After years of development troubles, sexual harassment allegations against Activision Blizzard (which resulted in the firing of its game director and lead designer), and reports of crunch just to hit the Summer release, Diablo 4 is finally here. It’s edgy and macabre, but through a live-service filter, with a push towards socializing and monetizing the time many will no doubt sink into the game, chasing the dopamine rush of better loot.
And, it’s fine. It’s Diablo, for both old gamers and new, and it’s fine.
That’s not to say that Diablo 4 is a bad game or not a good game. It’s enjoyable in places, and uneven in others; clear with its artistic vision of humanity struggling to survive amid ruin and forces beyond their control while the plot is already busy setting up the next paid expansion or two (which have been confirmed). The aesthetic will overpower you with its emphasis on blood, gore, corpses and the world’s detritus, looking crisp and organic, and then deliver some low-res textures in cutscenes.
The world is open and vast, with plenty of freedom, with just enough guidance to keep you on track. However, its various elevations are little more than button presses to go up or down automatically while the environments blend together during exploration despite their differing climates and cultures.
The monsters are incredibly detailed and provide great fodder for your frantic clicking (or button mashing, with controller support feeling quite good), while several bosses offer memorable mechanics and patterns. Meanwhile, you’re doing the same actions at level 50 that you were doing at level 30, with the loot moderately altering your gameplay in some ways and feeling incredibly mid in others.
Let’s start at the beginning. Several years after the fallout of Reaper of Souls, the world is in bad shape. You’re the Wanderer, simply making their way downtown, moving fast, trying not to freeze to death in the Fractured Peaks of Estuar, the Eastern continent, and encounter Horadrim member Lorath Nair.
"However, some parts are just weird. Taissa, a central character in Acts 3 and 4, who thanks the Wanderer for saving her, is suddenly in a completely different role in Act 5 and acts aloof for no reason."
She does this by unleashing and invoking all kinds of monsters, leaving behind Blood Petals to inspire flashbacks or flash-forwards, depending on the plot’s demands. However, before you can even get close to discerning her true motives, you’ll be running around the world a lot. Lorath leaves for an extended period and isn’t seen again until Act 3. It’s fine since other intriguing characters like Neyrelle and Donan are introduced.
The latter is also a member of the Horadrim, and we get a series of “and then,” “therefore,” “but suddenly,” and whatnot to advance the overarching plot. I want to avoid spoilers since there are some decent interactions and character moments, with the voice actors carrying the narrative from moment to moment. Donan’s arc is particularly well done, showcasing his turmoil and conflicts between duty and family, while Neyrelle manages to be fairly sympathetic by the end. I even hoped that gruff ol’ Lorath would have a happy ending someday (having a happy death is an entirely different story, though).
However, some parts are just weird. Taissa, a central character in Acts 3 and 4, who thanks the Wanderer for saving her, is suddenly in a completely different role in Act 5 and acts aloof for no reason. The pacing is also very slipshod – Acts 1 and 2 start out promising, while Act 3 is just one long goose chase, and Act 4 culminates almost as quickly as it began. You get a horse before Act 5 begins, which is good. You then get multiple tasks which involve exploring massive areas to find specific objectives, running around aimlessly each time.
A note on the horse, which I called Lisa (in my heart, not in-game, but wouldn’t that be cool?): It arrives way too late in the story and feels like it should have more boost charges and higher base movement speed. It also gets stuck on objects too easily with no way to leap over obstacles, and the cooldown is annoying, especially when you sometimes have to get off to kill a crowd of enemies blocking your path. The horse is a good idea, but you’re tearing me apart, Lisa.
"Of course, the story has always been the entree for an action RPG looter, which you’ll begrudgingly go through each new season. What about combat? I’m happy to report that Diablo 4’s combat feels good."
Anyway, back to Act 6, aka Plain Plodding: The Game. Several objectives require you to stick close to your allies. Try to move on ahead, and they’ll stop moving, but go on your own to assail some other objective, and they’ll get by just fine. In one part, I had to go back to town to upgrade and change some gear. When I came back, my allies were frozen. I didn’t stick around long enough to trigger a scene where they activated a bulwark and thus had to reload the segment.
Again, there are some genuinely good moments during the campaign, particularly in the conversations between Lorath, Neyrelle and Donan. Some CG cutscenes are stunning, particularly in Act 6 when the climactic battle unfolds. The final boss is probably the best in the game, even if its aftermath renders almost everything moot by focusing on future threats.
Otherwise, the same problem that plagues many live-service games occurs here. That you’re not really influencing or driving events but simply a witness to them. The side cast is the main character, and you’re along for the ride. It’s affected many such games through the years but feels pretty jarring, still.
Of course, the story has always been the entree for an action RPG looter, which you’ll begrudgingly go through each new season. What about combat? I’m happy to report that Diablo 4’s combat feels good. I played as a Rogue, going with the Twisting Blades build because it had an “S” on that one tier list, and the overall responsiveness – barring any stray instances where lag and rubber-banding occurred – is good. I tried Necromancer and Sorcerer during the open beta, and they also felt pretty good. Distinct but also very satisfying when blowing up corpses and electrocuting enemies.
"I became less excited with Skill Points because they went into Skill Tree passives that were minor increments more than anything else."
For this playthrough, I stuck to Rogue, and thunking an enemy with Twisting Blades, only to have it return after a period and pass through any poor souls felt satisfying. Combining this with Dash while tripping up other fools with Poison Trap was also fun, even if the resource generation left something to be desired (like, more resources). Inner Sight, one of the three Specializations, helped in this regard, providing unlimited energy for four seconds when attacking a highlighted target. Specializations themselves feel like nice boosts for, well, specializing your character, but I’d like to see them developed further.
The familiar “generate resource, spend resource” style of gameplay for Basic Skills and Core Skills could warrant criticism, but it comes down to personal preference. Personally, it did get boring at times, but not because of the system or the fact that other skills are on cooldown timers (though they can feel pretty lame). No, it’s the loot.
Loot becomes extremely bland post-level 20 or so. At first, things are great – you’re leveling up, unlocking new skills, improving them with passives, and becoming ever stronger. However, when you’ve gotten some decent Rares, things slowly plateau – your playstyle is more or less set. You’ll unlock an Ultimate Skill like Shadow Clone, which is your play style but mirrored for 15 seconds for increased damage. However, I became less excited with Skill Points because they went into Skill Tree passives that were minor increments more than anything else.
Legendaries, alongside Legendary Aspects, can provide decent boosts and some intriguing skills for certain classes. For the Rogue, having Twisting Blades orbit your character upon returning makes it better for single-target damage. However, these are seemingly limited to one particular skill – the rest of the Aspects ranged from increased damage on Vulnerable enemies and gaining a barrier when attacking Elites to increased armor when standing still while attacking, etc.
"I look at other action RPG looters and the freedom they give players to experiment. Meanwhile, my Rogue can’t equip a two-handed sword or spear because the developer has some arbitrary fantasy for the class."
I would think that the Unique loot is better, but my first was a ring that returned 30 percent of resources spent on a Core skill if it hit five or more enemies, which seemed great, but the gains weren’t particularly earth-shattering. I also got one for Rain of Arrows, which gives it all Imbuements simultaneously.
Unfortunately, Rain of Arrows is an Ultimate ability, which means a 60-second base cooldown. I probably could have brought it down with Twisting Blades, but then I would have to give up a Skill because of the limited slots, and everything just syncs so well in the current setup. Maybe someday.
As you progress through the World Tiers, you’ll find higher loot tiers, with Ancestral being the strongest but also the rarest. These provide higher stat rolls. I’m trying to contain my excitement here.
There’s plenty of debate about power creep and how you want to keep things on a nice even keel, but the bigger problem is that most items don’t feel exciting. The same goes for the Paragon Board – leveling up for a bit of a stat boost every so often feels like the epitome of “Whatever.” Some Rare Nodes offer exciting benefits such as 10 percent more damage, but choosing different Glyphs and pathing to find the ideal setup was neat. It will probably improve with more Paragon Boards and Glyphs, but I remain wary.
I look at other action RPG looters and the freedom they give players to experiment. Meanwhile, my Rogue can’t equip a two-handed sword or spear because the developer has some arbitrary fantasy for the class.
"There’s no map overlay while traveling, or option to zoom the minimap out. You don’t have a separate inventory tab for gems, which is a surprising oversight."
Overall, combat is equally visceral and satisfying, with intriguing enemies and Elites whose modifiers are straightforward, creating little confusion over their effects. It’s addictive but can also be repetitive and overly simple, as you seek out one more pack of jobbers to explode like the dozens before.
I’m also a bit mixed on the level scaling. Regardless of your level, enemies will scale with you, though if you enter a Dungeon or story instance and level up, they’ll remain at their present strength. It does keep the entire world fresh in the end-game while providing equivalent rewards to players of vastly different power levels who team together. However, it only reinforces your lack of individual power, since you can’t curb stomp enemies. It’s a tough thing to balance, especially since Diablo 4 desperately wants to embrace the social mechanics of meeting other players in the wild.
Let’s talk about some of the UI and design choices. You have only two settings for zooming in and out, and can’t increase the field of view. There’s no map overlay while traveling, or option to zoom the minimap out. You don’t have a separate inventory tab for gems, which is a surprising oversight. Overall, not the worst I’ve seen – the accessibility options are nice and having different loot rarities trigger sounds is cool, but a loot filter would have been appreciated.
At least there’s a heap of content to seek out, like Dungeons, which confer Aspects of Power. The art design is pretty strong, and even if the objectives can get tedious, especially when it’s “Kill X enemies to get Y essence” or “Find two keys to open a door,” and then slay the boss, they mix things up slightly.
"The crafting system pales compared to contemporaries, but it’s approachable and not RNG-heavy, so there’s that."
Strongholds serve as massive enemy bases and offer even more unique objectives and stories tied to them, like causing chaos in a bandit camp to draw out the enemy leader or dealing with the ghosts of a Crusader’s Monument. Some will unlock new settlements and waypoints when cleared, while others provide access to new Dungeons.
They can also be invaded at different intervals, leading to events where you must complete different objectives and slay a boss for rewards. When you’ve got enough players together, these events can feel like a big deal, as they split off to handle different areas and then meet back up to pummel the boss.
World Events offer varying objectives in the open world that other players can participate in. These include sticking close to a lost soul while slaying foes, standing on plates while killing foes, or massacring enemies. Similar though they may sound, they’re varied enough, don’t take too long and provide decent rewards, like Murmuring Obols to spend on the Purveyor of Curiosities for a chance at Legendaries (if you’re lucky and don’t get vendor trash).
Various MMO-like features dot the experience. Completing different side activities will garner Renown, which provides rewards like additional Skill Points, Potion Charges and even Paragon Points at higher World Tiers. So there is some incentive to go out of your way and cull the various threats in the open world, even if they’re not directly impacting the main story.
You can upgrade your potion for more healing, craft Elixirs for temporary buffs, slot gems into sockets for additional boosts (though adding a socket into an item can be annoying if you don’t have the material on hand), and upgrade all your gear to improve their rolls. The crafting system pales compared to contemporaries, but it’s approachable and not RNG-heavy, so there’s that.
Hit level 50 and complete your first Capstone Dungeon, and World Tier 3 becomes available. Besides dropping Uniques and higher-tiered loot, you also have Champions who provide auras for damage buffs and resistances to their allies, so killing them is a priority. The Tree of Whispers, available after finishing the campaign, generates bounties in different areas and Dungeons, which can be completed for Grim Favors to claim random boxes of different gear types, Gold and XP.
From World Tier 3 onwards, you can also get Nightmare Sigils, which add modifiers to Dungeons and increase the challenge level. They also layer some cool mechanics, like thunderstorms which you avoid by sheltering under a periodically generated barrier. While not exactly making up for the simplistic designs of many dungeons, the added spice is nice.
Then you have the Fields of Hatred, PvP areas which function like The Division’s Dark Zones, as you kill enemies to collect Seeds of Hatred to convert to Red Dust. Other players can stop you, and while getting steam-rolled by both players and enemies is annoying, it’s still a dynamic activity which feels different. Plus, in addition to loot, you can get some neat cosmetics like mount armor as rewards.
On the other hand, are the Helltides, where you slay enemies in different ways to gather Aberrant Cinders to open chests. They’re PvE-only, on a timer and the only source of Forgotten Souls necessary for end-game upgrades. So naturally, after gathering enough Cinders, sometimes chests don’t drop any Forgotten Souls. The random events are also just World Events instead of anything unique. Overall, Helltides feel underwhelming and are little more than the regular open world but with a darker filter and annoying ways to get rewards.
There’s other content I haven’t delved into, like the World Bosses, which have separate timers, and the level 100 pinnacle challenge boss, fit for only the strongest builds. Heck, there’s a large portion of the world I’ve yet to explore. It’s a lot of content, and if you’re going in, enjoying the combat, atmosphere, and aesthetic, there is a lot to keep you busy for a long time.
"While there are dozens of different armor pieces in-game, and you can create some great looks for free, you have to wonder if they’ll keep pace with the sheer amount of premium cosmetics added to the store."
I had some expectations from Diablo 4 and came away suitably whelmed. It isn’t going to foster a new genre with numerous pretenders and spiritual successors. It won’t push developers to examine things like Smart Loot or drive new avenues in itemization. It’s following trends and presenting some solid action, wrapped in an overly gory shell that would be agonizingly bleak if it weren’t so live-servicey, which is a different kind of bleakness if you think about it.
Speaking of bleak, there’s the in-game store, which sells cosmetics at exorbitant prices. While there are dozens of different armor pieces in-game, and you can create some great looks for free, you have to wonder if they’ll keep pace with the sheer amount of premium cosmetics added to the store. The present situation seems like a decent middle-ground, but the pricing for some of these cosmetics, like $25 for an armor set, is still hefty.
We’ll see if Blizzard does anything about this down the line (and how soon). There’s also a Battle Pass on the way, because obviously, but for all intents and purposes, the microtransactions are cosmetic, have no effect on gameplay, you know the drill. Some will doubtless enjoy the action, stick around for the seasons and create Alts to try out different skills. There will likely be new Legendaries to encourage new playstyles, maybe some new skills or classes, and a revamp of core mechanics for more complexity. Or it could just add new content.
Regardless, I’ve had my fill at the bloody buffet and found my appetite sated while craving something more. Perhaps Diablo 4 can deliver that later as more updates and quality-of-life changes roll out. For many players (best-selling game in Blizzard history, by the way), that’s more than enough.
For me, it’s fine. No less fun and certainly no more.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Satisfying feel to combat, regardless of your class, that's easy to pick up and control. The aesthetic and presentation, particularly the CG cutscenes, is excellent. The main cast is voiced exceptionally well, with some great interactions. Decent variety of enemies and solid boss battles. Heaps of content to complete in the open world. Some end-game activities, like Nightmare Dungeons, can be fun and challenging.
Confusing UI decisions. No separate storage tab for Gems. Not the best horse-riding experience. Odd twists during the story and weird pacing during Acts 4-6. Loot feels serviceable at best, unenthusiastic at worst, and the power climb starts to plateau past level 20 with barely any changes to strategy (even with new loot tiers and Paragon Boards). Some endgame activities like Helltides feel underwhelming.