I had my doubts. I’ve had questions in my head ever since I first played Diablo 4 at BlizzCon 2019 – was it really that long ago? – and I’ve had questions about the need for a big new Diablo. But after 10 hours with it from the start of the game, I can see what kind of shape it takes, and I like it. I like the tone, I like the mechanics, I like the world. There are some things I can’t see, but overall this is clearly the next generation of Diablo.
Oddly enough, it’s the world that sticks with me the most. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that an open world is one of the big new things about Diablo 4, and with every PR beat Blizzard has told us how badly it wants the world to feel dark, like the earlier Diablo . spell. Diablo 3 had more of a cartoonish edge to it, a kind of Warcrafty touch.
And it’s true, Diablo 4 feels darker, not in a literal sense of relief, but in a moodier sense. It’s grim and disturbing. It is acidic and unsaturated. It’s a fantasy world that always rains and blows – a gray-tinted world of mud and weathered people. A harsh world of harsh realities. I can’t think of a better comparison in this regard than Game of Thrones up north: an unshakable place where people don’t smile much. That’s how it feels.
Diablo 4, more than any other game in the series, actually takes the time to get to grips with it. There are flashy cutscenes at special moments that can be quite disturbing, but it’s the in-game cutscenes, where the camera pans down to better frame what you’re seeing, it really comes from. Honestly, I never normally pay attention to this in Diablo games. They are just taste against the backdrop of mass slaughter. But it feels like Diablo 4 wants us to spend a little more time with them here.
One scene that stands out from the start of the game was him being tricked, drugged, then carted off to a barn by a whistling villager where he clearly intended to cut me up and sacrifice me. What struck me was how unhurried it – and he – was. Being so normal made it all seem doubly disturbing, like the game was saying, hey, this is how it is here – this is the world you play in.
It’s this unhurried nature that really makes Diablo 4 feel very different from the most recent Diablo game, Diablo Immortal. That game was in a hurry to impress you, throw spectacular encounters at you and shower you with rewards. Which makes it so exciting that you can’t look away, as a free-to-play game must, before revealing a rut later on.
But Diablo 4 doesn’t do that, it lets things breathe. It lets the world breathe as you’re introduced to it, and it lets you breathe as the world introduces things to you – mechanics, rewards, ways to play the game. There’s no rush here, which I really like, and a huge sense of confidence comes from it as the game lets things build slowly.
None of this is to say that Diablo 4 is boring – far from it. I’m particularly impressed with how the game makes combat feel challenging and exciting right from the start – something Diablo 3 was abysmal at. This has a lot to do with the new World Tier difficulty available. There are two to choose from at the start, and the faster you go, the better your rewards will be. But if you go faster be prepared to die, not all the time, but I died a few times against bosses and some clusters of elites. (Incidentally, World Tier levels can be changed in-game from World Tier statues to cities. When grouped, the party leader determines the world state.)
However, it’s not just a problem. It feels like Diablo 4 has a better understanding of how to make enemy encounters as a whole more exciting and challenging. Enemies themselves have been refreshed or redesigned, or are completely new – my favorites are the Broodlord vampires, which look like floating Nosferatus and teleport around the area in a cloud of smoke and bats, making them very hard to reach. And enemies that knock you down or freeze you, or otherwise prevent you from healing, are a particular danger here.
But there’s also a sense of fun to it — an awareness of when Diablo feels best. Take the ghosts: they’re soft and unobtrusive on their own, so the game throws 15 of them at you at once, allowing you to smash them all to smithereens and feel like a badass.
This understanding extends to how Blizzard populates the open world. You’ll find small mini-dungeons for short bursts of action, alongside larger mini-zones for longer dive sessions. And they’re nearby ringed areas on the map that represent world events, which are usually a variation of wave-based attacks that you have to survive, protect someone from, or defeat in a limited time. And they all get harder and culminate in a mini-boss, then reward you with a big chest of loot on top of whatever the enemies dropped. It’s enemies, enemies, enemies, loot, loot, loot. It’s Diablo at its best.
This is accompanied by side quests with exclamation marks that you can pick up in town or in the world, which often lead to their own dungeon, and the more lavishly scripted main quests, with their own cutscenes and cutscenes. And it all adds up to a world full of things to do, and one that can distract you for hours on end. After 10 hours, at level 22, I feel like I barely saw any of it. This place is huge, and you will stay here for a very long time.
That’s the world, and my only real criticism of that is that there were no mounts available in my build to ride it, and it feels like it was designed for them. I’m also not sure if I should retrace my steps out of dungeons after clearing them, which adds more time – why aren’t there any portals back to the top?
You are enticed to explore the world by a new system in the game called Aspects. These are unlocked from a Codex of Power to do things like conquer a dungeon you find somewhere. Aspects themselves are buffs such as found on Legendary items, and once unlocked can be applied to items at an Occultist – a new supplier type in the game. Basically it means you can turn rare (yellow) items into legendary (orange) items, and it gives you more versatility when customizing character builds.
Versatility is also evident in the skill system in the game. It’s much deeper than Diablo 3. It’s based on a skill tree system, which slowly opens up as you spend more points in it, but there are ramifications and permutations that far exceed the number of points you have to spend on it, which means you’ll you have to specialize. It’s such a dizzying amount of choice you can even filter it by keywords, and I think the game expects you to constantly change your mind as it offers you respecs straight from the tree itself.
As excited as I am by what I’ve been playing, that’s why it’s important to remind you that there are things I haven’t seen in this build that are critical to Diablo 4’s vision. Namely the shared world, which other players run around and play next to you. I’ve only seen a few other players in town in the time I’ve played, and after we performed a few emotes and exchanged some elixirs, we moved on.
I haven’t seen any world bosses either, and this is a big new thing for Diablo. They are like organic raids – massive encounters that will act as a magnet to bring people together. I remember coming across one at BlizzCon 2019 and it was a real spectacle. And while one was added to this earlier part of the game for us to see (they normally show up later, as you approach endgame, around character level 45), it was too rare for me to see.
Nor have I tried the Adventure Mode-esque Whispers system, or the Nightmare Dungeons, or the Helltide areas, or the Fields of Hatred PvP, all of which will determine the endgame in Diablo 4.
What I did try, though, was a comforting single-player Diablo experience. One where you can see a generational difference between it and the Diablo experiences that have come before. It’s in how the game looks, but also in how the game feels: like it’s one big thing, one big world, and one with big ideas about how people play it together. There are still question marks, but there are also some answers now, and perhaps the biggest one is whether Diablo 4 will be worth the wait, and based on this evidence, yes, absolutely it is.