After playing Diablo Immortal for an obscene number of hours earlier this year, I was fully prepared to accept Diablo IV into my life as a glorified extension of its predecessor, Diablo III.
It has been a staggering ten years since Diablo III’s initial launch. Since then, Blizzard Entertainment has produced a reasonably well-received expansion, a ground-up remaster of Diablo II and its first-ever Diablo mobile game in Immortal. Despite the attractive catalogue of titles on offer we haven’t seen anything groundbreaking from the 25-year-old series in, well, almost twenty-five years.
That’s not to say that Diablo is without its merits. It’s a fantastic franchise, and I won’t argue with anyone who claims that Diablo II changed the face of the ARPG genre, but it feels like the tried and true formula has rarely dared to overstep its comfortable boundaries, and as a fan of the series I often find myself wanting more. When approached to play test Diablo IV, I anticipated a deeply familiar experience characterised by a cautious step into a new generation. I imagined some moderately updated graphics and, of course, a new storyline, but expected Diablo IV to be noticeably void of that shiny veneer a highly anticipated sequel should possess.
I was wrong.
Even in the early stages of testing, it’s clear that Diablo IV is ushering in an exciting new era for the franchise. It feels like a combination of the very best elements of previous Diablo titles with a funky new hat on. I’m confident that long-term fans and new players alike should be buzzing with well-earned anticipation in the lead-up to this game’s release.
I’ve spent just under a week with this private test build of Diablo IV, and wanted to share why I cannot wait for the full release sometime next year in 2023.
NOTE: I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, describing game mechanics and general features while avoiding plot points, named characters and locations. Also, Diablo IV features more blood, gore, intense violence and horror than previous titles, so please keep that in mind if you’re easily triggered by these themes.
In recent years, Blizzard has put a lot of effort into delivering player fantasies and ensuring that players have what they need to express themselves in-game. As a part of this, Diablo IV has character customisation options never before seen in a Diablo title. As expected, you start off by picking your character class. During the Beta, you can select from a Barbarian, a Sorcerer or a Rogue though Necromancers and Druids will also be available at launch. After selecting your class, you can choose your face and body, change your hairstyle and facial hair, add tattoos (or markings made in fresh blood), jewellery and makeup and choose colours for all of it, even your eye colour! The options are fairly limited, especially when compared to games like Baldur’s Gate III, but I still managed to get sucked into it for a good twenty minutes before actually starting the game.
From there, your freshly customised character is launched into a stunning cutscene, marking the start of the prologue. Cutscenes are another new addition to the Diablo formula, and the main storyline is adorned with impressive cinematics that bring the world of Diablo IV to life.
Seeing characters in such great detail highlighted how difficult it was for me to connect to characters in previous Diablo titles. For the first time, I felt like I could see NPCs as people rather than superficial shells for the extended lore I had discovered through dialogue or written in tomes. Outside of the cinematics, detailed character models and dynamic animations generate a new sense of immersion in populated zones. In the first town you come across, there are soldiers playing games to pass the time, conversations taking place in all corners of the settlement, and stray animals wandering the streets. When you interact with vendors, the transaction window features a living portrait so you can see their expressions and the details of their faces. Combined, these simple features made the NPCs of Sanctuary feel like living, breathing characters instead of tokenistic space fillers.
Diablo IV features an all-new open world that scales with character level, allowing players to explore at their leisure. Instead of being divided into separate Acts, the main storyline of Diablo IV will take place across five distinct regions, each with a variety of zones and major landmarks. Admittedly, this didn’t feel any different to other Diablo titles early in the game. Only once I had progressed past the introductory quests did I realise I was free to do whatever the Hell* I wanted, such as ignoring the story entirely in favour of finding the spookiest place on the map.
One reason you might want to do this is for harvesting. Yes, harvesting, another new addition to the Diablo series. You can now gather materials like berries and ore when you’re not busy slaying brutish beasts and evil incantations. Artisans can then use these materials to make powerful potions or equipment for you. Since items are and have always been a pillar of the Diablo series, I thought this was a cool way to add to the loot system without uprooting it too much.
*It’s a Diablo joke, okay!
While conquering the main storyline or traversing the open world, you may find some events and encounters that are surprisingly macabre. Blizzard acknowledged that Diablo III was a notable departure from the traditionally grisly tone of the Diablo series. D3 opted for a more vibrant version of Sanctum, with more whimsical enemy models and fewer opportunities for slatherings of gore. From the get-go, it’s clear that Diablo IV is not for the faint of heart and has no intention of catering to the general audience. Returning to its roots it is gruesome, it is gory, it is ghastly, and I fucking love it. As a seasoned horror fanatic, I felt invigorated by the tone set by the opening cinematic and pleased to discover that it’s a consistent theme throughout the game.
The world is dark and gloomy and obviously miserable for the inhabitants, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way for the player. Instead, the dreary environments help to build the atmosphere and maintain immersion in the game world in a way that can keep you hooked for hours. While playing, I felt truly invested in my character, the characters I was meeting along the way and the overarching narrative. My only gripe with the plot of Diablo IV is that after this preview, it’ll be months before I get to continue it.
I would also like to add that despite the sombre nature of the game world, Diablo IV is absolutely gorgeous. The graphics are incredible. From the lighting to the texture detail, the fluid animation and imaginative enemy and environment designs, this game looks wicked. I cannot overstate that enough. By no means does the drab colour palette or gothic art style impede on how beautifully designed the world is. Even while trudging through expansive fields of thick snow, it didn’t feel like a lifeless, repetitive environment at any point. While easily missed, the amount of fine detail is well thought-out by the game’s artists and contributes to a visually appealing environment that is easy to engage with, even during lulls in the action.
My first impression after jumping into Diablo IV’s gameplay is that it feels familiar but fresh. You still have a set number of abilities that you can bind to your action bar, and you can still bust open crates and barrels for coin and loot when you’re not cracking skulls, but there are a couple of distinct differences, all of which are pretty great. For example, you can traverse environmental obstacles by gliding across certain surfaces, crouching under low ceilings or climbing up walls. Diablo IV has introduced an evade button as well. If you haven’t played a Diablo game before, I may sound a little over-enthusiastic about this but trust me, it’s awesome. On a relatively forgiving cooldown, you can now perform a quick dash, regardless of your character class, to dodge attacks or escape a mob of enemies. It’s a simple enough feature, but these minor adjustments to the formula make gameplay feel more fluid and action-driven and enhance the overall experience.
Combat feels awesome, and the ability to evade only adds to this. There is a sense of danger when approaching a mob of enemies, and I realised early on that I was foolish to bring the confidence I had earned with my overpowered Diablo III Necromancer to the world of Diablo IV. Your abilities do feel appropriately powerful but they won’t go as far as allowing you to steamroll across the map. Even in the early game, enemy encounters are far more punishing and require more tact, something I didn’t realise I missed until I faced a particularly challenging mini-boss and even died a couple of times on the way to beating him.
Much of this sense of power comes from your skills. To enhance or add to your standard abilities, you can spend points in the extended talent tree to customise your build to suit your playstyle. This system encourages players to get creative with synergising their skills without forcing them to read pages and pages of min-maxing guides to construct a viable build for their preferred class. It’s not perfectly intuitive, and I imagine that most players, like me, will still want to read at least some of what the experts have to say about certain skill paths, but in its current iteration it remains simple enough for anyone to pick up and have fun with without feeling like they’re missing something. It also means that you can play two characters of the same class but customise them to feel completely different during combat.
Despite my earlier diatribe, Diablo IV is unmistakably Diablo-esque in feel and appearance, and nobody should be fooled into believing they are playing anything but a classic Blizzard banger. Still, the developers have made great strides in ensuring that this new entry honours the legacy of the Diablo franchise while shaking it up just enough to meet the expectations of the modern gamer. Player autonomy is a clear focus in this new title, and allowing players to enliven their unique Diablo fantasies and play the game the way they want to play it is at the forefront of this. As such, Diablo IV is the first in the series to be built for both PC and console and offers a range of accessibility options to suit the needs of most gamers.
I honestly believe Diablo IV will go a long way to please long-term fans of the series and still be a great starting point for lapsed or new players. At its core, Diablo IV is a fun, fantasy-driven experience with a lot to offer to those who are open to the genre.