Blizzcon 2011 Exclusive Hands-On Coverage

Blizzard is one of the few companies that gets my money for everything they make, sight unseen.  When I played Diablo, StarCraft, and WarCraft they ruled my world for quite a while, giving me all of the RTS and loot-whoring fun I could ask for.  When Brood Wars hit I was hooked once more with an entirely new set of well-balanced units joining an already stellar cast of characters.  Even the Sierra-developed Hellfire expansion for Diablo grabbed my attention, leaving me wanting for more Blizzard fun.  Fast forward to today and the little company that introduced you to the phrase “Work, work, work” and “Ahhh….FRESH MEAT!” has over 8.5 million sales in Diablo and Diablo II, including expansions.  They nabbed a solid 10 million sales courtesy of the Warcraft franchise, cleared 10 million with the original StarCraft and expansion, and are on pace to hit 8 million by the end of this year with StarCraft 2.  When you factor in roughly 11 million active subscribers to World of Warcraft (not even counting the initial game cost investment) you have a company that is free to throw their own party – and that’s exactly what they have done for the last 5 years running.

Admittedly, I’ve actually stopped playing World of Warcraft.  The addiction level was just too high, and my review plate is pretty much always full.  With one out of three franchises out of the picture, and StarCraft II already shipped, I wasn’t sure I wanted to trek down to Anaheim to just check out Diablo III.  At the end of the two days of Blizzcon let me tell you – I’m very glad I went.

For my Blizzcon wrapup I’m going to split my hands-on coverage by product.


World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
The first thing my wife said made me wide eyed in both horror and happiness.  She said “Oh, that’s so cute!  I could see me playing that…” when the Pandarians were revealed on-screen.   World of Warcraft: mists of Pandaria will be the fourth in a line of expansion sets from Blizzard.  Shrouded in fog for over 10,000 years, the Pandarians have been completely shielded from the war between the Horde and Alliance forces.  As the oppressive weight of Deathwing’s cataclysm crushes Azaroth, both the Horde and Alliance wash up on the ‘island’ of Pandaria.

Starting my hands-on time (right next to Adam Sessler), I created my Pandarian Monk and named him “Fengshui”.  The first thing that I noticed was that the island that the forces of Azeroth had crashed on wasn’t an island at all, but a giant turtle.  One of the developers tells me that it was 10,000 years ago that this turtle began to row away from Azaroth and the mist that surrounds it was what kept the Pandarians safe all this time.  At an area called “The Wandering Isles” I began my training by visiting one of the nearby masters.  The quests were familiar territory fairly immediately, asking me to beat up 5 training bags – a quest called “The Lesson of the Sandy Fist”.  My reward upon completing the quest was a pair of new handwraps.

The interface for the Monk is unlike other classes in World of Warcraft.  There is a dragon-scrolled filigree at the bottom of the screen with four light circles and four dark ones.  My initial attack, a Jab, allowed me to generate both light and dark points.  As I leveled Fengshui I earned new skills that cost either dark or light sided points to execute. For instance, the Tiger Palm uses one light point, and the Black Out Kick (a well-executed spin hook kick) uses a dark point as power.  In another departure, the Monk has no auto-attack ability, requiring players to hit the jab key to keep their enemies at bay.  Similar to the Warrior class, the Monk also has stances for use, but I was only able to see the Stance of the Fierce Tiger in my limited play time.  The monk also has a Chi stat that is used for certain attacks, as well as a rolling maneuver which allows for some more rapid (and cute!) travel.

Unspoiled by war, the Pandiarian landscape is obviously an Asian-inspired world.  Fish swim in a nearby pond tended by a fishing monk, monkeys called Hozu work to steal food and items from the nearby inhabitants, and the occasional angry disciple (looking at you Jaomin Bo!) await their chance to challenge the new student in the Wu-song Village.  The world is bright with reds and blues, and every creature is inspired by the cultural reference.  As a martial artist, I was impressed with the great animation that Mists of Pandaria has to offer.  While no date was given for when this expansion would hit, it is clear that it has been in development for some time.

While I didn’t get any hands-on time with it, Blizzard also had a few other goodies to go along with the expanded world.  The first addition is a completely new pet battle system.  In what looks like a Pokemon style combat sequence, players will level up and battle their critters against other critters in a friendly duel for cute supremacy.  Blizzard Lead Designer Cory Stockton walked us through a quick demonstration of the system, elaborating that you would choose three pets to fight in the arena in turn-based battles.  You’ll have to visit a whole new set of trainers to build up your little friends, so start saving your cash now!

In addition to the new pet battle system, the level cap will soar to 90, and you’ll have all new zones like the Jade Forest, Jun-Lai Summit, and other high-level areas in the Wandering Isle.   Additionally you’ll have a system called “Dungeon Challenge Mode” which will allow players to perform those weekly raids to compete for the fastest times.  There will also be a new talent system, but no elaboration was available quite yet.

If all of this wasn’t enough, the folks at Blizzard are enticing a whole new segment of gamers to try out their upcoming masterpiece, Diablo III.  If you sign up for the World of Warcraft Annual Pass, you will get the full digital-download version of the game for free when the game ships next Spring.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was very well received by both press and gamers alike.  Relaunching an e-Sports obsession that was already storming the world, Wings of Liberty told the story of Jim Raynor.  Four years after the events of Brood War, Kerrigan’s forces have disappeared, and Arcturus Mengsk has declared himself Dominion Emperor.  As Raynor discovers an ancient Protoss artifact, Kerrigan and her forces descend to retrieve it.  This Xel’Naga artifact ends up being far more powerful than initially expected.  With it, Jim Raynor renews his vow to rescue Kerrigan from her Queen of Blades form, and in the end does exactly that.  Reverting to something in between the Queen of Blades form and her human form, Kerrigan loses much of her memories of being the Queen of Blades, and that is where StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm kicks off.

Restored to her Ghost armor, Kerrigan swears vengeance on the one thing that remains burned in her memory – Arcturus Mengsk left her to die.  Before we can get to that vengeance however, she must regain control of the Swarm.  Splitting into several rival broods, the Zerg are Kerrigan’s chance at mobilizing an army capable of taking down the Dominion.

My hands on kicked off with an interesting quote from one of the developers when he said “You’ll love this – it’s all Kerrigan, all the time”.  We were given only 30 minutes of game time with StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, but I managed to get three times that amount thanks to a quiet press room with no waiting.  I’ll go through both of the available missions with as much detail as I can muster, knowing that I’m likely only spoiling the first half hour of the game.

The mission choices were simple – either assault a rival brood Queen on the frozen planet of Kaldir, or attempt to retake the Zerg forces on Char.  Char was home to Kerrigan’s personal brood, but is currently being purged by Dominion General Warfield’s expeditionary forces.  Kaldir is the last known location of the Na’Fash brood – a world dominated by ice storms, and suspected to be under siege by the Protoss.  I decided that a trip to subjugate Na’Fash and her brood was in order.

Before landing on Na’Fash I got to meet with my brood advisor – a Zerg creature named Izsha.  Iszha identifies herself as the memory of my time as the Queen of Blades.  She identifies the mission objectives (the mission is called “Silence their Cries”) including Reclaiming the Na’Fash Brood, and as a bonus, collect Yeti Essences to manipulate the Zerg DNA strands to make them hearty enough to withstand the blistering cold.  This DNA manipulation comes courtesy of another Zerg hive member named Abathur.  His ability as Evolution Master is simple – to take DNA from the planet denizens and spin them into the pliable swarm makeup to build their power.  In the Kaldir mission I could only upgrade the Zergling, granting him a Hardened Carapace (+30 to life), Corrosive Talons (+20% to base damage), or Swarm Frenzy (when a zergling dies it enrages the nearby zerglings giving them +20% to attack and movement speed).

With the collapse of the Zerg hierarchy, many Zerg have become feral, answering to no queen.  As Kerrigan traverses the dangerous icy landscape she is able to free the ice-covered creatures, re-subjugating them in the process.  Finding a brood completely encased in ice, we free it and restore it to life.  This immediately attracts the attention of the nearby Protoss faction.  Spinning up three spires to extend the range of their Psi-link, their aim is to alert the Golden Armada back on Shakuras that the Queen of Blades has returned!

By collecting some DNA from the native Yeti, Abathur granted the ability to resist the blistering cold that paralyzed everything every few minutes.  In the bonus section of the mission, killing some powerful Yeti Matriarchs and using their DNA granted us the ability to ignore the effect of the Ice Storm completely.  As the snow and ice sleeted across the Protoss forces, they looked on in feeble rage as I crushed their immobilized forces.  A little bit of planning and the use of the tactical edge granted by the storms allowed me to complete the mission ahead of schedule.  It was there that I took my first hostage – a Protoss researcher named Lassara.  This researcher insisted that the Protoss there were just colonists, but it is outside the scope of the first two missions to learn her true nature.

The second mission, Char, was a bit trickier.   While the Zerg are more suited to the harsh heat of Char, they aren’t used to facing a rival queen.  In this mission entitled “War for the Brood” we are immediately assaulted by a Zerg queen named Za’gora.  Refusing to accept us in our new form as the Queen of Blades, she insists that she will destroy you and your tiny brood.  Abathur gave us access to upgrade our Zerg roaches with similar options as I had on Kaldir, but it was the introduction of banelings that would turn this tide.  When we were Queen of Blades we placed millions of eggs in this area, and thanks to some advice from Abathur, we intend to gather 100 of them to hatch them in the birthing pools within the Acid Marsh.  Our mission is simple, resist the constant assaults from Za’gora (including killing her form over and over as she regenerates) while collecting 100 eggs before she can gather the same amount.  As a bonus, there are two infested Terran Command Centers that require our immediate and destructive attention to prevent further perversions of the Terrans.

Putting down Za’gora’s forces proved to be fairly easy given the explosive nature of the banelings, and ultimately crushing her base to prove my superiority was even easier…thanks to the 100 eggs that I hatched.  With over 100 banelings at my command, I began the comically-powerful rolling march on Za’gora, blowing up her troops and structures alike as she watched in horror.  Crushed at last, Za’gora was sentenced to death by Kerrigan, until the rogue queen swear fealty to us by declaring “The Zerg rule by force of will”, and recognizing us as Queen of Blades once more.  Allowing her to live would give us advantages when we planned our next attack – the purging of the Dominion General Warfield from this planet.

After the missions ended I had the opportunity to evolve one more set of powers – Kerrigan herself.  Sporting two unlocked “Battle Focus” sets, Kerrigan can select up to four powers such as spawning 6 banelings periodically or dropping a broodling nest at her feet.  These are classified as Destruction and Swarm, with the remaining two being locked from view.

Graphically, as great as Wings of Liberty looked, Heart of the Swarm steps it up even further.  You have only look at the Blizzcon video for the game to see that as it was all done in-engine.  Much like Myst of Pandarian, there is no release date for Heart of the Swarm quite yet beyond 2012.

Diablo III

After all of the fantastic hands-on time I got with StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm and Mists of Pandaria, I was surprised to see that Blizzard was not showing anything single-player beyond the beta footage we’d already seen on the show floor or in the press room.  That didn’t stop me from drooling over the incredible Diablo III Collector’s Edition.  Let’s take a look at what will be in the ivory-colored box:

A fallen star burns across the sky, signaling the rebirth of a long-forgotten evil, and calling mortal heroes to arms once more. This limited edition collector’s set commemorates your return to the darkened world of Sanctuary. Inside, you’ll find a treasure trove of rare and legendary items to aid you in your apocalyptic battles at the End of Days.

  • BEHIND THE SCENES DVD AND BLU-RAY TWO-DISC SET – Meet the teams behind the creation of Diablo III with this exclusive Blu-ray/DVD two-disc set. Enjoy over an hour of interviews detailing how the world of Sanctuary came together from the combined efforts of artists, writers, programmers, designers, musicians and animators.
  • COLLECTOR’S EDITION SOUNDTRACK – Experience twenty four original pieces from the Diablo III soundtrack on CD and deepen your music collection with a sound as timeless as the Eternal Conflict itself.
    THE ART OF diablo iii – Delve into the game’s stunning artistic development with this 208-page art book, which catalogues countless pieces, from early concepts to final 3D renderings.
  • Diablo® iii PC/MAC GAME – The full version of the Diablo III game on DVD-ROM.

EXCLUSIVE in-game content:

  • DIABLO III AESTHETIC ARTIFACTS – Call forth glowing angel wings, unfurl an exclusive banner, and dye your armor sets with the Bottled Cloud or Bottled Smoke items.
  • WORLD OF WARCRAFT PET FETISH SHAMAN – Journey throughout the World of Warcraft with the fetish shaman at your side.
  • STARCRAFT II BATTLE.NET PORTRAITS – Display your status as a hero of the mortal realms with an exclusive army decal and three Diablo-themed portraits.
  • DIABLO SKULL AND 4GB USB SOULSTONE – Shackle your PC into unholy slavery with this 4GB USB soulstone and Diablo skull base. The USB also includes full versions of Diablo II and Diablo II: Lord of Destruction so you can retrace the sinister path of the Dark Wanderer once more.

With the rumored price being $99 bucks, there is absolutely ZERO doubt that I will be handing over exactly that to Blizzard.

Blizzard, set to absolutely knock our socks off with their fantastic cinematic work once again, released a trailer for Diablo III entitled “The Black Soulstone”. In this trailer we got to see a terrible interaction between Leah Caine and a new threat for the Diablo franchise – Azodan.  This demon lord seeks the stone to grant himself power as a new Prime Evil.  As I looked over the book for Blizzcon 2011 my speculative mind ran wild as a more slender and seemingly female Diablo adorned the cover.  Perhaps poor Leah would bring the curse of the Demon upon her own forehead?  We’ll have to wait until Spring 2012 to find out.

Gameplay and Auction House Panel
The most important panel for Diablo III in my mind was the Gameplay and Auction House Panel.  This panel featured Jay Wilson, Jason Bender, Andrew Chambers, Wyatt Cheng, and Chris Haga to explain the gameplay features, tuning, combat system, loot progression, and Auction House system that was being tweaked as we speak.

The first item for this panel was the Achievements that’ll be present in the game.  Many of them will be given for playing the game and progressing through the natural elements.  The second set will be for what is being dubbed “Extreme behavior”, with achieving a level 60 hardcore player being used as an example.  The third set of achievements will be granted for “Absurd behavior”.  These behaviors can be defeating all of the bosses in the game by punching them without a weapon or beating the game having never used armor.   The more achievements you collect, the more things you will unlock for your banner.  The banner will get new crests, ribbons, accents, base (but only if you are on hardcore), and more as you collect them.  While they are purely cosmetic (other than serving to allow your friends to teleport to you), these banners will certainly serve as bragging tools for advanced players.

Looting and Crafting
A great deal of the fun in Diablo comes from collecting the best loot.  With over 2.3 TRILLION pieces of random gear possible in Diablo III, getting the best piece of armor or best weapon is a tricky proposition.  In Diablo II the best you could do was try the gamble system in town or hope to find your item on some shady website for purchase.  In Diablo III you’ll be able to use the crafting system to augment and supplement your loot all throughout the game, courtesy of several types of crafters.

The first crafting person is The Mystic.  The Mystic will add enhancements to any item in the game.  This allows you to further customize otherwise powerful items to make them more class-oriented.  It also allows you to create what is being referred to as “aberrant builds” including melee Wizards and Demon Hunters.  Lead Designer Jay Wilson says it is possible to play with these builds – it’s just harder.

The Jeweler is the second type of crafter in Diablo III, allowing players to add sockets and gems (or remove gems) from any item in the game.  There are 14 ranks of gems, so you’ll need to use the jeweler to combine them into more powerful ones.

The last crafter in the game is one we’ve seen in the extensive Diablo III Beta footage I’ve compiled – The Blacksmith.  The blacksmith crafts new weapons and armor, even set items and Legendary items, should you find the right recipes and have the appropriate skills.

All of the crafters in the game use the same resource to level up – training pages.  You’ll find recipes throughout the game to give your crafters more skills, and you’ll use training pages to allow them to level up.   Levelling up gives you a new look, as well as access to a higher tier of the appropriate skill.  There are 10 levels for all three of them, but all of the crafters are account based, so you won’t have to constantly fight for training pages throughout your various character builds.

Perhaps it was the unbalanced teams (4 vs 3) or the fact that they gave us Level 60 characters with little time to learn how to use them, but PVP was actually not all that fun for me.  With four players on each side running around a small arena chewing one another up with their highest level powers, it seemed like there was little in the way of real content here.  You’ll square off for 10 minutes at a time using your PvE character in this mode. I’m sure some folks will eat this up, but I’ll be content to play co-operatively and single player in Diablo III.

Auction House
The Auction House has been a source of angst and contention since it was announced.  Blizzard, wanting to give players a safe place to do in-game cash and real-world cash transactions for items, has created an Auction House for Diablo III players.  This Auction House will give players the ability to search generically, specifically, or anywhere in between for the items they want.  No longer should you have to drop your items on the ground and hope that you aren’t about to be ripped off.   As a gesture to show that this isn’t a pure money-grab, Blizzard will be giving all players a few free listings a week to allow you to generate some cash of your own should you wish.

The scenario painted at Blizzcon was simple – imagine you find an incredible Barbarian axe with your Demon Hunter.  If you aren’t playing a Barbarian or have a friend to trade it to, you might wish to sell that item on the Auction House.  You visit the Auction House that uses real cash and list the axe for 10 bucks.  The item sells and you are given a choice – immediately transfer that cash to PayPal, or leave it within the Auction House system.  Once that choice is made, you cannot go back, so choose wisely.  In this case, we leave it in the system and find a great item for purchase for only 7 dollars.  This leaves us with 3 dollars in the system to use at another time – the net result being a good item you’ll want to use, and credit to use later, all without taking a dime out of your pocket.

The Auction House will be getting a bit of an overhaul in an upcoming Beta patch, allowing players to use an Advanced Search to specify exactly what attributes (or name) you want in an item.  It will also grant you the Smart Search – a system that watches how you play and then suggests items that fit your playstyle.  In short, Blizzard wants you out killing monsters and collecting loot, not fighting with the Auction House.

Final Game Tuning
The game has been recently delayed to early 2012, and watching all of the incredible work that the panel had to show us, it is obvious why – there is a great deal still in flux with Diablo III.   For instance, a new type of Champion monster skill called “mortar” that does exactly what it sounds like was just added to the game.  Similarly, fixing synergies where there was a ‘best’ or ‘only logical’ choice for a build is being tackled constantly, based greatly on Beta feedback.  Another big change is that Wizards will no longer simply lob their spells but will use their weapon’s attack power to base their spell damage.  Much of the balancing that makes Blizzard games so awesome is clearly taking place here – we have but to be patient.

Chris Haga took the stage to talk about making the game more ‘awesome’.  He talked about a few skills that didn’t quite make the cut, including a Monk skill to be able to summon four tower pillars that would explode when punched for additional damage, a floating skull that followed the Demon Hunter (it was replaced by a sword, a bat, and eventually ferrets!), and even Rock Worms that resemble the worms from Dune in form and function.  It is clear that Chris and his team are very interested in maintaining the fantastic setting of Diablo III while still making it fun to play.

Difficulty Levels
A big part of the replayability of any loot-whoring title is the ability to ramp up the difficulty and collect better items.  Diablo III will have four difficulty levels – Normal, Nightmare, Hell, and Inferno.  Normal is intentionally easy, especially the simpler Act 1 quests which serve as a tutorial of sorts.  Each Act will add more difficulties and challenges, meaning that Rares and Champions will go from having 1-2 powers to 3 simultaneously effect powers, or 4 for Hell and Inferno.  Higher difficulties add new item affixes, resistances, items, attributes, and more.  In fact, over 70% of the items in the game are locked away in Nightmare difficulty and above.

The Inferno difficulty is meant to absolutely kick your teeth in.   It is designed for 60th level players, but it will be a challenge no matter what.  It is possible to run it solo, but coordination with other players will make things a bit easier.  Your excess loot and money will be funneled into crafting, much like it would be in an MMO.  Also similar to an MMO, there are multiple Tiers of items at the very top end, giving end-level players something more powerful to strive for.  Fortunately, this isn’t going to turn into end-boss raids or speed runs as the game remains completely random with the randomly spawned Rare and Champion creatures holding onto the best loot.  In the end, Blizzard wants folks playing for fun, not just running mindlessly on a constant basis for items.

Closing out the panel, the team talked at length about your Beta feedback.  Based on your information they have made a number of changes including making followers viable throughout the game instead of dying off after Act 1, the skill system is potentially being locked down so you can’t swap them out except in town, and even correcting the Ring of the Zodiac to match the continuity from the first game!  Blizzard is listening and working hard – based on what I’ve played and what I’ve seen, Diablo III will be well worth the wait…when it’s done.

“Stay a while…and listen!”

There is nothing more exciting as a gamer than hearing your semi-non gaming wife say that she is excited about the same game you are.  Hearing it for all three games at an event is just enough to make your head spin!  There is no doubt that I came to Blizzcon to worship at the altar of Diablo III, but I am very glad to say that I was equally surprised by Heart of the Swarm and Mists of Pandaria.  As it stands, 2012 is shaping up to be an absolutely awesome year for both Blizzard and gamers alike!

While we wait, check out the photos from the floor, as well as some of our favorites from the costume contest!

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