I was hopelessly addicted to Diablo 4‘s recent Early Access beta, and I’m already looking forward to losing myself in the game once more during its upcoming Open beta weekend. Then again, that’s always been Diablo‘s thing. It’s the franchise that turned classic role-playing into an addictive action experience. Competitors have come along that do loot-based action-role-playing as well as (or better) than Diablo, but there is a magic to the Diablo franchise that can be hard to replicate. When Diablo is good, it’s the surest and most fulfilling way for any action gaming or role-playing fan to lose hours of their lives.
However, as I played more and more Diablo 4, I thought a little less about Diablo and a little more about the game that has come to dominate the mainstream loot-based gaming scene since Diablo 3′s release: Destiny. Even in the game’s earliest days, there are signs that suggest Diablo 4 has learned a few things from Destiny (and games like Destiny) that already have some franchise fans wondering about what kind of experience it intends to be in the long run.
To be very clear, Diablo 4 is not just a premium version of Diablo Immortal. Diablo Immortal had its…charms, but it ultimately proved to be exactly what most people suspected it always was: a watered-down version of the Diablo experience meant to snatch microtransaction money as easily as Diablo players grab common loot. That game exploited our love of Diablo. Diablo 4 largely exists to remind us why we loved the franchise in the first place.
So far as that goes, Diablo 4 more than does its job. Actually, for the most part, Diablo 4 follows the franchise’s formula in the best ways possible. You pick a class, build your character, and then (hopefully) work your way through waves of enemies via mechanically accessible combat as you acquire more skills and tons of sweet, sweet loot. Throw in some dungeons, bosses, and quests, and you’ve got one of the most satisfying gaming experiences imaginable.
“Satisfying” is the keyword there. The feel of a Diablo game is often its most important quality, and Diablo 4 feels as good as any game in this genre has ever felt. Attacks are pleasantly weighty, classes are wonderfully unique (and allow for various viable character builds), the soundtrack is phenomenal, and Diablo 4‘s emphasis on the gore and darkness Diablo 3 initially downplayed is just the cherry on top.
Even Diablo 4‘s loot feels good. I recently ranted about the negative impact gear scores have had on gaming loot, and Diablo 4 shows that there are indeed better ways to do things. Most items in the game have a purpose and abilities that make you carefully consider their merits rather than just go for the biggest gear number. Even lesser items are valuable in the game’s manageable resourcing “scrap” system that contributes to your character’s growth in meaningful ways.
I can’t overemphasize how much fun Diablo 4 is. It’s one of the most viscerally satisfying RPGs I’ve played in a long time, and I’ve played a lot of them. For long-time Diablo fans, this game’s opening hours will feel like that impossible trip back home. The one where so many things are almost exactly how you want to remember them. For new or lapsed fans, Diablo 4 will show you why this series is always spoken of with a blend of reverence and fear. Like a graciously flayed fetishist I found in a forest during the beta, Diablo 4 will leave you howling for more even as it steals hours of your life and beats you down time and again.
Again, though, that’s always been the Diablo experience. This time around, though, Diablo‘s addictiveness is baked into its MMOARPG elements in ways that raise unanswered questions about the game’s future.
Yes, for all the ways that Diablo 4 improves upon the Diablo Immortal experience, both games share one crucial aspect: a persistent shared universe that requires a constant online connection. You don’t necessarily have to group up with players (solo play is, at least early on, perfectly viable for the most part), but you will certainly see other players as you continue your adventure. You’ll see them in towns, out in the world, and you’ll sometimes even “accidentally” participate with them during special world events you encounter. Diablo 4 also features easily accessible clans, world bosses, and even enemies that scale with your character level, which are all things we often see in modern MMOs and pseudo-MMOs like Destiny and The Division. You’ve probably played a game like this in recent years, and you may have even lost quite a few hours to one.
None of that is inherently a bad thing. Diablo has always been fun (even better, for some) with friends, and the idea of Diablo 4 expanding upon those community elements is appealing. A fundamentally satisfying ARPG that you can also experience with others? Diablo Immortal didn’t make that work, but the potential for the best version of that experience is clearly there.
Unfortunately, the potential for Diablo 4 to feature some of the worst aspects of those kinds of games is also there. That’s especially true of the game’s microtransactions. Blizzard has said that they intend for all of Diablo 4‘s microtransactions to be cosmetic only (minus expansions), but that isn’t as reassuring as it should be. Not only do games like Lost Ark (which Diablo 4‘s pseudo-MMOARPG design most closely resembles) aggressively push microtransactions via gameplay but games with cosmetics-only battle passes can still be built around those battle passes in negative ways.
We’re already seeing examples of that negative impact in the Diablo 4 beta. For instance, “the grind” is part of any Diablo game, but it feels a bit different in Diablo 4. Because enemies scale with your current level, you don’t get to feel the benefits of your growth and build quite so often. You don’t get to stomp through lower-level enemies that showcase your progress until you hit a new wall. Instead, you’ve got to keep grinding just to keep up with the challenges around you.
That persistent state of normalcy is made more pronounced by the fact that many enemies, dungeons, and quests can start to feel a little repetitive. Again, that is fairly common in MMOs where many of those gameplay elements are ultimately meant to service community-based endgame objectives and other gated content. While that kind of content is supposed to be a part of the Diablo 4 experience rather than the main show, the nature of progression in the early game raises questions about how true that will be in the long run.
That’s my biggest worry about Diablo 4 at the moment. We don’t know what the Diablo 4 endgame looks like (the beta only lets you explore the first act), but you already get the sense that some of this game’s more repetitive elements are a feature rather than a bug.
Diablo 4 certainly got its hooks into me, but I wasn’t clear where it was leading me. Games like Destiny and Diablo 4 get you on the treadmill with incredibly satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay and constant unlocks, but they keep you there by maintaining the illusion of the carrot in front of you long after you’ve actually caught it. Elements of this title’s early game design suggest that Diablo 4 isn’t a game you’ll return to for hundreds of hours to come because you’ll be hooked on the core experience (much like Diablo 2 was) but rather because the game is designed to be grinded indefinitely long after the returns have diminished.
It’s possible the final version of Diablo 4 will address those concerns. Maybe the core campaign will be substantial enough to invite organic replay value regardless of whether you want to participate in the MMO aspects of the title’s design. That’s cold comfort for those who would rather skip those elements of the game entirely (including the server queues and disconnects that come with them), but with the right updates (and enough of them) Diablo 4 may be able to keep you hooked for reasons that go beyond a short gameplay loop and forms of content that demand multiplayer participation.
It could work, but, to be honest, I really expected Diablo Immortal to be that kind of game and not Diablo 4. I hoped that Diablo 4 would be more like the brilliant Path of Exile, which has kept both PvE and PvP players hooked via substantial (and free) content updates that offer meaningful things to do, significant changes, and new activities that genuinely expand the depth of the game rather than simply offer more of the base experience. You’re meant to grow with that game as you play it rather than simply use updates as an excuse to return to the same gameplay loop once more. At the moment, Diablo 4 feels like it’s leaning a little away from the PoE model and closer to something like the Destiny approach.
It would be disappointing to see the Diablo 4 experience continue to trend in that direction. Recent years have seen too many games exploit what once made Diablo a revolutionary RPG. They use bad loot, pleasant familiarity, artificially inflated difficulties, communal pressures, and facsimiles of proper build systems to exploit that kernel of the core Diablo experience.
Well, Diablo 4 is, so far, a pretty fantastic example of that core experience. It’s an incredibly fun game that showcases a ton of potential in its earliest stages, and it could very well end up being one of the absolute best games of the year. There is a wolf at the heart of this game, and there is some hope that it is indeed just wearing a Destiny design cosmetic to reach a new and wider audience.
However, as we draw closer to Diablo 4‘s June 6th release date, I can’t help but wonder if Blizzard will succumb to the temptation of making that Destiny or Lost Ark killer so many other studios have tried and failed to make when they could have made the absolute best version of Diablo 4 and risen above the live service industry that has helped corrupt so many of the things that once made this franchise special. I understand why Diablo 4 would present itself as that kind of game at a time when so many games are becoming that kind of game (or even incorporate some of the best parts of those kinds of titles), but I hope it doesn’t masquerade itself for so long that it costs the franchise its identity.