Diablo IV has been a long time coming. That may be a contender for understatement of the year, considering that the previous mainline installment launched over eleven years ago, in May 2012. Kids who were mere babies at the time could very well be playing the new game soon (the official ESRB rating is 17+, but we all know how easy it is for the end user to circumvent those requirements).
Diablo IV also lands at a critical time for Blizzard. The once seemingly infallible Californian developer has had to deal with a thick list of troubles, both gaming and non-gaming related. The latter is, of course, a reference to the string of lawsuits filed against the company a couple of years ago due to widespread discrimination and harassment workplace practices, mainly against women. As you’ll remember, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) sued Blizzard directly in July 2021, while individual employees banded together to seek a $100 million settlement fund. Employees even famously staged a walkout to protest against the company’s malpractice.
Eventually, another lawsuit from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was settled in March 2022 with an $18 million fund. The DFEH lawsuit is still pending, though, and regardless of that, the impact on Blizzard’s reputation was huge. Some gamers decided to stop supporting Blizzard’s titles, while some streamers and even some publications paused their coverage of their games.
The harassment and discrimination lawsuits were at the center of the company’s controversies, but Blizzard slipped at other times, such as when it banned Hearthstone player Blitzchung for his pro-Hong Kong protest statement uttered during an official tournament or earlier this year when all of its games ceased being serviced in China due to a harsh split with NetEase, which is now suing Blizzard (after publically tearing down the World of Warcraft statue placed just outside its headquarters).
On top of that, Blizzard had its fair share of mishaps purely related to its gaming output. Warcraft III: Reforged is likely the biggest example, having been widely panned due to its technical issues, unwelcome changes to the original formula, and disappearance of several promised features.
Then there was Diablo Immortal, which received a hugely negative backlash when it was announced simply because players were expecting Diablo IV from Blizzard. Immortal finally launched last year to another wave of criticism caused by its aggressive monetization, although the game was very successful from a financial standpoint. Last but not least was the Overwatch 2 fiasco, with Blizzard forced to cancel its plans for a proper PvE cooperative mode with a full-fledged progression system, much to the disappointment of most fans.
On top of that, Diablo IV also has to redeem its own predecessor, albeit to a lesser extent than the aforementioned debacles. Diablo III sold incredibly well (it surpassed 65 million units sold in time for its tenth anniversary last May), but it left hardcore series fans with a bittersweet taste due to its simplified mechanics and more colorful art direction compared to the beloved Diablo II.
Can any single game carry such burdens without being crushed? It would be unfair to judge this game against Blizzard’s many shortcomings from the last decade. Still, Diablo IV needs to mark a new chapter in the company’s history if it wants to slowly earn its golden reputation back.
So far, I haven’t missed any opportunity to play the new Diablo installment. I played a Barbarian in the first beta, a Druid in the second beta, a Rogue in the Stress Test, and a Barbarian once again in the review servers that were live for ten days while press and influencers tested the game.
Altogether, I reckon I’ve easily passed the hundred-hour milestone in Diablo IV and had a blast most of the time. Let’s get that immediately out of the way: Blizzard most certainly did not forget how to make a fun hack-and-slash game. The genre may have spawned many competitors in the past few years, but none even comes to close to the thrilling action provided by Diablo games, of which this fourth entry offers the most refined example.
Combat is fast, frantic, and most importantly, incredibly fun. Every single aspect contributes to that awesome feeling, from the silky smooth animations to the punchy sound effects and the lovely visual effects. It’s Blizzard’s polish at its finest. Pick up any class and from what I’ve played, you’re bound to be satisfied by its power fantasy. The Barbarian crushes foes with relentless power; the Druid flows seamlessly from its many forms, hurling lightning a second before mauling its foes as a werebeast; and the Rogue successfully melds World of Warcraft’s Hunter and Rogue classes into one, successfully mixing the archer and assassin playstyles.
I still maintain from my first hands-on with Diablo IV that it’s a mistake to keep new characters stuck to the default attack until level 7 since it provides a subpar introduction to combat. However, it is such a small portion of the overall playing time provided by the game that it does not matter much in the grand scheme.
Diablo IV is also the first mainline installment on PC to get official controller support. As Blizzard had already shown with Diablo III on consoles, gamepads lend themselves extremely well to this type of game, providing a legitimate alternative to the tried-and-true mouse click-based system.
I do wish the vibration effects were more used. As it is, they are mostly activated when you take damage instead of highlighting a special move or critical strike performed by the player character.
One of the main critiques levied on Diablo III was the restrictive skill system. In that game, players were forced to choose between groups of three or four active skills for each of the six categories. As a Barbarian, for instance, you always had to select one primary skill, one secondary skill, one Defensive skill, one Might skill, one Tactics skill, and one Rage skill.
Diablo IV completely does away with that system, allowing for freeform customization of each class. Granted, you do have to start with unlocking a Basic skill, but then you’re entirely free to skip Core skills and Defensive skills if you want to focus on Brawling skills, Weapon Mastery skills, or Ultimate skills. There’s a lot of room for experimentation between active skills and passive skills, not to mention that the former skills also come in five ranks each, so you’ll have to figure out exactly how many points you want to spend on any selected ability.
Chances are you may get it wrong the first time, the second time, and possibly the third time, too. That’s the point, though: the system is wide open, which comes with the downside of potentially bad builds, but the upside of much greater freedom in tailoring your own playstyle. Diablo IV is a remarkable improvement over the previous installment in this area.
That’s also just the tip of the iceberg of the game’s progression system, between items providing unique, build-changing effects, the Legendary Aspects stored in the Codex of Power, gems, and more. Legendary Aspects are usually unlocked by first completing a dungeon, but you can also extract them from an item you dropped and then imprint them on another that you like better for its other stats.
At level 50, the Paragon board is unlocked and becomes another important factor. However, I didn’t get to the max level during the review period, so I can’t speak to that portion of endgame progression. For much the same reason, I also won’t get into the argument of whether the respec costs are fair; I didn’t even try the Capstone dungeon, which is unlocked after finishing the main campaign and is necessary to move onto the World Tier III. In a pre-release Q&A, Blizzard said it was confident the respec cost would be manageable given the amount of gold earned by endgame players. It’s simply one of those aspects that will require actually getting there before having the chance to judge.
I did, however, finish the campaign of Diablo IV just before the review servers went offline. I can only speak about it in broad terms, anyway, since Blizzard forbid us all to discuss any story spoilers beyond Act I before the beginning of the public early access on June 2nd.
With that caveat in mind, the narrative woven by Blizzard is more intricate and more interesting than in previous Diablo games. Most importantly, the main characters and their personalities are slightly more complex, which is always a net positive in my book. Ultimately, it’s their story rather than the player character’s, who’s really there to support them rather than the other way around, at least from a narrative standpoint. Whether you enjoy that or not may be heavily subjective.
Having said that, Diablo IV is nonetheless unlikely to appear in any Best Narrative awards at the end of 2023. Blizzard clearly opted to stick very closely to the hack and slash rulebook with this game, and this genre was never about delivering industry-leading cinematic experiences.
The developers could have perhaps done more with the narrative told in side quests, too. I can only remember a single meaningful chain of side quests, whereas most of those I completed didn’t offer any memorable characters or events. Again, hack and slash games aren’t exactly known for the remarkable stories of their side content, but that doesn’t mean Blizzard couldn’t have put more effort into this part of the game.
One of the main innovations of Diablo IV is that the world is now seamless. There are no barriers between the game’s five regions, and the developers made a visible effort to design the world in a way that would feel more realistic (as much as possible given the camera view), even from a geographic standpoint.
There is no doubt that this is the best version of Sanctuary we’ve seen to date when it comes to world design. It feels connected and grounded in a way that simply wasn’t technically possible in the earlier Diablo games.
However, when analyzed from a living world perspective, it falters. Outside of towns, it is quite rare to find NPC travelers, and when it happens, it’s just nameless adventurers found in the wild that are bound to die in hopeless combat anyway and won’t interact with or acknowledge player characters.
Diablo IV does have events happening regularly at specific locations across the various zones. They become stale very quickly, though, mostly due to the lackluster variety. By the time I reached the final hours of the review period, I was already beyond bored with the few rotating options, like bandit trap, carovan siege, demon summoning, or some variation of that theme, and was inclined to skip them outright.
In this area, it seems like Blizzard did not heed its own accomplishments in games like World of Warcraft. In that game, monsters sometimes attacked towns and outposts, and the guards reacted accordingly. None of that happens here, despite the game being labeled a ‘shared world’ where you can seamlessly encounter other players in your wandering trips.
Indeed, it’s possible that Diablo IV was envisioned as an MMO-lite at some early point, but if that was ever the case, it has been dialed back a lot. Diablo Immortal, for all its monetization faults, was far bolder with the addition of features like the Helliquary 8-man PvE raids, the faction-based Circle of Strife PvP system, or the clan-based Accursed Towers PvP mode added recently.
The team behind Diablo IV decided to stick to what was essentially available in previous games, but I believe it’s to the game’s loss rather than gain. I still hope some of those features may be added after launch, but the developers indicated that it is unlikely.
Another way I wish the developers would have strayed a bit from the hack and slash basics is the near impossibility of performing a role different than DPS (damage per second). While you can apply crowd control effects like stuns or conditions like vulnerable that can be exploited by everyone, there’s no way to create a fully dedicated support character right now. That also means you may be standing near another player, whether you’re in a party for a dungeon or you’re just fighting a world boss alongside a group of randoms, but there’s not much in the way of actual teamwork due to lacking mechanics.
Blizzard hinted that non-DPS roles might be expanded post-launch, and I sincerely hope that happens sooner rather than later. It would certainly boost the importance of teamwork in this game. At least Diablo IV comes with full cross-play and cross-progression functionality for the first time in the franchise. While we’ve come to expect these features from most online games, they’re still welcome since they allow players to group up with friends regardless of the platform owned.
When it comes to the quantity of content available in Diablo IV, it’s hard to complain. The game features over 120 dungeons, which is a huge amount, and clearing the main campaign unlocks the Whispers of the Dead bounties and the Nightmare dungeons.
On the other hand, dungeon layouts do not randomly change as much as they should, which will eventually lead to repetition. Their objectives are also usually menial, sometimes requiring just the wholesale slaughter of every foe in the zone before the one and only boss is unlocked. Even boss fights aren’t challenging in World Tier II, though that may change in World Tier III and IV.
Events can take place in dungeons, but they’re even more predictable and basic than the ones witnessed in the open world. Usually, you’ll find a dying adventurer that somehow can only be saved if you defeat five waves of enemies in the specified amount of time. The only truly thrilling random event is the appearance of The Butcher boss. It happened to me just once during my time on the review servers, but it was a great fight and defeating The Butcher dropped powerful loot. Perhaps Blizzard should increase its spawn rate.
Another common Diablo III complaint was directed to the excessively colorful art direction. Diablo IV successfully takes the series back to its dark fantasy roots, providing exactly the kind of gloomy atmosphere players had been asking for.
Blizzard’s artists have long been among the best in the industry. This game provides yet another example of their prowess, whether you’re trekking through the snowy Fractured Peaks or roaming in the forests of Scosglen. Perhaps having two fairly similar desert zones (Dry Steppes and Kejhistan) wouldn’t have been my first choice, but again, there is a degree of subjectivity here.
The visual impact of the artwork is certainly bolstered by the many engine improvements, such as fully dynamic lighting. Diablo IV looks very good on PC at max settings and 4K, and it also runs well thanks to the implementation of all major upscaler technologies, including NVIDIA DLSS 2 (Super Resolution) and DLSS 3 (Frame Generation), AMD FSR 2, and Intel XeSS. I analyzed the implementation of DLSS 3 when it was first added in the last test; here, I’ll add that Blizzard said the performance of upscalers wasn’t final even in the review build, so improvements may be on the way with the day one update. On my RTX 4090 and i7 12700KF PC, DLSS 3 allowed me to ditch DLSS Super Resolution for DLAA to augment the image quality.
The only downside to Diablo IV’s performance is the occasional traversal stuttering in the open world. It’s not nearly as troublesome as in other PC games, but it’s there, and it would be great if it could be fixed. As a final technical consideration, there’s no trace of the rumored DirectStorage support found via datamining. Maybe it’ll be introduced in a future update, although load times are already quick as it is, at least on an M.2 NVMe SSD.
A couple of words on the music. Soundtracks are another area where Blizzard rarely disappoints, and that’s also true in this case. As I wrote before, a substantial portion of the satisfying combat derives from the fantastic sound effects attached to the various class skills. In this area, the game is a clear leader within the genre.
Diablo IV has been conceived from the start as a live service game. It’ll feature a cosmetic Shop and a Battle Pass. Sadly, neither of these features was present in the review build, and I can only reiterate what Blizzard said about them. The Shop should only sell cosmetics, while the Battle Pass includes character boons called Season Blessings, which can boost XP earned from killing monsters, gold earned from sales to vendors, chances for rare materials when salvaging items, and the duration of all elixirs. However, the Season Blessings will be available on the free Battle Pass tier, while the premium tier is supposedly reserved for cosmetics.
Ultimately, Diablo IV is a success at launch, albeit one that stems from an obviously safe approach. However, as with any live service game, whether it will continue to attract players for a long time solely depends on the studio’s ability to provide regular content and feature updates that address the player’s feedback.
Reviewed on PC (access provided by the publisher).