There are certain gaming series’ that have become iconic examples of their given genres. For first-person shooters, there is Half-Life, for platformers, Mario and for action role-playing games, there is Diablo 2. Released in 2000, Diablo 2 quickly became synonymous with PC gaming culture. Even if they haven’t played it, almost everyone has been exposed to the game in some form over the years.

Now, 11 years later, the Diablo series has finally made its way back into the hands of the public with the release of the beta for Diablo 3. Despite the announcement that it would see a release in early 2012, gamers have been itching to get their hands on the long-awaited title. Sporting new features and new classes, the question on most gamers’ minds is whether the experience will be worthy of its venerable name.

Jumping right into the beta, the first thing that players will notice is that the game looks fantastic. As evidenced by any of the title’s pre-release¬†gameplay videos, Diablo 3 is definitely a beautiful game. From the character models to the environment to the creatures that inhabit it, it’s clear that a lot of care went into crafting an immersive fantasy world for gamers to place themselves in.

While some gamers may be turned off by the dark fantasy themed world of Sanctuary, once they get past the game’s foreboding tone, they will be treated to a world that truly feels alive despite its decaying aesthetic. Gameplay videos don’t do the game’s world justice. While other games in the genre suffer from a strong feeling of repetitiveness with constantly rehashed environments and characters, everything in the world of Diablo 3 has a distinct feel to it.

Diablo 3 Beta Barbarian Charge

A simple walk through the woods, despite being a mundane activity, is entertaining as a result of the living nature of Diablo 3‘s environments. As players walk, small creatures scurry out of bushes crossing the path, branches fall from rotting trees, and cliff faces crumble. While these things may seem insignificant at first, they add a new level of immersion for player as they explore. Rather than feeling stiff and artificial, it truly feels as if the game’s environments are living, breathing entities.

This is even more true when looking at the creatures who inhabit the world. While Diablo 3 is no different than any other game in the genre, in that players will be seeing the same enemies over and over throughout their journeys, the enemies still keep fresh as they emerge from every nook and cranny of the environment – proving that you’re players are never alone. While some characters re-appear, there is a wide variety of creatures – meaning that players will constantly feel as if they are experiencing something new.

The human NPC’s who reside in the game’s world are no different. They have just as much visual flair as everything else in the title, giving each character a distinct feel. However, it’s their voices that set them apart. Strong voice acting is one of the game’s higher points. No matter a gamer’s playstyle (or where they go), each character on the journey is given an extra bit of personality – thanks to the brilliant work of the game’s writers and voice actors.

As for gameplay, for the most part, fans of the series and fans of dungeon crawlers and action RPG’s alike should already have an idea of what to expect when getting into Diablo 3. Rather than being an evolution of the genre, Blizzard‘s upcoming title instead refines the aspects which have made the genre what it is. While there are new features present, Diablo 3 strives to perfect a formula that has already been laid down.

Diablo 3 Beta Witch Doctor Haunt

Everything about the action RPG experience feels polished. The controls are tight and responsive ensuring that attacks land where they are intended to, loot is plentiful and varied, allowing the player to outfit their character however they please, and attacks have real heft and power to them. This feeling of power was one of the most pleasant surprises going into the game. Thanks to Diablo 3‘s physics engine, a player’s attacks seem to have real inertia.

As players land attacks, particularly as the barbarian, pieces of the environment fly across the screen, structures and nearby objects crumble, grass sways, and dead enemy bodies react accordingly – as they make use of the game’s rag-doll physics. Landing a particularly strong attack and seeing an enemy fly across the screen into a tree is extremely rewarding and gives players the sense that blows actually have weight behind them.

This is evidenced by all five of the game’s classes – who each have a distinct role on the battlefield. From the newly announced demon hunter who excels when fighting at range (while keeping enemies at bay through the use of their trickery), to the witch doctor who summons creatures to keep the enemy threat low (while making use of damage over time spells), each of the classes provides a wholly unique experience.

Diablo 3 Beta Wizard Fire

A seemingly small change that ends up having quite a large impact on the game is the new orb and potion health system. By picking up health orbs in battle, the focus becomes less about hoarding healing potions, and more about getting into the heat of battle and staying there. Now, it’s less common for players to have to run out of combat in order to safely heal, improving the combat overall and making the experience flow better.

Another new addition which helps to keep players in the action for longer is the new crafting and looting system. While some genre veterans may cry foul at the prospect of being able to sell items and break them down from the field, making inventory management simpler, in practice it’s hard to look down on the feature. The act of either turning items into gold or turning them into building materials is incredibly easy – and takes no time at all. No longer will gamers have to worry about dropping items while in a dungeon just because their inventory has become full.

It’s these features that help to take the established genre and streamline it in a way that will make the experience more accessible for new players – while still remaining deep and useful for veteran players. It’s a precarious balancing act, but Blizzard has proven that they know what they are doing.

Diablo 3 Beta Barbarian Scream

The only truly negative thing that can be said about the Diablo 3 beta is already a major conversation point in the gaming industry – ever since it was announced. Since Diablo 3 requires a persistent internet connection, it can be nothing short of infuriating to be deep within a dungeon and have your Internet connection short out, forcing a disconnect, and returning you to the nearest town upon logging back in.

For a game that has so much polish and is such a strong representation of its genre, it’s disappointing to see the trouble that DRM can cause. Despite this shortcoming though, it’s difficult to stay angry at the game, as its randomized dungeons, and random encounters in the wild, ensure that even if players have to replay part of a quest – ¬†it still feels fresh.

While it is still quite far from release, it’s comforting to see that Diablo 3 is coming along well and is as polished as it is. Even though some gamers may have been hoping for Blizzard to attempt to reinvent the wheel, this new iteration in the Diablo series is a true refinement of the genre.

Are you excited that Diablo 3 doesn’t fix what isn’t broken and instead refines existing features? Which class are you most excited to try out?

Diablo 3 is set to hit shelves in early 2012 for the PC and Mac, with rumors persisting that the game may see a release on consoles at some point.