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 | Developer Gameplay Showcase
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.
Return to form
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.
Big red flags
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.