Diablo IV is an intense game … and its release shares that intensity. Many of its bloodiest story beats aren’t for the faint of heart, and it gives exhilarating isometric dungeon crawling a AAA sheen. That said, this is Blizzard Entertainment’s first original story-driven game release for PC and consoles since 2012’s Diablo III, and it comes in the wake of its rocky launches in 2022 and reports exposing the once-beloved developer’s toxic workplace history.
Diablo IV has a lot to overcome to earn a full-throated recommendation outside of the hardcore fandom already dead set on picking the game up when it launches during the first half of 2023. I was able to get a sense of how it’s shaping up with a hands-on demo, giving me an idea of how it’ll be able to rise to that challenge. While I enjoy this overtly gritty and intense action RPG and its AAA level of production, a few red flags still have me approaching the final release with healthy skepticism.
Based on a chilling conclusion to the game’s opening dungeon that I won’t spoil here, it’s clear that Diablo IV is a return to the first two games’ darker form — it’s significantly grimmer than Diablo III or Diablo Immortal. Both cutscenes and gameplay are disturbing, the combat is fast-paced but weighty, and the world’s colors are muted and dark. Even this mid-development build of the game had an impressive level of AAA polish in its world design, writing, and combat. That’s especially notable as this style of game has largely been left to indies recently.
My demo was set on Fractured Peaks, an icy tundra that is one of the first Shared Worlds where players will be able to explore and complete quests. The biggest innovation of Diablo IV is that it’s set across multiple giant, shared worlds that are nonlinear in structure. Sidequests and dungeons populate this massive world, and after the game’s opening quests, players are free to complete major campaign questlines in the order they see fit. Players will encounter each other as they explore too. This open-ended structure makes Diablo IV feel freeing and gives an otherwise grim game a hopeful sense of adventure.
However, there’s nothing too revolutionary here regarding the core Diablo action-RPG formula. It’s the same dungeon-crawling, demon-defeating isometric combat everyone expects from a Diablo game. This demo gave me access to the Rogue, Barbarian, and Sorceress classes, which have many unique skills players can utilize offensively and passively to create different playstyles. While I played around with the other classes and other types of magic like fire, most of my playtime was as a frost mage. I focused on abilities that would allow me to freeze enemies in place and deal more damage to them.
I could progress up to level 25 in my demo and, along the way, assign points to unlock abilities on my skill tree that would shape my character’s skill set. While I focused on Frost skills, re-specing my character was a cheap and easy process I could do anytime, so Diablo IV will give players a lot of room to experiment. From my time with the Diablo IV preview build, it seems that those who want a big, dark, and new Diablo world to explore and fight enemies will be pleased.
While my time with Diablo IV was enjoyable, some elements not present in this build that will be in the final game leave me concerned in the wake of Diablo Immortal and Overwatch 2‘s rocky launches. The first is the battle pass and shop system Diablo IV will employ. They weren’t part of this preview build, but I could still feel some of their influence. Although Blizzard has messaged that the battle pass won’t make Diablo IV pay to win, which is good, it still seems like it will lock away some of the best cosmetics.
None of the outfits I found during my playtime were terribly exciting, but that might be because it’s earlier on in the game, I’m understandably worried that Blizzard will lock all of the coolest-looking gear behind that battle pass. For a loot-driven game like Diablo IV, that’s worrying. Overwatch 2 and Diablo Immortal have also struggled to make their microtransactions affordable yet compelling enough for players, so I don’t expect Diablo IV will get it correct right out of the gate. Considering Diablo IV also isn’t a free-to-play game that needs microtransactions to be profitable, that’s concerning.
Then there’s the always-online nature of Diablo IV. My multiplayer experience was smooth due to the limited nature of this preview build, but I have doubts about how its servers and queue system will function on launch day. Overwatch 2 was nearly unplayable for days after release due to connection issues. Diablo IV is still very engaging as a single-player experience, but even those intent on playing the game that way will be subjected to the whims of Blizzard’s servers. While it’s a neat concept, the Shared World experience of Diablo IV doesn’t yet feel innovative enough to put up with potential server woes. Diablo General Manager Rod Fergusson and Game Director Joe Shely say a lot of testing is being done to ensure Diablo IV’s launch is as smooth as possible.
“Ensuring a smooth launch is a top priority for us, and we have already done a lot of testing both internally and externally with even more planned in the future,” they told Digital Trends. “One of the big things for us will be our open beta next year, where we’ll be able to bring in a massive amount of players to play the game and stress test the servers. There is a lot that goes into a successful game launch, and we will continue our efforts for the smoothest possible launch for our fans across all platforms when the game launches next year.”
Also worrying is that this development team was subject to many leadership changes toward the end of a long development period because of firings surrounding harassment allegations. In October 2021, Diablo III Senior Designer Joe Shely took over as Diablo IV‘s game director after Luis Barriga, who had held that job, and Lead Designer Jesse McCree left Blizzard Entertainment following the discrimination lawsuit’s revelations.
Despite the turmoil at Blizzard, Diablo General Manager Rod Fergusson (who joined the team in 2020) praised Shely’s recent direction on the game in a roundtable interview attended by Digital Trends. Fergusson called Shely “a phenomenal game director and leader” who made “strong decisions to ensure that we kept our momentum.” Meanwhile, Shely seemed more concerned with ensuring that all developers who worked on the game could see their passion in the end product.
You can see that passion on display in the final product, as Diablo IV has a strong tonal direction and the highly polished gameplay that Diablo fans have come to expect. Still, Diablo IV may need to do more to escape the shadow of doubt hanging over any new Blizzard Entertainment games. Although I had fun going hands-on with Diablo IV and think fans of the series will enjoy it, I’m only left with a cautious curiosity. What’s here is promising, but not yet groundbreaking enough.
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