According to my e-mail invite to the Diablo 3 beta I am free (and even encouraged) to discuss my experiences as much as I like. So I'm going to, starting right now.
When I received my beta invite late last week I thought Blizzard and/or fate was playing a cruel trick on me, getting me access to one of my most anticipated upcoming games right as SWTOR (another of my most anticipated upcoming games) is about to release. "Oh cruel fate," I railed, "I don't have time to play both!"
After checking the beta out over the weekend though, it's not looking like much of a competition after all.
I'm going to discuss the good and the bad of my experiences, starting with the good.
First off, the game runs very smoothly on my moderate spec machine, even with all settings at maximum. Anyone who has ever played a Diablo game is going to be hit with a wave of nostalgia as you first enter the game world as the music and some of the sound effects are straight from the earlier games. Combat is the smooth click-fest you'd expect, and loot is plentiful. Experience seems to accrue at a reasonable rate, but not so fast that you feel like things are whizzing by too quickly. It definitely slows down after level five or so, maybe too much, it's hard to say.
Some of the new features are really nice, especially the crafting system. Rather than relying wholly on the randomness of drops and vendors, the Blacksmith has a list of recipes for items he can create. The item itself has semi-random stats, but the items are blue quality or better, and you can choose which slot you need an item for. Don't have a helm yet, or only a crappy one? The Blacksmith can make you one, assuming he's learned the right recipe. Crafting is paid for with materials acquired by breaking down magical items into their components along with a small amount of gold. The Blacksmith can be "leveled up" by finding five recipe pages which can be bound into a Tome of Learning. The Tome, along with some crafting materials, can be given to the Blacksmith to level his crafting skill, which in turn unlocks new recipes. It's a nice system that lets you turn junk drops into something useful, and my Wizard has been making good use of it. There are two more crafters in the game, but I haven't encountered them yet.
I also really like the change to character development that they've made. As you level up you will learn new skills/spells, but you can't just use them willy-nilly. Instead, you have a limited number of skill slots into which you place the selection of skills you want to use. You gain additional skill slots as you level up, starting with one at level 1 and eventually expanding to six. At the lowest levels it feels pretty restrictive as you don't have much to do with only two or three skill slots, especially if you pick a long duration buff as one of your skills. Still, I like the system overall, as it has something of a Guild Wars feel to it, where finding the combination of skills that works for you is more important than cramming every skill you've got onto an expanded skillbar and trying to remember what they all do. It means one level 20 wizard could have an entirely different selection of spells than another -- wizard A might toss magic missiles and arcane orbs, while wizard B electrocutes his foes after freezing them with a frost nova. Most importantly, you can freely re-assign skills by visiting a shrine in town (or at the start of some dungeons) so you can experiment and play around with your build endlessly until you find what you like, rather than making permanent changes that can only be altered with great difficulty.
Another positive is that for the most part there are no class/attribute restrictions on gear. Certain items are class specific, such as the Demon Hunter cloaks and crossbows, but anyone can wear that suit of plate armor if they are high enough level. That was true in Diablo 2 as well, except in that game your mage would have to meet the strength requirement to wear the high defense armor. In Diablo 3, they can just wear it. This means when you choose your class you're just picking a playstyle, not a role. If you want to be a plate wearing wizard that fights with a sword and shield, you can do that. The stats on that sort of gear probably won't maximize your DPS, but you'll have loads more defense than the wizard using a wand and focus, and you don't have to gimp yourself by stacking strength to achieve it. Good stuff.
It's not all sunshine and roses though. The beta currently has some pretty severe server issues, which is strange considering the amount of experience Blizzard has in implementing this sort of thing. They've been doing Battle.net for over a decade, and World of Warcraft since 2004. They should be pros at this by now, yet most of the time the beta servers were crashed and I couldn't log in.
Part of the reason the game plays so smoothly is that the graphics look a bit dated. Diablo 3's prolonged development time is counting against it here, as "modern" graphics pass it by. The in-game graphics are passable, but I have to say the character graphics on the character creation screen (which is significantly more zoomed in than in game) are downright ugly. The spell effects have so far also been pretty lackluster. They're upgrades from Diablo 2 no doubt, but seem fairly flat. I have yet to see anything that makes me go "wow". It's functional, but uninspiring.
And that, sadly, seems to describe the game quite well - functional but uninspiring. It's a well crafted game with some solid new features, and should be a satisfying experience for any Diablo veteran. A couple of hours into the game though, I found myself getting bored. As I worked my way through the levels of the Cathedral, it really started to remind me of Torchlight, which was a strange thing to note. Torchlight should have been a game in the vein of Diablo, but it's passed its inspiration by and now Diablo 3 is a game in the vein of Torchlight. Outside of the things I mentioned earlier, Torchlight already does most of the "new" things Diablo 3 is doing (such as mobs climbing out of the terrain, secret doors, destructible terrain, etc.) and the three dimensional dungeon levels feel almost identical.
This isn't really a failing for Diablo 3, I mean Torchlight was a good game and I enjoyed playing it. Plus many of the new things it did are just sensible evolutions for the genre and it would be odd for Diablo 3 to NOT include them. Nevertheless, it gave Diablo 3 a real feeling of sameness, like I'd done all this before and sapped the feeling of "new shiny" from the game very quickly. I know the game is going to ramp up as you go along, and I'm sure it's way more fun when played with friends, but playing the first act solo was a bit of a let down.
Am I still looking forward to the game? Absolutely. Is the Diablo 3 beta going to compete with my SWTOR playtime? Not a chance.