I had doubts. I’ve had questions running through my head ever since I first played Diablo 4 at BlizzCon 2019 – Was it really that long ago? – and I have questions about the need for a major new Diablo at all. But 10 hours into the game, I can see what form it’s going to take, and I love it. I like the tone, I like the mechanics, I like the world. There are a few things I can’t see but overall, this is, clearly, the next generation of Diablo.
Oddly enough, it is the world that really stays with me. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the open world is one of the big new things in Diablo 4, and in every PR game Blizzard has told us how much it wants the world to feel dark, like previous Diablo games. Diablo 3 had a more cartoony edge, a sort of Warcrafty tinge.
And it’s true, Diablo 4 feels darker, not in a literal lighting sense, but in a moody sense. It’s dreary and disturbing. It is harsh and insatiable. It’s a fantasy world that’s always raining and stormy – a gray world of slime and weather-beaten people. A harsh world of harsh realities. I can’t think of a better comparison than Game of Thrones in the North in this regard: an unflinching place where people don’t smile so often. It feels like that.
Diablo 4, more than any other game in the series, takes the time to root you in, too. There are flashy cinematics at special moments that can be quite disturbing, but it’s the in-game scenes, where the camera moves down to better frame what you’re watching, that really come through. Honestly, I never really care about that stuff in diablo games. It’s just flavor against the backdrop of genocide. But Diablo 4 seems to want us to spend more time with them here.
One of the notable scenes from the start of the game is him being tricked, drugged, and then carried by a whistling villager into a shed where he clearly intended to cut me down and sacrifice me. What amazed me about him was how late he was – and he -. Its nature made everything look twice as unsettling, as if the game was saying hey, that’s how it is here – this is the world you’re playing in.
It’s this unhurried nature that really makes Diablo 4 feel so different from the last Diablo game, Diablo Immortal. This game was in a hurry to impress you, throwing you amazing encounters and showering you with rewards. Which makes it so exciting that you can’t look away, as it should be a free game, before revealing the grind later.
But Diablo 4 doesn’t do that, it just lets things breathe. It lets the world breathe as you get to know it, and it lets you breathe as the world gives you things – the mechanics, the rewards, the ways to play the game. There’s no rush here, which I really like, and there’s a great sense of confidence that comes from it, as the game lets things build nicely.
None of this is to say that Diablo 4 is boring – far from it. I particularly admire the way the game manages to make the combat feel challenging and exciting right from the start – something Diablo 3 was hopeless for. This has a lot to do with the new global difficulty options available. There are two to choose from at the start, and the harder you go, the better your rewards. But if you’re tougher, be prepared to die, not all the time, but I did die a few times against bosses, and some elite groups. (Global level levels in the game can be changed from world level statues in cities, by the way. If you’re a collector, the party leader determines the global status.)
However, it is not just a difficult thing. Diablo 4 seems to have a better understanding of how to make enemy encounters as a whole more interesting and challenging. The enemies themselves have either been updated or redesigned, or are completely new – my favorites are the vampires from Broodlord, which seem to levitate in Nosferatus and teleport around the area in a puff of smoke and bats, making them really hard to get to. And enemies that knock you down or immobilize you, or make you unable to heal, are a particular danger here.
But there’s a sense of fun in it all, too – a realization when Diablo feels its best. Take the ogre: They’re squishy and unremarkable on their own, so the game throws 15 of them at once so you can smash them all to smithereens and feel like a badass.
This understanding extends to how Blizzard fills the open world. You’ll find small dungeons for short periods of movement, stacked with larger mini-zones for longer digs. Nearby annular areas on the map will be world events, which are usually a variety of wave-based attacks that you have to either survive, protect someone, or defeat in a limited amount of time. They all increase in difficulty and climax in a mini-boss, which then rewards you with a large chest of loot on top of whatever enemy drops. Enemies, enemies, enemies, loot, loot, loot. It’s Diablo at its finest.
This is accompanied by exclamation point side quests that can be picked up in town or out in the world, often leading to their own dungeon, and lavishly written main missions, with their own cutscenes and cutscenes. And it all adds up to a world full of things to do that can keep you distracted for hours at a time. 10 hours later, at level 22, I feel like I’ve barely seen any of it. This place is huge, and you will be staying here for a very long time.
This is the world, and my only real criticism of it is that there were no mounts in my build to ride around on, and I feel like it was built for them. I’m also not sure about having to retrace my steps to get out of dungeons after I’ve cleared them, which just adds more time – why aren’t there portals back up?
Tempting you to explore the world is a new system in the game called Aspects. These are unlocked from the Codex of Power for doing things like conquering a dungeon that you find somewhere. Aspects themselves are buffs like what you find in Legendary items, and once unlocked, can be applied to items in the Wizarding World – a new seller type in the game. Effectively, this means you can turn rare (yellow) items into legendary (orange) items, and it gives you more versatility in designing character builds.
The diversity can be clearly seen in the skill system in the game as well. It’s a lot deeper than Diablo 3. It’s based on a skill tree system, which slowly unlocks the more points you spend in it, but there are branches and permutations far beyond the capacity of the points you’ll have to spend on, which means you have to specialize. It’s an amazing amount of options that you can even filter with keywords, and I think the game expects you to constantly change your mind because it gives you breaks straight from the tree itself.
As excited as I am about what I’ve played, it’s important, then, to remind you that there are things I didn’t see in this build that are very important to Diablo IV’s vision. Namely, the shared world, and whatever else players run around and play alongside you. I only saw a couple of other guys in town at the time I played, and after we performed some emotes and exchanged some elixirs, we went on our way.
I didn’t see any world bosses either, and that’s big new stuff for Diablo. It’s like organic raids – massive encounters that will act like magnets to draw people together. I remember encountering one at BlizzCon 2019 and it was a fitting sight. And while one was added to this earlier part of the game for us to see (it usually appears later, when you’re nearing the end of the game, at about character level 45), it was very rare for me to see it.
I also haven’t experienced the Adventure Mode-like Whispers system, Nightmare Dungeons, Helltide zones, or Fields of Hatred PvP, all of which will make up Diablo 4’s endgame.
What I did get to experience, though, was the reassuring single-player experience of Diablo. One where you can see the generational difference between it and the Diablo experiences that came before. It’s about how the game looks but also the way the game feels: like it’s one big thing, one big world, one with big ideas about how people play cooperatively. There are still question marks but there are also some answers now, perhaps the biggest being whether Diablo 4 is worth the wait, and based on this evidence, yes, absolutely, it is.
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