The beta for Blizzard Entertainment’s next potential hit, Diablo 3, finally landed yesterday. We got a chance to blitz through the beta with each of the character classes and try out just about everything available, and it looks like Blizzard Entertainment has hit all the right buttons.

Diablo 2, the last game in the series, was immensely popular when it came out more than a decade ago in 2000. Blizzard Entertainment only released one expansion pack for the game, but it came to define a lot of tropes that now commonly appear in online games — such as reliance on loot-seeking behavior and frictionless communication between friends and players. Diablo 3 has been in the works for some time, and expectations are high for a repeat performance by Blizzard Entertainment.

The Diablo 3 beta includes the first “act” of the game, one of several large chunks of the game, that consists of part of the game’s main storyline. The game will consist of several of these acts, though Blizzard Entertainment hasn’t made it clear just how many there will be. Diablo 2, the game’s predecessor, had five acts altogether. The whole act takes around an hour and a half to complete, so if there are five acts, like in Diablo 2, the game will be somewhere between 7 and 8 hours long to complete a main quest. But that’s not really the heart of the Diablo ethos.

The Diablo games allow anywhere from two to eight players to jump into discrete games in randomly-generated dungeons. The goal is to prevent the forces of hell from taking over the world by defeating Diablo, the lord of terror, and his cohorts. Players chase after powerful items and weapons to use against other enemies and players or for trade.

You drop into a game and fly through an act. Or if you like the entire game, you can select a specific difficulty and go in search of the best loot. Each game can last anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours, depending on how well the group meshes together. I saw my share of groups where no one said a single thing throughout the quest. I also played with groups that instantly turned into friends, where we talked about how the game looked or how the Philadelphia Eagles completely ruined our fantasy football leagues.

The whole experience felt like a throwback to Diablo 2 — which will be great for veterans from the predecessor. At the same time, Diablo 3 enjoys a decade of experience and sophistication in video game development that Blizzard Entertainment has picked up by working on World of Warcraft and real-time strategy game Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. If the final version is anything like what we’ve seen in the beta, gamers are in for a treat when Diablo 3 comes out sometime early next year.

Kill all the things

This game is all about pitting you up against the forces of hell — it’s one (or several) heroes against an entire army.

The game regularly throws tens, if not hundreds, of enemies at you all at once. The odds are rarely in your favor, but luckily Blizzard Entertainment gives you plenty of tools to take out several enemies at once. The wizard, for example, can freeze all the enemies that are nearby or send them flying across the screen if he gets surrounded. Nearly every ability is designed to hit more than one enemy at once.

The result is a visceral experience that rewards you for massacring everything on the screen. You get experience bonuses for killing several enemies all at once. Your character shouts at enemies and jeers at them as he plows through a dozen skeletons all at once or fires a bolt of lightning into a pack of zombies. Each time I blasted through a new pack of enemies I felt that same “hell yeah” feeling that you might get after your favorite football team scores a touchdown or when you get a giant tax refund in the mail.

It’s still a challenging game, and it will get even more challenging as time goes on. You can’t run in and blindly mash your chain lightning or rush buttons, because eventually the enemies will figure out not to stand next to each other or try to flank you. Typically the only way to heal yourself is to kill other enemies and pick up health orbs that they drop. So there’s a little bit of finesse that goes into fighting off a few dozen creatures, like deciding when to knock them away and when to charge in with swords flying.

Diablo 3 also hooks you from the very start, and keeps you motivated with frequent rewards. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Bing Gordon — an investor in social gaming company Zynga and longtime video games industry veteran — has said that if a game hasn’t rewarded a player within the first 10 minutes of playing the game, the developer has done something wrong. That kind of development style has popped up in a lot of games recently, including World of Warcraft and recent hit Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Diablo 3 keeps the streak going with Blizzard Entertainment, where you get some kind of reward for playing well once every few minutes.

The whole experience is very fast paced. Fights against even a dozen bad dudes from hell will last only a few seconds. If you aren’t careful, you will be swarmed and dropped within those same few seconds. But if you exercise your brain a little bit, the payoff is enormous.

Get all the things

The Diablo games have always been about finding the best loot. That can be a piece of armor that turns you into a walking tank or a bow that makes you an unstoppable killing machine. Or you can try to find a piece of equipment that you end up trading for a better piece of equipment. Loot was such an important part of the game that one of the game’s items, the Stone of Jordan, became the game’s de facto trading currency, so new pieces of equipment were measured by how many Stone of Jordans they were worth.

The same is true in Diablo 3, although it’ a little less competitive than it was back in 2000. When you killed a leader or boss in Diablo 2, it would drop loot that anyone could pick up. The result was up to eight people rushing to the corpse of a boss and madly grabbing equipment as soon as it dropped. When loot drops in Diablo 3, it’s specific to each player, so only you can see that sword that the Skeleton King dropped, and only you can pick it up.

The quest for loot has always been a core driver in online games like the Diablo and World of Warcraft franchises. It introduces a random element to the game that’s akin to gambling. You are taking a chance with your time when you decide to go and complete a quest that it will reward you with the kind of loot you’re looking for. Of course, gambling has proved to be a multi-billion dollar business. It works, and it works even better with games, where the only lost currency is a few minutes rather than actual dollars.

Keep it simple

If Blizzard Entertainment has learned anything from World of Warcraft, it’s that simplicity typically wins. At one point the character classes in World of Warcraft had hundreds of available “talents” — traits that powered up the character — for players to choose from. It’s since pared that down significantly to a few dozen talents, and it streamlined the process of making your character more powerful, along with finding people to play with and completing quests.

That philosophy carries over to Diablo 3. Rather than present you with complex decision trees that let you pick skills as you see fit, as in the game’s predecessor Diablo 2, it introduces new skills to you over time. As you kill enemies you earn experience points and level up, and the game usually rewards you with a new skill. You can only “equip” two skills that you can use at any time at first, and you will be able to equip more as you play the game more.

Diablo 2 also allowed much more direct customization of the character by allocating “stat points” that you earn when you level up to whatever statistics you wanted to choose from. You could choose to make a barbarian that had a ton of health or could soak up a lot of damage by pouring your stat points into vitality and dexterity. Diablo 3 does away with that system and automatically allocates those stat points, so all character classes grow at the same rate.

Also gone are the endless trips back to town to sell loot you find on the ground and stocking up on scrolls that you need to progress safely. The game gives you pieces of equipment that let you automatically sell loot that you find for gold — the game’s currency that you use to buy new loot or build new armor — and automatically warp back to town whenever you see fit. You still need to go back to town every now and then to buy new weapons or to craft weapons and armor, but those trips are fewer and far between.

Like World of Warcraft, the game guides you directly to your next objectives with the help of waypoints and markers. Those features weren’t available in the original launch in World of Warcraft, but independent “mod” developers for the game introduced them and Blizzard Entertainment decided to add the feature separately due to how popular the mods were. It’s feedback on several fronts — with players, developers and the actual team all working to make the game simpler and easier to access.

That’s a game philosophy that became more popular with the emergence of social and casual games like those developed by social gaming giant Zynga. The games make your next objectives obvious and regularly reward you for smaller objectives rather than completing supermassive quests — like slaying the lord of hell, the main quest for Diablo 2. Diablo 3 breaks each major quest up into smaller objectives that you can complete in somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes.

Zynga was able to build an entire business off those casual, lightweight games. The company recently filed for its initial public offering in order to raise up to $1 billion. Even with turbulent markets, which might delay the company’s trading debut, the massive IPO really just proves the obvious: simplicity wins.

There’s a pony in there somewhere

Diablo is a supermassive franchise for Blizzard Entertainment, even though it’s been on the back-burner as World of Warcraft came to power as the king of the online gaming space.

I logged into Diablo 2 last night for kicks after flying through the Diablo 3 beta to see just how populated it still was. And just like a decade ago, there were still hundreds of games — unfortunately for me, each already full with eight players. It felt just as populated and vibrant as the same game that defined my early gaming experience in high school when I tried it out for the first time.

It’s nothing compared to Blizzard Entertainment’s most popular online role-playing game, World of Warcraft, which has around 11.4 million subscribers. But Diablo’s hack-and-slash and loot-seeking formula proved to be popular for more than a decade. It even inspired dungeon crawler copycats like Torchlight.

Based on the number of people still playing Diablo 2, and the number that played at its peak — and also the subscriber base for World of Warcraft — the potential audience for Diablo 3 is in the millions. If the company has lost any ground since the franchise’s last iteration a decade ago, Diablo 3 is certain to bring it back.