a great tool to escape in those situations. Movement with Evade is exactly the same base speed as running, and appeared to be increased by movement increases on items just like regular movement.

Monster Mayhem
Monster pacing has been adjusted for the console versions of Diablo III. There is a lower limit to how many creatures can be attacking a character at once; the rest can end up hanging out in the back, and then fill in once the closer monsters have been slain. There is a great visceral feel when hacking and slashing through the monsters, or raining down death and destruction in spells.

A simple Withermoth, that will be much more deadly in the console versions of Diablo III.

Some of the monsters have been updated directly, as the console developers have gone over each area of the game. One example is the Withermoth, those massive moths with lightning charges that are found in a few locations within the various Highlands areas. The console D3 developers decided that since the moths were only encountered in a few places in the game, they should be more memorable, and so the Withermoth damage on the console was increased by up to 500%. There were other changes made to monsters throughout the game, even if most of them weren't that drastic.

Getting the Gear
The item drops have been tweaked on the console Diablo III, with Common and Magic items dropping less. Items drops are more likely to have stats that are suited to the characters being played, such as a Barbarian seeing more items with Strength. When two or more players are playing together in the local multiplayer mode, all the drops on the ground are visible to everyone locally, and can be picked up by anyone there. (Players connected via the internet get their own loot, just like on the PC version.) The interface that makes it easy to compare items and equip them also makes it fast to drop an item that another character could use, to keep the action moving.

Just in the hour or so that the 5 of us were playing on the PS3 Diablo III in Act I Nightmare, we did see 4 Legendary items drop. This was playing the D3 demo set up for E3, so the drop rate may have been artificially boosted just for that, but it was a bit surprising to see that amount of legendary loot.

Crafting and Merchants
The vendors in the console D3 sell more Rare equipment than they do in the PC version, which is designed to help in the leveling up process; it shouldn't make much of a change in the end-game gearing up, according to the developers. One other useful aspect when dealing with merchants is the addition of a Junk option for items in a character's inventory. Any item that is marked as Junk will automatically be sold to a merchant, the next time the character visits one in town.

Crafting has received a boost, primarily due to the fact that the crafted items pick the primary stat most useful to the crafting character. The console D3 developers talked about how initially, they had also lowered the cost of crafting, to encourage that aspect of the game. But with the items crafted automatically being at least somewhat useful to that character, they ended up reverting those cost reductions, because crafting was already so powerful. As it stands right now, they said crafting on the console was slightly overpowered.

All these itemization changes aren't part of the Items 2.0 Revamp that is planned for the PC version of Diablo III, but some of the same ideas clearly motivated the designers. The massive difference for items on the console is that there aren't any Auction Houses available to speed up the gearing up process; most console D3 players will be automatically playing "self-found" characters from the start. From our interview with Josh Mosqueira and other developers, it sounds like they aren't really quite sure how much trading will go on within the console version of Diablo III. It will certainly play out differently than the PC version, which is so centered around the Auction House.

Couch Rules
The big new experience offered by the console Diablo III is playing with friends in one location, all connected to a single machine. Cramming all of Diablo III into a console was quite a task, especially machines over 7 years old like the PS3 and Xbox 360. But it holds up remarkably well, and it feels like a game that lends itself to a group of friends hanging out and leveling up together. The hardcore Diablo III experience is already best when played with friends, whether it's sharing the adrenaline rush of a character almost dying but somehow surviving, or directly saving someone else's hide.

The local co-op mode of the console Diablo III encourages such social gameplay even more than the PC version, just by virtue of having everyone together playing on one screen. The "couch rules" can dictate who picks up most of the loot, who sets the pace, and all those other decisions. Movement with everyone on one screen may sound strange, but it's fluid and easy to handle once you try it out. The camera zooms out fairly far when characters spread out, with colored circles beneath each character to show who is where. All local co-op players are kept on the same screen no matter what; if one character teleports to town, the other local co-op players will be pulled back as well. The same thing happens if someone isn't moving at all, while the others are running off; the non-responsive player will be dragged along behind them for a few seconds, and then automatically teleports to the middle of the action, right next to the active characters.

When testing the movement and how far the camera would zoom out with local multiplayer characters, I found a way to use this to my advantage. The other fan site representative I was with had been looting most of the items, so when we finished off one elite pack, I had my Wizard sprint away far enough that his Warrior was teleported over to that spot, away from the loot... while I ran back to grab it all myself! He returned the favor later on, teleporting me into the middle of a pack of dying Molten mobs, when I was intentionally lagging behind. That is the sort of behavior that would be griefing if allowed in a traditional internet multiplayer environment. In the context of people playing together at the same physical location, it's all fun and games.

It is easy to imagine hanging out with friends and playing Diablo III on the console, everyone lounging across a couch and chairs in front of a large screen TV. With the finely tuned loot and character progress that the Diablo III console version seems to provide, it may be a solid hit for console players looking for a game that offers a single-player experience that can also be shared with friends. If the full game gives the same level of fun playing with friends that the preview provided, it could be (in the words of Kormac the Templar) something rather Glorious!
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