Blizzard had to make a good game again eventually, right? Another great tentpole to hold up part of the entire Activision Blizzard King plate-spinning affair, even — and especially — as the company soldiers through acquisition talks with Microsoft and every relevant regulatory body in the world?
There was a time that was a tautology: If Blizzard was putting out a mainline game with effort behind it, it was going to be a hit. It was going to be an ungodly hit. That aura started fading with the reception to the second Starcraft II game, Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm, which released in 2013 — a year after the game that matters to us for this discussion, Diablo III, which was arguably the last genuine smash test-of-time hit from Blizzard. There was a problem with the game on launch, though: It sucked. I say that as someone who was there beating the campaign on launch night with four friends and being baffled at how loot drops worked for another two years as the brightest minds at Blizzard figured out that not only did the real money Auction House model not work, but that Adventure Mode, high level choice and run based play, and seasonal character play based around specific unique class-based rewards were how the game would make money via cosmetics and other traffic. And Diablo III is still making money to this day. But it’s hard to say that about any part of Starcraft II, Hearthstone, that MOBA with the same initials as Heart of the Swarm, or anything having to do with Overwatch, which launched strong but has significantly faltered. Even World of Warcraft is curdling. There was a Diablo franchise game released to mobile just over a year ago; its main legacy in the industry right now is as a synonym for cynical player base abuse.
All of this is to say that Diablo IV has some work to do outside of its context, let alone as a product in and of itself. We’re in the present tense now; what we’ve seen of the game is a closed beta in the middle of the month and an open beta over the end of last week. I was not willing to pay $24 American to have a heart attack delivered to me by KFC to play during the closed beta, so I can only report on the open one that ran from March 24 to 26. What I can report is that it was generally good, with a bunch of caveats and things to work on. I’ll mostly be focusing on the latter part of that, but I want to underline this: the point of Diablo IV is to get back to the feeling of Diablo II in an aesthetic sense while giving players an MMO-adjacent skinner box to bump up against while making the blessed Number go Up. I think in that regard it is a great success. In some others, it is — as of right now — kind of a failure.
I played a bit under 18 hours of the open beta this past weekend and I have a few minor critiques to get out of the way before we talk about the real meat of the game. First, as a matter of game design, your character should automatically activate waypoints by walking past them instead of you having to manually click on them. Diablo III solved this problem and it’s one of the correct problems it solved. You’re already permitting the Town Portal button to portal the character back to the main hub town of Kyovashad even if the Kyovashad waypoint hasn’t been manually unlocked — not disabling that button entirely belies any seriousness you might claim to have about this. Just unlock the waypoints when the player walks by. Second, there needs to be an overlay map mode. Maybe I just couldn’t find it, but playing on Playstation 5, there was no easy way to press something on the D-Pad or double tap the middle pad on the controller and just overlay the map on the screen. That’s important to Diablo players. You realized that in the last game, too; you’ll figure it out in this one. Third, just make the skill tree respecs free. Attaching a nominal fee to reassigning your skill points is mainly just a dumbass threat that the monetary imposition will increase further, possibly moving from free currency to paid currency, and that might work in the short term. But what we all know is that, like what you discovered through your analytics in Diablo III, which you ran out the string on for literally eleven years, the juice isn’t in the problems you go through to play the game. When it comes to making money off an ARPG, the action is the juice. Lean into the action.
Let’s talk about the characters. Well, there aren’t any that you play as; at least not any that matter. This is another big criticism: every protagonist’s voice in Diablo IV sounds the same. Not specifically literally; they’re different actors, and there are slight regional variations in their voices. But every voice actor I ran into was doing a low energy dour growl, and it sucks. The male Sorcerer is the closest this comes to being interesting, because he sounds like Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in a caffeine crash. It seems like the barks from Diablo III — the smug one-liners your character would say upon achieving an experience grinder, or killing a miniboss — are just gone from this game. It makes it feel like shit. I was down for a Diablo game whose color palette was muted and whose scenery was mainly comprised of a bunch of annihilationist wastes and apocalyptic vistas. That’s fine. But the character I’m playing has to push back against that kind of dark. They have to at least be happy when they kill twelve enemies at the same time.
The player character might be underwhelming, but the dev team here has actually set up a good plot. For now, through the first act of the game — Diablo games are traditionally set up with three full-sized acts, a fourth act that is basically an abbreviated rush to the game’s boss, and then a fifth act that’s DLC — the deal is that we’re doing the plot from Diablo III again, but this time, it’s good. The plot of the last game was really simple but went out of its way to be really stupid: Sanctuary, the world everyone lives in, is the battleground between angels and demons. We, the most important people in Sanctuary (the “nephalem”) are gonna make some stuff happen. Oops, it went bad. Oops, Diablo stormed Heaven. Oops, it was because you, as a player, had to suffer some of the stupidest decisions ever committed to record in a big game like this. So far, Diablo IV is some kind of apologia for all of that. There is a character who is a lot like Leah, with the same mommy issues! Those issues are dealt with quickly and she’s stronger for it. There is a character who is a lot like Decard Cain, down to being from the previous game! He’s not the world’s most absent dipshit, and he doesn’t trust angels. There is a character who takes over the role of Magda and Diablo, the star of the show as far as cutscenes are concerned — Lilith — and the writing bothers to give her even a mote of sympathy, and Inarius, the angel, more than a mote of critique. It’s too early to say that the story of Diablo IV is just a relitigation of the previous entry; it would be kind of unfortunate if the whole game was just “Hey! Look! We can actually do a good version of what Chris Metzen’s team couldn’t!” But the degree to which the game has attempted to paper over how bad Diablo III was so far, it has succeeded.
What it has succeeded at, precisely, is up for debate. There’s a sizeable portion of the fanbase that thinks this game is just a Diablo II fanboy redux. And you know what? That’s not entirely wrong. There’s a lot about this title that feels like it was made by people who remembered the feeling of Diablo II without having played it in fifteen years, which obviously wasn’t the case. But the way every sidequest NPC is written — hell, every town NPC is written — does suggest a certain mindset that insisted every person in that hugely influential previous title was going full sicko mode and yearning for death. The reality is that most of the NPCs you could talk to in Diablo II were ambivalent or unsatisfied with their lives during the apocalypse, and were just normal people. There has been one incredibly influential ARPG between Diablo III and now that might have influenced the writing of this game further — Path of Exile, whose entire business model is built around the brutal, machined, thorough exploitation of ARPG players who want Diablo II back. And its story is even bleaker than anything Diablo IV has yet brought to the table! But being “bleak” isn’t in itself a sign of quality. There’s one real smell test for whether a game is being sad, bad, and mad for a reason, or just for cheap pops. It’s the Nessa test.
Nessa is a character you meet for the first time within 5 minutes of booting up Path of Exile. She is one of the leaders holding the exile community on a beachfront from hell together, and refuses to judge you for being a piece of shit even though she could. She’s one of your primary merchants in the first act. Everyone speaks highly of her. You return to that beach later in the game, after other things you’re responsible for have happened, and terrible things have happened to Nessa. Her story ends incredibly badly, for reasons that aren’t her fault at all. But this is the part that’s important: the game doesn’t play off her demise as a fun joke or a goofball one-and-done sidequest. Path of Exile takes what happens to Nessa seriously. And the final judge of Diablo IV from a writing standpoint will be how often it passes the Nessa test, if indeed it ever does.
A lot of the Act I sidequests in the beta don’t from the moment you accept them. There’s a very goofy feel to most of them; many are saved by good voice acting on the part of a bunch of church functionaries. Sister Octavia is a special standout; if you were going to do the Nessa test with someone in Diablo IV, it would be with her, and while the outcome is debatable, the game would come out looking pretty good. But there’s a lot of stuff that is just silly and goofy in an over the top chuuni way, and if you can’t move from the serious stuff in the main plot back to the goofy stuff in the sidequests — there’s one of them that just speed runs the concept of Hellraiser — you’ll feel the dissonance. In my opinion, it works; this is a game with a lot of room from storytelling that tries to indulge 17-year-old boys to storytelling that tries to impress 17-year-old boys, and I don’t think having that emotional range in a Diablo game is a bad thing.
Now to the good things, or at least the ranking of things. The classes! There are five of them. Here are their tiers through around level 13, which is where I got all of my characters before the end of the open beta:
S Tier: Necromancer
A Tier: Rogue, Sorceress
C Tier: Barbarian
Incomplete, See Me After Class: Druid
Let’s start from the bottom. It’s a bit weird the Druid is in this game at all from one perspective; from another, of course they made it in. This game is chasing that Diablo II feeling all the way down. The problem with the Druid in Diablo II, though, was that as a class it sucked. It was trying to jack-of-all-trades the Sorceress, the Barbarian, and the Necromancer, and it failed to be competent at any of them. If you hacked in some more skill points and character levels, yeah, the Druid was great. But you can’t do that in an open beta. And so the main thing the Druid represents is a time sink. It’s the classic question: What don’t you want? Do you not want elemental sorcery, or do you not want DPS, or do you not want minions? Because that means you want the Druid. The good news is that the beta only goes up through level 25, meaning maybe the class gets better afterwards. It could hardly get worse.
The Barbarian has a lot of cool ideas behind it that don’t quite pay off in the beta that we got to play. The class gets to equip two single-handed and two two-handed weapons at the same time. That’s not a typo: two single-handed whatevers, then a big slashing two-hander and a big crushing two-hander. It’s a real interesting idea. Sadly the Barbarian is incredibly slow, to the point you’ll probably be using your Evade charges to dash towards the enemy to close on them. The class is also really fragile unless you specifically spec to make that not the case. Either way, for now, a dual weapon Barbarian is going to have a much harder time getting places in the game than the two-handed spec builds will.
The Sorceress class is really good and cool because it has access to magic. It doesn’t feel like this should have to be explained. One of my friends is annoyed because he’s looked at the skill tree and he’s determined the magic isn’t good enough if you want to diversify your skill choices instead of going all in on one heuristic, and he’s probably right, but the thing is when you actually play the Sorceress, she just kills everything. Your job is to figure out how to survive being killed. The damage will take care of itself.
The Rogue is perhaps my favorite part of the game so far. I thought both the Amazon from Diablo II and the Demon Hunter from Diablo III were negative value adds to their games. Especially the Demon Hunter, who was trash aesthetically (hand crossbows are bad and people who like them should feel bad) and then also required you to balance two spenders instead of one. The Rogue in this game, however, is the best that a bow-wielding class has felt in this kind of action setting since Dragon Age 2. And I have a reason for harking back to that otherwise kind of psychically malevolent game; in both DA2 and Diablo IV, when an archery character fires an arrow, two things are true: that projectile is both legible and weighty. That means you can see the arrow crossing the screen and hitting the enemy you’re aiming at, instead of loosing it into the void, and hitting the enemy with that projectile can stagger or knock them back. The simple causal truth that an arrow hitting an enemy should stagger or knock them back is incredibly important, but most of the time in games like these, your ranged characters will just drop arrow after arrow into some wizard as they go about their business. No. Getting struck at high velocity by an iron-tipped tree branch should have consequences. The Rogue is very good in this game.
This brings us to the Necromancer. I beat the beta with the Necromancer. It’s the best class in the game. If you care to look up build guides, it’s the class that can — given enough time — go fully invincible in Hardcore mode and theoretically solo the world boss Ashava the Pestilent. And that build has nothing to do with their summons, which can just clear entire dungeons without the player’s active interaction at all. The funniest thing about this is that they’ve finally placed the Necromancer, in the lore, at a place of prominence where it makes sense that they’re so strong and everyone in the dirt-farming villages of the Fractured Peaks just accepts that some man or woman who looks like Winona Ryder on heroin is gonna roll into town with eight of her most glowing skellingtons. Rathma, first among all Necromancers, is the child of the angel pope Inarius and the demon Kerrigan, Lilith. It’s a good gig, until it isn’t. And in practice, when Ashava the Pestilent showed up in the Crucible, and a dozen Necromancers challenged her? They all died badly, because they were specced out for minions, and she had no interest in summoning adds to give them corpses. A harsh lesson.
At the end of the day, your reaction to Diablo IV probably won’t have much to do with the color palette or the story or the way the character classes work. What’s gonna matter to you, I think, is how it feels when you mouse over an enemy and click on them to make them die (or do the corresponding button press on a controller on a console). In that sense, Blizzard hurt themselves a bit in this stress test with the PC crowd — the stability of the open beta was up in the air the whole weekend, and everyone who played on a PC complained to me about memory loss errors and weird network failure disconnects that prevented them from rejoining. I, on the other hand, played the open beta through the Playstation 5 and was never disconnected once. A grim statement on where platform stability is headed, maybe, but I think Blizzard will figure out how to fix the PC GPU issues before launch. That’s what the money is for, after all.
I liked the game. I think it’ll be a hit. I think Blizzard is back with a huge tentpole after a long layoff of bad sequels and dud ventures. I don’t know if that’s good. I don’t think I can advise you to spend your money on this product both because I don’t know if it can follow through on its promise as a game and if it’ll just mean helping Bobby Kotick get away with something else. I’m also pretty sure none of the other big companies are better in any real way, not that you can really parlay that into a real moral excuse. I’ll be reviewing this game upon release because, after all, that is my job. So hey, your choice whether or not to buy it. If you do, I’ll see you in Hell.
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