Though I missed the heyday of Diablo 2, its eventual follow-up was a game I rarely stopped thinking about. I certainly didn’t play it each and every day for a decade like some people seemingly did with the latter. Instead, it was a title I played to bits at launch and frequently came back to - especially when the console release brought controller support and split-screen play. My console-bound pals could finally get in on the fun, and I made sure to guide them through Sanctuary all the same.
So with Diablo 4 coming straight to PC and console simultaneously - and with full cross-play and cross-save this time - there's excitement from both sides of my gaming circles.
After saving myself from the inevitable hurdles of the various beta tests to enjoy Diablo 4’s review period without the lengthy queues and performance woes, I’m pleased to say that it’s already occupying the same brain space as Diablo 3 has over the last decade. I couldn’t come close to seeing everything it had to offer in the relatively generous review period (I don’t have nearly as much free time as I did ten years ago). Still, it has wormed its way into my noggin nonetheless, nudging me to hop on for even just a half hour where possible, slamming steel against satanic abominations for nothing more than those sweet endorphins.
Diablo 4 jumps straight into the action. A couple of Blizzard’s high-quality cutscenes paint a vivid picture of the threat you’ll be thwarting, and you’re off to fight your way to a nearby village that sends you down the right path.
You’re wailing on waves of enemies right out of the gate and getting up to speed with a couple of new abilities with little effort. Being limited to just six still creates some light frustration that comes to a head when you’re quickly bouncing between a few high-HP targets and two-dozen softer pounds of flesh - it still hasn’t taken a leaf out of the book of Torchlight 2, for example - but there’s some fun to be had in the exact science that is rejigging your talent points to gradually plug the gaps in your build.
Respeccing your talents points isn’t free, but it shouldn’t break your in-game coin purse either. You can refund them all in one go or take them out one-by-one so long as it makes sense in the context of the unlock requirements for each node. And best of all, you don’t need to go back to town to do it.
Speaking of talent trees, I’m not entirely convinced it's the right solution for this entry. It isn’t nearly as complex as the competing Path of Exile (a good thing), but it’s also a little boring in its simplicity, too. I never felt like I had to wait long to unlock core abilities I could see coming up on the tree, but something about getting a two percent damage increase with one point and a new spell with another made me miss the constantly game-changing new skills and their modifier runes that would unlock with each level up in Diablo 3.
It’s clearly made for this game’s more MMO-like approach, as it allows for far more nuanced and specific builds, but it can feel a little underwhelming and a tad fiddly at times. This probably would have made more sense to me during the player-populated beta periods - though Diablo never really has stuck with traditional character roles, so speccing into a tank or healer to support a group of friends against a powerful boss isn’t ever going to have the same game-changing effects as it would in, say, World of Warcraft: as much as I wish it would.
Even still, there was rarely a time spent in Diablo 4’s expansive world that ever felt like a waste of time. Smashing through enemies and watching big numbers get bigger never gets old. Myriad side-quests were always simply a means to annihilating more ugly beasts - which automatically trumped any potential EXP reward or rare item - and even getting lost via daydream-wandering through the wilderness didn’t feel like it’d had slowed me down or knocked my enthusiasm for the hunt. I was in no rush to beeline for the main story: any excuse to whirlwind through a pack of skeletons was enough reason for me to keep playing.
Action-RPGs have a funny way of effortlessly hooking you in, and Diablo 4’s sandbox approach of always having you slay monsters, identify gaps in your equipment, rethink the smallest detail of your build, or fill your bags with crap to break down into materials or sell is apparent in this long-awaited sequel to a game that struggled to do just that at launch.
Powerful mobs will still risk your hardcore runs with a cavalcade of modifiers and harsh crowd-control efforts, and the boss encounters always require strategic thinking and proper execution of positional mechanics as you hold out for your next big skill or potion.
Time will tell how this one will nurture its end-game experiences over time. It’s a damn shame to see it go the route of paid seasons this time around, but if the gameplay loop keeps people engaged enough to convince Activision Blizzard to keep reinvesting into some solid post-launch experiences, it could give a solid alternative to Diablo 3’s now defunct arcade-like character reroll excuses.
I’m all for making another ten Barbarians over the next few years - the incentive just needs to warrant the effort. It would have been stellar to see Immortal’s slowly charging “ultimate” abilities return here to spice up the sometimes limiting combat loop, but the sheer amount of customization afforded by talent trees, weapon masteries, and unlockable traits almost make up for it.
A bloody beautiful world
The biggest departure with this installment is the move to a more open-world approach. Though you’ve always been free to go at your own pace with these games, Diablo 3 felt a little more arcade-like with its chapter-specific areas and the eventual addition of Paragon levels, rapid-fire Adventure Mode tasks, and the Nephelam Rift system. With this one, you’re free to explore the whole world at a moment’s notice, finding your own fun with enough rewards to keep things interesting.
Multiple story quests are available at any one time, and are usually scattered across a couple of different zones. Rather than run the risk of having indecision affect your progress, you’ll most likely wind up exploring at your own pace, picking up breezy side-quests, activating handy teleport points, and happening across world events like Strongholds that offer the sort of challenge you’ll end up conveniently porting back to town to vigorously prepare for after getting your ass handed to you; swapping talent points around, upgrading your equipment, optimising your gem game, and upgrading your potion for the same sort of min/max gains you’ll be gunning for at the level cap for potentially years to come. And, somehow, the rewards are almost always worth it.
Even when the prize happens to be a weapon that’s no better than your current one, you’re typically happy with what you got along the way. The experience points aren’t too bad, either, and the challenge itself will have you buzzing when you finally nail the execution. It’s difficult for Blizzard to miss the landing when the core gameplay loop is a luck-based reward system tied to tried-and-tested RPG growth mechanics and a combat system that has you feeling like a god at every level.
Further to the exploration aspect, Diablo 4 successfully encourages you to delve into the myriad cellars, caves, and dungeons with incredible ease. It doesn’t need to: the thought of smashing hundreds of more enemies between your blades is usually enough of an incentive. By having quests wrap up and the loot drop in the middle of them rather than the end, pressing on to find the boss room - even if the baddies inside are often the same as the last - the account-wide traits you unlock for seeing it through to the end make all the difference.
Not for the low-spec gamer
Performance-wise, Diablo 4 is a tricky one. It looks far better than its numbered predecessor at any level of detail. Even the lowest settings are perfectly acceptable visually for those who prefer to game at higher refresh rates.
But even those will struggle to have the game run without some serious hitching on remotely older hardware. My 1070 Max-Q Razer Blade was a valiant Monster Hunter World machine in its heyday, yet it struggled to keep up with Diablo 4 at 720p for whatever reason.
The frame rate wasn’t always horrible, and it was certainly playable even with the occasional lows, but it would consistently dip to the teens in and out of frantic fights. My gut feeling is that it’s a CPU issue, with loading and generating new areas being the main culprit. On my RTX 3070 Ti main rig, however, things ran beautifully. And rightfully so.
Assuming the console experience isn’t plagued by the same issues as my laptop, most should be able to glean a lot of good from Diablo 4. There’s just concern that it struggling on a system made around the time of one of Steam’s most commonly-used GPUs could have this new Diablo generation break away from the series’ tradition of being something you could run on ancient hardware. Performance is downright magical on the Steam Deck, however, yet the surprisingly few hoops you need to jump through to get it going could still scare off a few would-be demon slayers.
The grim reality
I feel a little at odds with myself for having to score a game I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of right now, but that’s just how the pre-release push goes sometimes. Diablo 4 has the foundation to be the next ten-year game in the franchise, but where Diablo 3 managed to redeem itself with post-launch content and gameplay tweaks, there’s the potential for Diablo 4 to do the opposite. The gaming landscape has changed dramatically since the release of the last.
If Blizzard eliminates any hope of attracting new players beyond the launch rush by repeating the mistakes of Diablo Immortal’s high-end monetization practices, the long wait for this one could result in the franchise finally falling foul of increased competition. It does almost everything right to form a very positive first impression. But with these types of games, it’s the post-launch support that makes or breaks its legacy.
Assuming it properly sticks the landing, however, Diablo 4 is easily the best the series has been out of the gate in decades. It perfectly blends almost every praiseworthy aspect of its past while improving the visual presentation of everything from the in-game graphics to Blizzard's traditionally stellar cutscenes. Some welcome camera panning efforts have the mountains and maws of Sanctuary feeling grander than ever, and the sometimes retro-inspired background music pairs brilliantly with the tense, unnerving, and uncomfortable theming of it all. As it turns out, Hell ain’t so bad.
Diablo 4 was reviewed on PC with access provided by the publisher.