‘Diablo IV’ Isn’t Quite Sure What It Wants To Be
2:40 PM EDT on June 15, 2023
The 11-year gap between the launch of Diablo III and the fourth edition of Blizzard's long-running action role playing series left the developers plenty of time to get things right. The launch of Diablo III is generally understood to be the franchise's biggest failure—the servers were broken at launch, it originally had a real-money auction house that made gear impossible to get without dropping substantial amounts of real cash, and its cartoonish look alienated fans of the previous games—and so it was impossible for the sequel, which arrived this month, not to be saddled with expectations of redemption. So, did Diablo IV get it right? In many ways, the answer is yes, but after playing the game for approximately 80 hours, I've found myself running up against Blizzard's unexpected definition of "right."
Diablo IV's biggest innovation is its attempt to turn what was once a linear ARPG built to suck players into a fast, repeatable, and loot-based gameplay loop into something resembling an MMORPG. Diablo IV is the first game in the series to put players into an open world, to give them a much longer road to the character level cap, and to ask them to pick their heads up from the monster-slaying grind in order to appreciate the game's surroundings.
It's useful to think about how World of Warcraft and Diablo have been in conversation for the last decade. Despite being worked on by completely separate teams, these two games have influenced each other in deep, game-altering ways. But before Diablo IV was released, that influence was mostly being applied in one direction. WoW borrowed the bounty system from Diablo III and turned it into world quests; it leeched Diablo III's mostly beloved rifts system and turned it into the mostly beloved Mythic+ system. The combat has been simplified and refined throughout the years, and everything that's been released for WoW since 2016's Legion expansion has made the game feel more like Diablo.
With Diablo IV, though, the pendulum has swung hard the other way. This game wants to be an MMO so badly, but without much of what that entails from a social aspect. Sure, you can see up to 11 other players when fighting one of three different world bosses, which show up on a random timer in the world. And you can, as you could in Diablo III, group with three buddies to complete the hardest challenges in the game. There are social mechanics here, but Diablo has by nature been resistant to that kind of cooperation. It is, first and foremost, a single-player game. Diablo games have always been about action, through and through, and Diablo IV still provides plenty of chaotic and adrenaline-spiking combat encounters with huge packs of freaky monsters. But it also hamstrings itself through its commitment to the MMO framework. The (perhaps sadistic) allure of every previous Diablo game has been the ability to fall into a feverish gameplay loop—you kill a lot of monsters at once with your demigod character, you collect loot ranging from "crap" to "the greatest item in the history of video games," and then you do it all over again without ever needing to come up for air. The kill-loot-repeat process was as unencumbered as possible. This is not how Diablo IV was built to work.
There are plenty of dungeons to raid, but in order to reach them players have to spend time moving across the open world, either on foot or by riding one of the worst horses in video game history. It's obvious that Blizzard hoped to make traversal a core part of the game's charm, but so far I've just found this new element to be an obstacle standing in the way of the stuff I actually come to a Diablo game for. Am I going to have fun because I have to get off my horse and spend five seconds clearing a barricade that's in the way on the road to, say, the Aldurwood dungeon? Are the small packs of easily defeated monsters that harass me along the rest of the journey immersing me into the open world, or just forcing me to make a few extra mouse clicks before I can do the thing I actually want to do?
It doesn't help that one of the most lucrative activities in Diablo IV are open-world farming sessions called Helltides. These require player to run around a few open-world zones and kill 5-10 enemies every few seconds in hopes of slowly collecting enough items to open some chests that contain valuable loot. In theory, this is the classic Diablo gameplay loop I described above, but the open world once again dilutes too much. There aren't enough enemies, and the time spent killing small packs of them is outweighed by the un-fun activity that is riding your, and I can't stress this enough, horrendous horse to the next group. It's dull and breaks the soothing flow of just blasting through dungeons filled to the brim with monsters without needing to stop for anything.
Despite all that, Diablo IV has the skeleton of a good game, and maybe even a great one. The combat is fluid and amazing to watch in action. My "ice shards" Sorceror can demolish an entire screen of enemies in a flurry of frozen demolition, and my Barbarian can slam down a hammer that wipes out everything around it in one hit. The gear progression system trades its predecessors' approach of collecting sets of items to enable power in favor of a more gradual increase in strength, a welcome change that should pay off when characters aren't decked out within an hour of hitting max level. And the art style is fantastic, reincorporating the gothic palette of Diablo II while also injecting some much needed color and texture.
It's still a giant slog to play, though. Since the campaign doesn't take one to the max level cap, players have had to figure out ways to get from level 50 to level 100 through an excruciatingly long post-campaign grind. Here again is where the inherent nature of a Diablo game chafes against its MMO ambitions. Players in the endgame have begun turning Diablo IV into Diablo III through sheer force of will, finding the dungeons best designed to gather as many enemies as possible into one area and running through them over and over and over again. I have done this myself; my characters have lived in the Ruins of Eridu dungeon for days, killing the same 100 or so enemies before running out and doing it all over again.
This has created a strange tension between Blizzard and its customers. The game's developers have been monitoring which dungeons players are using for these grind sessions, and rebuilding them on the fly in an attempt to force players back outside and engaging with the game's open world. The aforementioned Ruins of Eridu grind has been obliterated, but I've simply moved on to the Blind Burrows instead, at least until that dungeon is also nerfed to the ground. It's a game of whack-a-mole that has picked up steam as more and more players are trying to reach the level cap. Maybe Blizzard will eventually give up and let players engage with the game however they want, but for now they seem intent on forcing players into a specific gameplay style, with a specific power level, and anything that deviates too much has been coded out of the game.
That's Blizzard's right, of course. It's their game, and if their goals are to keep people playing as much as possible, then slowing everything down and forcing players out into Diablo IV's open world is the way to do it. It just makes no sense to me, financially or from a gameplay design standpoint. There is no subscription fee to play this game, as there is for WoW. Blizzard already got $70 from players, and will likely get more from both the in-game cosmetic store—a small congratulations for the team for not repeating Diablo Immortal's mistakes here: there is no purchasable player power in IV—and future expansions. Whether I play 100 hours or 10, the reward for Blizzard is pretty much the same. I'm still not entirely sure what my reward will be. Diablo games have always found staying power in their endgames, which keep players hooked well past finishing the campaign and reaching the level cap. So far, Blizzard's insistence on enforcing Diablo IV's MMO rebrand has made me feel like I'm spending most of time fighting against the game's idea of what it wants to be. It's hard to imagine myself keeping that fight up for too long.