The Diablo 4 beta has come and gone, and after spending two weekends with Blizzard’s upcoming RPG, I wish there was still more time to experiment and explore. If you’ve played Diablo 2 Remastered or Diablo 3, much of Diablo 4 will seem familiar from the start. It doesn’t take many risks, at least in its first chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. The action and storytelling are – mostly – refined to such a degree that, despite having no innovative hook at this early stage, it’s still a devilishly good time.
Lilith, daughter of one of Diablo 2’s big bads, arrives in Sanctuary thanks to the unwitting efforts of some unfortunate treasure hunters and a disturbing, yet captivating spectacle of blood and sacrifice. She helped create Sanctuary in the distant past as a haven for humans caught in the struggle between angels and demons.
Now she’s back to claim the people she regards as her children – but she’s not alone. A rogue angel worshipped as a savior has similar aims, setting Sanctuary, and you, on a path toward supernatural war and destruction. The cutscenes these narrative nuggets unfold in look absolutely incredible too and showcase a more sophisticated approach to cinematography than usual. Sure, that’s to be expected in 2023, years after the last Diablo game, but it’s still exciting to see.
The world of Sanctuary itself is a bit less compelling. Diablo 4 looks beautiful in a grim, haunting way, and the crude dwellings and harsh conditions underscore how brutal the world is. However, it’s difficult to get a sense of personality in the people and places, most of which seem to exist just to push the story along or give you a quest. As ever, what happens in Diablo is more interesting than the people it happens to, though if the first chapter is anything to go by, the plot this time is heading to some interesting places.
The idea of angels and demons waging war against each other is fairly standard Diablo storytelling, but there are hints at something more ambitious than usual. One early scene sees Lilith visit a village church, use the worshippers’ insecurities to influence them, and have them take their frustrations out by murdering the local priest. A story that centers on two powers who see themselves above the law, exploiting people’s fears and prejudices to achieve their own goals, is surprisingly on the nose for Diablo and Blizzard, and I’m eager to see how the rest of it unfolds in the full game.
Less surprising, but still satisfying, is how Diablo 4’s classes work. Blizzard added a blend of familiar and new classes, with plenty of time and space to see how their kits function and enough new skills to keep the returning classes feeling fresh. Sorcerers, for example, still have Frozen Orb and Hydra, but with new passive enhancements that lend themselves to greater specialization, not to mention a selection of even more powerful spells further down their skill tree.
Some of the classes feel less well optimized than others, such as the Druid. It only comes into its own at higher skill tiers, and even then, most of its abilities feel unnecessary. Still, Blizzard already promised to alter the Barbarian before the game's full launch, and it’s possible more skill points available to use in the full game will mean more interesting builds as well.
The downside even with more interesting classes is that Fractured Peaks isn’t the most exciting setting to unleash these powers in. It’s a vast, killing field full of weak enemies, with few points of interest, no puzzles, and roughly two dozen dungeons structured in the same, empty fashion. You’ll occasionally pick up a side quest that sends you after a tougher enemy or encounter difficult challenges in far-flung corners of the map, but this part of Diablo 4 feels a bit too familiar. Over a decade after Diablo 3 released, I was hoping Diablo 4 might have a more innovative introduction.
Still, this is just the first zone in what looks to be a massive RPG with plenty of PvE and, eventually, PvP potential. We won’t have to wait much longer to see how Diablo 4 unfolds across its other zones. The full game launches for PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC on June 6, 2023.
This preview was written from PC private beta access provided by the publisher, and public beta access open to everyone. Diablo 4 will be available on June 6, 2023.
Josh Broadwell posted a new article, Diablo 4 is shaping up to be an exciting, if slightly familiar trip through hell