Not So Massively: Diablo IV is going in all the wrong directions


I remain torn on whether to forgive Blizzard for its “Hong Kong liberation” fiasco. J. Allen Brack has already contradicted his own apology, but on the other hand allowing so many protests at BlizzCon does speak to a willingness to walk the walk on free speech.

While it probably shouldn’t, how much I want to play the studio’s upcoming titles also plays a role. Going in I expected a Diablo IV announcement to be the thing that most tempts me to break my boycott, but what I’ve seen so far is a game I won’t mind skipping. Diablo IV seems to be moving in all the wrong directions

The headline so far is that D4 is going to return the franchise to its “dark roots.” This is ridiculous because Diablo never stopped being dark.

There is a perception among some that because Diablo III had a stylized art style that it was somehow a sugar-coated game for the kiddies, but only the most fragile of gamers (or people who, you know, didn’t play it) could believe something like that. By absolutely any definition, D3 is a very dark game, whether you’re looking for excessive blood and gore (Alcarnus), horrific monsters (Unburied, among many others), or tragic story-telling (Leah).

Right off the bat D4 comes across as an attempt to win back the most extreme and irrational elements of the fanbase, and pretty much everything announced so far further reinforces the idea that Blizzard is ashamed of Diablo III and doing pretty much everything they can to pretend it never happened.

This is certainly an odd attitude to take to one of the highest selling PC games of all time. Yes, it did have a vocal contingent of haters, but so do most major games these days, and after the many positive changes made by the Reaper of Souls expansion, even most of the haters were won over.

But Blizzard seems to be running scared from the people who will accept nothing less than Diablo II 2: Diablo Harder, so now that’s what we’re getting.

Honestly, if you’d just showed me the screenshots from D4 and told me it was a Diablo II remaster, I’d have believed you. Nothing about this feels new or fresh.

I am so disappointed with the new environments. They’re just the same moors, deserts, and mountains we’ve seen in the last two Diablo games. Scosglen seems like a cool place to visit in theory, but so far D4 seems to be presenting it as just a clone of Khanduras, rather than a new land with a rich culture and identity all its own.

Sanctuary is a huge world with lots of interesting settings. Why do we keep rehashing the same environments endlessly?

Imagine if we’d gone to Xiansai. We could have encountered all new demons and monsters inspired by Chinese mythology. It would have been something totally unlike anything in the franchise to date.

Or perhaps we could have gone to the Skovos Isles. Who’s onboard for Greek myths reinterpreted through the lens of Gothic horror? I know I am.

The classes and build system seem equally derivative. Yes, skill points and talents are back, which will please the people who believe pressing more buttons means more choice, but for those of us who actually value the ability to experiment with builds and create character identity, it’s a huge step backwards from D3‘s system.

Skill trees do not offer more choice. There’s always a right build, and a wrong build, and the right build usually isn’t that hard to figure out (and if it is, you just Google it). It just feels like you have more choices because you’re spending points every level. Yes, D3’s system has meta builds too, but when your choices are more about playstyle than choosing +5% crit over +5% haste, the difference between the top build and the bottom build becomes so small it doesn’t matter to anyone but the top 1%. You get to make real choices.

Aside from that, the new classes and their abilities look incredibly underwhelming so far. Diablo III‘s classes may have hewed to traditional archetypes, but Blizzard elevated those archetypes to something special. Wizard doesn’t feel like just another caster class; it feels like a conduit of unstoppable arcane fury. You can hurl actual galaxies at people!

By comparison, D4‘s sorceress looks like just another caster class. All of the classes and abilities so far seem like they could have been pulled from any generic ARPG in the last 20 years. There’s no fresh or clever mechanics; there’s no dramatic abilities; there’s no “wow” factor.

That brings me to the story. That’s another area where the team seems determined to sweep Diablo III under the rug, and for me personally at least, this is the area where that attitude is most frustrating.

There has been no mention of the Nephalem so far, despite the fact they should be even more common as the Worldstone’s destruction fades further into the past. Apparently they’ve all just fallen off the face of Sanctuary.

Nor does it seem likely we will be reunited with the NPCs we came to love in D3. Character was the greatest strength of Diablo III‘s story. The crafters and combat companions were all richly realized and incredibly lovable. They brought the light needed to counterbalance how oppressively tragic the main story could be.

Maybe D4 will introduce new characters I’ll learn to love just as much, but it still seems like a waste, especially as many of the NPC stories from D3 have been left unfinished.

D3 also did a great job of expanding the universe and evolving the story in interesting ways. We learned the angels of the High Heavens are perhaps as great a threat to humanity as the demons of the Burning Hells, and I’ve been looking forward to a reckoning with Imperius since he was first introduced.

D4 instead seems to be — again — ignoring the Heavens. No doubt this is another attempt to “restore” the horror of the setting, but that’s based on a childish and simplistic view of what horror is. You don’t need shadows and gore to frighten or unnerve people. Imperius’ blind fanaticism scares more than the mindless rage of the average demon.

The one source of hope comes from the purported antagonist of the game, Lilith. She’s a character we’ve heard about but not met before, and she could prove a breath of fresh air… maybe. This assumes she’s the real villain of the game and not a stepping stone toward yet another return by Diablo himself, and I would not rate the odds of that very highly right now.

Furthermore, at this point it seems like they want to portray her as just another avatar of pure evil like any other demon, but that’s not what makes Lilith interesting as a character. Her whole appeal is that she’s not like the other demons. She rejected the Eternal Conflict and made an angel her lover. She’s not necessarily “good” per se, but she’s never been about seeking chaos and destruction for their own sake. It would be a mistake to paint her as a purely villainous character now.

Admittedly, though, we don’t know much about Lilith’s role in the story yet, so my concerns may be misplaced. Out of everything in D4 right now, she’s still the biggest cause for hope.

With all that said, do I think Diablo IV looks like a bad game? No, not really. The scale of the open world is exciting, and it looks like a reasonably competent ARPG as these things go. The graphics look beautiful.

But it does seem to be sending the franchise in the wrong direction. In a world where Diablo III had never existed, Diablo IV would look like a solid continuation for the franchise. But we don’t live in that world, and in our world, it seems like a step backward from Diablo III in almost every possible way.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.
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