After a massive wave of 100000 invites was sent out, I was STILL out of luck and couldn't get into the beta... but my brother managed to get in, and he kindly let me try it out. He was rather busy tonight, so he couldn't play anyway, and the upside is that I stashed some of the stuff that I found for him to use.
Thoughts on my play session after the jump since I have a lot of them, which also gives me the opportunity to try that function out.
First, let's get this out of the way: the beta is every bit as easy as they say, the only slight problem I had was with a boss pack that doesn't quite fit the classic definition of "stair trap", but comes about as close as you can get. But I don't really have an issue with the difficulty, as it IS the first third of the first act of Normal difficulty. I chose the Wizard as my first character, since I've always had a fondness for ranged characters, and it was either that or the Demon Hunter. Not that I don't like the latter, but I never really cared for the Sorceress in Diablo 2 for some reason despite having skills like Frozen Orb and Meteor. Don't ask me why, I don't know. Either way, the fact that the Wizard was ranged meant that I could avoid damage in most situations, so I was never in dire peril. I didn't do the entire beta with him yet, I stopped after unlocking the Blacksmith and doing some experimentation with Disintegrate (more on that later).
As far as signature skills go, I will say this: you will be taking Magic Missile all the way to level 13, then switch to Electrocute and never go back. While I only got my Wizard to level 8, I have seen Electrocute in action from beta footage, and quite frankly it's amazing for something that's completely free to cast - and the Golden and Indigo runes amplify that significantly. But as far as early game signature skills go, Magic Missile is king. Not because its damage is stellar - it's not - but because Shock Pulse and Spectral Blade are absolute garbage. Shock Pulse shoots three bolts, sure, but they move slowly, have pathetic range and always seem to miss, even when it looks like they should be hitting. As for Spectral Blade... it's a close-quarters attack that deals less damage than Magic Missile does. Sure, you might hit multiple enemies, but let me repeat that: close combat attack on a ranged glass cannon. It probably exists to satisfy melee Wizard fans out there, but then again I never understood the appeal of melee spellcasters.
I also got to experiment with the other spells, those that DO cost Arcane Power, and the ones I got first were Frost Nova and Ice Armor. The latter is total garbage now that the defensive bonus has been removed, leaving only VERY slight damage and a chill effect to melee attackers that land a hit on you, so Frost Nova was better by default. It was still underwhelming, though, as the freeze didn't last for too long and the range was pretty bad - and as I said, I don't recommend being up in your enemies' face with a Wizard. It's good for emergencies, but not that much more. (And if you run into an emergency in the beta... this is the wrong game for you.)
When I hit level 3, I obtained Arcane Orb, the Wizard's basic AoE attack. It quickly became a favorite of mine, especially since when AoE in general was nerfed a few patches back, Arcane Orb remained the same, and as a result the damage actually justified the hefty Arcane Power cost. Back then it was learned at level 8, but it was pushed forward to 6, then 3 later on. Either way, whereas I'd need quite a few casts of Magic Missile to clear out a pack, one or two Arcane Orbs would quickly destroy everything. And even if three casts would completely empty my Arcane Power, I rarely found myself starving for more, except for boss packs, which could easily be taken care of by alternating between Magic Missile and Arcane Orb.
With level 4 came Wave of Force and its overwhelming damage over a large area covering a huge chunk of the screen. I'll be honest: I was not ready for that much of a range! I didn't expect the choice of Arcane Orb vs. Wave of Force to be so difficult, but the 15-second cooldown on the latter turned out to be the decisive factor, as Arcane Orb was at least somewhat spammable. Later on, at level 7, came Magic Weapon, a skill that is apparently the subject of false advertising by the game, as I heard it boosted ALL the damage you did by 15%, as opposed to just melee damage. I didn't test it out though, I will have to try it next time.
Then came level 8, and the incredibly brutal Disintegrate. Oh, it's brutal alright, for the enemies... but for your Arcane Power bulb as well. With a wand, you can only keep up the attack for four seconds. I tried it unarmed, and it lasted seven seconds there as a result of the lower attack speed. With that being said, it's unbelievably powerful, when I experimented with it I decided to use it as my main attack, only falling back to Magic Missile when I was out of Arcane Power. This highlights one of the pickles the design team has to deal with: balancing fast, one-handed weapons with their slower two-handed counterparts, as the latter will be more cost-efficient with resources that have no generators, such as Arcane Power or mana. It's not just with channeling spells like Disintegrate either, but everything that costs an amount of these resources. It's just more obvious with the former. I'm looking forward to seeing how all of that will be balanced in the endgame.
I'll end this with a random observation both my brother and I realized independently: the mayor of New Tristram sounds an awful lot like Pepin from the first game. Are they voiced by the same guy, by any chance?