Diablo 4 Makes the Most Out of Low Expectations

Diablo 4 may be the best Diablo game ever, but it's currently being defined by the tragically low expectations surrounding it.

Diablo 4
Photo: Activision Blizzard

In 2019, Blizzard unveiled Diablo 4 to a surprisingly mixed reception. What should have been one of the biggest announcements in BlizzCon history was viewed through rolled eyes by franchise fans who were still seething over the reveal of Diablo Immortal at the previous year’s show. Well, the disappointment surrounding Diablo 4 hasn’t really gone anywhere since then. It’s just become a lot more complicated. 

A lot has happened since Diablo 4’s reveal. In 2020, Blizzard released Warcraft 3 Reforged: arguably the most reviled game in the company’s history up until that point. In 2021, Blizzard was rocked by an ongoing lawsuit that detailed the company’s alleged history of employee abuse and harassment. In 2022, the release version of Diablo Immortal shocked even the cynics with its aggressive and expensive microtransaction systems that soon defined the game. 

These incidents, along with various other missteps and controversies surrounding the company and its works, have all directly or indirectly impacted the release of Diablo 4 in some way. You start to see the effect of those incidents in the game’s current Metacritic scores (87 Critics/5.5 Users at this time). While that may seem like an extreme gap, but it’s not quite the divide it may appear to be. 

After all, some of the positive critic reviews and many of the negative user reviews ultimately arrive at the same conclusion. It’s just kind of hard to trust Diablo 4 given the state of both Activision Blizzard and the game’s live service design which already offers wildly expensive (though entirely cosmetic) in-game purchase options. In that sense, Diablo 4 also carries the weight of the entire game-as-a-service concept and all of the negative associations many have with that concept.

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Yet, for all the ways that those controversies and disappointments have negatively impacted Diablo 4, my many, many (too many) hours with the game have made one thing strangely clear. Diablo 4 is actually making the most of its lowered expectations in some surprising ways. 

I can easily argue that Diablo 4 is a truly great game in many of the ways that matter most. Its core gameplay is unbelievably satisfying, its soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard in years, and its visual design is surprisingly good for an isometric ARPG. You can just play through its campaign and get a fantastic 30-hour-ish role-playing game out of the experience. 

However, you probably won’t stop there, and that’s what matters most. Diablo 4 is a great game, but Diablo 4 is a truly exceptional live-service game. It offers about a hundred hours of content for most people pushing toward Level 100, and that’s a conservative estimate. Of course, that’s to say nothing of the eventual temptation to level multiple characters, participate in PvP battles, or dive into the game’s Hardcore mode. That estimate also doesn’t account for the various updates and expansions that have yet to be released.

And for as much as people have fretted over Diablo 4’s in-game purchase options, they are more egregious in theory than they are in practice. Yes, it’s absurd that a premium character outfit can cost as much as $20 in a game that costs (at the very least) $70. However, you’re barely going to be able to see that outfit as you’re playing the game, so it’s likely not going to be a big draw to the majority of people. Besides, the game already offers an extensive transmog system that offers numerous customizable outfits that often look better than their premium counterparts. While the game’s Battle Pass hasn’t been implemented at the time of this writing, I have to say that it’s so refreshing to play a live service game where the microtransactions are not only easily ignored but remarkably unintrusive. 

That’s the thing about praising Diablo 4’s live service elements, though. So much of the praise I have for that element of the game is based on comparing it to the live service games that have given that concept a bad name. Unlike GTA Online, you can play Diablo 4 by yourself without spending money and never feel like you’re missing out on a significant part of the experience. Unlike Destiny 2, Diablo 4’s loot, build, and endgame systems feel designed to appease those looking for genuine depth rather than to offer an excuse to remain trapped in a simple, yet satisfying, gameplay loop. Unlike Halo Infinite, you don’t feel like everything you do in Diablo 4 simply exists to service a premium progression mechanic that you’re told doesn’t technically affect the gameplay. 

It’s a curious and complicated dynamic. Diablo 4’s live service elements only reach great heights because we’re measuring them with the low bar set by Blizzard, Diablo, and pretty much every other live service game in recent years. Even then, Diablo 4’s live service elements will instantly remind many of the practices that have corrupted the gaming industry over the years. For that matter, it’s hard to fault those who simply either refuse to trust an Activision Blizzard game to not be greedy or otherwise are not willing to forgive Blizzard for everything else that has happened. In their minds, supporting Diablo 4 means supporting all of that. 

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Yet, there is the other side of this whole thing. In a world where live service games are not going anywhere anytime soon, Diablo 4 often represents the very best version of that idea we’ve seen in way too long. It’s a substantial and lovingly well-crafted title that feels complete at launch despite the fact that there is so much more to come. It offers opportunities to spend additional money, but those opportunities are so ridiculous that they almost feel like a joke aimed at those who would actually consider purchasing them.

Most importantly, Diablo 4 hooks you with its core elements and not the idea that you’re playing something that will live up to its potential eventually. Diablo 4 offers one of the most addictive and substantial gaming experiences of the year to those who don’t invest more into it than the cost of the game and whatever time they’re willing to spare. Value and art often feel like competing concepts, but Diablo 4 often benefits from the best of both.

The game isn’t perfect, but so many of Diablo 4’s more notable design shortcomings and faults (itemization issues, class balance, a lack of in-game information, and missing social features) can easily be fixed with future updates. Besides, many of those issues will only be noticed in Diablo 4’s earliest days by those who have been playing the game non-stop since its release. Of course, they were clearly compelled enough by the core experience to play it nearly non-stop for the last week before they reached their (valid and necessary) criticisms. 

Of course, that is the promise (and the eventual lie) the entire live service concept was built upon. What if there was a game that didn’t need to be updated for the foreseeable future because of problems and missing features but rather because you simply always wanted more of it? What if you could pay for a game and eventually measure its playtime not in hours but in months and years? What if your favorite game only continued to get better?

The idea of a studio being forced to forever update a franchise cornerstone rather than pursue new ideas was always slightly terrifying, but the corruption of the entire “games-as-a-service concept” can sooner be traced to the greed and complacency that turned gamers into cash pits and live service games into hoses. It never had to be like that, but that’s how it often is.

For some, live service games are a constant pleasure. For others, they’re a gaping wound in the industry that produces constant pain. For many, though, they have become the ultimate Lament Configuration Box. They’re sources of unlimited pleasure and endless pain that have caused some to question whether those responsible for them are angels or demons. 

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In a better world, Diablo 4’s live service elements wouldn’t define it. If the name on the box didn’t say “Blizzard” and if those microtransactions/future updates weren’t part of the equation, a lot of the negativity that is currently dominating conversations about the game would vanish overnight. We’d instead be able to focus on what a bountiful piece of art Diablo 4 often is. We don’t live in that world, though. We live in a world where the corruption of the games as a service concept can infect and define even the greatest experiences. 

Diablo 4 exceeds both the incredible expectations set by the quality of the previous mainline entries in this franchise and the incredibly low expectations set by its live service nature and the circumstances of its release. It feels hollow to be so grateful for a live service game that doesn’t screw us over as much as it could, and it’s a tragedy that feeling has to go hand-in-hand with what is otherwise a true gaming masterpiece.