In Diablo 4, the latest major release from Blizzard, a band of adventurers break into an ancient tomb, and their quest for gold accidentally unleashes Lilith, The Daughter of Hatred, The Mother of Sanctuary. And so begins another demon slaying gorefest in the gaming colossus that is the Diablo universe.
Having already reviewed the Beta release in May and been wildly impressed, I had a list of things I was hoping to see and not see from Blizzard. I wanted to explore more, I wanted to see what there was to see. I wanted to complete more acts, get that darned horse to ride around on, find more magic levels and more epic items, and see some levelling out of character powers (eg. the wildly overpowered necromancer needed a chill pill). For the most part, Blizzard have delivered in spades. Diablo 4 is a brilliant, fun, beautiful, dark, and wildly addictive gaming experience, and has healed the wounds left over from Diablo 3.
In Diablo 4, once you have discovered Lilith is on the loose, you run through a series of Acts slaying millions of beasties, and interact with a small cast of key characters. Lorath is your mandated Horadrim buddy who starts out as a grand dad-style mentor, and slowly becomes more world weary every act. Donan is a hero from yesteryear who once imprisoned a Prime Evil. He’s seen better days, however, and one decision regarding the son he dotes upon and fiercely protects throws him into the emotional meatgrinder. Finally we have Nyrelle, who you are told early on is far more important than Lorath or Donan. She starts as a somewhat annoying child making annoying child decisions to drive plot, and becomes pretty badarse along the way. The interplay between the Evils is also pretty cool–it’s the first real deep-dive into their own politics that I really remember. The ending is also deliciously open-ended, leaving plenty of opportunity for expansions. Overarchingly the story is pretty good, but if you love going off dungeon hunting and clearing out entire regions of the foe and you’re not laser focussed on completing just the steps in the story (or have an eidetic memory), it can get a bit hard to follow at times (which can be seen as a good there because there is so much to do!). But, if we’re being honest, most of us are here for the action-stacked gorefest, and not to watch a movie plot (though, in fairness to Blizzard’s story team, I certainly sit in the latter camp and have enjoyed it so far).
There are five characters available for you to play. The necromancer I mentioned earlier–who after Sally in our original beta release review was able to wander off with her partner for dinner and leave the necromancer army just sitter there gaining experience near a spawn point, was safe to say was overpowered–has now been nerfed down to a much more enjoyable and competitive level. I played as the barbarian, and while some of the lower level sword swishing was a little weaker than the last time I played one in Diablo 2, it was an incredibly fun experience, especially when my wife played the necromancer and I was able to power up her skeletons and golem with war shouts. The rogue and sorcerer (two characters whose styles I’m relatively sure I won’t have to explain to you) I have not played and cannot vouch for, and the druid (lycanthropy being it’s coolest trait, in my opinion) I hope remained relatively level to the beta version, which I previously reviewed and enjoyed getting to level 20. All in all, Diablo 4 has an excellent cast of characters to play through as, though I will admit to missing the paladin and their massive shield bashes from previous games.
The terrain and setups for Diablo 4 are just … chef’s kiss. The scenery is absolutely fucking gorgeous, and the way the world and map is built where it’s treated more like a genuine open world map, versus a linear series of closed-in playpens is a HUGE selling point of this game. It’s a major upgrade versus previous Diablo games, and it really creates a new and brilliant world travelling feel, with waypoints allowing you to teleport between the many, many towns and cities—each which feels unique and changes depending on the closer you are to the continent’s interior, mountains, or beaches. The level of detail in this map is utterly astonishing, and the Blizzard art and design team need a round of very crisp high fives for the love and passion they put into this map (not to mention Hell, which is phenomenal). If I’m going to pick nits, I do still wish Blizzard would return to the days of limiting town portals to add to the danger of leaving the safety of a town, though.
It also wouldn’t be Diablo without all the stuff you find, and break down, and sell, and create. The systems in Diablo 4 remain relatively familiar to long term fans of the Diablo franchise. You can find cool pieces of weapons and armour, they generally improve your stats in one way or another, and you swap them out from standard, to magical, rare, and legendary as you progress. I’ll admit to this being one of my less favourite aspects of Diablo 4, and this may be perhaps to me viewing the halcyon days of Diablo 1 and 2 through something like 20+ year old rose-cloured glasses, but I liked it when the awesome items were few and far between, you held on to your kit for longer, and you could build suits of matching legendary or unique items that further levelled up your stats. It felt like you had to earn and chase your kit, versus it just falling out of frog’s arse when it hopped conveniently by. Diablo 3 was way over the top, where it felt like it was just raining gold and magical items, and Diablo 4 admittedly has dialled it back a bit, which is nice, but I don’t think they’ve gone far enough. In addition, the way that magical items that drop on the floor are auto-allocated to a player isn’t something I’m the biggest fan of–it in no way supports my muscle reflex of desperately clicking on everything that falls on the ground before anyone else can so I can then see what I have to trade and barter with other players.
In addition to the stuff you can find and buy with gold at the armourers, jewellers, blacksmith’s, etc, Diablo 4 gives you the ability to change the way your character looks (eg. despite finding a squiggly sword, you might have a skin where you can stick with a straight-edged broadsword). You get some levels for free, but as seems to be the standard with modern gaming, an in-game micro-transaction shop for armour cosmetics has appeared for the first time in Diablo. I’m personally a bit disappointed to see it there, however, I’m an adult and I can choose not to spend my money on something like that. The eternal argument between gamers and developers on this topic can keep on raging, but the only warning I can give is that if you’re a parent and your sprout is playing this, just make sure you watch out for this (because the coolest looking skins are of course for purchase only).
Finally, the cinematics are just utterly fucking gorgeous, from the action to the the membranous blood petals and the birth of Lilith into the world of Sanctuary. Just bloody stunning. And the way they set up the story and shift you from act to act is so good. I’ve always loved the cinematics in Diablo, and I think the team at Blizzard has once again one-upped themselves to provide story support through highly detailed and action-packed animation. The scene where you make it a little of the way into Hell (those of you who have been in there will know of which I speak) is going to go down as one of my all time favourite animations (right next to The Battle on the Amerigo from Starcraft 1).
One major complaint Sally and I both had is the amount of times we got kicked off the server, right in line with when the wave of traffic that is the US market behemoth waking up hits. Almost without fail, my wife and I got punted in our late evening (in Australia) and Sally and her partner had the similar experience playing from the UK around midday their time. While the benefits are clearly getting to run around with other players the world around (and let’s be honest, I’m buggered if I know how you’d defeat some of the bosses without a little help) the battle.net platform can be a huge pain when you’re not in the US. I also wouldn’t have minded finding the horse earlier to make swishing through certain stages a bit easier, but that’s not the end of the world.
Overall, Diablo 4 is going to be an instant classic with fans new and old of this franchise. There is absolutely no question in my mind. It’s beautiful, innovative, and wildly addictive fun. There is also so much possible over the coming years. Potentially hopping on a boat and sailing to another continent while battling sea monsters, or crossing the mountains up north, maybe they could bring back mercenaries (I was so upset they weren’t in this; I was very attached to my one in Diablo 2) and runes and legendary item sets and … and … and … I think, when you look at the things I’m lamenting not being foundational games mechanics or people being able to buy epic actual weapons and armour to cash their way forward, you’ll know for sure that this is a game you want. just be ready to reach the end of 2023 and wonder just where the hell all your free time went as Lilith laughs at you from the front cover.
A big thank you to Sally Berrow for reviewing this with me, and to Blizzard for the review code.