For the most part, I enjoyed my Diablo 4 beta experience and really appreciated some of the changes that were implemented to make the game feel less like Diablo 3 and a little more like Diablo 2. However, I didn’t feel that every addition or even game feature improves the gameplay. In fact, I feel that some inclusions actively hurt the experience and could potentially impact Diablo 4’s longevity.
Here are some of the ways that Diablo 4 improves upon what came before as well as some of the lessons it maybe should have learned.
Diablo 4’s World Is Dark, Massive, and Filled With Adventures
First off, I have to congratulate Diablo 4‘s artists. The franchise started as a gothic grimdark fantasy where the world feels as if it’s on the brink of the apocalypse, and fans quickly fell in love with that look. While Diablo 3 took a break from that aesthetic (at least until the Reaper of Souls expansion), Diablo 4 has gleefully returned to it, albeit with slightly stylized results. The world of Diablo 4 once again feels as if it’s barely hanging on, and every level and enemy helps get that feeling across.
Speaking of the world, the game’s level design is, for the most part, an evolution of the dungeon-crawler genre. Instead of the randomly-generated levels found in some old Diablo games, Diablo 4‘s world is as sprawling as it is nonlinear. Instead of being ferried from location to location, players have more agency over where they go and what they do. While the beta only allows you to explore the game’s first act, it’s clear that Diablo 4 will encourage more exploration than Diablo 2 and even Diablo 3. Of course, anyone pining for classic catacombs can still delve into dungeons and cellars (a catch-all for mini dungeons with randomized challenges)
Diablo 4’s Improved Build System Helps You Survive The Game’s Much More Challenging Combat
Combat is, unsurprisingly, 99% of the Diablo experience. Even when players aren’t fighting through the hordes of Hell, they are customizing builds, crafting potions, and upgrading armor to improve their combat prowess. The same is true of Diablo 4, which vastly improves much of the Diablo 3 experience.
Skills in Diablo 4 differ greatly from their Diablo 3 counterparts. They not only rely on unique resources instead of a universal mana bar, but you have much more control over which skills you actually get to use at any time. That’s because Diablo 4 assigns you skill points as you level up that can be used to acquire whatever combination of abilities you want. Even better, you can upgrade the skills you acquire by either investing more points into them or by acquiring branching (and mutually exclusive) modifiers.
These changes give players more build and character customization than they had in Diablo 3, especially when you take into account class specializations. Take Sorcerer’s enchantments as an example. This ability lets you turn spells into…well, enchantments that provide passive combat enhancements (such as spawning an ice storm every few seconds). Every class can explore multiple viable build paths, and you can even mix and match some of those build concepts to try entirely new ideas. Thankfully, respeccing is easy, though it does get much more expensive as the game goes on.
When it comes to the actual combat, Diablo 4 sits somewhere between Diablo 2 and 3. You get to use more skills at once than in Diablo 2, which makes moment-to-moment battles faster, but combat is more tactical than Diablo 3 since dodge rolls (which were added to console versions) are now restricted by a timer. These elements, combined with better enemy balancing, make Diablo 4‘s combat more difficult and more exciting overall than it was in Diablo 3. I don’t think I died once in that game, but I died several times during the Diablo 4 beta (mostly to the Den Mother boss in Light’s Watch dungeon), and I generally welcomed the boost in difficulty.
Diablo 4’s Level Scaling Keeps Fights Interesting At the Cost of Some Franchise Staples
While I just praised Diablo 4 for sporting a superior challenge compared to Diablo 3, I will admit that increased challenge comes at a steep cost that could split the fanbase.
During my time in Diablo 4, I noticed that no matter how much I leveled up, enemies always felt as if they were providing the same level of challenge. That’s because the game utilizes a level scaling system that ensures that the game grows with you no matter how strong you get.
On the one hand, this mechanic ensures that you never out-level quests or dungeons, which is bound to please gamers who feel that a completionist approach to past Diablo games trivialized some content. On the other hand, level scaling can rob you of some of the joy of that process.
Leveling up in games such as Diablo is supposed to deliver a sense of progression. Areas that you used to struggle with eventually become cakewalks, and you feel like an unstoppable juggernaut until you enter a new location or turn up the difficulty level. But in Diablo 4, enemies in the first area are just as tough at the beginning of the game as they are at the end, which diminishes some feelings of growth and improvement.
Furthermore, the age-old tactic of grinding won’t necessarily help you win a fight you are struggling with. Thanks to level scaling, the only “guaranteed” way to obtain that same sense of progression is to acquire better gear by running existing content. As is ARPG tradition, the better the gear in Diablo 4, the more it improves your stats, but as is another ARPG tradition, all gear is tied to the whims of a built-in RNG. If your luck sucks, you might not receive gear that will help you fare too much better in difficult fights, which prevents you from progressing through no fault of your own. That doesn’t really sound fair, now does it?
Level scaling is a bit of a mixed bag at the moment, though we’ll see how it plays out across the full game.
Diablo 4 Features a Deeper Loot System (But Simple UI)
Loot is the lifeblood of dungeon crawlers such as Diablo. You go scouring in dungeons for powerful items, and then use those items to delve even deeper into that dungeon depths. Diablo 4 fixes many of the problems with Diablo 3’s loot system, but it repeats some of those mistakes as well
As usual, Diablo 4’s enemies and chests drop color-tiered items of varying rarity and quality. Some offer clear improvements over your current gear, while others are best pawned off at shops or scrapped for resources. Like Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion, Diablo 4 also lets you “Transmog” your appearance so that you can look the way you want without changing your gear’s stats.
However, unlike in Diablo 3, Blizzard isn’t trying to push players toward an auction house. Most of the equipment I looted in the beta was viable for my class, even though that loot didn’t always provide stat boosts. The few items you will pick up for other classes can be traded to other players manually (or sold, or scrapped). Granted, Blizzard eventually got rid of Diablo 3’s auction house, but it’s still great to see the developers learn from their mistakes and not even try to implement one in Diablo 4.
Although, I have to ask what is up with the new backpack UI. The backpack uses the same grid design as the backpack in Diablo 2, but each item only takes up one slot. What’s the point of implementing Diablo 2’s backpack aesthetic if it ultimately still functions the same as Diablo 3’s simplified backpack?
Thankfully, Diablo 4 features a few more blasts from the past features that were notably missing from Diablo 3. For instance, while you can still salvage and upgrade armor (which is a blessing for those times when the RNG gods don’t shower you with good loot), Diablo 4 is also bringing back the beloved “Runewords” system (which allows you to add new effects and properties to existing gear). Sadly, that Rune system wasn’t available in the beta (but Blizzard has promised it will come later). Moreover, Diablo 4‘s potions function closer to how they worked in Diablo 2. While the game doesn’t include any mana, curative, or grenade potions, it does include elixirs that offer various benefits. Plus, Diablo 3’s health globes are gone and replaced by charges that refill potion flasks.
Overall, most of these returning abilities help Diablo 4 find a happy medium between the complexity of Diablo 2 and the streamlined Diablo 3 experience.
Diablo 4 Evolves Diablo 3’s Controversial Internet Requirements In Ways That Are Promising and Concerning
While Blizzard has mostly learned its lessons from Diablo 3 when it comes to items, classes, and aesthetics, the company has sadly put its foot down when it comes to the game’s internet connectivity requirements. Unlike Diablo 1 and 2, Diablo 4 is always online, and you know how much controversy that feature generated when Blizzard implemented it into Diablo 3. This time around, though, Diablo 4 tries to find a little more purpose for that online requirement.
For all intents and purposes, Diablo 4 is an MMO (or pseudo-MMO). The game doesn’t have any offline capabilities (yet, anyway), and it asks you to play in a shared world where you can often run into other players (though dungeons are still invite-only for the moment).
While teaming up with other players to tackle world bosses and events is fun, all of those events run on timers. If you don’t make it on time, you will miss out on the loot. Plus, the design of these bosses and events cast doubt on their functionality in the long term. If some, such as the world boss Ashava, require large groups of players, will anyone be able to beat these challenges when server populations inevitably drop? What about Hardcore players who may have to skip some group content if they don’t want their runs to be determined by other players’ abilities (or lack thereof)? Will future updates continue to emphasize content that demands multiplayer participation? If anyone knows the answers to those questions, they haven’t shared them.
More importantly, even though Diablo 4’s Early Access beta was mostly stable (emphasis on mostly), the game’s online-only model is a problem waiting to happen. After all, modern gaming servers aren’t exactly known for their reliability. If the internet or server goes down, nobody can play Diablo 4. If too many people log into the game, the servers won’t have enough room for everyone. In other words, we can probably expect the return of some form of the dreaded Error 37 message in Diablo 4’s near future. Even if the servers are technically working, lag and other connectivity issues can easily negatively impact your performance through no real fault of your own.
On the bright side, Diablo 4’s MMO nature opens up avenues to help keep players occupied. For instance, instead of Blizzard providing new content through large expansions, the company can give audiences a constant stream of new enemies and locations via patch updates. Of course, that potential benefit comes with some big “ifs.” While the Diablo 4 beta was devoid of microtransactions and battle passes, Blizzard has promised those features will be in the game when it releases. The company says they will not sell pay-to-win services via the in-game shop, but the sense of FOMO that comes with a battle pass (as well as how battle passes can influence a game’s design) are potential causes for concern. Besides, we have been burned too many times in the past to assume Blizzard won’t try to eventually push more meaningful microtransactions.
Based on my experience with Diablo 4’s Early Access beta, I can safely say that the game is better than Diablo 3 and infinitely better than Diablo Immortal. However, all those improvements don’t fix the flaws and concerns that come with Diablo 4’s always-online design. We can only hope that the game’s servers (and developers) are up to the task of supporting such a game, or that Blizzard eventually develops an offline mode/version. Fingers crossed.