April 18, 2024
Diablo is back, bloodier and moodier than ever. Did the beta periods impress or disappoint?

It’s been a long while since Diablo III. Aside from the controversial Diablo: Immortal, demon-slaying players have had slim pickings since 2012.

With Diablo IV’s planned release coming up soon on the 6th of June, the developers have sensibly conducted two beta periods to receive feedback and test the game’s ability to function. I jumped in across both weekends, spending a good chunk of time blasting through demons solo and also joined for a time with Rossko and Josh.

There’s a lot to discuss, what with all the changes (and lack thereof in some cases) and whether Diablo IV is shaping up to have impressive demonic horns or condemned Nephilim blood. Read on if you’d like to know the good, the bad and the juries still out.

Lilith Awaits

Having played a good 150 hours or so of Diablo III, the first shift in focus that I noticed was the heavier narrative focus and delivery. Just from the snippet shown off in the beta, there’s an abundance of stunningly rendered CGI cutscenes, in-game dialogue and exposition being dolled out.

Previous Diablo games have always had stories and lore to follow, but they always felt like a side act compared to the main show of the combat. I wouldn’t say that’s completely reversed with Diablo IV, but it’s clear that there’s a tighter focus on explaining what your role is, what the stakes are and why the various characters are involved.

The cutscenes especially are much better handled, with one from the beta showcasing new villain Lilith’s coercive powers over the people of Sanctuary. As they savagely turn on and butcher a village priest in a delightfully gory manner, myself and Rossko revelled in the bloodthirstiness of it all. Diablo IV appears to have committed to a much darker, more serious tone akin to Diablo II, leaving behind the slightly cartoonish presentation and light-hearted take on the subject matter.

The beta gave access to the entirety of Act 1 and while I wasn’t especially “hooked” on the narrative, Lilith’s motivations and machinations are engaging, while the moodier, more intense atmosphere had me compelled to keep playing. It was nice to see the series play into the violence and the sense of evilness of the demonic tale, though it might make some a little more uncomfortable if they were used to III’s more relaxed tone.

Diablo IV

Blessed With A Demon’s Touch

As I mentioned just before, the commitment to a more realistic, darker approach for Diablo IV shines through in its fantastic visuals. The world of Sanctuary is beautifully realised, even if that beauty is soaked in corruption, blood and darkness.

Within the confines of the first area (which was ridiculously large), Diablo IV treated me to glistening snow-capped hills, an architecturally radiant city and some of the most defiled caverns I’ve ever witnessed in a video game. One story-related area towards the end of Act 1 was brimming with the vilest, twisting tentacles while walls were adorned with the insides of humans inside the disgusting complex. I could almost smell the stomach-churning gore as I traversed it.

It was awesome. The graphical prowess has done wonders to bring this world alive with the filth of the underworld and I’m excited to see more of the locations the developers have brewed up across the other areas.

However, the repetition of interior spaces, caverns and dungeons rears its rather ugly head again. Look, it’s Diablo, repetitive areas are kind of its MO. Still, traversing the same boring, uninteresting and empty (except for the demons, of course) is still all of those things. Maybe even more so given many people have already plunged hundreds of hours into those same areas from previous entries.

Diablo IV has some graphical rough edges too – my character’s weapons disappearing from sight, NPCs evaporating while on screen, that kind of thing. Luckily, these are likely to be dealt with by launch, but I do suspect some of these may end up in the final build. On a personal level, I’d also like some of the darker dungeons to actually be properly blinding. The current lighting filter just sort of washes out lighting than using more dynamic darkness, which slightly undermines the brooding atmosphere. Think Diablo II’s terrifyingly pitch black dungeons for example.

Diablo IV

I’m Here To Kick Ass and Slay Demons, For The Trillionth Time

Anyway, enough of the boring stuff, let’s talk butchering the hordes of hell. During the first weekend, I tried out both the Barbarian and Rogue classes, then this weekend the Necromancer. I’ll be honest, the Barbarian is pretty vanilla (though Rossko loved the whirlwind special of course). Rogue was more complicated, as while I love the Demon Hunter class in III, Rogue felt a bit underpowered here.

It meant that for a few hours last weekend, I was enjoying the usual massacre of hundreds of enemies to an extent, but it wasn’t quite clicking. Josh also noticed a similar feeling when using the Sorcerer, but perhaps it may have been our builds and lack of significant ability points to get to the fun stuff.

Firing up Necromancer, however, holy s*** did that sentiment change. Suddenly, I was scything walking corpses at will, drawing up groups of skeleton troops to smash into conflicts and detonating bodies into a bloody mesh of gore, damage and thrills. For those new to Diablo, the real trick is finding the class that clicks with you, which is unchanged in IV. Your experience is still going to vary wildly depending on how you play and how you build.

Combat is by and large, mostly unchanged from previous iterations. You have a mix of basic attacks, abilities, a devastating super attack (once you hit level 24 or so) and you can map different ones at any time to your controller/keyboard to experiment with options. You wail on enemies to build up your corresponding power and then unleash your abilities upon the poor savages that are around you.

To its credit, despite not having played 3 for about 5 years, it felt like I slipped straight back in without a hiccup. However, this inevitably comes with the problem of what’s actually changed. There’s not a whole lot new about the questing, core combat encounters or even the classes themselves. For the most part, this is the same game people have been playing for 20+ years, just shinier and just as satisfying.

I hope there’s a bit more that the developers have kept close to their chest and not shown off in the beta, as on current evidence, it feels a little light on what’s new with actually pummeling demons into the dirt.

Diablo IV

Sanctuary Is Sanctimonious

Where some changes have been made however, is in the overworld and structure of Diablo IV. The newest entry only allowed us to explore the first section of the map, Fractured Peaks. There’s a handful more of these areas and the landmass is going to be big. Instead of interconnected chapters with distinct locations, now it’s one large open playground of carnage.

Not only that, the beta demonstrated just how much content will be stuffed into this package. Fractured Peaks alone housed over 30 side-quests, 3 strongholds, a chunky main Act, dozens of dungeons and a host of new world events. Going in almost any direction will lead to some variety of content, whether it be a new multi-layered dungeon to cleanse or a caravan to protect from waves of demons, the opportunities to slaughter the fodder of hell are boundless.

Diablo IV also incorporates more of an MMO social element, with other players joining you in locations, sometimes just to wander around the main city or to aid your efforts in a world event (think Destiny style). This inclusion is somewhat double-edged, as while having allies who converge all jointly complete a task is great, it can break immersion to see xX_BeTtYsWaLlOcKs_Xx loitering next to important story figures. Especially given the return of the darker, more mature storytelling and atmosphere.

Even so, the premise of Diablo IV’s massive open world has me excited. I played for 10+ hours on the beta within Fractured Peaks and barely felt like I scratched the surface of all that’s available there, which bodes well for those who want bang for their buck. As I touched on earlier though, if the dungeons and tasks don’t become slightly more varied, it’ll raise the issue of whether the quantity can make up for the quality.

Diablo IV

A Degrade For Customisation

Lastly, it’s important we look at what Diablo IV has in store in terms of builds, upgrading and customisation. There are 5 classes that’ll be available at launch: Barbarian, Rogue, Sorcerer, Necromancer and Druid. Like me, you may go into this wondering what happened to all the other classes from previous games. If I’m honest, I’m still scratching my head about that too.

The upgrade paths for each archetype have been changed from the grids in previous entries to a sort of cluster flow chart. When you start, you’ll have a cluster of 4 basics available to put points into. Once you invest X amount of points, the next cluster unlocks, giving you access to say another 5 abilities and so on.

While the system worked perfectly fine, it’s a little clunky and it didn’t feel I had quite as much of an understanding as with previous structures. I liked how you can diversify each class into a multitude of different roles, for example, a poisoning melee-focused Rogue or an arrow-spewing, evasive damage dealer.

Already in the beta, people were starting to build an idea of the meta, as you’d probably expect. With the ability to respec in Diablo IV being quite accessible and without any real penalty, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the same character builds cropping up frequently, which kind of kills the sense of individuality and experimentation. What’s the point in toiling with a poorly optimised (yet potentially fun) character when you can just look up the most efficient gear and abilities?

It’s a difficult balance, as with games like Diablo you want players to have the freedom to chop and change their playstyles and not force entirely new playthroughs just because you invested into the “wrong” abilities hours previously into your campaign. Either way, I think this might be an area where people feel slightly disappointed with Diablo IV if the full release doesn’t have more to add, but we’ll see.

Diablo IV

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Lilith Scorned

Despite all the small problems and the potential repetition issue which was on display in the beta, I had a really enthralling time getting back into the killing and looting that only Diablo can provide. I hope there’s more that the team have kept hidden from the beta to provide a more fresh experience in some of its content when the full version of Diablo IV hits our screens.

Even if there’s not, I think there’s more than enough in this gameplay loop to keep people hooked and to provide a package that has a hell of a lot of content to get through. Myself, Rossko and Josh certainly had our fair share of fun with it.

Me? I’ll be avidly awaiting the chance to fire up my Necromancer, raise my undead army and bring the full might of a thousand detonating corpses to defeat Lilith and her minions.

Diablo IV is releasing June 6th for PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One and Windows. You can pre-order now.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

Disclaimer: In order to complete this preview, we took part in the game’s open beta. For our full policy, please go here.

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