Playing Diablo 4 gave me a real case of the "Have I changed, or have the games changed?", and I think the answer is "yes". For the uninitiated, Diablo forms one of the jewels in Blizzard's crown (maybe a smaller one, just offset to the Warcraft centre stone), an action-RPG series that's like if the kind of 90s metal album cover that has a skeleton on it asked to be turned into a game where you explode many hundreds of near-identical monsters to get incrementally better loot. This is a spoiler-free review of the latest greatest addition, following 2012's Diablo 3, but a Diablo game's story is sort of unspoilable, both because a) paying attention to it is of passing importance to playing, and b) the plot of them is always basically the same anyway.
To wit: Sanctuary, a high-fantasy world with a low-fantasy vibe, where so much as going to the next town over will be a brush with some horrible little goblin rat called a Flesh Thresher, was created as a respite from the eternal battle between heaven and hell. After X number of years of relative peace, one (or many) of the Lords Of Hell is doin' some bad stuff. Usually Diablo, I'll grant you. In this case it's Lilith, a kind of Dante's Lady Dimetrescu, who's making people horny for
being stepped on power. Diablo games have always had a Grand Canyon sized gulf between the cinematics (epic; luscious; brutal) and the game in practise (clicking). IV is no different. And you know. It's fine.
The outlay in making a massive video game right now has reached the point where companies can't afford to take risks any more - and one could argue that no company wants to avoid headlines right now more than Activision Blizzard, a company mired both in business consolidation controversy that's fatiguing to write about, and justified workplace controversy to do with unionisation and workplace conditions that is deeply depressing to write about. (The former, by the way, is sometimes sort of passively presented as the panacea to the latter, when a Herculean Phil Spencer will stride in and wash all of the previous administration's shit out of the stable). Plus, Blizz dabbled with making changes in Diablo 3, i.e. they added colour to the game, and some players hated it enough to start a petition. Fear not: in Diablo 4 we have a predictably competent sequel that looks like you're viewing it through the illegally tinted windows of a Honda Civic.
Sometimes you'll go into a cave full of spiders and come out to find the sun has come up, but it's still quite gloomy, you know? There are different areas in Sanctuary's perma-dusk, including snowy bit, sandy bit, and gross blood-swamp bit with an Annihilation-faced demon-wolf. They're spread over a map that is both huge and, simultaneously, a web of Swiss-cheesed forest paths and travel portals that make the actual square footage more manageable. Diablo 4 is beautiful - the light glistens off all that mud, caves drip, horrors gibber and chitter as they lurch toward you, spells bloom like the Northern Lights, individual weapons and armour have incredibly detailed designs. But after a while you begin to wonder what it's in service to. The default sort-of-zoomed-out view, the speed of play, and the core loop of 'follow map marker to place; click on things' all combine to make every cave or dungeon or open area functionally the same place. You'll spend six hours playing the game and yet it will feel like half an hour has passed, and that you achieved nothing.
Because you're not really looking around in wonder at all the detail, are you? And what are you spending all that time clicking on red skeletons and ghosts and goblins for? It's to get loot drops, so you can gradually increase the numbers on your gear and continue clicking with even more efficiency. Better loot is more likely to drop from higher level enemies, and drops are sufficiently random that you might kill a boss and get a sword that your character class can't use, you sucker. But you can sell them or trade them with friends. You can equip jewels in socketed items, level items up, and generally min-max the shit out of percentage points until your character is the best they can possibly be. My approach is a less nuanced 'number goes up' one, and that seemed to work fine too, but I'm all in favour of the spreadsheet perverts out there letting their freak flag fly. I largely just gained awareness of how finite my life is.
That is, admittedly, a fatalistic view, but then I did pick the Necromancer class, a whip-thin Skrillex fan who can raise an army of skeletons. The class list is restrained, but you can accurately guess what sort of roles are covered. The Barbarian can carry five weapons at once to tank all over the place, the Sorcerer is an elemental DPS type with low health, the Druid can turn into a wolf, and the Rogue has a lot of good DOT traps and stealth abilities. I miss some of the more fun classes from Diablo 3, which had a few different takes like the Monk and the Crusader, but Diablo 4 has kept the ability to let you entirely rebuild your character's ability tree at any time. It makes playing fluid and flexible, especially in multiplayer.
Playing in a group is encouraged, but the game scales to your level and party size so you can grind levels by yourself pretty easily, and though the world state syncs with whoever has the most story progress, you keep those higher-level quest points when you go back to single-player. Still, it's just more fun to have someone to talk to, and the maleable character classes really help. My pal was playing a Rogue, and at one point we spent nearly an hour trying to beat a big mid-story three-headed lava-dog boss - a damage-soak nightmare that, incidentally, was and is genuinely one of my least favourite things I've ever done. Because my Necro was functioning as the front line, I rebuilt to use more debuff spells and an upgrade that generated corpses so I could keep summoning skeletons, and he specced to include more stealth so he could more easily res me if I died. Ta-da: boss bossed. In the moment it felt like more of a relief than a triumph, though.
Part of the reason it's so easy to play hours of Diablo 4 in one go, staring unblinkingly at the centre third of your screen until you feel your eyeballs turn into raisins, is that it's very well made. The different synergies of all the abilities and spells is extremely impressive, and the game kicks up a bit when you get your ultimate spells and special abilities. I got the ability to summon, rather than a team of skeletons, one huge Big Daddy-esque monster in their place - and even that came in three variants for extra build customisation. There are main missions, side missions, timed world events, an optional currency to buy mystery weapons, and hours-long dungeons to get Aspects for your character - themselves another optional addition to apply to your gear. It's a game that puts no friction between itself, and you mainlining it for an entire day. Whether you'll feel good afterwards is another question.
Diablo 2 is still one of my most favouritest games ever, and Diablo 4 is better than it was. Isn't it? It must be, mustn't it? It's 2023, am I allowed to ask for games to be things other than polished yet? Diablo 4 is good. It'll give you hours of entertainment. Your pulse will not increase. Depending on how much you respond to Lilith's cutscenes, I guess.
This review is based on a review build of the game provided by the publisher Blizzard Entertainment