Diablo is loneliness and isolation incarnate. Even with friends at your side, the feeling of absence permeates every ramshackle town and desolate crypt journeyed upon – people were there before, now mostly or entirely snuffed out. Populating Diablo 4 with hordes of players could have easily disrupted that cherished sense of emptiness, but this iteration of Sanctuary understands the kind of player-made stories needed to thrive without burning history.
Virtual worlds tell the best tales when they invite an experience you can pay forward, aiding a broader sense of community identity. One of my formative memories playing Final Fantasy 14 came from spending earlier hours hot-footing towards world bosses, inevitably failing to get there before hardened players with access to mounts confirmed the kill. The impasse finally broke when one veteran stopped to ferry me between each bout on their Chocobo – like an Eorzean passenger princess. The MMO’s design encourages that behaviour – daily dungeons and raids offering experience and in-game currency are done alongside beginners progressing the story, with further rewards available for those who take on extra onboarding work. It reinforces the idea that newer players are to be helped, encouraging voluntary moments of kindness without rewards that leave a bigger impact.
Diablo 4 differs from many online open-world games by tempting you into creating moments with others not through reward but by making the opportunity to do so a rarity. I spent ten hours playing Diablo 4 to Chapter One’s end during a global preview event, only coming across one other person who was AFK in a town – a true staple of any online game, surely. Playing a game ahead of release often feels like wandering around a theme park before it opens, though I haven’t stopped thinking about the possibilities for player moments Diablo 4’s world presents since.
For whom the bell tolls
Who you do come across depends on what you’re doing and when. The myriad towns you journey upon become busier upon the story’s completion, though chancing upon another lonely soul when trekking between them remains rare. The middle ground is the events out in the wild. Blizzard says behemoth world bosses require a village to topple – and you’ll get that – though the smaller-scale skirmishes sound scarier still.
Bandits have numerous ambushes set and there are plenty of demonic rituals to trash, though the chances of getting any help are slim. Most map areas during the preview scaled to my level, lulling me into a false sense of security as I willingly crashed through every event on the map. It wasn’t until I stumbled into an odd area well above my current level that I realised what danger could lay in wait. Higher-level enemies offer greater resistance, which is sorely felt when a gang of them is doing a ritual. I barely made it out without aid, though the chance of someone coming to save you when the game releases isn't likely much higher. And yet, should that opportunity arise, someone is more likely to seize it due to its novelty. Whether people party up and tackle some party-exclusive content or go their separate ways with an experience made remains to be seen, but if there’s to be a flicker of humanity to be had in Diablo 4’s forbidding world, it will come from one player seizing the opportunity to help another who took a wrong step.
Not every experience with another player is positive, though that’s something Diablo 4 embraces. The Fields of Hatred casts you in a scenario where you can help another overcome the demonic for a share of loot or betray them for the chance to claim a larger share. The mode wasn’t available to try during our preview, though the potential tension of trying to cash in your loot without knowing what threats lay beyond you is captivating. We’ve seen the likes of it before with The Division 2’s Dark Zones, though it offers another avenue for Diablo 4 players to interact with each other that lends itself to a tense, isolating atmosphere despite the addition of more players.
Diablo 4 has plenty to do to catch up to Path of Exile, with Grinding Gear Games showing that a gothic, dungeon-dwelling loot chaser can exist as an ongoing service game. Blizzard will need to deliver a stellar campaign and learn plenty of lessons about how the games Diablo has inspired have achieved longevity. Service games are rarely perfect at launch, though giving Diablo’s devoted community the tools to create memories with each other will help carry it through.
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