Diablo 4’s Biggest Lingering Problems Have Ruined Its Promising Launch

Diablo 4 may already be a best-selling blockbuster, but cracks in the game's foundation raise serious questions about where the live service title goes from here.

Diablo 4 Nightmare
Photo: Activision Blizzard

Less than a month ago, Diablo 4 launched to fairly widespread critical acclaim and instant commercial success. Though complaints and criticisms about the game have been flying freely since Diablo 4‘s betas, the general consensus was that Diablo 4 got off to a pretty great start and likely had nowhere to go but up from there.

Over the last few weeks, though, the public perception of Diablo 4 has shifted dramatically. Even once-adamant fans of the core experience have begun to openly and enthusiastically criticize the game. Is this a case of familiarity breeding contempt over the course of 100s (if not more) hours of gameplay? In some instances, it almost certainly is. However, when you get down to it, the truth is that more and more people are realizing that Diablo 4 currently suffers from these fundamental issues that have yet to be addressed (and have often been exasperated) by the game’s numerous post-launch updates.

The Wrong Class Nerfs (and Weak Class Buffs)

Properly balancing any game is a complicated process. From a user standpoint, though, balance updates are usually boiled down to buffs and nerfs. Buffs are implemented to give underperforming aspects of the game a boost, while nerfs are implemented to weaken overperforming elements (or simply fix things that are broken). While Diablo 4‘s numerous updates have been filled with various class-based buffs and nerfs, many of the game’s most significant balance updates so far have largely addressed glaring issues rather than significantly enhanced the enjoyability of the experience.

Consider the Barbarian class. Early on, Diablo 4 players discovered the Whirlwind Barbarian builds were not only incredibly powerful but significantly more powerful than most other Barbarian builds. So, the Diablo 4 team decided to nerf the skills and gear that the build relied on. What happened? Well, Whirlwind Barbarians were less effective and enjoyable, but they remained a top overall option for the class. The nerfs weren’t enough to kill the archetype, and other archetypes (such as Walking Arsenal Barbarian) weren’t buffed enough to offer a viable alternative. Too much focus was put on the emergence of a particular build rather than the overall health of the class.

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Other classes have suffered from a similar issue in slightly different ways. For instance, Sorcerers (who were once the most popular class in the game) had a couple of overturned skills that allowed them to overperform in the early parts of Diablo 4. Those skills were soon nerfed, which sounds nice until you realize that many players were only using those skills in the first place because the rest of the class’ abilities were underperforming. Similarly, one of Necromancer’s main abilities (Corpse Explosion) was nerfed during Diablo 4‘s beta period, but little consideration was given to the rest of the class at that time. Rather than recognizing that the overreliance on Corpse Explosion was a symptom of a larger problem with the rest of the class’ design/abilities, the team simply cut the offending element out and left Necromancer fans to consider inherently lesser options.

Game balancing is a complicated and ever-evolving process that is always easier to critique than to implement. However, what we’ve consistently seen from Diablo 4 so far are disproportionate reactions to overperforming builds rather than updates that take the entirety of a class’ health, viability, and…well, fun factor into consideration. That approach has led us to the next major problem with the game.

Surprisingly Boring Endgame Builds

The “endgame” of an ARPG is supposed to be the payoff to all of the effort you put into the game up until that point. Remember when you would struggle to kill small packs of enemies without using all of your cooldowns and most of your health potions? Rejoice as you suddenly tear through bosses as if they were a Level 1 squirrel.

In theory, Diablo 4 offers a version of that intended experience. In practice, though, that experience is hindered by the presence of too many builds that are best described as “boring.”

In some ways, this is another one of those issues that you can attribute to the balance problems mentioned above. A lack of overall class health means a lack of true build diversity. Every class in the game right now has a few skills that most players will never touch simply because they are woefully underpowered compared to the alternatives. For as long as those skills remain ineffective, entire builds that would depend on them (or even utilize them) will also remain ineffective.

However, the real issue with the current crop of Diablo 4‘s endgame builds is that they’re not very fun to play. Again, there are a few overarching design issues that contribute to that problem. Useless Basic abilities, an overreliance on defensive skills, too many cooldowns, etc. When you get down to it, though, the real issue is that there are too many endgame builds at the moment that feel like more powerful versions of the builds you were already running up until that point. You can only cast Frost Nova, Whirlwind, Death Trap, or Corpse Explosion so many times from level 1-100 before you start to feel the need to do absolutely anything else. Unfortunately, that’s when you’ll likely find that alternative builds are significantly weaker, similarly repetitive, or, at worse, a bit of both.

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To be fair, I actually think that Diablo 4‘s Druid class does offer a few late-game build options that are enjoyable, creative, and not necessarily accessible to you in the early parts of the game. It’s not perfect, but it shows that better options within the constraints of the current system are possible. For the most part, though, too many classes rely on too many shared skills for far too long.

Diablo 4’s Loot Isn’t Nearly As Exciting As It Should Be

Though some “looter” games feature better loot systems than others, largely useless loot kind of comes with the genre territory. That’s why many such games feature mechanics that allow you to scrap those items and eventually turn them into more valuable resources. It’s an acceptable (if occasionally annoying) part of the genre.

The problem with Diablo 4‘s loot isn’t necessarily the many useless pieces of loot that you’ll acquire along the way. No, the problem with Diablo 4‘s loot is that you’ll reach a point in the game where too few pieces of gear feel genuinely exciting.

The game’s stat distribution system is probably the biggest contributor to this problem. In theory, it’s nice that the game offers such a wide variety of damage modifiers and stat enhancements. Various types of builds could rely on those modifiers (and combinations of modifiers) to enable new strategies. In practice, too many classes end up relying on the same stat enhancements (most notably, Vulnerable Damage and Critical Strike Damage/Chance).

It would be one thing to be able to easily trash most of your endgame loot and convert all that gear into useful crafting materials. Instead, Diablo 4‘s wide range of possible loot rolls means you must constantly consider which piece of rather unexciting, partially good gear is more valuable than the other piece of rather unexciting, partially good gear. Truly perfect loot rolls are incredibly rare, and your limited ability to enhance or modify existing gear hinders your already limited control over that aspect of your character’s build.

However, my biggest problem with Diablo 4‘s loot is actually the game’s collection of Unique and Legendary items. The theoretically most valuable pieces of gear in the game should feel so much more exciting than they currently do. Legendary gear (and the Aspects they yield) clog your inventory much sooner than they should, and Unique items rarely offer the “build defining” abilities their descriptions promise. A Unique sword called Fields of Crimson should do more than offer a relatively weak damage buff to a generally useless skill. It’s nice that such items are getting statistical buffs in an upcoming patch, but we’re quibbling over damage percentages when the real issue is that few of these items feel genuinely exciting to discover and use simply because their core designs don’t open up new ways to look at the game.

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Diablo 4’s World Tier 4 Experience Feels Like It’s Missing Significant Pieces of Content

I actually enjoyed Diablo 4‘s campaign content. It wasn’t perfect, but the story was interesting, and reaching each new level from 1-50 typically felt pretty significant. Once you unlock World Tier 3 after beating the campaign (or reaching level 50-ish), you’ll also unlock new content such as Helltide events, Nightmare Dungeons, fresh gear, and Paragon points. Again, those systems aren’t perfect, but they do feel fresh when you unlock/uncover them.

However, from about level 70 to 100, Diablo 4 feels shockingly uninspired. The game’s final difficulty level (World Tier 4) has very little to offer besides tougher monsters, a few new pieces of gear, and an XP buff. Much of the core content (dungeons, Helltide areas, etc.) remain pretty much the same as they ever were. Even if some of that new loot was more exciting (which, as noted above, it typically isn’t), you’d still be left running most of the same basic content during what is already the “slowest” leveling part of the game.

Some will argue that reaching this part of the Diablo 4 experience means that you’ve already gotten dozens of hours of entertainment out of the game, which is typically an impressive metric in terms of entertainment value. That’s certainly true. However, that World Tier 4 content is still part of the game, and right now, it simply doesn’t have anything most substantial to offer than the feeling that your desire to continue playing the game at that point is being exploited.

Diablo 4’s Shared World/MMO Elements Might As Well Not Exist At This Point

Some weren’t happy to learn that Diablo 4 would support the kind of shared-world gameplay elements typically seen outside of MMOs. However, I actually think that things like World Bosses and being able to participate in certain events with other players actually enhances the core Diablo experience. The problem is that Diablo 4 doesn’t do nearly enough with that aspect of the game.

This is a problem of both quantity and quality of the shared world content. Remove the “thrill” of seeing other players out in the world or in towns, and you’ll soon realize that Diablo 4‘s shared world doesn’t offer much for you to actually share unless you form a party with friends. A few World Boss fights a day, some events that can typically be cleared just as easily by yourself, and…well, that’s about it. At the moment, the most significant piece of shared content in Diablo 4 are the “Helltide Events,” and those only feel significant because they organically encourage players to share a relatively small part of the map for a brief period of time. Even then, you can fairly easily complete them without ever having to interact with anyone.

That seems to be the fundamental problem with this entire system. On some level, it feels like the Diablo 4 team is worried about emphasizing this aspect of the game out of fear that it will alienate those who do not wish to participate in it. I understand that fear, but much like the game’s World Tier 4 content (or lack thereof), it results in a theoretically large part of the intended experience that simply has so little to offer for those who are interested in it.

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Unfortunately, that problem is quickly spreading to another key aspect of the game…

Diablo 4’s Seasonal Update Model is Fundamentally Flawed

Diablo 4‘s first season of content has only been available for a couple of weeks, and it’s widely considered to be a disappointment. While much of that disappointment stems from a seasonal balance update that slowed the game down to a painful crawl, it should be noted that the new seasonal content itself is also largely underwhelming.

The new Malignant Hearts that are supposed to encourage “broken” new builds instead largely exist to enhance existing playstyles. Too many of the new Legendary Aspects are too easily ignored, as are the new Unique items (which again fail to encourage you to explore new strategies). Even the new Battle Pass feels woefully uninspired. Again, I get not wanting to make people feel like they need to spend money on the Battle Pass, but filling most of the free and premium tiers of the Battle Pass with largely forgettable cosmetic items kind of makes you wonder why the whole thing even exists in the first place.

While future Diablo 4 seasons can certainly improve upon this one, the fact of the matter is that we’re largely stuck with this season for at least the next couple of months. Maybe that’s why the Path of Exile team recently said that they believe seasonal update models are inherently flawed. They mentioned that they once had to take a hard look at their own use of that update model, and I can see why. Regularly constructing worthwhile seasons of content is not only incredibly difficult but being locked into a season for this long (especially a disappointing one) can end up creating more work and more frustrations in the long run.

Ultimately, I feel like that sums up the entire Diablo 4 experience at the moment. In theory, many of the game’s biggest problems are fixable over a long enough period of time. However, fixing some of these issues will require updates more substantial than the ones that we’ve seen so far as well as the team’s willingness to also take a hard look at some fundamental concepts Diablo 4 is built upon. We can always play other games until all of that (hopefully) eventually happens, but it’s hard for players to not take a hard look at the game themselves and see something that should really be at a much better place than it currently is.