With Diablo 4‘s release now here, it’s sometimes difficult to reconcile that Diablo III is over a decade old. Its release was polarizing for a number of reasons, but its evolving formula of action role-playing endured, enjoying a resurgence with its post-launch expansion that carried through years of ongoing seasonal updates. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that each of those years helped inform the design of Diablo IV, a game which confidently delivers gameplay that has been carried forward and refined from both Diablo II and III, while also establishing a strong foundation for the franchise’s future.
Diablo games have always contained stories for their single-player campaigns, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of past storylines as merely contextualization for the game’s primary focus: dungeon-crawling. That’s where Diablo IV makes one of its most striking changes: It not only takes its story far more seriously, but it tells one that’s far more engrossing than ever before. As a traveling wanderer, you come across a small town of villagers on a snow-capped mountain range looking for some aid. After killing some creatures and returning, you’re welcomed as a hero and given food and shelter, only for the villagers to try to use you in a ritual sacrifice to Lilith, co-creator of Sanctuary and recently resurrected antagonist of this tale, moments later. This encounter links you to Lilith, driving you forward on a quest to stop her plan of amassing an army for her own nefarious purposes.
Much of that sounds like standard Diablo fare. There’s a big, bad demon, and you’re the only one who can stop it. But Diablo IV makes intelligent use of Lilith, layering her motivations slowly to the point where you can’t help but consider her side of the argument. She’s not driven solely by the lust for destruction. Instead, she’s grieving, with the place she once created to escape the endless cycle of war between heaven and hell now being used as a staging ground to continue it. She’s an antagonist that has been slighted by those she trusted at every turn, and while her means of exacting justice provide the reason for your entire crusade in the first place, it’s surprising and equally welcome when Diablo IV forces you to slow down and consider the true goal of your struggle.
The trope of the sole savior has been tried and tested in Diablo for years, and Diablo IV doesn’t completely change that. Instead, it puts a much larger emphasis on companions than ever before, with most acts centered around a new party member rather than a demon you’re eventually hunting down. An early standout is Vigo, a prideful knight who is forced to endure a conscience-ruining loss after a single, selfish decision. It’s not just Vigo’s remorse that is heart-wrenchingly conveyed, but also the horrors of his eventual redemption, leading to one of the more powerful character moments in the entire game. Vigo’s story is a teaser for many similar arcs that follow, all of which do a great job of providing a cause for a character to join your fight while also contextualizing their motivations to continue (or abstain) from the enduring conflict. This applies to most of the allies you’ll recruit in your fight against Lilith, each of which has their own motivations that feel faithful to their respective journeys. It’s a level of care I can’t recall being given to many past Diablo companions, and Diablo IV certainly makes far more liberal use of them through the campaign to make them feel purposeful.
Bringing together this ragtag group takes place over Diablo IV’s extensive six acts, some of which you can tackle in different orders. Previous Diablo titles had each act accompanied by a change in locale, but in Diablo IV it only takes a few moments before you’re given free rein to explore its intimidatingly large, interconnected map. Here you can transition from frigid mountaintops to desolate deserts in just a matter of minutes, with the transitional areas doing a good job of masking an otherwise jarring change. Having a static layout that you can learn and get comfortable with imbues exploration with a greater sense of wonder than previous hubs, which were often filled with enemies to kill before diving into the next dungeon. The geography also gives towns and larger cities a sense of place on a bigger map.
Each distinct area is shown off with a great amount of visual detail, with Diablo IV incorporating a delightfully macabre style that is befitting of its violent story. It’s not trying to overly correct some of the criticisms laid on Diablo III either, with pops of color used tastefully to highlight areas of hope and kinship that contrast against the broader strokes of dread and fear paintingthe rest of the landscape. Things don’t always hold up when the camera zooms into to give conversations a cinematic feel, as a degradation in detail on character models and environments is more discenrable. Regardless, it’s still a striking presentation that looks incredible in motion, while also keeping information clear enough to read when fights get chaotic.
The moment-to-moment action in Diablo IV is one of its strongest traits, which is for the best given how genre-defining the series has been over the years. There’s an argument to be made that Diablo III went too far in the direction of simplification, and that’s exactly where the Diablo IV course-corrects in smart ways. You’re still limited to a total of six active abilities at a time–four on your hotbar and two on each mouse button for those on PC–but how you construct your build is no longer linear. Instead, each new level lets you invest a point in a branching skill tree, with each of its core nodes branching out further into new abilities and associated passive perks. You need to invest a certain number of total points to continue unlocking each of these nodes, so you will have to think carefully about abilities and how they serve your greater build. It’s a system that allows for a lot of flexibility, letting you experiment with focusing on one specific ability as the foundation of your build or dabbling with ways to combine two entirely different paths, such as empowering your summoned skeletons while also firing off loads of blood-infused magic as a Necromancer.
Diablo IV confidently delivers gameplay that has been carried forward and refined from both Diablo II and III, while also establishing a strong foundation for the franchise’s future
Experimentation is further encouraged by Diablo IV’s low cost to respec, and unlimited chances to do so. Unlike the more punishing approach in Diablo II, you can completely redefine your build at any time for a small fee of in-game gold, approaching your skill tree with a different idea in mind or just making some small changes to adjust for a difficult fight. This freedom is empowering in a similar way to that of Diablo III’s fluid build system, but still requires you to engage meaningfully with synergies to make your builds viable. It feels like the culmination of all the ways previous games in the series have allowed you to play while catering to as many playstyles as possible, but without many of the critical compromises from the last time out. The cost for a respec does naturally increase the higher your level, but it never got to a point where I felt it was too expensive in relation to the amount of gold I was earning at the time.
Thanks to this system, I felt free to continually change up my approach to my Necromancer. I started with a combination of skeleton summoning, shadow damaging attacks, and some blood spells for survivability. The Necromancer’s unique ability lets me either summon minions from corpses or sacrifice the ability entirely for passive advantages, which lead me to realize that I could theoretically play a Necromancer entirely as a pseudo-mage with blood and bone abilities. After some taxing boss battles, I decided to go all in on a summoning build that accentuated the abilities of my skeleton soldiers, mages, and large, hulking golem, each of which had three different variations I could combine to find perfect synergy. It was consistently satisfying to find a build that worked for a couple of hours and then completely change it, either through necessity or curiosity. Seeing small decisions manifest as big changes in terms of overall viability gives me faith that each class is going to be picked apart for various approaches that maximize elements of different playstyles.
While the skill tree is where you will ultimately establish the basis of your build, Aspects of Power are a new facet of the role-playing formula that allows you to hone it. These collectible skills (so to speak) can be combined with rare pieces of gear to turn them into custom legendary items, imbued with the exact ability that complements the build you’re constructing. This alleviates some of the headaches associated with grinding out dungeons in the hopes of a particular legendary piece of gear dropping, while also providing a new avenue of options for build construction. That isn’t to say that it diminishes the rush of a big legendary drop though. Legendary weapons can often feature the same abilities that Aspects do, but will regularly have better percentage rolls on their effectiveness, still making them the ideal path to the most optimal late-game builds.
Aspects of Power are obtained by clearing the many dungeons sprawled around the map, each of which feature their own multi-stage objectives to complete. Some are as simple as killing enemies and depositing their souls to progress further, while others require you to hunt down a specific foe in search of a key that lets you reach lower levels of the dungeon. Each of these concludes with a boss fight, which for the most part are less interesting than those found in main story dungeons. Bosses throughout the story are multi-layered bouts, with shifting enemy attacks that can completely change the landscape you’re fighting in, forcing you to consistently think about positioning and when the best moments for attack are. Bosses in these more common dungeons lack that sense of complexity, and I often found my skeleton warriors completely overwhelming many of them to the point where many of the bosses would just stand in place and attack until dead. Given the sheer number of dungeons on offer, it might not have been possible to retain the same level of tension across every boss encounter, but when you’re bouncing between several of these as you grab Aspects of Power throughout your campaign, it’s difficult not to notice the stark contrast in quality between the two.
As with any Diablo title, Diablo IV is nowhere near complete once you’ve rolled credits on the campaign. World Tiers return to incentivize you to go through everything again with a higher degree of difficulty but also more rewards to reap. It’s welcome that Diablo IV retains the option that allows you to jump into a more challenging World Tier from the start this time, preventing a potentially frustrating first playthrough devoid of any meaningful challenge. Outside of increasing the World Tier, the map becomes littered with additional side activities that join regular side quests, rotating open-world dynamic quests (similar to patrols in Destiny 2), and Strongholds. These are extremely hostile areas that are densely populated with enemies usually a level or two higher than you, providing a larger challenge to overcome than regular groups of foes around the open-world. Minor objectives also make this feel like smaller-scale, open-air dungeons, with new waypoints and merchants usually unlocked once you’ve rid the area of the threat. Larger scale world boss fights that are best tackled with numerous other players you will find in the open world are also available, although no multiplayer features were available during the review period.
Whispers of the Dead encapsulate timed bounties that popup throughout the world, with each one rewarding you with an additional currency that can be turned in for caches of gems, weapons, and more. Nightmare Sigils, which can be obtained through completing Whispers of the Dead quest, can be used to unlock additional Nightmare Dungeons. These add new modifiers to existing dungeons around the map that can do anything from changing the types of enemies you encounter to rolling new random abilities they might have at their disposal, with the allure of even rarer loot drops enticing you to run them over and over again.There is a familiar but equally expansive framework in place already in Diablo IV that should satiate you across multiple playthroughs, with plans already detailed by Blizzard to expand on this through seasons of new content similar to that of Diablo III.
Diablo IV, at this time, cannot escape comparison to the past of the franchise it belongs to, but it’s thankfully a game that has been crafted with a strong awareness of what made each one either revered or reviled. It represents a measured approach to combining the many elements from previous entries that worked into a system that feels like the new standard-bearer for action role-playing. Coupled with a new benchmark for storytelling in the franchise, and a solid narrative foundation for any potential new adventures, it’s easy to see Diablo IV as something I’ll regularly check-in on for a long time to come.
https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/diablo-4-review-mother-knows-best/1900-6418072/?ftag=CAD-01-10abi2f Diablo 4 Review – Mother Knows Best