Diablo 4 has a hell of a challenge in front of it. Created against Activision Blizzard’s alleged toxic working culture, a team of developers has been tasked with aiding the ongoing resurrection of a gaming behemoth. Crafting something with the appeal of old Diablo games that reflects the live-service trend that’s risen since Diablo 3’s release 10 years ago is a tricky offering to make. And yet, from what we’ve played so far, Diablo 4 retains the soul of the series.
The familiar sight of Diablo 4’s announcement trailer from BlizzCon 2019 opens the demo at the start of the game’s prologue. The creator of Diablo’s world, a demon called Lilith, has resurrected through ritual, whipping Sanctuary’s citizens into a frenzy as chaos festers faster than their protectors can contain it. Stumbling into a ramshackle village from the frozen wastes casts your role in this rapidly unfurling tale as locals fail to sacrifice you to the Daughter of Hatred herself, leaving you with a connection to the big bad that thrusts you centre stage.
The demo ends with Act 1’s conclusion, though not without creating intrigue for the road ahead. The sense of stumbling after an evil that’s steps ahead permeates a story that unfolds briskly and unburdened by bloat. Whether the momentum carries remains to be seen, but it feels worth finding out.
The devil is in the details
The world map you travel across feels fluid when it intends to be. The three acts that form the middle of the game’s story can be completed in whatever order you fancy, and are open to being picked up and put down whenever you want to do something else. A level recommendation on each act does present a correct answer regarding completion order, though the required power level is easily reached through side-questing if you want to go against the grain.
Your journey to complete each campaign objective takes you across some zones set above your level to ward you off, though plenty of areas adjust to your current means. It ensures each dungeon and world event offers a measured challenge, and that you never truly outgrow any area regarding power – though the feeling of good loot lingering around any fresh demon kill offers reward in itself for demanding you stay on your toes.
Happily watching the undead pop with loot like gory flesh pinatas remains one of Diablo’s greatest joys, as does fashioning dropped gear into a hodgepodge outfit – Sanctuary may look bleak, but I sure don’t. Looting in the earlier moments of Diablo 4 typically means swapping a weapon for something with more damage, but each new find grows more interesting as you reach the higher power levels of the game – alongside bigger damage numbers, you might find something that aids the skill tree.
The beta ends before your combat potential fully reveals itself, though the identity of a build forms swiftly. The Rogue is Diablo 2’s Assassin and Diablo 3’s bow-toting Demon Hunter mashed together, leaving you free to craft a set-up that taps into the melee capabilities of the former while borrowing the odd ranged-related trick from the latter.
Any newly fashioned Rogue begins with a knife and bow, leaving you ill-equipped to thin Sanctuary’s horde. The world gradually becomes less daunting as the skill tree opens up with a wealth of combat options. The first cluster of ability upgrades teaches you to throw a knife and then make it ricochet off the skulls of the undead, eventually paving the way to new skill groups that unlock base stat boosts or a trap that can subsequently be made poisonous down the line.
Build crafting has a degree of flexibility in the early game, though not without consideration. Any skill point spent can be reclaimed, though the progress towards the next ability cluster diminishes. Progress returns once you put that experience towards something else in the cluster, though it stops you from removing every ounce of experience from your first cluster and moving it to another to fund more powerful, desirable moves.
There’s no doubt Diablo 4’s builds will eventually be complicated enough to appear inaccessible to newcomers seeing it for the first time, though each layer is added gradually at a comfortable pace. Hitting level 15 with the Rogue unlocks a quest leading to a class-specific specialisation, offering powerful stacks that translate to more damage when a combo pulls off. It’s a quirk unique to the Rogue, with other classes getting something else to call their own. The Paragon Board is beyond the scope of the beta, coming in at level 50, though the skill tree and class specialisations will no doubt offer plenty to chew over until then.
While Diablo 4’s beta offers plenty of delights, my greater curiosities remain beyond its scope. Sanctuary’s open world has the potential to tell powerful player-led stories, be it of betrayal in the players-versus-all Fields of Hatred mode, friendship through a rare encounter on the road, or triumph as players funnel into an instance to vanquish a colossal world boss. The Fields of Hatred mode isn’t part of the beta, while the player count in betas and previews remain controlled until the floodgates open on release day, meaning we’ll have to wait and see if Diablo 4 can tell those types of stories.
If the sleeping behemoth is to truly snatch its crown back from the likes of Path of Exile ahead of Grinding Gear Game’s own sequel, Blizzard will need to nail and support an evolving endgame. There are plans to provide enough content to keep players busy for "thousands of hours", though what it fully entails is currently limited to a relatively select few who got to playtest it previously.
Whether Diablo 4 is something I commit to upon release or move on after the campaign’s end remains to be seen, though the beta has left me devilishly excited to see more. For now, that’s enough.
Here are some grand games like Diablo to play over the festive period to provide salvation from boredom.