Diablo is a franchise that holds a lot of meaning to me. Back in 1997, when the original Diablo launched, I had just secured a monster Compaq powered by a 166mhz Pentium processor, and I was exploring all that PC gaming had to offer. Having grown up playing RPGs of all sorts while enjoying mapping out characters and min/maxing, Diablo struck just the right nerve for me. I spent countless nights sitting in my room late at night battling the hordes of hell.
Diablo 2 was, quite simply, a revelation. Still championed today, it’s widely-considered the greatest ARPG ever developed. Expectations for Diablo 3 over a decade later, then, were extremely high. In 2012, I built a new PC just for Diablo 3’s launch and, as many may recall, was horrified over the next several days as the realization set in that Blizzard had fumbled it. Badly. The server issues were atrocious, the Auction House was an affront to all things ARPG, and the loot design was shockingly short-sided. Many also took issue with the more artistic, “lighter” style when compared to Diablo and Diablo 2. Fortunately, a short while later Blizzard corrected many of their mistakes, and Diablo 3 has since become a tremendous ARPG for the past several years.
When a franchise only releases a mainline title once every decade or so, expectations are understandably high. Prior to this past weekend’s closed beta, Blizzard had shown a lot of promising design features of Diablo 4. But there were still an awful lot of concerns regarding whether or not they could deliver an ARPG on day one that could live up to the IP’s illustrious name.
Setting the Stage in Sanctuary
Diablo 4 will launch with five classes: Barbarian, Rogue, Druid, Necromancer, and Sorcerer. After one of my favorite cinematics in Diablo history (By Three They Come, shown above), you go through the familiar process of choosing a class and then customizing your character. While the options for doing so have been expanded compared to prior games, I wish it was a little more in-depth and more akin to other modern RPGs.
Fortunately, the rest of the character customization is much more streamlined than in the past. As you discover new loot, you’ll unlock new looks for each piece of gear after you break new pieces down at the blacksmith. Once doing so, you can visit your Wardrobe in town at any time and customize your look, including full transmogrification and color combinations. This is free and can be done endlessly. You are even provided “Ensemble” slots so you can save your favorite looks and activate them with a single-click. As Diablo 4 is releasing as a crossplay multiplayer title in 2023, it was essentially required that personalization played a big role. With a paid Battle Pass already announced, it becomes even more imperative. But more on that later.
Blizzard has done a tremendous job building the backdrop of Diablo 4 for fans leading up to the beta and eventual full release. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Diablo 4 takes place about 30 years after the events of Diablo 3, with much of humankind having been killed in the battle between the Burning Hells and High Heavens. Lilith, the daughter of Mephisto, Lord of Hatred, and “Mother of Sanctuary,” is whispered to have returned. Her ability to feed hatred into the minds of the citizens of Sanctuary, thus driving them to violence, is a core theme of the game’s dark tone.
Meanwhile, Inarius, formerly an archangel of the High Heavens and Lilith’s one-time love interest, also plays a key role. It’s presumed that he and Lilith’s feud will be the core backdrop to Diablo 4’s plot points.
From the outset, Diablo 4 presents a far darker tone than Diablo 3. From Lilith’s introduction to some of the early cinematics, the diabolical nature of Lilith and her control on Sanctuary is made very clear. For fans hoping for an approach in tone more akin to Diablo 2 than 3, you seem to have certainly got your wish. Personally I love it, and this design aesthetic and artistic style is layered throughout the entire game-world.
A Whole New Hell
Diablo 4’s world structure is a new direction for the franchise as it includes always-online features found in other modern RPGs. Connectivity is a focus for the development team with Diablo 4 launching with full crossplay across PC and consoles and cloud-saved data, so you can take your characters (and loot) to any platform. You are able to party up with up to three friends but, sadly, unlike Diablo 3, same-screen co-op is limited to two players rather than four this time around.
When you reach the first major hub, named Kyovashad, you’ll find other player characters navigating the city. You’re able to inspect them, message them, invite them to party up, and generally engage in open-world content together, including real-time activities and larger-scale world events. And yes, you are able to share some loot in Diablo 4, though that feature comes with a few necessary caveats. Loot is still instanced to each player, and some items are account bound, but you can drop loot for your friends and party members. To combat exploiting the system, the items are then only worth 1 gold and cannot be broken down for materials, which is a fair trade-off.
Sanctuary being an open-world with connected events adds more flavor to the gameplay than I had imagined it would. While Diablo 3 dabbled with randomized areas to explore that could change on each playthrough, the vast majority of your experience was always the same. In Diablo 4 the main missions, strongholds, and story content will obviously be static, but it feels as though Blizzard is offering players a more varied experience prior to reaching the end-game.
With real-time events that can pop up at sporadic times and locations, massive world bosses, and randomized side mission activation, Diablo 4 is certainly aiming to feel fresh even after you’ve rolled your seventh character. But, without a doubt, the heart of the design approach by Blizzard in this vein is the dungeons.
Dungeons are spread throughout Sanctuary and, according to Blizzard, there will be over 150 of them at launch. They are procedurally-generated and offer a semi-unique experience every time you enter one. While they don’t seem to have any drastic variances that make them spectacularly unique, providing players a layer of randomness in the early game is very welcome. This would already have added a ton of day-to-day replay value for the loot hunters, such as myself, but Blizzard took it one step further.
You can conquer any number of dungeons and unlock any unique rewards attached to them whenever you like. Then, whenever you choose, you are able to reset the dungeons across the entire world. This allows players to always have new content at their fingertips no matter what level they are or how far they have advanced in the story. Only have 20 minutes to play but still have the Diablo itch? Meet the perfect scratch.
There even seem to be surprises in store for players as, while playing with some friends, I turned a corner and ran into the classic Butcher. He was an extremely strong boss that was seemingly a randomized enemy you could encounter in Dungeons. Assuming Blizzard has leaned into this heavily with many randomized encounters that pay homage to classic Diablo foes, it’s yet another way Diablo 4 can continually surprise.
Sanctuary itself is generally a cold, unforgiving place filled to the brim with the demons and creatures you would expect. As I already noted, the design aesthetic is more akin to a modernized Diablo 1 or 2, with a more realistic art-style than Diablo 3. Yet, even in its outright drabness, it manages to be beautiful. The devil, as always, is in the details.
Even though the beta only allows us access to Act 1 and one of the five regions that will appear in Diablo 4, Fractured Peaks, it already shows a lot of promise. Fractured Peaks is inspired by the Carpathian Mountains, according to Blizzard, and the development team says that each of the five regions is a mixture of inspiration from real-life locations and the concept art created by their art team(s).
It manages to be stunning in ways that compliment both the gameplay and immersion while also contributing to the feeling of desperation that has spread throughout Sanctuary. The environments are enhanced further by dynamic weather and a day/night cycle, as well. While this is almost expected in an RPG releasing in 2023, it’s just another aspect that adds flavor to the world that you could spend hundreds or thousands of hours in.
Though I truly enjoyed the environments, I would like to see more enemy variety or randomization in the final game. While you’ll battle dozens of enemies at a time, they can begin to feel monotonous after a while. To be fair, this could have been compounded by the limited area of the beta that I kept revisiting, but as you’re going to do that in any major ARPG, I felt the need to call it out.
While you cannot unlock a mount in the beta, it’s going to be a joy to explore all of the regions and uncover the secrets they hold. In that vein, Blizzard has also noted that all of the regions are interconnected, and you can travel between them seamlessly.
Of course it wouldn’t be Diablo without some memorable music to accompany your journeys in Sanctuary. Fortunately, Blizzard hasn’t let us down. The tracks I’ve heard so far are not overpowering but ever-present, and they act as a beautiful accompaniment to the game world.
The Endless Loop
Naturally, what any hardcore Diablo player truly wants to know is what leveling, builds, and loot are like. Each of the Diablo games has been rather unique in this way. With Diablo 3, skill building was simplified, and this meant that loot became the primary driver in your character’s power. While loot will always play a very important role, Blizzard has been clear that with Diablo 4, they wanted to return to a system that enabled players to rely less on loot and experiment more with build combinations.
Based on what I’ve seen out of the beta, they’ve been largely successful to that end. The combinations available to each class allow you to play in different ways. For instance, with the Barbarian, you are able to build into dual-wielding, bludgeoning, or slashing. From there, a wide range of skills and abilities are available to compliment the play-style you are going for. As the system is skill point based, you also have the ability to spread your skills far and wide, or simply prioritize a few and build more into passives.
There’s more flexibility here than Diablo 3, for sure, and I appreciate that you can refund the skills easily and experiment as much as you like. It’s a bit early to talk about what end-game builds will look like as the beta provides less than half of the total skill points that will be allocated in the full game. But I can certainly see the development team’s vision in action, already.
Your gear then adds another layer on top of your build with all of the aspects and stats you will be familiar with. What I enjoyed in the beta is that loot still holds a lot of the depth found in Diablo 3 despite not being as absolutely imperative to your build. This adds further depth to both your build and the loot hunt in general while being complimentary, rather than mandatory.
As an example, I prioritized the Stomp skill with my Barb. I found one legendary that gave me a +1 attribute to my Stomp, which is part of the new skill rank affixes in Diablo 4. I then found another that complimented my Stomp with an earthquake that would stun and weaken enemies next to me. With that in mind, I re-rolled and built into an optimized CQC build which allowed me tank and crowd control large groups of enemies at once.
This type of experimentation is what I adore about these games, and even just with the beta content I was already fully addicted. Despite not having a picture of the full game, even in the beta you were able to experiment quite heavily with other aspects of loot.
There are numerous ways to modify and improve your gear. You are able to extract skills from items and affix them to others (and you can bank these for future use). You can upgrade items, typically multiple times, and give them a pure stat boost to each line item. Diablo 4 also features a Codex of Power, which is essentially a database of powerful skills that you unlock over time by completing dungeons. Each of these skills, once unlocked, can be affixed to items at the Occultist.
Obviously, there are still a lot of questions to be answered with regard to late game build and loot combinations. But at this stage of the game, I remain bullishly positive on what I’ve experienced so far. For more on what to expect in the end-game activities and what those entail, I would suggest this Blizzard developer update, which speaks to itemization, the Paragon Board, Uniques, and more.
From Superhero to Mere Hero?
Diablo 1 & 2 were developed in an age when a PC-based ARPG’s action was orientated to a mouse click. While effective, it certainly didn’t provide the player with anything I would describe as exhilarating. Diablo 3 took the “action” in ARPG more to heart and provided players with the feeling of being a complete superhero at times. Smashing hordes of ghouls into gooey bits that would fly at the screen and extend your killstreak was an approach beloved by some and loathed by others.
As with many other aspects of Diablo 4, Blizzard is attempting to walk a line between the two. It absolutely feels more grounded and gritty than Diablo 3, and enemies certainly don’t fly at the screen occasionally when you kill them. That said, combat is still very action-focused and extremely fun. I never tired of kiting a few dozen grunts together so I could leap and stomp them into messy puddles who never had enough time to regret their decision. The intense, dopamine hit you get while combating hordes of demons is alive and well.
While doing so, you utilize Blizzard’s new takes on potion-use and survivability. Thankfully, we are far removed from potions taking up inventory slots, but Diablo 4’s system provides more depth and strategy than Diablo 3’s “healing cooldown” approach. You begin with 4 potions (which can be upgraded over time), and enemies will occasionally drop extra ones during combat. This forces you to manage the timing of your usage and how you approach tough battles.
Formulating elixirs that provide stat boosts or enhancements is also in-play, though I didn’t get to play too much with these in the beta as the challenge simply wasn’t high enough. I’m sure these will be useful later in the game, especially once we’re able to ramp the World Tier up to 3 or 4.
You also have a new dash ability which, you guessed it, is different from Diablo 3’s roll. The new dash is a way to dodge enemy attacks intermittently and, similar to games like Dark Souls, provides the player with a small number of i-frames where you don’t take damage. Combined with the ability to pass through enemies while active, it’s a small touch that can become critically important in tight quarters when you are running for your life.
Similar to Diablo 3, there are large number of challenges and progression tied to your exploits across Sanctuary. Whether playing in a party or solo, Diablo 4 tracks hundreds of challenges that provide character and/or profile-wide rewards. This feels like Blizzard’s approach to implementing open-world discoveries just as you would expect in any other open-world RPG. As someone who explores every single corner of a world, I certainly appreciate the broader addition.
There’s an awful lot to Diablo 4 that we’re not going to get to experience in the beta. With that in mind, and knowing that the end-game is where me and millions of others will spend countless hours, the jury will remain out on the complete experience.
I have quite a few questions still open at this point:
- What will skill-building truly feel like once you’re at max level?
- Will the new Paragon Boards provide enough depth for long-term character growth?
- Will Nightmare Dungeons be varied enough to replace and/or improve upon the Rift system in Diablo 3?
- To that end, what other end-game activities will be present, and how common will world-events be?
- Is there a large enough variety of Legendaries and Uniques to truly satiate the ravenous loot hunters, like me?
- And, of course, as a Sword & Board main I’ll add: When will a Paladin/Crusader class be added?!
- We know there’s a paid battle pass featuring cosmetics and customization options. Will that detract from what can be earned in-game? And will you be forced to complete tasks you don’t necessarily want to do?
And I have a few minor qualms as noted. But from what I’ve played so far, I’m overwhelmingly optimistic.
Diablo 4 successfully merges great aspects from each iteration of the legendary franchise to create a beautiful, action-packed, and deep ARPG. And it does so while adding additional features that further compliment the overall experience. To say that it’s going to be a long wait until the full release in June would be a grave understatement coming from me.
If you didn’t get a chance to check it out last weekend, be sure to do so this weekend during the Open Beta!
Thank you to Blizzard for allowing me to cover Diablo 4 to date! And, of course, stay tuned for lot more coverage leading up to release. Also, if you missed our Bitcast conversation on the Beta this weekend, you can find it below!