We first had a look at Diablo III at last year's BlizzCon, shortly after the game was announced. Our impression then was that the game was a long way from completion. Unfortunately, while we weren't too disappointed with what we saw this year, we have to say that it has not changed our opinion on that. Our advice: don't expect to see Diablo III releasing until 2011 or later.

Nevertheless, the build on display this weekend allowed us to see newly enhanced combat, as well as a look at several new zones. The only heroes selectable were the Witch Doctor, Wizard and Barbarian (no Monk, sadly). After seeing the projectile damage of the Witch Doctor last year, I decided to give this class a try.

The first thing you notice is the display area. Diablo II: Lord of Destruction was firmly a product of its time, with a meagre 800x600 resolution limit, but Diablo III naturally supported the maximum resolution of the 24" LCD on the demo machine. The next most obvious feature is the UI - where Diablo II featured a functional update to the original Diablo belt-and-bowl setup, Diablo III adopts more of a World of Warcraft-like approach, with shortcuts to skills appearing next to potions. There are a large number of Diablo fans who have no interest in anything WoW related - but relax, it's done well, I assure you.

Diablo III beta

The health and mana bowls are much larger thanks to the new screen resolution support, and as they refill the contents bubble and swirl delightfully, with ripples flowing across the surface. Indeed, every aspect of the UI is well polished but retains the same functional aspect found in the previous games. Although the skill tree was largely redacted with "not yet integrated" comments, it again draws inspiration from World of Warcraft - the Witch Doctor's panel being split into three categories with perhaps a dozen or so skills in each. Blizzard was quick to point out that everything we saw could possibly be changed at any time, however.

Your stash size is determined by which bag you have equipped. The one on the demo had 28 item slots, and it appeared that there was another slot to equip an additional bag. Shoulder Pads and Leggings can now be equipped, however the rest of the items on your character are carried over from Diablo II.

The Witch Doctor in the demo was already level 12, and came equipped with mostly magical gear with moderate bonuses to attributes such as willpower and magic find. Scanning through my equipped items, I could see instantly how they compared with any items in my inventory, again no doubt inspired by World of Warcraft. It just makes sense, after all. After heading out towards a sandy plateau and familiarising myself with the controls, it was time to test the combat.

My Witch Doctor had the ability to summon two dogs, which acted as tanks to divert incoming attacks and take damage for me. If any monster happened to get too close, my melee damage was more than capable of finishing them off - particularly after I picked up a rare scimitar with some decent +damage stats. In addition, I had a ranged firebomb that could be lobbed clear across the screen for some spectacular area of effect damage.

The monsters have clearly had a huge amount of attention lavished on them. Their basic animation seems far more advanced than anything we've seen before from the series, and the minion/master relationship - particularly with the Fallen monsters - allows for some complicated pathing and intelligent group attacks.

Early on in the demo I came across a boss creature that seemed phenomenally strong. He moved faster than I did, requiring me to use my dogs to block him whilst relying on a taunt ability to prevent him from getting too close. Unfortunately, this creature was capable of leeching life from my dogs, so once they'd died all I could do was taunt him and use my ranged firebomb attack to whittle his health away. This ultimately was successful, however the entire process took about two minutes - an exceptionally long battle by Diablo standards.

Loot drops are subtly different too - you no longer need to click on gold to pick it up, simply moving over it will allow it to be added to your total. Blue (magical) items do not require identification, however yellow (rare) items do. Despite killing several hundred monsters I didn't see any unique items, although it's entirely possible they were absent from this build. Blizzard has stated that unique items are still a work in progress. Similarly I didn't see any socketed items, although a ruby did drop which had a description indicating it was to be used for socketing.

Diablo III has an integrated checkpoint system, and each point acts as a resurrection area when you die. This is done to avoid spending too much time running around. The checkpoints are spaced well, with perhaps not even a two minute run between points. There was no town portal in this demo, and the Blizz devs have said they are looking at ways to remove it entirely from the game. Apparently they're concerned at it being used as a method to escape nasty situations rather than simply a way to get back to town and offload your loot, and I can't blame them. As for town - sorry, didn't get to see any urban environments.

I'm not a person given to superlatives, but the animation truly is awesome. From the exploding carcasses of monsters that spew blood and gore in every direction, to the recoil effect that is so pronounced you can see skeletons actually fall out of the monsters as you hit them - Diablo III is an incredible place to be. Corpses retain their physics properties, so my firebomb attack not only tears gore off living creatures, but throws dead bodies up in the air too. The steps of temples actually run red with blood trails. The level-up process creates a shockwave that emanates out from your hero and ripples across the sand. I say again, the animation is awesome.

I came across a couple of quests too - one required me to rescue an infected prisoner of a corrupted priest. After I rescued her, she led me to a checkpoint, then promptly threw up and exploded. Wicked.

The second quest asked me to find a checkpoint that was blocked off in the demo, but interestingly enough it was part of a series of quests, and had additional side quests that could be completed too. In Diablo II there were very few quests spaced relatively far apart - in Diablo III, it looks like we'll have lots of quests within a much smaller area. If the demo is anything to go by, that is.

It had previously occurred to me in a rare moment of lucidity on the flight over that if Diablo III resembled Titan Quest, I'd be hugely disappointed. But Titan Quest isn't in the same league - it's not even in the same ballpark. Or country, for that matter. Diablo III is pure Blizzard class, and I actually don't want them to release it anytime soon. I want them to release it when it's done - when it's packed full of quests, multiple monsters, a stack of unique weapons and gameplay every bit as consuming and addictive as its predecessors. If that's 2011 or 2012, then so be it.