My initial impression of the Diablo IV open beta was lukewarm at best, but I did hold some hope that the second beta weekend might change things. This second beta opened up two more classes, the Necromancer and the Druid, and those also happened to be the classes that most appealed to me on paper.
As it turns out, getting access to these classes did improve my view of the game considerably, though perhaps not enough to fully convert me to a true believer.
For starters, I found the Necromancer more fun than the initial three classes, though I wouldn’t say it blew me away. It’s almost a direct port of the Diablo III version of the class, with only a few skills added, removed, or altered.
It’s a double-edged sword. I liked D3‘s take on the class, and thus I also enjoy the D4 version, but it also feels like I’m just releveling a character I’ve already played.
Even the new Book of the Dead feature for customizing your minions is essentially just a return of skill runes, which is again a mixed blessing. It’s nice to have, but it also calls attention to how much the rest of the game’s classes suffer for their lack.
So the Necromancer was OK… but it was the Druid that truly made me fall in love.
I think it helps that there’s no equivalent to a Druid in D3, and I never played Diablo II’s Lord of Destruction, so I have nothing to compare it to. It feels fresh to me in a way the other classes don’t. But also it’s just a pretty fun class on its own merits.
Whereas most of D4‘s other classes seem to want to push you down a very narrow path of specialization, Druid is built with a little more flexibility. The intention still seems to be that you choose either shapeshifting or magic as your focus, without as much support for combining them as I’d like, but there is flexibility within those two archetypes. You can specialize in werewolf or werebear form, or use a build that weaves between them for maximum benefit. Likewise, you can specialize in earth or storm magic, but there’s also a captsone passive that benefits both equally, allowing you to mix and match your favourite skills from both.
There’s also a sense of heft and spectacle to the Druid animations beyond what you see in the other classes. It just looks and feels great to play. My biggest problem was trying to decide between a caster or werebear build; they both felt so good.
Having finally found a class I truly enjoyed, I found the motivation to get much farther into the game than I had before. The conclusion I eventually came to is that I would enjoy this game much better if it didn’t carry the Diablo label. The expectations from the brand name do more harm than good.
Many hours further in, there’s still no further attempt to marry the events of D4 with those of D3. Blizzard seems committed to simply pretending the last game never happened.
Most egregiously, there’s no mention whatsoever of the new generation Nephalem introduced in Diablo III. You would think having a race of super-powered demigods watching over the world would be a big deal, but they seem to have vanished not just from the world but from all memory and record, even though it’s been less than a single human lifetime since the events of D3.
And again I need to point out that even if you do think D3‘s story was a misstep (which I don’t), this still isn’t the right way to handle it. You need to find a way to make a smooth transition, not just sweep it under the rug.
The worst story mistake I have encountered in the gaming world was the infamous Draenei retcon in World of Warcraft’s Burning Crusade expansion. But as tempting as the idea of erasing it is for me personally, I recognize that probably wouldn’t have been the right choice for the game. Instead, it would be better to find ways to turn the negative into a positive.
It took a long time, but Blizzard did eventually start doing that. It came up with a new origin story for the Burning Legion that fits well within the established lore, and it slowly found ways to introduce nuance to the Draenei. Legion’s reframing of the Draenei as abandoning their world out of blind obedience to the Naaru did wonders to make them more compelling. No longer flawless Mary Sues, they were now three-dimensional people trying to make up for their past failures.
You don’t want Diablo to be about ultra-powerful demi-gods? OK, fine, but you need to explain what happened to them. Maybe Inarius found a shard of the Worldstone and used it to start suppressing their powers again. Maybe the Angiris Council united to launch an anti-Nephalem crusade, and now every Nephalem is killed as soon as their powers start to manifest.
It’s possible an explanation like that may eventually arise in the game, but it’s a big enough question that it needs to be answered now, not later. Even if we do get an explanation later, it’s already a big misstep for the story.
When it comes to gameplay, D4 is generally competent, but it never quite measures up to its predecessor. I’ve already written at length about the disappointment of the new build system, but there are smaller deficiencies, too.
There are still audio lore collectibles scattered around the world, but they’re much fewer and farther between. There’s no companions this time around, so there’s no banter as you explore the world, and player characters have far less incidental dialogue. Adventuring through dungeons in D3 was full of chatter and immersive lore; in D4, at least in beta, they’re silent marches with nothing to add flavour to the grind.
My biggest problem with Diablo III was the prevalence of irritating quality-of-life issues, like limited inventory space and too few checkpoints when playing through the story. D4 has all of that too and even removes some of D3‘s QoL perks. The teleporters at the end of dungeons are gone, so now you’ve got no choice but to walk aaaaalllll the way back to the start or else port back to town and go through an equally long walk through the wilderness back to where you were when you stumbled on the dungeon. [Update: A reader alerted me that the teleport button is tucked away rather unintuitively on the emote wheel; Blizzard is apparently aiming to make this more obvious so folks don’t miss it.]
Gear is less exciting. Legendary items are now as randomized as other tiers, with generic affix-based powers. They’re still powerful, but they lack the excitement and personality they once had. Classes now also have greater limitations on what weapons they can equip, for no apparent reason. Why can my Druid wield an axe but not a sword? Why are Necromancers the only class that can use shields?
Throughout, I feel a constant sense of lessening. There are fewer build options, fewer gear options, less dialogue, less lore, less character development. Less, less, less of everything. Except forgettable “kill ten rats” filler quests — there’s a lot more of those.
Most of these aren’t serious problems by themselves, but they add up. Like a pebble in your shoe, the constant feeling of “this is good, but D3 did it better” wears on your patience.
The only area in which D4 is a clear improvement is graphical. “Pretty” is maybe not the right word for a game with such grim visuals, but the art is striking and evocative in a way D3 never managed, even before you consider the raw technical advancements that have taken place since D3 was the new kid on the block.
I always like to say that “less good” isn’t a synonym for “not good.” Diablo IV is less good than Diablo III. That doesn’t mean it’s not good. But you do expect more from a franchise with this pedigree, don’t you?
I think the ideal audience for Diablo IV is people who’ve never played a Diablo game before or who have done so only very casually. If you’re a D3 fan, it’s hard to overlook all the ways D4 is a downgrade. If you’re a D2 fan, you’ll probably still have a better time playing Diablo II: Resurrected; D4 still plays much more like D3 than D2. But if you don’t have any baggage from the franchise’s past, it’s a perfectly solid game.