I had my reservations going into the Diablo IV early access beta. Diablo 3 is one of my favourite games, full stop, but the mobile iteration of the franchise, Diablo Immortal, left a sour taste in my mouth thanks to Activision-Blizzard’s predatory free-to-play model. While we’ve yet to see exactly how they’ll monetize Diablo IV – and they surely will, one way or another – one thing we can be assured of is that Blizzard are, quite simply, still the best at this genre.
There have been many changes to the formula though, not all of them good. For a start, the game-changing combat roll introduced in the console version of Diablo 3 is now an evade move on a 5-second cooldown, which is still useful but seems arbitrarily restrictive. The UI and inventory screens have been overhauled; unidentified items are out, as is Adventure Mode, but the skill tree is vaster and more intimidating than ever – and I count that one as a positive.
Once more the world of Sanctuary is imperilled by the forces of Evil. There’s no sign of Diablo or his siblings this time around (at least, not yet), and instead the big bad is Lilith, Daughter of Hatred (Mephisto is her dad, apparently), a powerful prime evil credited with the creation of Sanctuary itself. Reawakened by an ancient cult, Lilith has raised an army of demons that are sweeping across Sanctuary. Only the Wanderer can hope to stand against them, aided by a handful of crestfallen and desperate heroes.
So far, so Diablo. But in Diablo IV, Blizzard are leaning heavily into the Gothic horror themes of the universe. In the first few minutes your horse is eviscerated by an unseen terror, and by the end of the first hour you’ll have witnessed some pretty gruesome, maybe even shocking violence. The story is pulling no punches, and looks set to burrow deeply into the macabre lore of the universe. It’s in everything you see. Atmosphere runs down the walls in shiny rivulets, winds howl and rain lashes the bloodied mud. Everywhere you go there’s decay; dead bodies lay bloated and forgotten, buildings reduced to embers simmer in the gloom, and evil lurks beneath the veil of every shadow. It’s an effectively provocative art style, and Blizzard have lost none of their touch.
There’s also wildlife everywhere, which more than once led me to postulate on the life expectancy of, say, a helpless deer or bunny in this world. If they’re not battling against the harsh winter winds, they’re being ripped apart by wargs and werewolves, or catching a stray fireball in the face from my brutal but clumsy Sorcerer. They bring the world to life, though, adding a touch of beauty to an otherwise grim place. Something else that brings the world to life, though perhaps not in quite as welcome a way, is other players. Diablo IV leans closer towards an MMO set up, with you sharing the world with other adventurers as you do in Diablo: Immortal, which for me at least subtracts from the whole “lone wanderer in a hopeless world” theme. I hope you can turn this off somehow in the full release, as I’m just not a fan of seeing other people charging around the world with silly names and sillier titles.
As in previous games, your primary concern is killing, looting, and levelling up. You don’t control your stats, which jump up with each level gained, but you do decide which skills to unlock, upgrade or assign. Disappointingly, Diablo IV maintains the heavily restrictive skill system that only allows you to equip 6 at a time from the huge amount on offer. It doesn’t even let you do that until you reach level 8, and while I understand that its in service to the art of buildcrafting, it means many players may not even see or experience all the available skills. There are so many for each tier of the tree, each with upgrades that can modify them the way they do in Diablo 3, that the skill tree becomes daunting almost immediately.
With five classes to choose from (Barbarian, Rogue, Sorcerer, Necromancer, and Druid – though the latter two are locked in the beta), and dozens of weapon archetypes, the ability to build a unique character to suit your style is stronger than ever. Not to mention that Diablo IV is the first in the series to feature a proper character creator complete with optional faces, hairstyles, and accessories. You can also alter some of the details and apply transmog skins to your gear for absolutely no cost in the game – all you need to do is find and salvage a piece of gear for the skin to become available.
Gameplay is more or less exactly what you’d expect, but the game feel is sublime. Each character feels different: the Rogue is swift and fluid, built around ranged combat with traps and stealth kills; the Sorcerer feels methodical and precise, able to focus on one particular element or generalise between many; and the Barbarian is a savage powerhouse who shakes the screen when they attack the enemy. At certain milestones they develop even more unique traits, such as the Barbarian being able to “master” certain weapons for increased effectiveness. So many years playing Soulslikes and roguelites has left me with an itchy evade finger but in Dibalo IV the onus is on brute-forcing your way through many encounters, and you’ll only really get into trouble when you’re heavily outnumbered – which happens a lot.
While you can fast travel between waypoints in towns and cities, Diablo IV also introduces mounts for the first time. You can purchase horses once you reach a certain milestone and complete a certain quest, and they make travelling between points much faster. While fast travel is convenient, you’ll miss out on so many random events and precious loot if you jump back and forth all the time.
Occasional performance issues marred the beta experience overall, but not enough to dampen my enthusiasm. It was mostly things that can and will be fixed; server disconnects, rubber-banding when leaving cities, and some odd physics here and there with enemy sprites. In terms of gameplay I’m only left a little cold towards the random effects attached to resources in the world. Health shrines, for example, are often seen as a safety net when you’re in a tough dungeon. In Diablo IV, these and other items can be “Cursed”, so even using them spawns a host of enemies to deal with. It’s a rarity, but can frustrate. Vendors are different too, with different salesmen in every town that offer a limited stock of wares.
Learning that the Adventure Mode is out in favour of random events in the huge open areas initially had me a little worried, but after seeing the size of just the first map and experiencing the frequency of random events, dungeons, and encounters, I’m fairly confident that Diablo IV will keep us pretty busy come release.
The best indicator of whether or not a game has that certain something is how I feel when the beta ends. In the case of Diablo IV, I feel a little hollow now, and the June 6 release date couldn’t seem further away. Sanctuary is a world rich with lore, a tapestry of interwoven tales and histories that feels familiar in ways I can’t describe. Little audio-visual touches are the icing on the cake, and I can’t wait to get to grips with the full game when it arrives in the Summer.
Diablo IV is coming to PC and consoles on June 6th 2023.