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Diablo IV is a return to the series’ roots, but it’s not quite there yet

Why do I feel like I've been here before?
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Diablo 2 was the first PC game I ever played, and it hooked me immediately. It was exciting, dark, and new, unlike anything I’d seen or played before. Decades later, when Diablo 3 rolled around, I found a new home in Sanctuary, and dedicated thousands of hours to exploring every nook and cranny. Now, Diablo 4 is finally here, and I can’t help but feel like I’m treading familiar ground.

Diablo 4 is set 30 years after the events of the last game, which means it feels largely disconnected from that world. Sanctuary, having enjoyed a modicum of peace for a couple decades, has flourished, with towns and encampments scattered throughout the gorgeous landscape. It’s a world that’s lived in, and that marks a big change from other entries in the series.

Diablo 4's Sanctuary is gorgeous and filled with life... and the undead

Diablo 4's Sanctuary is gorgeous and filled with life... and the undead

In Diablo 2 and 3, you’d find small pockets of survivors, and no place for culture or customs. The world was harsh, unforgiving, and there was no room for small comforts. Diablo 4 is at least different in this regard, and it’s made clear early on that you’re not just traversing a landscape filled with monsters, you’re traversing a home. Upon reaching your first city, you’re tasked with partaking in a cultural custom, to write a fear on a piece of wood and cast it into sacred flames. It’s silly, but it’s very human, and those human touches make the world of Sanctuary feel fresh and new for the first time in close to thirty years.

Unfortunately the story leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not bad, by any means, but having spent thousands of hours across various games in the series, I started picking up on bits and pieces that I swore I’d seen play out before. You could chalk it up to references and stories to remind fans of games past, but to me it feels a little bit on the boring side to have close facsimiles of the same character archetypes acting out a lot of the same story we’ve seen in three games already.

The open world doesn't contribute much to the story, but it's nice to be able to explore freely

The open world doesn't contribute much to the story, but it's nice to be able to explore freely

I don’t want to get too deep into spoiler territory, so I’ll spare you the specifics, but one aspect of the story that does shine is Lilith, the Daughter of Hatred, and the main antagonist of Diablo 4. An outcast among demons, and not entirely evil, Lilith is a breath of fresh (albeit slightly stinky) air. She’s deeply terrifying when she appears, but also sympathetic and interesting. There’s never been an antagonist with quite as much depth as Lilith in the Diablo series — where past monstrosities have fallen into clear black and white, Lilith resides squarely in the gray area, and that makes for a compelling villain.

The open world in Diablo 4 doesn’t do much to service the story, but it honestly doesn’t need to. Diablo games have always had big, open overworld areas, but they’ve largely been split up across multiple zones. Here, it’s all one, big, continuous world, with no loading screens between zones, with the exception of dungeons, which are separate areas altogether. It doesn’t drastically alter how a game like this plays – if you’re following the story as signposted, you’ll likely stick to the relevant zones anyway – but it’s nice that you can theoretically go anywhere you like at any given time. The world mostly scales to your level, too, so there’s not a lot of risk that you’ll get stomped the second you go wandering about the continent.

Wherever you go, you'll be leaving a pile of monster corpses behind you

Wherever you go, you'll be leaving a pile of monster corpses behind you

Well, there is some risk of getting stomped, and that brings me to my biggest criticism of Diablo 4 as it stands: it doesn’t feel like it’s built for single-player. Enemies appear in huge groups, ready to take you down quickly and easily, even when they’re level-appropriate. This is a connected world, so you’ll see other players pop in and out as you traverse the wilderness, but whether or not they help you is a roll of the dice.

Seeing friendly players in towns and out in the wilderness is nice, but when you need them the most, they’re rarely there. Every time I saw a player attempting a world event, I would jump in and lend a hand, but when I was fighting for my life in world events I’d initiated, other players would just walk on past. I can’t fault Blizzard for other players being kind of rude, but when these events are seemingly made for multiple players, designing around the whims of random passersby feels like a bad idea.

Of course, you can team up with friends and wander out together, but it feels like playing the entire game solo is pretty much off the table. That’s a huge bummer, as someone who doesn’t have a lot of friends who play these kinds of games. It gets a little easier as you progress through the game and unlock more abilities, but even when you’ve got a full deck of skills and passives, all it takes is a chance encounter with a group of enemies that’s a little too large to end your run through the world.

At the very least, multiplayer with friends is smooth and hassle-free. Cross-play works fine, as long as you’re friends on, and cross-progression is similarly seamless for that matter. The world state is set by whoever is the leader of the party, which means mismatched players may struggle a bit to complete quests together, but when everyone is around the same level, it all works exactly as it should, and that’s great. Some classes even have a lovely amount of synergy with each other in combat, which makes for a lot of fun solo and multiplayer theory-crafting.

As for the combat itself, it’s about as good as it’s ever been, and maybe even a little bit better. Diablo 4 takes a lot of DNA from Diablo 2, which means it’s much more deliberate and impactful than Diablo 3. Where in 3 you could pretty much hold down the attack button and erase anything in your path, 4 has you thinking about how best to use your limited resources.

That all comes to a head in boss fights, which are far and away the best the series has ever seen. I had never died to a boss on the lowest game difficulty in a Diablo game before, but in Diablo 4 I’m not sure there’s a single boss I didn’t die to at least once.

It’s not just that bosses hit harder and take less damage, although they do. The challenge comes from positioning, from rationing out potions throughout the battle, and from carefully managing your skill cooldowns. There’s so much more strategy required to get through boss fights that it almost feels like a different series altogether. I’m reminded of series like Xenoblade Chronicles, whose optional super bosses often require galaxy brain strategizing, and it’s one of the most satisfying feelings in gaming when a plan comes together and you’re able to take down a boss.

Boss fights are spectacular and tactical, and easily some of the best parts of the game

Boss fights are spectacular and tactical, and easily some of the best parts of the game

Leveling up and adding skills to your arsenal asks you to plan things out a little more than 3 asks of you, too. While it is technically possible to mix and match between different ability sets within your class, every set feels designed to flow into itself, and there’s a stark lack of synergy when trying to multiclass.

That’s both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, forcing you to choose a path and follow it gives a much more satisfying sense of your abilities and how they all work together. On the other hand, a lot of the freedom afforded by Diablo 3’s freeform abilities system has been stripped out here, which often left me to wonder if I was going down the right path. Sure, a storm-calling Druid is a hell of a lot of fun to play as, but what if the werewolf line is better? I could spend the gold to reset my skill points, but I’ve spent so much time throwing tornadoes at enemies, and it feels far too late to learn something new now.

My druid went hard into storm skills, but there are plenty of options for every kind of player

My druid went hard into storm skills, but there are plenty of options for every kind of player

I have further concerns with how Diablo 4 is monetized. I’ll grant that the game is less aggressive with its monetisation than some others – there are no pop-ups telling you about hot deals in the shop, or prompts to buy new horse armor – but the underlying feeling Diablo 4’s microtransactions give off is not a positive one. The shop is limited to cosmetics, so there are no gameplay boosts to be found, but the pricing is absurd to say the least. $10 for a horse is pretty silly, but $20 for horse armor is just ridiculous by any stretch of the imagination. 

It’s made worse by two factors: the variety of armor appearance in the base game, and the use of obfuscating digital currency. Armor obtained through the main story, at least for the druid, has very little variation. My big, beefy druid looked largely the same at level 10 as he did at level 50. Sure, there were different colors and slight variations in textures and flourishes, but the overall look and feel of each armor set was pretty similar, in what feels like a conscious effort to push players towards paid cosmetics in the shop. 

Using digital currency, called Platinum, is another huge red flag. Since the days of Wii Points, anything that creates a disconnect between the player and the money they’re spending has been kind of shady. Diablo 4 could just offer every costume and cosmetic in the shop in real dollars, but instead it’s almost all presented as Platinum. How much is that costume? 1300 Platinum. How much is that in real dollars? Well it depends on how much Platinum you buy. It’s always a bad thing to obfuscate spending in a game like this, and given cosmetics rarely cleanly fit into the batches of Platinum you can buy, the whole thing feels slimy to its core.

Diablo 4 treads familiar ground in its story and characters, but its combat and gameplay systems shine where prior games fell short. I wish its single-player experience was a little less hostile, and I worry for its longevity in its current state, especially given its questionable monetization, but even at its lowest lows, it manages to match or outpace its predecessors in almost every conceivable way.

Score: 8/10

Version tested: PC

  • Technical performance: 10
  • Presentation: 10
  • Mechanics and systems: 8
  • Monetization: 5

Diablo IV technical breakdown

Despite a very rocky beta period, Diablo 4 has somehow ended up as one of the most polished games I've played on PC in recent years. Even on my modest hardware (a mid-range Ryzen CPU and a 2070 GPU) I was easily able to hit a consistent 60fps on High settings playing at 1080p, so those with more powerful setups should have no problem getting smooth performance at higher resolutions. I did experience a few bugs, however — a side quest completely broke for me, making it impossible to progress through that particular story. I also wasn't able to play the game with a controller, as I experienced a persistent bug that would cause the game to show PC button prompts unless inputs from the controller were currently being pressed.

Other than that, there were no other major bugs or performance drops — and our brief testing on PS5 showed a similar situation there.