Diablo is a series that has faltered in the last decade or so. While the critical reception to Diablo 3 was excellent, the public consensus was less so. Lots of that was thanks to the controversial and swiftly removed auction house feature, but it also changed up plenty of core facets of the tried and true formula that had seen such success with the first two instalments.
Diablo 4 feels like the series at its apex. It is a culmination of all the lessons Blizzard has learned over the years, brought together in one seriously hefty package. And perhaps the most surprising feature that is absolutely worth writing home about is the main story and the way it is delivered, because it blows any previous Diablo narrative out of the water.
As usual, there’s one main mission; stop the big bad demon from whatever world-destroying antics they have planned. In this instance, the demon in question is Lilith, who is the daughter of Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred, and the ex-girlfriend of Inarius, who was once an archangel of the High Heavens. We won’t delve into anything that could even remotely be considered a spoiler, but know that things get seriously hairy indeed, with enough twists and turns to give you whiplash.
While the storytelling here is vastly improved, the biggest upgrade is how stunning cutscenes are now. Long gone are the narrated tapestry-esque tellings from Diablo 3, as every major story beat features a gorgeous, in-engine cutscene that helps bring all the characters to life. This is especially impactful since most of your time will be spent looking from the isometric perspective, rather than being up close and personal.
Every major character in Diablo 4 has a strong personality too, and you’ll encounter plenty of them. Lorath, a mysterious stranger you’ll encounter in his shack within the first hour or so, has a booming Yorkshire accent thanks to Ralph Ineson, and while it’s tough to describe him as likeable, he’s certainly got a lot of charisma. Then there’s Neyrelle, a young woman who loses her mother to Lilith’s persuasion. She quickly matures and becomes a headstrong, loyal companion on the hunt for vengeance. Combined with a few other faces, each and every character is more memorable than any that came earlier in the series.
This is still a Diablo game through and through though, so the gameplay loop is as you’d expect. Plenty of enemies around every corner for you to click on until they’re dead, ranging from lesser mobs you can kill in one hit to elite enemies and mini-bosses that take much more of a beating. For the most part, that is the extent of the combat though; click until they’re dead, using a variety of abilities, but ultimately none of which make much difference.
Diablo 4 is less a game about skill in combat, and more about who can find the most meta build. Aside from a couple of boss fights, there’s no incentive to dodge incoming attacks or plan your movements. Even attempting to play as a ranged character is nigh-on impossible since enemies will beeline straight for your position as soon as you engage, though this is made more possible in co-op if you have melee allies to take the heat.
As a result, combat is a little one-dimensional – but it’s still the tried and true Diablo formula. The Sorcerer, for example, has skills that cover elements; fire, ice, electric, and so on. There are no interactions between the elements though, so they are nothing more than visual effects. So creating a build that synergises with your equipment is neat, because it allows you to blast through swarms of enemies quicker with higher damage numbers and so on, until you increase the World Tier and make the enemies tougher again. But there’s no depth to it, no tactical plays to be had whatsoever.
Is that a problem? Not necessarily, but outside of the aforementioned boss fights and story beats, it does make Diablo 4 quite a mindless game as you slay your way through dungeon after dungeon. Though it must be said the sheer volume of foes you could have on-screen in Diablo 3 has been dialled back a little, in favour of fewer, slightly tougher enemies.
Skill trees have been revamped once again though, and there’s a lot of flexibility on offer this time around. Progression is linear and you have no way to lock yourself out of any skills – simply spend skill points to unlock the next parent node, which has lots of short branching paths with three or four skills down each one. You can respec for a nominal monetary fee, which essentially means you can completely change your build on a whim. Having played as a Sorcerer for the duration of the review period, there’s little I can say with regards to class balancing, but the Sorcerer certainly felt powerful with the amount of area-of-effect and crowd control abilities at my disposal.
One huge shift for the series is the move to having a true open world in Diablo 4, rather than the linearity disguised as being ‘open’ in the third game. Sanctuary is huge too, with five distinct regions, each with myriad dungeons and side quests to complete. While you can blitz through the main story in around 20 hours or so, there’s easily 50-60+ hours worth of content in the main game here, if not more. And that’s before you reach the post-game with plenty to do, and later down the line, seasons will be introduced.
Dungeons aren’t the only side activity either, as Strongholds are similar, but operate a little differently. These areas have been overrun by evil and have their own short storylines within, as you make them habitable again. Clear them and they’ll become waypoints of their own, complete with NPCs, merchants, and more side quests. Complete the game and you’ll gain access to Whispers of the Dead, which are essentially enemies with bounties on their heads, and Nightmare Dungeons. We didn’t have the chance to participate in those before the end of the review period, but they appear to be more difficult dungeons, to go alongside the harder World Tiers that will be available.
Thanks to the vast open world, mounts are introduced to the series for the first time, but you won’t unlock them until more than halfway through the story. On one hand, not having a horse to ride while you’re still learning the world and the secrets it holds is great, as you’re forced to take your time. On the other hand, since getting one, you won’t want to travel anywhere on foot because of how much time it saves, which incentivises rushing through the story until you unlock one.
And while Diablo 4 is a serious graphical improvement, most of the environments are very grim in terms of colour. Dark greens, browns, and greys are most of what you’ll encounter, which reminds me of the complaints aimed at first-person shooter games a decade or so ago. Sure, this colour scheme makes sense given the apocalyptic nature, but it’s also a bit boring to look at.
With only ten days available to play in the review period before the servers went down, I didn’t have the time to play much of the endgame content. And as existing Diablo fans will know, this is the most important part, as you’ll only play through the story once, but will rattle through the hardest content on repeat in search of better gear.
Bearing that in mind, this is Diablo at its finest, at least for casual players who will play primarily for the story. The game very rarely missteps, outside of some minor frame skips when exploring at speed aboard a mount. Narrative-wise, it’s raised the bar for action-RPGs everywhere, and there’s so much content to experience, it will take the average player a long while to feel like they’ve discovered everything Sanctuary has to offer. Without having played the post-story content or anything beyond the Sorcerer, it’s tough to say whether there are balancing issues, but it is a step up on Diablo 3 in every regard.
Reviewed on PC. Game provided by the publisher. All images captured by VideoGamer.