Played for a bit at last week's Gamescom, I found my short time with Diablo III's Witch Doctor initially exhilarating, but over time it left me questioning what exactly I liked about Blizzard's famed franchise.
The Witch Doctor, Blizzard tells us, dispatches opponents with "terrifying precision, assaulting his victim's mind and body with elixirs and powders that evoked fires, explosions, and poisonous spirits." They can also summon undead creatures to "rend the flesh from his enemy's body."
These dark shaman come from the interior of the Torajan jungles. Unknown, unseen by most, the tribes of witch doctors, we're told, come with fanciful names, like the Clan of the Seven Stones and the Tribe of the Five Hills. They hold regular honour battles to collect the materials needed for the human sacrifice that drives both their civilisation and abilities.
The tribes also believe in gods who bestow their life force on the veiled reality in which we all live. It's pretty heady stuff.
All of this build up: This tapestry of back story, of cultural origins, of personal strife, combines to help paint a picture of a race with a rich and intriguing heritage, but once in the actual game, playing Diablo III as this warrior mystic, I found myself happily, almost mindlessly clicking away on the mouse like a third-party gold farmer harvesting in World of Warcraft.
All thoughts of back story, of honour battles, of a veiled reality powered by life force were gone, boiled down to the chattering of my mouse and the twitching of my fingers across the keyboard.
It left me wondering how much of Diablo III's attraction is about nostalgia and how much of it is about good game design. I'm not saying Diablo III is a bad game. It isn't. While I probably could wait for the game to come out, I certainly don't want to.
It's telling how quickly I lost myself in a game so very similar to the one I played eight years ago. Within minutes I was happily guiding my witch doctor through vaguely familiar scenery, hunting for enemies to attack.
While the witch doctor has plenty of direct attack spells at his disposal, like a skull-themed fire bomb, my favourite was the class' ability to summon zombie dogs. These undead canines roam around your character looking for creatures to attack.
I also enjoyed the horrify ability, which had my witch doctor put on a over-sized mask, causing nearby enemies to flee in terror. A useful skill when you start to become overwhelmed.
But the experience, albeit a very brief taste of the upcoming game, didn't really change from my memories of playing Diablo, Diablo II and its expansion. I was still roaming around, clicking a ton and using my keyboard a bit.
The mechanics of play and the graphic pay-off seemed at odds with the almost euphoric enjoyment I got out of playing the game. Why was that?
For me, I think it's because the game carefully, cleverly taps into my fond memories of the ghosts of Diablo's past. Playing Diablo III throws me back to those late nights of Diablo II when my son was a newborn and I played the game between bouts of feeding and diaper changing. It reminds me of my days of playing the original Diablo and Hellfire when I was fresh out of college, moving from state to state, filling my nights in towns where I was a stranger with endless role-play.
I suspect that my enjoyment of Diablo III is more about reminiscence than it is dutiful gaming. Which leaves me wondering? What will gamers new to the franchise think?