Diablo IV finally releases today (after a pre-order early access period this past weekend), this latest game in the series brings with it a lot of changes, from a darker tone and less of the wrestler-style monologuing from the villains to being almost massively multiplayer this time around and set on a map that no longer leans on procedurally generation. With the early access weekend and almost 20 hours of Diablo IV behind me, and with plenty more days and hours of play in front, here’s my first impressions.
To start with, there’s five whole classes to choose from at this game’s outset – Barbarian, Necromancer, Sorcerer, Rogue, and Druid – with large skill trees that give a ridiculous amount of options when it comes to tailoring your chosen character to your playstyle. They all feel great to play as, but have fundamental differences and styles. My Necromancer – my main class, as ever – has a small squad of up to eight undead minions (and a golem), handles very differently to the Sorcerer I played as during in the beta, who teleports around and unleashes salvos of elemental magic like a high-level raid boss.
Diablo IV looks unerringly gorgeous as well, whether you’re in a macabre, bloodied dungeon or a desert of red sand, it’s really beautiful. Performance on PS5 is practically perfect as well, with a grand total of three frame rate stutters through the weekend, each of which was triggered by using a viewpoint, where the camera zooms and swoops to get a nice view of the level ahead. These honestly look so good I wished I could remove the UI and screenshot them to use as a wallpaper.
My only criticism is that cutscenes don’t take advantage of this visual finery. There’s plenty of detail in the animations, so the fact that the camera just zooms in slightly and hovers over things as they happen is very strange, especially since there are also cutscenes that do use more creative camera angles. It feels the most awkward at one point when a character is crying with an incredibly emotive and convincing performance from the voice actor, and the camera is just hovering over them, whereas some close up shots and a little basic direction could have made it resonated more. The cutscenes that do have more direction are proof of this.
The story itself is also a significant step up from its predecessor. Lilith is a more mysterious threat than the usual Prime Evils as her motives are a little less obvious – the demon Lords of Chaos, Hatred, and Terror don’t leave much space for confusion. Of course, that trio are still in play so I’m very curious to see how it the story continues to play out – at the time of writing I’m at the beginning of Act V. There are a handful of inconsistent characters and some areas where your suspension of disbelief will be tested, but for the most part it is pretty good despite this. It’s the bits in between that I’m yet to be fully convinced by.
The entire game now features level scaling, so outside of some areas with a minimum level, everything scales in difficulty to meet your level. You’re now almost completely free to explore the giant map however you like, but it also means that later in the game you’ll be able to go everywhere to play, rather than a limited selection of high level areas, which is great!
The downside is that it leaves the gameplay feeling the same wherever you go. Previously, you’d level up as you went through an area, eventually getting too powerful just as you got to the next, and it would repeat. It had an ebb and flow that managed to feel like progress and advancement despite basically being a gear and XP grinding treadmill. In Diablo IV it sometimes feels more like you’re trapped on the treadmill as every enemy levels up alongside you, keeping the challenge you face incredibly consistent and without an ounce of unpredictability. This ,combined with mob density being a bit spotty in some areas, meant that once I finally unlocked a mount I just started to ride straight through areas to reach objectives and dungeons, not really bothering with the enemies in between.
Dungeons have another issue in that they usually have objectives now. These objectives are pretty repetitive, which wouldn’t be such a problem if they didn’t force you to backtrack through areas you’ve already cleared out to complete them, where there’s nothing left to fight. Why this is the case is anyone’s guess, as dungeons aren’t procedurally generated in Diablo IV. They could have been arranged in a way to avoided this entirely, but they’ve taken something that was repetitive in a way that wasn’t a problem – just kill lots of enemies until you reach the end – and added a mechanic that makes it into a problem.
They’re not bad overall, but that little frustration will be magnified when you’re in the endgame trying to grind for gear. At least there are more than 100 dungeons in the game and they all have a nightmare variant as well, not to mention an aspect that you can then apply to legendary weapons. This is a huge amount of content and I’m usually having a lot of fun in these dungeons. Though they don’t have unique end bosses, which is a touch disappointing.
The number of legendary items I’ve found can be counted on three hands (I have a spare), but the number of different legendary affixes can be counted on only one. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky, but their effects on gameplay are usually pretty limited in comparison to the often build-changing legendaries found in Diablo 3. The best ones increase the damage of your skills or add mechanics to them, but I haven’t found anything that had an effect as impactful as in the previous game.
Of course, this being the 2020s and Diablo IV an Activision Blizzard game, you can also buy an in-game currency and cosmetics. These cosmetics look nice but, as always, a lot of what was once locked behind gameplay and fun comes with a paywall instead. The monetisation team at Blizzard should be more embarrassed than they clearly are for offering cosmetic DLC that cost a third the price of their latest, full-priced entry into one of their flagship IPs, but this is something we can say about far too many games. At least it’s not quite as icky as Diablo 3’s real money auction house was.
After my first weekend with Diablo IV, I’m certainly enjoying the excellent action RPG battling and character variety, but I also have a few reservations. The full level scaling and lack of procedural generation means that there’s fewer surprises to be had, and this shift to a more persistent MMO-like map misses some of why I enjoy Diablo so much. Of course, there’s plenty more to see and do, and I’ll keep forging ahead to see the endgame.
Keep an eye out for our final, scored review in the coming days.