If franchise media has taught us anything, it’s that sequels which take risks and aren’t universally beloved cause the parent company to panic and yank the next entry back to the original. Almost slavishly so. Think how Temple of Doom led to Last Crusade or Last Jedi to Rise of Skywalker.
Make no mistake, this is exactly what Blizzard’s doing with Diablo IV. While the game set sales record after sales record, it was blasted by vocal gamers as too bold with its colors and design, and its RMT auction hall was the subject of endless criticism. Ultimately, the studio stopped seriously developing Diablo III, and committed itself to making the most Diablo IIish sequel it could make. Almost slavishly so.
Thus it’s really hard to shake the feeling that we’re not seeing a sequel as much as a redux of a classic ARPG (which itself just got a redo a little while back, adding to the weird aura). But considering Diablo II’s stature and the devotion that this team has to making some of the best ARPGs on the market, I’m not sure that’s not a dealbreaker.
This past weekend was the first open beta test for Diablo IV, offering the widespread community its first chance to get its hands on this coming summer’s adventure to hell and back. I was keenly interested to see what a modern take — Diablo Immortal notwithstanding — of this series would look like, and like many of you, I wanted to know for myself whether it was a title worth anticipating or not.
Right from the start of play, you can tell that this is the grimmest of all grimdark settings. Only three of the five launch classes (the most boring three, in my opinion) were available to play, reuniting us with Diablo staples such as the Barbarian and Sorcerer. Usually when I dip into a beta, I’ll pick a class that I normally wouldn’t otherwise, so I suited up as a wild Barbarian and got my way to hacking and slashing through Sanctuary.
I had to laugh at just how obvious Diablo IV is being with its “colors are bad” design mantra because these opening stages were nearly monochrome. I mean, it’s good-looking monochrome, but aside from the occasional splash of blood red, you’re in for a whole lot of blacks, whites, and greys. Even when the sun came out later in Act I, it still was a stunningly frosty white world where crayons hadn’t been invented.
As detailed as the visuals are with reflective puddles, flickering torches, and horse corpses exploding into dark red messes that will be impossible to get out of any carpet, I couldn’t help but feeling like some of the personality of this franchise has been leeched out of this new entry.
On the other hand, the sound design makes a powerful case that the Diablo IP still carries quite the punch. Everything sounds so spot on, especially the nearly constant combat audio that’s got to sell your masterful slaughter in a way that sounds just as good as it looks. On top of this is the weepy soundtrack that will send nostalgic shivers of delight up the spine of any franchise fan.
I’m happy to report that Diablo IV is the very epitome of pick-up-and-play. I slipped into this game as if I’d been playing it for years, gleefully running around smashing landscape objects, giving foes the old one-two, and poking my nose into every nook and cranny before eventually following the quest markers to the next story beat.
There are a few welcome changes from past entries, such as the very MMO-like minimap and a limited array of potions to collect and use. Anyone get a bit of Path of Exile from that? I think it’s a great feature to lift from Diablo’s public competition, and I appreciate how it keeps health potions from clogging up the inventory screen.
Another change is the versatile spacebar, which is used (depending on context) to dodge enemy attacks or traverse certain landscape obstacles.
The world here is a lot of fun to explore, gradually opening up as you progress. There are multiple paths to take, regions that beg to be fully uncovered, and even mini-dungeons labeled as “cellars.” At one point, I diverted my Barbarian into a spider cave and experienced a genuine moment of heebie-jeebies as a man-shaped figure exploded into all of the spiders that were hiding in his skin.
Thanks for the nightmares, Diablo IV.
Of course, this being an ARPG, two factors are more important than all the rest: the combat and the loot. On both counts, this title seems to be heading in a good direction. Fighting handles great with responsive attacks, and the loot explosions never got old. Before long, I was vacuuming up improved gear and enjoying all of those incremental stat increases (not to mention some special abilities).
The new skill tree bears some coverage, too. It feels like a welcome evolution of Diablo II’s design, allowing players to gradually move down a path while specializing in certain attacks, bonuses, and improvements along the way. Each new level earned is a cause for celebration from that single talent point, if nothing else.
I got so swept up in Diablo IV’s moment-to-moment gameplay that it was a full hour before I remembered that this was online and I could chat with other players. I know some people might be rightly upset for no offline mode, but I’m excited to see how Blizzard leverages its knowledge of MMOs to make this a more social experience than its past titles (which were always MMOs in spirit dating back to the second game).
Any modern MMO fan will find the world events quite familiar, with special, limited-time activities popping up on the map. I had a wild time protecting a small convoy from a tidal wave of incoming enemies. I must’ve slaughtered a hundred or more mobs in the span of a couple minutes, smiling broadly when the event succeeded and I was rewarded.
And boy oh boy is this game gleeful to be a nonstop haunted house where gallons of blood, hanged corpses, exploding bodies, terrifying torture chambers, and an extensive bestiary of horror’s minions come to play. Diablo wants to get some of its edge back, so there is nothing cuddly on display here (unless there’s a cow level, that is).
Everything I’ve seen so far (which was just limited to Act I, as Blizzard is blocking testers from seeing past that) suggests a high-quality game with a lot of solid, satisfying action along the way. Fans who want to roll up their sleeves and wade through the gore while profiting from the venture won’t be disappointed as long as they see this as an iteration on the old school Diablo design rather than anything new — or risky.