Once again, Hell has come to Sanctuary. In the gap created by players utterly destroying the forces of Hell and Heaven in previous Diablo games, comes a new foe. Lilith, the Daughter of Hatred, Spawn of Mephisto, and Creator of Sanctuary has broken free from her prison. It’s up to you, the Traveler, to face off against Lilith and a host of beasts, undead, and magical foes.
You’re not going to be alone though. Diablo has learned from its sister title, World of Warcraft, pulling players into something that’s oddly close to a massively-multiplayer online game. Diablo III was always-online in its original PC release, and Diablo IV carries that idea forward. More importantly, other players will populate the world of Sanctuary, flowing around and through your own exploits.
It’s an odd addition. While playing an early demo of Diablo IV, I found myself in the first hub city of Kyovashad. While I was wandering around, I ran into a character named Rae. At first I assumed this was a named NPC, only to find none of the normal NPC interactions worked. No, this was in fact another player in the demo, camped out while likely scrolling through their inventory or checking their quest journal. That required a small adjustment on my part.
Diablo has always been multiplayer-centric, but only in the context of friends or public matchmaking. Diablo IV wants to bring more players together, so that you see players milling around hub cities or jumping in to help you with a random World Event. If that sounds familiar to World of Warcraft fans, that’s because it is. If you’re already forcing players to be always-online, providing something resembling a living world is at least a benefit.
A Dark and Stormy Night
From the moment Diablo IV kicks off, it’s clear that the team at Blizzard is more consciously telling a story. The already-released opening cinematic shows the freeing of Lilith, which is quickly followed by character creation. First, you can choose one of the five classes in the game: Barbarian, Rogue, Sorcerer, Necromancer, or Druid. Of the five, only the first three were available in this early build. (No Paladin or Crusader! BOO!)
I chose the Sorcerer, because I’m normally a melee-focused Diablo player, so I thought I should play against type. Then you can design your character from preset templates; I ended up with what could best be described as “Black Namor”. Then you choose one of two starting World Tiers, which affects general enemy difficulty and drops. World Tier II, baby!
From there, the game jumps to an in-engine cutscene of the Wanderer, your character, trekking through the frozen wilds on their horse. When the horse bolts, you continue your journey on foot, trying to find shelter from the storm. Even the single torch you have goes out. You start Diablo IV on the back foot, a lost adventurer up against forces you barely comprehend with only a single dagger to your name.
Diablo IV is more cinematic in its aspirations. The familiar isometric viewpoint covered most of my gameplay, but Blizzard isn’t afraid to switch viewpoints to deliver the fear and despair of this world. There’s more voice acting, even from your character, and more dialogue interactions with non-player characters. After fighting a few Wargs, I eventually came upon a lonely border town of lost souls who fear the evil stirring in the ruins to the north. And here the adventure truly begins.
Diablo IV is immediately gorgeous. The sparse grass wavers in cold winds, and shadows flee from the warm hearth in the town tavern. The cold light of the ruins bounces off of stagnant puddles of water and splintered wood. Blizzard was aiming for a more grounded look based on gothic fantasy artwork and they’ve largely succeeded. The color palette is a bit more muted than I’d like compared to Diablo III or Path of Exile, landing closer to Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer or the work of Gerald Brom. (The latter did the covers for Diablo II and Diablo III.)
I did have one problem with the general art direction of Diablo IV though. The new art is so cohesive that it’s sometimes hard to tell where you can interact with. I ended up in a dungeon room that required me to turn two levers and it took me a few minutes to find them. A button to highlight interactable or destructible objects would be keen.
Forge Your Future
Finishing your first quest brings you to Level 2 and finally allows you to select your first ability on Diablo IV’s new skill trees. The developers want players to have a bit more flexibility in finding a direction for your class. Abilities come in tiers on the skill tree; each tier has multiple abilities to choose from and sinking more skill points into the tree unlocks further tiers.
The first tier of Sorcerer offers your basic starting attacks: Frost Bolt, Fire Bolt, Spark, and Arc Lash. The first three are various flavors of elemental bolt, while the last one is a melee-range sweeping attack that stuns every tenth hit. “When you make that choice, we consider it a promise, a contract with the player. ‘Hey, you’re going to do awesome stuff.’ The kinds of things you’d expect to do,” says Diablo IV lead class designer Adam Jackson.
You can sink up to five points in each ability, which opens up an upgrade option. After that, there’s also a branching upgrade, of which you can only pick one. For my first chosen ability, Arc Lash, the branching upgrades were Glinting Arc Lash, which reduces all cooldowns for hitting Stunned enemies, and Flickering Arc Lash, which imparts a movement speed bonus for every enemy hit.
This concept extends all the way across the skill tree and to nearly every ability, giving you a ton of flexibility in determining what your build looks like. My Sorcerer near the end of my playtime with the build was largely melee-focused, using Arc Lash to deal most of my damage, Chain Lightning to soften up groups, Flame Shield for protection and damage, and Meteor for heavy damage. I could just as easily have stayed with a ranged focus, or leaned heavily into Frost or Fire for my damage. The build options sprang forth fully formed as I played.
With this greater flexibility, my mind did go to the question of balance. “I’ll preface this by saying that perfect balance is one of those things that you always try to approach, but never quite completely achieve,” says Jackson. “Within a class, you’ll probably have noticed that there’s many different ways to build. Our goal within the class is that those ways to play that we sell you on, those fantasies when you first log in, are supported and feel relatively equal to one another.”
“As far as the very, very top level of play,” he adds. “We do expect there will be some discrepancies, but one of the things that we’re really excited about with Diablo IV is that this is a game that we plan to support for a very long time. So we do intend, with seasonal updates and so on, to constantly be re-evaluating classes and builds. Your meta will be changing over time.”
At launch, Jackson says that balance changes will be focused on PvE. There will be an area for PVP battles, but the team wants to wait and see what builds and metas result of that open play. “Then we plan to look at that and make this a base that we can build from,” he explains.
Respecting Your Time
Given the stronger online focus, Diablo IV is also very keen at providing different levels of engagement with the world of Sanctuary. This stretches from content like Cellars, which can be completed in mere minutes, to Side Quests and World Events, which will take 10-15 minutes of your time. At the top end of things you can tackle, there are Primary Quests, Dungeons, and Strongholds, which can take much longer to finish. The idea is that players new and old can jump into Diablo IV and decide how much time and effort they want to give to it.
This cornucopia is made of different types of content, some bespoke, some procedurally-generated. The team is trying to make sure that generated content makes sense in Sanctuary, however. “The overworld is a fixed land mass that we fill with procedural content pieces,” says associate game director Joseph Piepiora. “Then we have our dungeon content, which also involves a lot of procedural content generation as part of that. It’s one thing to create potentially-generated content and randomized content. It’s another to try to also give it a personality that feels like you can ascribe a place to it. I think that we did the most in terms of trying to create more identity within our dungeon spaces and that was where a lot more of our time was spent there.”
Strongholds are a new addition that stems from the shared world. These regions can be taken from the enemy, opening up a new hub for you to rest and repair at. “They used to be previously called Camps. Now we refer to them as Strongholds,” said Diablo IV producer Ash Sweetring during a group interview. “Once the camp is liberated, you will forever have claim to that portion of the map. That opens up new potential dungeons, new quests. That’s another location that players will be able to use for waypoints or vendors.”
Strongholds are set to specific levels and are more specifically designed areas for Diablo IV. Players have a wide range of things to do around Sanctuary at any one moment.
There are additional bits and bobs to keep you feeling like you’re progressing through the game. First, there’s Renown, which is gained by exploring each region. Each region has five Renown tiers—offering gold, Skill Points, Potion Charges, and Paragon Points (Level 50) — and a checklist of waypoints, side dungeons, quests, and strongholds. (Worry not, all of the dungeons and strongholds will repopulate and reconfigure if you want to tackle them again.) There are also smaller rewards like Challenges: killing a lot of specific types of enemies or collecting certain resources will reward you with titles, similar to achievements in Diablo III and WoW.
Quality of Death Changes
Blizzard is aiming to bring new players into Diablo IV, so there are a number of system changes in the latest entry. A key change is Health Potions, which splits the difference between Diablo III’s Health Globes and the older consumable items. Enemies still drop red globes like Diablo III, but each globe adds a Potion Charge. You begin with five.
Using a Potion Charge causes your health to fill slowly over time, so you don’t get an immediate benefit. This means you want to heal early and you should remain aggressive to get more Potion Charges to drop from enemies. It’s slightly different from chugging potions in Diablo and Diablo II, but it’s savable unlike the health globes of Diablo III.
Every player also now has access to Evade, a dodge move. This means even my lowly, erudite Sorcerer can briefly dodge away from an attack. (On PC, this was bound to the Space bar.) Evade has a single charge and then a short five second cooldown, so you can’t just spam it to survive.
“This was a pretty big feature that we added to the game,” says Jackson. “We wanted to be able to threaten players. We can’t always guarantee that every single player is going to have any type of immunity, or any type of movement, or mobility or whatever.”
“So we decided early on that we wanted to add this generic Evade button that every single class has access to,” he explains. “What that does is it lets us add monsters and encounters that threaten the player, that we can universally expect the player to have a response to. Without that button, we can’t guarantee that every Sorcerer is going to have Teleport, for example. When everybody has a button like this or an ability like this, we can sort of set up the world to be a little bit more dangerous and expect the players to have that be something that they master over time.”
My favorite new addition is another concept stolen from World of Warcraft: Diablo IV has a full visual transmogrification system. As you gain gear drops, you can Salvage them at any town Blacksmith. This gives you resources like Iron Chunk, Silver Ore, Rawhide, and Veiled Crystal, which are used to upgrade other items. Salvaging an item also adds the visual component to your wardrobe. Traveling to the wardrobe allows you to choose a look from all your acquired transmogs and available dyes.
It’s a frankly wonderful system in terms of character customization. Sadly, you have to Salvage gear in order to gain the appearance, meaning if you find a really cool piece of gear one of your other characters can use, you can’t gain that appearance just yet. When I asked about the possibility of collecting the appearance without Salvaging, the team said that’s not an available option yet, but they’ll take the feedback into consideration.
I walked away from Diablo IV wanting to play more Diablo IV. This early playable build came in the middle of a number of other releases I was excited for, including World of Warcraft: Dragonflight, Need For Speed: Unbound, and Midnight Suns. Despite all that, I found myself drawn to giving Diablo IV just one more minute, then one more hour, and upward. After the personal disappointment in Diablo Immortal, it’ll be good to dive back into proper, full-fat Diablo once again. And with the new shared world, maybe make some new friends in the process.