My first few hours in the final build of Diablo 4 were awfully familiar, which was unsurprising. This marked the third time I played through Fractured Peaks in just two months, after all. Despite the sameness, even down to my choice of sorcerer yet again, I still enjoyed zapping hordes of demons and frost orb-ing my way through the bleak countryside. That feeling stayed with me throughout the rest of Sanctuary. Most of what I did and saw was a bit too familiar, but Diablo 4 executes pretty much everything so well that it’s hard to complain.
An old story with a fresh twist
Lilith, the daughter of hatred – hatred here being Mephisto from Diablo 2 – is back in Sanctuary, the land she helped create, and she’s causing trouble. By trouble, I mean “turning people against each other, inciting murder, and spreading chaos everywhere.” Inarius, Sanctuary’s co-creator and an angel of light, gathers his forces to fight Lilith in an epic battle, and all this plays out against a wider backdrop of an even bigger celestial conflict between heaven and hell.
In the middle of this cosmic mess is the human population, which is faring about as well as you’d expect: horribly. Diablo 4 drops your character into a key role thanks to some gruesome early-game events and uses your unique perspective as an outsider with close ties to Lilith as a way of gradually peeling back the layers of secrets surrounding Sanctuary’s creators.
The story is essentially a variation on themes we’ve seen before: good versus evil, where good is hardly immaculate, and evil isn’t always so bad. The pursuit of knowledge and freedom clash violently with faith, ideals, and obedience. Neither side is fully right, and innocents will inevitably get hurt no matter what happens
The tale might seem a touch too familiar – even more so if you watched HBO’s recent adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. However, the way it slowly tells both sides of the story and gives you a chance to explore between the lines into the human struggle makes it feel fresh and immersive nontheless.
Diablo 4 is ostensibly about this heavenly war, but the human tragedies that play out on the side are what stood out for me, often with greater impact than the main narrative itself. Take the first act, for example. Roughly halfway through, you team up with a woman whose mother gives herself to darkness in the pursuit of knowledge. That’s dark, but it plays out in a slightly melodramatic fashion that makes it difficult to feel too attached to the characters or situation – unless you explored some of the world around Kyovashad before entering Lilith’s temple.
Diablo 4’s sanctuary is a broken, twisted mess, and it isn’t the demons or forces of darkness who made it that way. Understanding why things are the way they are is an important part of understanding the main story and a key later choice, and I’d have liked to see these explorations into the politics and society of Sanctuary take a broader role in the main campaign instead of being relegated to the side.
As for the protagonist themselves, I’m a bit mixed. Blizzard touted Diablo 4 as the first time you can really see your player character in cutscenes, with all their quirks, costumes, and customizations intact. While it does establish a stronger connection, the protagonist remains a bit bland and uninteresting. It’s a good step in the right direction, but if Blizzard wants a stronger role for the player character, then that character should actually have a role to play in the world, something that changes the fates of those they meet or has some kind of lasting effect.
Brave new world
Another first in Diablo 4 is the series’ first open-world map. Sanctuary is large, and you eventually reach a point where you can postpone one act and go pursue quests elsewhere if you want – and if your level is high enough. Outside of questing, the would doesn’t necessarily do much with its size. There aren’t many practical rewards for exploring every inch of the world. After a dozen hours or so of filling out the map, all the mid-level pairs of pants, gloves, and boots you find tucked away in tree trucks and other crannies start blending together.
What there is, however, is the reward of seeing just how much care and attention went into creating a believable, darkly beautiful world. After Fractured Peaks and the beta, you might expect the variations of dark fantasy to eventually grow stale. There’s only so much you can do with bleak and grim as your main style motifs, after all. And you’d be wrong. Blizzard’s art team did an exceptional job of imbuing Sanctuary with detail and nuance. Flashes of natural beauty peek through defiled landscapes, grand cathedrals tower over impoverished hovels, and the further you progress in the story, the more rotten the landscape gradually becomes.
Except dungeons, which are always dank and grueling - and not always because of their visuals. They’re a bit too long for their own good, and I often found myself dreading going inside, even if the rewards made it worthwhile. These are definitely better to tackle with friends so you can clear them more quickly.
Cellars – Diablo 4’s mini-dungeons – seem a bit unnecessary at best and are downright redundant if you end up in one that has low-grade gear and no events, something that happens with unfortunate regularity.
Strongholds are easily the best new addition to the formula. These complex dungeons are visually interesting and use their settings in more exciting ways than dungeons. You might fight in the cramped streets of a small town during one stronghold raid, while another throws you in an open courtyard with enemies swarming on all sides. The rewards aren’t just good gear, either. You establish a new settlement, complete with fast travel point and some new changes to how the stronghold looks. It sounds small, but in a series where your actions rarely affect the world around you, it’s a welcome change.
The only downside is that clearing strongholds alone is, if not impossible, much more difficult than tackling other side content by yourself, even with a good class build.
Hello sorcerer, my old friend
Speaking of builds, classes feel a bit better balanced compared to how they were during the beta, though there’s still a noticeable gulf between the best ones – sorcerer and necromancer – and the ones that still need a bit of help, such as the druid. I’m sure post-launch patches will continue making each class viable, though, and it’s easier to overlook their shortcomings now that the skill cap goes beyond level 28. Even the wonky druid and their less-than-impressive animal skills have enough variety that they can take on difficult bosses alone.
Blizzard situated Diablo 4 in a position that should be awkward – an online game you can play alone, but one the creators really want you to play with others. It’s a credit to the class design team that, despite existing in such a difficult place, each class works perfectly well for solo and team play, even if they are perhaps not as inventive as you might have hoped from a new Diablo.
Effective as each class is, they’re almost all familiar versions of recognizable classes from earlier Diablo games. Sure, there are enough tweaks to each where you can’t get by with the exact build you used in Diablo 2, but playing sorcerer again was a familiar process instead something new and exciting I had to learn on the fly.
Still, there’s a reason “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” became an adage. Diablo 4 plays brilliantly, and I opted for familiar builds for a reason – they’re fun and effective. That said, I would like to see something more daring in the future, whether that’s a class with a distinct defensive or support role or even just another offense-oriented class that isn’t a corpse-exploding necromancer or whirling barbarian again.
This review is based on a digital PC copy of Diablo 4 supplied by the publisher. Diablo 4 releases for PC, PS4 and PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S on June 6, 2023.
- Excellent world design
- Refines the Diablo formula
- Strong world building and narrative threads
- Well-balanced range of classes
- Strongholds are an exciting new addition
- It's basically the same Diablo structure as the last two mainline games
- Important narrative context is hidden in side content
- Bland protagonist