When the first rumours circulated that Blizzard was considering a console edition of Diablo III, PC gamers became vocally alarmed. Blizzard has been considered by gamers to be one of the final strongholds in PC-exclusive game development. These gamers put forward a slippery-slope argument, that the company would become enamoured with console development and eventually focus its efforts there, ultimately leaving PC gamers to endure the same kind of shoddy ports they already get from numerous other developers.

For its part, Blizzard claims to have always kept a watchful eye on consoles, waiting for the right game or intellectual property to bring to those platforms. At least, that has been the refrain in recent years. After a false start with StarCraft: Ghost – indefinitely on hold since 2006 – Diablo III is now certain to be Blizzard’s console debut.

More than a year after its PC release, Diablo III for consoles is an imminent reality, and the sky is still firmly in place. At E3, we went hands-on with the console edition, and spoke with senior designer Jason Bender.

Diablo III console edition hands-on

For the uninitiated, Diablo III is an action-RPG set in the storied Gothic fantasy world of Sanctuary, one beset by the forces of Hell. Players choose from one of five hero classes, and set out on a desperate journey to defeat the demon Lord of Terror, Diablo, and his legions of hellspawn minions.

“We built the game around the controller and around the couch,” starts Bender. The console edition is a twin-stick shooter, with moving and ranged aim bound to the left analog stick. Blizzard has also added a walking speed to the game, and this blends into the running speed and animation PC gamers will already be familiar with.

The two triggers are mapped to two primary skills, and the face buttons are mapped to four ancillary skills. Tapping the right analog stick will cause the player’s character to perform a kind of evasive roll in the intended direction. It’s intended to be a slight repositioning tool rather than a substitute for actual evasion skills such as the Wizard’s Teleport or the Barbarian’s Vault, says Bender. Characters cannot roll through enemies, for example.

Diablo III console edition hands-on
Diablo III console edition hands-on
Diablo III console edition hands-on

The console edition of Diablo III features the same kind of gentle snap-on aim assist found when using ranged abilities in most twin-stick shooters. Slight tweaks of the left analog stick will allow players to target a caster behind tanking mobs, for example. In play it’s wonderfully subtle, the game easily divines the player’s intent without intruding on their sense of control.

Diablo III for console supports up to four players per game in any mix of shared-screen and online, or Local Area Network play, says Bender.

“You and I might be on a couch but if someone wanted to join us they could join us remotely,” says Bender. When playing on the couch, Diablo III never splits the screen. While the camera zooms in and out depending on how close players are to one another, couch co-op player characters will need to be approximate to one another at all times.

To address that inconvenience, if one player goes idle, that player’s character will follow other active players. If it gets too far behind, it’ll constantly teleport to active players. “It means if I go to get the pizza, I won’t be left out and I won’t be keeping you in one place,” says Bender. “It was really important for us to streamline that.”

Another new feature for the console edition of Diablo III is Nephalem Glory. These are golden orbs that occasionally drop from monsters during combat that temporarily buff all characters in the area. The first rank adds a heal-over-time effect. Another orb grants a damage buff, and higher tiers add chain lightning and explosion to attacks. Picking up health orbs also adds to the effects’ duration.

“It’s kind of like a powerplay, you’ve really got to take advantage of it while you have it,” explains Bender. “We looked at the treasure goblin and thought that we wanted more stuff that changes the way you’re playing in the moment.”

Nephalem Glory is an excellent addition to Diablo’s fast-paced gameplay, and a feature that could also work on PC. I asked Bender if it’s something the team is considering.

Diablo III console edition hands-on

“Yeah, so the cool thing is that we’ve got all of 1.07’s patch and balance information, and then we tried out a couple of ideas the PC was considering but hadn’t yet included in any of the updates,” says Bender. “The reverse is also true: if we try something on console and it turns out to be really good, PC will take it.”

“We try to stay as close as we can. We don’t have parity because our needs are different, so they’re not exactly the same, but we are basically able to skim the cream and take what we want.”

Bender uses the changes to Diablo III’s loot game as an example. Currently, loot in the PC edition of Diablo III is truly random, and most of the items players pick up will be scrapped. In the console edition, much less loot drops.

Diablo III console edition hands-on
Diablo III console edition hands-on

“A lot of items convert to gold, white items, and even some blue items in later difficulties just convert to gold, kind of around the time you wouldn’t be interested in picking them up,” begins Bender. “What we did to offset that is to target items to your class. So if an item drops, there’s a very high chance that if I’m playing a Barbarian, it’ll have strength on it.”

This also extends to crafting. Instead of any number of truly random properties, players will now almost always craft items that have their class’ base attribute attached. “If you’re a monk and you’re crafting a bunch of daggers, they’ll pretty much all have dexterity,” states Bender. “Then you can be worried about whether it has vitality or life-steal, or whatever.”

Players can also expect to find more – and more relevant – Legendary items. Diablo is guaranteed to drop a Legendary quality item when defeated in Normal mode. “We bought a lot of the high level legendaries down in level to ensure there’s a wider variety of Legendaries early in the game,” says Bender.

Statistics on items appear as they do in the PC edition, but the measurements for comparison have changed. The console edition uses arrows as quick visual references, rather than abstract numbers. For example, a sword might have three green arrows up for DPS indicating that it will provide significantly more damage than the equipped item, but it may indicate one red arrow down for vitality, indicating that overall character life will be down.

More comprehensive item data can be found by entering the character and inventory screens, but it’s not an activity Blizzard wishes players to engage in too frequently.

“One thing we noticed is that you have a lot of loot to pick up, and we don’t want you to have to go to the screen and look at loot all the time, so we have a fast-equip,” says Bender. Pressing up on the d-pad, players can cycle through recent pick-ups and choose to use or drop them. “This prevents us, if we’re both on the same couch, from having to open a menu, but it also means that if I’m playing singleplayer and I see something with all green arrows, then I can just equip it.”

Diablo III for console currently has multiple difficulty tiers: Easy, Medium, Hard and Master one through five, which roughly equates to Monster Power. As players advance through the Master ranks, monsters will become tougher and more deadly, and the percentage chance for loot to drop will increase. Bender also confirms that the end-game activities found in the PC edition will be present in the console edition.

“We’ve kept the PC Easter eggs. We give players more hints on the load screens about how to go get these things: ‘Hey a Black Mushroom, you should probably pick that up!’ It’s not like you alt-tab and go to the Internet.”

“We want you to stay on the couch with your beer or your soda, and your cat, and just chill. Relax, play the game.”

We intend to.

Diablo III is coming to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 early in September. A PlayStation 4 edition has been also been announced.