I was lucky enough to get a Beta key a few days ago from one of my WoW sources who apparently has contacts in Blizzard or something. So, I've been playing the Beta for the last few days.
Executive summary: Yes, it is definitely a Beta.
My general impressions of the Diablo III Beta is that it feels alot like Diablo II with lots of World of Warcraft-like infrastructure features, like a launcher/downloader, an Auction House (although not apparently accessible in-game), very chatty in-game NPC helper that acts like a smarter combat pet, and 3D graphics. However, the game definitely feels like the dungeon crawl Diablo games we all love. It is more evolution than revolution with several nice upgrades from Diablo II, but nothing radically different. This is both good and bad.
- The bad
The bad first, so I can end on a positive note. Although the background textures are beautiful and a step up from Diablo II and Torchlight (which I've also played recently, but maybe Torchlight II will be much nicer), the player's hero character feels somewhat low-res when compared to most other 3D games out there like BioShock, etc. Also, the view is always stuck in the third person isometric, fixed-angle view with a totally useless zoom in feature. Because of the fixed viewing angle, the game doesn't feel that much more 3D than Diablo II.
The game crashes ALOT! I must have crashed like 50-100 times in three days. I can almost predict it will crash when fighting blue mobs (tougher than average), yellow mobs (rare and tough), and most of the time fighting purple mobs (quest-related and tough). I can't believe a game that is in public beta is this unstable. Hopefully Blizzard, knows about these crashes and is on the verge of fixing them, because in the current state it will certainly damage their reputation for quality releases.
- Update around Dec 28: I read on the forums that the crashing may have been caused by some corrupted assets in a game content download and a fresh install might fix it. It does seem to have fixed most of the crashes, but re-downloading 2+ GB of content is not fun.
Pet peeve. The remember login checkbox does not work! This is especially annoying when you crash alot, as you have to re-type everything to get back in the game. I can't believe Blizzard would not fix this bug in a public beta.
While playing the game, besides the crashes, the game seems to stutter when you're about to fight a big group of mobs or what appears to be a minor zone transition like going up stairs. The stuttering isn't super predictable (which is good), but it doesn't feel like a frame drop, but more like jumping back in time a fraction of a second. You get used to it, but it is annoying.
Lastly, the Beta only appears to allow you to play about 25% or less of what I expect will be in the full game, aka only basically one chapter up to the "Skeleton King". The game starts off with your hero seeking the "falling star", but you don't really even get close to finding it. You just see a glowing blue hole. In a previous blog I predicted that Diablo III wouldn't ship until early spring 2012 at the earliest, but after playing the Beta, I can easily see it slipping into early summer 2011. It feels like it has a long way to go.
- The good
The background textures are beautiful and set a consistently gothic mood. The addition of many destructible objects that are seamlessly blended into the background and architecture is very cool. Almost anything made of wood that isn't part of the walls is potentially destructible with fragments and pieces flying all over when you break them.
As with previous Diablo games, the dungeons are semi-random which means you will experience something different every time you play a level unless it has some required pathing for a quest. Also, there are random quest events that pop up that add variety to the game (too infrequently for me, at the moment, as I only got one and it crashed mid-quest and I didn't get the quest on re-try). The mobs are random too for the most part, so you might get tougher blue mobs every once in a while with better treasure.
Speaking of mobs, they look cool and there are quite a variety for only one chapter. There are sneaky leprechaun-like mobs that taunt you and drop a trail of gold as they run away. If you can catch and kill them, they drop alot of loot, but if you are too slow, they portal away. There are also mobs which spawn other mobs that if you don't kill, will flood the area with their spawn (usually skeletons or zombies).
The voice acting is top notch, although I did find it strange that Blizzard really likes Scottish sounding actors for many of their NPCs. The various villagers in New Tristram will have random conversations as you walk by (although they do start to repeat a bit too early). Your hero appears to have customized conversations with the combat companion you encounter about a third of the way into the chapter as you explore dungeons.
So far there only seems to be one combat companion, the Templar, available in the Beta. The AI and pathing is pretty good, but they do sometimes get hung up. They only seem to heal from health globes that drop from killed mobs, unless they have some regeneration gear or a healing spell, so you have to watch their health bar. On normal mode, they rarely get hurt enough to worry, though.
A nice new addition in the "companion" which is a little critter (a bug, rabbit, piglet, rat, etc.) that you can summon with a scroll. The companion has pretty much the sole job of picking up gold, but it is very helpful. They last for a limited time (30 min?), but you usually get enough scrolls to keep from not having one around most of the time.
There aren't many potions or scrolls in the game as of the Beta. Only two levels of healing potions that I encountered, an identify scroll (rarely used until the end of the chapter), and the Scroll of Companion. There are four levels of item quality/rarity that I encountered: gray, white, blue, and yellow. I think I only got a yellow as a drop from the Skeleton King.
As far as getting around in the game, the scroll of town portal has been replaced with a stone of Recall that you get about half way into the chapter. I didn't use it much, but I think it only allows you to return to a dungeon at the nearest checkpoint. There are also waypoint platforms at key places that allow you to teleport around to the locations you've discovered with other waypoints. There are also the occasional teleport shrine to pop you to the dungeon entrance at useful locations deep in dungeons.
I'll end with the crafting system. I really like it. The Beta only only gives you a blacksmith crafter, I think, but he makes cloth, leather and metal armor, as well as weapons of all sorts. You basically collect ingredients by converting items with your Nephalem Cube. Gray and white items convert to common scraps and blue or better items convert to Subtle Essences or special ingredients. You take these parts to your crafter to make stuff. Your crafter is shared by all your heroes so you don't have to level them up multiple times.
You find pages of training books that you can use to level up your crafter. So far the training books seem generic (5 pages makes a book), but maybe they will get more specialized as more of the game is revealed. You need scraps, essences, and a little gold to level up with training books. You can use crafting to fill out most of your item slots with good blue items except the neck slot which I never found an item for. Also I could only craft a shoulder slot item, that I could tell. None ever dropped.
Overall, Diablo III is fun to play with all the same addictive qualities as Diablo II, but with a nice bit of evolutionary improvement. If it releases stable with 3-4 more big chapters, it should be very addicting. With all the competition out there (aka Torchlight II), I'm not sure it will be a blockbuster, but it will probably do pretty well.
- I'm running the Beta on an i7 MacBook Pro with 8 GB RAM and NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M video on Mac OS X 10.6.8.