Diablo 4's beta shows a gripping, if self-conscious, revitalisation for the series
What fresh hell this is!
Father forgive me, for I have spent the weekend conversing with the damned. No, I haven’t gone all Alan Moore and grimoired up a demonic pal to go gallivanting around the big Tescos with. That is next weekend. Instead, I’ve been playing Diablo 4’s beta, closed to all except an elite cadre of press, pre-orderers, and, uh, chicken enthusiasts. And so, axe in hand, I set forth, confident that whoever I found myself temporarily adventuring with would at least be fortified with adequate protein to wield rippling gains against the lords of hell.
Mouse-clicking connoisseurs of a certain age may remember a time when the name Blizzard was synonymous with the most gorgeously impressive CGI cutscenes your tiny mind had ever been blown by, and while Diablo 4’s lengthy introduction comes at a time where there’s far too much widespread talent for any one studio to claim that crown, it is still a goshdarn treat to take in. Not just technically, either. This chronicle of a cursed expedition is a mission statement for Diablo’s new (old) tone, and it sets the scene for things to come spectacularly - even if that tone straddles the line between gripping and noticeably self-concious about past accusations of cartooniness.
The scene setting doesn’t end there, either. After spending a little time in character creation - there’s not a great deal to it, but still enough to get some fun hair/beard/tattoo combos going - your adventurer finds themselves wandering through snow-blasted wastelands, and eventually, a rundown village. After some strange happenings, you’ll eventually team up with a hermit voiced by Ralph Ineson (the dad from The Witch), a man for whose voice the term ‘gravitas’ could have been invented. Ineson’s inclusion is emblematic of a focus on storytelling this time around, from long cutscenes to brief but evocative dialogue from otherwise disposable NPCs.
You and Large Ralph venture to the nearby city, where your quest proper begins. The beta - which is open to everyone this weekend coming, incidentally - covers the entirety of the act 1 area, although some story quests are unavailable. This, to me, suggests some non linear questing in the full release. Even with these omissions, though, it’s a sizable and varied landmass stuffed with areas worth exploring. As far as I could tell, nothing is level gated, either. You’re free to try your hand at foes that far outmatch you, if you fancy it.
As you’ve probably realised, Diablo 4 is a noticeably darker game than its predecessor. From dilapidated streets, villagers murmur portents of doom. They whisper of demons and prophecies. Those villagers! What are they like, eh? Damned. Is the answer to that. Someone at Blizzard got the memo that Diablo 3 was too colorful, and took it very seriously indeed. The result is a game that, atmospheric as it is, feels as self-conscious about being taken seriously as 14 year old me did when I got stroppy with my mum because she wouldn’t buy me that Cradle of Filth t-shirt. You know the one.
As I continue to prove to this very day, however, you can be an edgy tryhard and still win people over with dazzling drip, and Diablo 4 is dressed to the nine (circles of hell) in blasphemous finery. While still a bit too focused on readability and UX to evoke the same foreboding claustrophobia as the earlier titles, this is a genuinely gorgeous, often richly atmospheric take on Diablo’s world. Every cavern, corpse and cobblestone feels as if it could tell tales of the torment that took place in its vicinity, and even daybreak feels like some cruel joke as it further illuminates the despair and carnage that litters the landscape. Sebastian Stępień’s influence here is palpable. Think The Witcher 3’s Velen, minus the agreeable climate and at least occasionally funny locals.
This sense of place extends to the lengths Diablo 4 goes to to disguise the fact that you’re basically killing very similar mobs of enemies, repeatedly, for hours. Aside from the main story quests, there are mini dungeons and cellars, sidequests, and world events and bosses, alongside ambient mobs and the odd stash to find. Playing one side dungeon as my shooty rogue, I bumped into an unlucky adventurer dying on the floor. After talking to them, I started an event that had me kill three waves of enemies within a time limit to keep the adventurer alive. It struck me as a clever compromise between a classic CRPG side quest and what Diablo irrevocably is now; an instanced occurrence of capital C content, grounded in the world and atmosphere the game was working so hard to build.
The combat, actually, was probably the most pleasant surprise awaiting me in the beta. I played as both a rogue and a barbarian, and even at early levels, I found myself actually having to think about the interplay between passive, active, and special skills. Violence is slower than Diablo 3, and enemies are fewer and hit harder individually. Your own attacks feel grounded, chunky, and bloody, and you’re constantly thinking about positioning and defence as well as cooldowns and debuffs.
My rogue, for example, gave me the opportunity to build for either melee or ranged, or a hybrid of both. I went for ranged, because daggers are for graceless chumps, and had soon built a swift, bolt-barraging crossbow wielder that weakened enemies and drew power from slaying those same weakened foes. As a barbarian, I went all in on two handed hammers and axes, clearing mobs with devastating AOEs that turned my haters into hater-paste. Wolf? Hit it with a hammer. Demon? A hammer. Ghost? Hammer. I don’t know how that works and I don’t care. You don’t need to make sense with a hammer this big.
Even during this relentless hammering, I experience near flawless performance, save a few stutters and a single crash. I’ve heard that some others have had major issues, though, so I’d encourage you to seek out conflicting opinions to mine. Then there was all the queue drama on Friday, which - for me at least - had disappeared by Saturday. It almost makes you realise that under the banner of a allegedly heartless, moloch-minded corporate entity are scores of human beings that really know their shit and deserve respect, both from above and below.
So from what I've seen Diablo 4 is refreshingly free of the old ‘hold button, hold forward, and mulch’ tedium that can plague so many other action RPGs - including its own predecessor. While Diablo 3 often felt like a combat loop with a world reluctantly wrapped around it, what’s here is much more convincing as a world in which much raucous and surprisingly involved combat also takes place. It’s also a world that, despite my infinite bag of +1 misgivings, I find myself intrigued to explore more of. And it’s very nice, if conflicting, to feel that way about a Diablo game again.
It’s also, as of yet, refreshingly free of obvious monetisation. Completing world events gives you a resource called ‘obols’, which you can trade for specific items with randomised stats. I imagine it probably wouldn’t be too hard to charge you a fiver for a sack of them. Otherwise, no real money shop in sight as of yet. Still, this is Blizzard’s new flagship product, and if you think they won’t eventually hang, draw, and quarter every scrap of monetisable flesh from its bones until it's practically indistinguishable from a very elaborate slot machine, then I have an igloo in the ninth circle of hell I’d like to rent to you...