Diablo 4 is the smouldering embodiment of the phrase 'high-risk, high-reward'. It's the first game in the series to properly embrace an open-world structure, a design decision that exerts additional pressure on a development team battling the menacing spectre of expectation. The sprawling world of Sanctuary cast in a thick blanket of smog and shadow as Lillith, daughter of Mephisto, mother of Nephalem, adorns the denizens of hell in gothic regalia and sends them on a death march throughout the three kingdoms. You'll face this, and more, on your travels to defeat the maker.
And yet, regardless of whether you are wandering the world with friends or adventuring alone, the greatest threats in Diablo 4 mightn't come from the army of the dead, but from other heroes of Sanctuary. Cohorts that have succumbed to the madness that permeates the Fields of Hatred so freely – cursed lands that play host to the Diablo 4 PvP experience. A perilous challenge awaits all who enter, but as you should know by now when it comes to Diablo: the greater the risk, the greater the stats on the reward.
It's important to understand that Diablo 4's world isn't just open, it's shared. While structured missions and under siege camps scattered across the world may be instanced to only your party, the rest of it is open to the public. However, that doesn't mean that you'll be walking shoulder-to-shoulder with others at all times. Blizzard does, after all, have a brand identity to protect. "The world of Sanctuary is a pretty dark and bleak place, and we want that feeling of isolation to come across," says Joseph Piepiora, lead systems designer on Diablo 4. "We're not building the zones out in such a way that you'll be seeing players as regularly as you might in World of Warcraft… it's okay for you to go your own way and have your own adventure."
"One of the benefits of the open world is that you do have the agency to explore it as you see fit," continues Careena Kingdom, Diablo 4's lead animator, "and that it is an event to come across another player in the open world." Stumbling across another person on your travels through Sanctuary might be a rarity then, but they aren't scenarios that should be feared. You are safe to pass each other, like shadows in the night; perhaps you will join forces, braving the danger together, or sit down to trade stories and loot that you've found in your travels.
But these public areas are just one part of the wider tapestry of Sanctuary. Scattered throughout are zones known as the Fields of Hatred; should you cross the threshold into one of these areas, you'll begin to open yourself up to player versus player encounters. "They are filled with monsters, events, chests to find, and rare elites to kill – all the regular trapping you'd expect to find in the overworld," says Piepiora. "But in these cursed spaces, as the evil of Lilith speaking infests the land, you'll find Shards of Hatred."
Killing enemies, opening chests, and completing world events with other players will grant you unpurified Shards of Hatred – a unique form of currency that can be used to acquire PvP gear, as well as rare cosmetic items. However, to spend the currency, you'll need to cleanse them at an altar first – that's where the fun begins. "When you go to purify the Shards of Hatred into the reward, you are forcibly turned into a hostile character, meaning that someone can come and attack you at that moment," Kingdom teases.
"While you're doing this ritual, other players can come across you. That can create a bit of anxiety in the open world PvP areas. Every player that you see, you don't know if they're going to help you or hurt you,' adds Piepiora. "If somebody is able to kill you, all the unpurified Shards of Hatred that you're carrying are dropped, and then they'll take those off you and move along on their merry way."
Cleansing Shards of Hatred isn't the only way to draw the attention of other players. When you first enter a PvP area, you will be protected from attacks by other players. In fact, it's possible to venture around the Fields of Hatred on your own, or with others completing activities and collecting unpurified shards without being assaulted. Of course, should you be spoiling for a fight, you can open yourself up to antagonisation. "Once you go into a Field of Hatred you are, effectively, prey to other hostile players that might be lingering around, but players need to opt into that system," says Piepiora.
Into the Fields of Hatred
The Fields of Hatred function similarly to Contested Zones on a World of Warcraft PvE server – players can willingly flag themselves as hostile and fight amongst themselves, but are otherwise free to roam without fear. Piepiora wants to make it absolutely clear that there is no way to be tricked into going hostile – with an AOE attack or abandoned trap unwittingly ensnaring another player, for example. Entering into PvP is a choice you make, be it through purifying Shards of Hatred or manually flagging yourself so. "There's no way for another player to incidentally make you hostile by mistake. If that were to arrive in the game on Live, that'd be a bug that we would fix."
The act of manually flagging yourself as hostile means that you are open to attacks from any and all players in the vicinity. It's a mark that designates you as fair game, ready to engage in a style of play that certainly helped the longevity of Diablo 2. When you're done purifying your Shards of Hatred, or otherwise regret flagging yourself as hostile after a misjudged encounter, removing the mark isn't as easy as clicking a box in a dropdown menu. "To remove that, you need to go back to a town, inside one of the safe places in the Field of Hatred," says Piepiora, who notes that getting there in one piece will be easier said than done.
Whether you have a collection of Shards to protect or not, there are other incentives to engage in PvP – and to flee to the safety of towns at all costs should you feel overwhelmed. Diablo 4 is bringing back a fan-favourite form of bragging rights from Diablo 2. "The ears were basically tokens that would drop from players that you killed in combat that would display their names – you could sell them for one gold piece. There were there largely as trophies to show off all the people that you've slain in PvP combat and that was a big cornerstone of PvP combat back in Diablo 2," Piepiora continues, noting that the team is still figuring out the particulars of their implementation in Diablo 4.
Although he is certain that they will not be used as an additional form of currency. "We think the thing that is exciting and interesting about ears is that you basically had this permanent token of conquest over another character that you slew as part of combat. We are excited we're trying to find a way to integrate that tightly with the PvP experience that we have here, without making it a part of some kind of PvP progression. We want to leave it in that trophy space, where it's exciting to kind of collect these things and look back upon the things that you've done, without feeling like you're just kind of grinding as many of these things as you can to get an axe or chest piece."
Fight for the thrill
Speaking of currencies, Blizzard is quick to assert that PvP will have "no role in progression". The Shards of Hatred that you are able to successfully purify can be brought back to specific vendors – illicit goods traders – and sold for unique cosmetics and trophies. "They are basically bragging right, to show all the work that you've done inside these spaces. Now, there are some really cool cosmetic items that you can find," Piepiora teases, and we can only hope he is talking about some badass mounts, "but you can't get better gear in the PvP area than you would outside the PvP area."
That's key here, because Diablo 4 PvP is going to be brutal by design. Blizzard is making it challenging, but optional. Something to partake in if you want to, otherwise it can be circumvented entirely. "One of the early emphasises of PvP in Diablo 4 was trying to erase the idea that PvP needs to be fair. That can be a scary thing to say to people sometimes, but the point there being that, when you think about open world PvP, you don't always arrive in front of an enemy in ideal circumstances," says Piepiora.
"We think the ebb and flow of that kind of PvP combat feels great in Diablo 4 right now. Sometimes you're going to be at a disadvantage when a fight begins; you might have to escape, you might pull out all the stops and manage to take out your opponent, or you might lose. Those peaks and valleys are part of the open world PvP experience that we want to embrace for Diablo 4."
Looking for more information on the upcoming action-RPG? Blizzard released revealed the Diablo 4 rogue class, which brings some much needed mobility to the roster.