When Diablo 3 released 11 years ago, it was a mess.
Put aside the action role-playing game’s infamous server problems at launch—a product of the series going online-only for the first time—the game itself had fundamental issues. At core was its ill-conceived and universally reviled real-money auction house, which changed the thrust of the series’ loot hunt from “look at this badass helm I got from killing an elite demon” to “look at these practical pants I bought from an in-game spreadsheet for $2.99 USD.” Difficulty and balance were all over the place, and, perhaps worst of all to long-time Diablo fans, the previous games’ dark horror aesthetic was replaced with a more colorful, cartoony vibe.
Two years and a management shakeup later, we got the Reaper of Souls expansion, which completely revamped Diablo 3’s loot and endgame, giving us the game we should have had from the beginning. Art direction notwithstanding, Diablo 3 ended up in a good place, and I played a ton of it, largely due to its genre-leading combat. (Lest we forget, Diablo 2 also had a game-changing expansion in Lord of Destruction.)
Other than seasonal content drops, that was all we got from the franchise until the release of last year’s Diablo Immortal, a mobile-first free-to-play MMO that seemed hell-bent on breaking new ground in the trade of predatory microtransactions. The fanbase was, shall we say, less than pleased with Immortal’s announcement at Blizzcon 2018, and it was (justifiably) apoplectic upon its release.
All this is to say that Diablo 4, which releases on June 6, has the Diablo faithful nervous. Is the game complete? Will we have to wait a year or more for Blizzard to “fix” it? Hell, is it even “real”? Or is it, like Immortal, a seemingly elaborate money-extraction scheme disguised as a game? Will the game’s live-service focus screw with players’ enjoyment and try to whisper sweet nothings about microtransactions at every turn?
I have answers to most, but not all, of these questions. And while I still have concerns, questions, and quibbles, this Diablo fan is breathing a (qualified) sigh of relief.
Dark, dirty, evil
Perhaps the most irksome change Diablo 3 introduced to the series was the shift to a lighter, friendlier aesthetic. It was still a game about slaughtering demons by the truckload, of course, but it took at least one too many visual cues from World of Warcraft.
Diablo 4 brings back the horror. In both visuals and tone, it’s dark, violent, and brutal. It’s evil in the best possible way. Its color palettes are muted and mostly brown and red, but that’s not a bad thing here—it fits the setting. If there’s one unqualified success in Diablo 4, it’s the game’s environments and art design.
Diablo 4’s story is similarly dark, starting and ending with absolutely gorgeous—and squirm-inducing—CGI cinematics. The game wants you to feel the dread of a world being caught up, once again, in the eternal battle between angels and demons. The tone is more grounded than that of Diablo 3. Gone are the Saturday-morning-cartoon villains taunting you throughout the game; instead, we get a more mature, nuanced story.
Diablo 4 opens 50 years after the events of Reaper of Souls, with the people of Sanctuary just beginning to rebuild after years of miserable darkness and despair. At the beginning of the game, the demon Lilith, daughter of Prime Evil Mephisto and creator of Sanctuary (and humanity itself), senses a power vacuum in the Eternal Conflict between the High Heavens and the Burning Hells and sets out to seize upon it. Your character teams up with retired Horadrim Lorath Nahr and a ragtag group of other adventurers to chase Lilith through Sanctuary as she recruits cultists to her cause, unleashing hatred and misery on the mortal realm in the process. Poor old humanity just can’t catch a break.
Diablo 4 is an open-world game, and the story unfolds in a not-quite-linear fashion, letting you focus on different main and side quests as you please. You can also always jump into one of the game’s 120 dungeons or engage in other various side content, but the main story will eventually guide you through the game’s five zones. The map is massive, and it is indeed an “open world,” but it’s open in the sense of “you can seamlessly traverse the entire map” (sometimes through corridors), not “you can climb any mountain you see.” This is, after all, still a Diablo game. You’re given a horse around two-thirds of the way through the campaign to help you get around quickly.
The game is sort of an MMO-lite, in that you’ll see other players running around certain open-world areas and towns. This is… fine. And it’s sometimes even fun, like when you team up with random players to take on Destiny-style public events.
But it also means that the entire world is scaled to your level so that players of all levels can quest together (even across platforms). I understand why level scaling exists, but it can lead to odd situations where a lower-level player feels stronger than a higher-level one (damage done to and from a monster seems to be converted to a percentage of the target’s total health). There are trade-offs here, and I’m happy that I can play with friends and not have to worry about keeping pace with them. It also ensures that all the content in the game stays relevant, no matter where you are in the story. Fundamentally, though, level scaling rubs me the wrong way.
Voice acting is mostly good, with the standout performance coming from Ralph Ineson, who plays Lorath (for a tonal companion piece to Diablo 4, check out Ineson in the excellent horror film The Witch). Lorath is your mentor and main companion throughout the game, filling the hole left by the death of Deckard Cain in Diablo 3.
Choose your hero
You play as one of five different classes—Barbarian, Necromancer, Sorcerer, Rogue, or Druid—and for the first time in a Diablo game, you can create your own character. Well, kinda. The character creator is pretty barebones; you can choose between preset faces and customize your character’s hair, tattoos, and jewelry. It’s not extensive, but it’s a nice way to give your avatar a personal touch.
I tested all the classes during the game’s betas, and they each feel different enough that everyone should be able to find one that fits their playstyle. During the betas, the Necromancer and Sorcerer were ludicrously overpowered, but they’ve been toned down in the final game. I chose the Rogue for my first full playthrough, and I can recommend the class to anyone who likes zipping around the battlefield while making packs of enemies explode into a fine mist.
Each class has a gimmick—or “specialization”—that unlocks as you progress through the game. The Barbarian, for instance, can lug around a huge arsenal of weapons and gains “expertise” with each as you use them, granting buffs and special effects. The Necromancer can choose between different types of minions or sacrifice them to extract their power. The Rogue has three specialization options, one of which is a WoW-like combo-points system. Every class has its own personality and quirks, and they’re all a blast to play.
Diablo 4 returns to skill trees, which were abandoned in Diablo 3 in favor of a very respec-friendly ability-and-rune system. I’m happy that skill trees are back, and it’s very easy to put together a fun build with lots of interconnected synergies. That said, fans have taken to derisively calling the skill tree a collection of “skill twigs,” and they’re not wrong—each active skill essentially has an upgrade node and then a choice between two other upgrades. That’s it. In some ways, there are even fewer options for skill upgrades in Diablo 4‘s system than in the previous game.
The skill tree isn’t the beginning and end of your character build, of course, as loot and the endgame Paragon system provide more avenues for customization. Still, it’s hard to look at an indie ARPG like Last Epoch, which boasts an extensive skill tree for every active skill in the game, and not feel like Blizzard could have innovated more here.
The return to skill trees means your builds are not as hot-swappable as they were in Diablo 3, and this will either annoy or delight you, depending on how permanent you like your ARPG characters to be. You can respec your skill points at any time for a meaningful-but-not-prohibitive price, but it’s a bit of a pain, so the game seems to encourage you to stick to—and tweak—one main build.
Combat is, as expected, best in class, with punchy sound effects accompanying fun, flashy skills to produce an addictive cacophony of mayhem. Clicking on monsters until they die has never felt better. The flow of combat feels slightly slower and less superhero-y than what we saw in Diablo 3, and a dodge button given to every class reinforces this feeling of deliberateness. You’re expected to bob and weave around enemies instead of simply face-tanking damage as you mindlessly bash against a foe. At times, it almost feels more like an action game, especially if you’re using a controller, which is a surprisingly wonderful way to play.
Bosses are much more interesting this time around; each has multiple mechanics you need to play against. Healing is also cool—you have a limit of four healing potions at the beginning of the game, and you can earn more and better versions as you level up. Health globes that drop from enemies, chests, and destructibles don’t restore your health; rather, they restore your potion charges. Since healing skills are a bit less prevalent, potion management provides an interesting wrinkle to combat.
Into the Skinner box
ARPG fanatics play these games for one main reason: the loot. Like rats in some cruel experiment, we pull the lever (click on monsters) until we get the cheese (see an orange beam reach skyward as a legendary piece of gear drops). Loot is the raison d’être of the genre; screw it up, and your game’s dead on arrival.
The loot in Diablo 4 is a vast improvement over the loot in the launch version of Diablo 3. Legendary items are fairly common in Diablo 4, but not necessarily in the way you might think. They drop from monsters and chests if you’re lucky—and your chances for rarer uniques and “sacred” variants rise as you bump up your “world tier” (difficulty level, essentially)—but another source is the game’s 120 bespoke dungeons. The first time you clear a dungeon, you unlock its associated “legendary aspect,” which you can take to a town’s friendly neighborhood occultist to infuse into rare gear (for a cost, of course). This makes grabbing legendary effects pretty simple, though many aspects are tied to specific classes.
There are two ways to do character development in an ARPG: tie build-defining special effects to a skill tree or tie them to gear. Diablo 4 follows in its predecessor’s footsteps in opting for the latter.
Dropped legendaries can have higher-level affixes than you can find on legendary aspects, which, as I understand it, always give the lowest possible stats, ensuring that drops are still exciting. The system is flexible and fun, allowing you to put legendary effects on the exact pieces of gear you want them on, with some restrictions. Rare items can have better stats than legendary items—that’s cool, because it means that rare items remain relevant, even when you’re fully kitted out in legendaries.
But because of the game’s level cap of 100, which Blizzard says should take an eye-popping 150 hours to reach (the Internet laughs), this leaves us with a potentially problematic situation. It means that you must constantly reapply legendary aspects to your gear as you find new rares, at least if you want to keep your build intact. I prefer to reach max level and then start farming for specific stats and effects; Diablo 4 seems to take a more “loot treadmill” approach to the endgame. I don’t know if this will actually be a problem as I dig in deeper, but it’s probably my biggest concern about the game.
The legendary effects are fun, and itemization seems interesting enough to keep people theorycrafting through the endgame, though we’ll need more time to see how everything works out in the long run. Loot drops seem tuned a bit low for my taste, though; I preferred the souped-up drop rates seen in the betas. I love to see an explosion of loot at the end of a hard boss fight, and at least up to World Tier 3, you don’t get that in Diablo 4.
The real game begins
Any ARPG lives and dies by its endgame, and the unfortunate reality is that games in the genre have historically launched with pathetically weak offerings. Diablo 4‘s endgame isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the best launch implementation I’ve ever seen in a loot game.
First up is the Paragon system, which has been overhauled from its incarnation in Diablo 3. When your character reaches level 50, you’ll stop earning skill points and begin earning four Paragon points per level. You’ll also gain access to your first Paragon board, a grid of mostly minor upgrades that you work your way through to reach more powerful nodes—plus nodes that you can fill in yourself with “glyphs,” which drop as loot. Each board has a legendary node, and when you reach it, you attach a new board to your previous one (you can even rotate the boards to plan out the perfect route).
It’s a much better implementation than Diablo 3’s, but it’s too early to definitely say how deep it is. As I said, most nodes give you ho-hum boosts like “+5 dexterity,” and even the legendary nodes don’t seem to be build-defining. I didn’t have time to dig deeply into the system, though—leveling slows down considerably after you complete the campaign—so we’ll need to see how things shake out after we get more playtime in.
The main activity you’ll be doing is running dungeons, and again, there are 120 of them at launch. Dungeons have you completing certain objectives, like killing elite monsters to get a key, shuffling boxes from pedestal to pedestal, and opening gates to gain access to a boss (usually—some dungeons are boss-free).
As far as I can tell, dungeons are static, aside from random events that can trigger in them, which feels like a downgrade from the procedurally generated rifts of Diablo 3. I suspect rifts will return at some point, and I hope they do. Dungeons are cool, but they may become samey after a while. At least there’s a lot of them.
Also on offer is a bounty-like system, which has you completing objectives—kill X number of monsters in a certain area, clear a certain dungeon, etc.—to earn “grim favors.” When you’ve collected enough, you can head to the “Tree of Whispers” for a cache of loot.
“Helltide” events ramp up the danger in certain areas of the map and challenge you to complete enough objectives before the time runs out. World bosses show up on a timer, and players from all over can meet up to smack them down (there were not enough players available in the review period for me to test this out).
Finally, “Fields of Hatred” let you engage in player-versus-player combat, should you be interested in such a thing.
The elephant in the room
And now we come to the most controversial part of the game. Yes, Diablo 4 has a shop where you can spend real-world money.
How are the microtransactions in practice? I’m not entirely sure. Blizzard told us that because of “logistical implementation,” it could not make the shop available to reviewers during the review period. “In order to be as transparent as possible for reviews,” Blizzard said, it included screenshots and pricing for the store. Here is a sampling:
Blizzard has taken pains to emphasize, repeatedly, that the only thing you can buy with real money through microtransactions is cosmetic skins.
But it’s still pretty galling that a $70 game is asking you to put up with microtransactions and a paid battle pass. A free version of the battle pass will be available, and again, no actual power will come from money exchanging hands. But if this all sounds excessive to you, you’re not alone.
I’ve gone on record as being skeptical of Blizzard’s monetization plans for Diablo 4. In general, I find the idea of purchasing cool-looking loot in an ARPG to be antithetical to the genre (apologies to fans of Path of Exile). And live-service games change their monetization schemes all the time; just ask Destiny 2 players how many iterations of monetization that game has gone through. Finally, the prices on these bundles of pixels are, to my eyes, obscene (see the $25 outfit in the gallery above).
But as annoying as the shop is, it doesn’t ruin the design of the game like the real-money auction house did in Diablo 3. The game offers a wealth of high-quality content, and speaking from experience, there’s no need to touch the store at all to enjoy it. Diablo 4 is categorically not Diablo Immortal. It’s a real AAA game with an optional shop. If you love the genre, I have no doubt that you’ll get your money’s worth, even if you never play a season or roll a second character.
The story is complete and fairly self-contained, but, as you might expect, it ends with hints about what’s to come in the seasonal content, which will arrive sometime after launch. We don’t exactly know what those seasons will look like, but I’ve always loved digging into the wrinkles to gameplay that seasons brought in Diablo 3.
So there you have it. There are still, annoyingly, a few unknowns about the live-service parts of the game, and if you’re interested in Diablo 4 but are unsure about its new direction, there’s an easy solution: just wait. Give it some time to see how the community reacts when people start pumping hundreds of hours into this thing. As a plus, you’ll be able to skip over any launch issues that crop up, though Blizzard is confident it can handle the load this time around.
But if you love ARPGs and enjoyed the combat of Diablo 3 and the atmosphere of Diablo 2, I think you’re going to love this game. It’s not as brain-meltingly complicated as a Path of Exile, but it doesn’t want to be. This is streamlined, big-budget loot hunting, and I absolutely love it. Ignore the monetization nonsense, vibe out on the demon slaying, and you’ll have a great time.
- Fantastic art direction that returns the series to its grim roots
- Entertaining story that kept me interested throughout
- Polished, punchy, and super-fun combat
- A giant open world and plenty of endgame content to keep you busy
- You can ignore them, but the game’s microtransactions are galling
- Some unknowns about the future of the shop and the live-service elements of the game
- Replacing legendary aspects on gear can be tedious
- Skill trees could be more interesting
- Me, unwashed, sleep-deprived, and malnourished a week after release
Verdict: If you’re a series fan, buy it. If you’re skeptical, wait a few weeks or months to see how the unknowns work out in the live game.