Note: Diablo 4 is an always online game, meaning server issues, queues, and disconnects can impact your experience. These potential issues won’t be factored into the review, but if you do not have access to reliable internet, Diablo 4 may not be for you.
Stepping into Sanctuary for the first time, I was waiting for that secret ingredient to hit me that created such a devoted fanbase for this landmark isometric dungeon-crawling RPG. I’ve never played any of the prior games, and only dabbled in some of its spiritual sequels like Path of Exile, but never felt that pull to pour hours upon hours into the grind. Diablo 4 hasn’t converted me on that but is undeniably effective in what it does. Mechanically, Diablo 4 is unmatched, but the lackluster story and characters put all the weight on the gameplay.
The Devil’s in the Details
The moment the opening cinematic begins, Blizzard rebukes any doubt that they’re still the king when it comes to pre-rendered cutscenes. The detail on display in the characters’ faces, lighting, and even blood genuinely had me second-guessing whether what I was seeing was live-action or not. Naturally, this level of production can’t be maintained for even the majority of the game. As an opening, it is a masterful way to draw you into the world of Sanctuary, whether it is for the first time like me, or if you’ve already spent hundreds of hours there.
The graphics you’ll be seeing most of the time mixes a realistic style with a slight softness around the edges, almost like an oil painting. It blends together seamlessly and looks fantastic both up close and from your traditional isometric perspective. I only wish that the character creator were more robust now that your custom Wanderer is showcased more often. You’re only given a handful of presets for most things, with hairstyles being noticeably lacking, making it difficult to realize any established vision.
Voiceover and music again raise the bar. Just about every voiced line, from the seductively evil Lilith to the gruff and tired Lorath, is a dazzling treat to the ear. The more intense moments drew out compelling and evocative performances I’d never expect from a game of this genre. Given the more detached perspective the game sticks to, these masterfully directed and acted scenes kept me invested in the people and world.
Preaching to the choir
As powerful and gripping as the delivery was, the story of Diablo 4 ended up being my greatest disappointment. The setup is simple but effective enough to give you the motivation to start killing demons in an action RPG, but rather than evolve, it feels like it almost goes backward. I won’t spoil any details, but so many character decisions felt like I could see the writer’s hand forcing them to do things for the sake of the plot. The main character especially felt like wasted potential. While you do speak and interact with the cast, you more often than not boil down to a tool the real important characters use to get things done. As a newcomer, I would have appreciated my character to be more involved as a conduit to help me get invested as well.
Broken up into Acts, Diablo 4 spreads its plot as thin as it can. All too often one objective will be broken up into multiple steps, only for the conclusion to not fully resolve the issue, sending you somewhere else to do another series of quests related to it.
While I fully understand I’m coming into the fourth game of a series here, it was painfully clear that some characters and moments were aimed directly at fans of the series. I wasn’t lost at any point, but moments that were framed as being major or impactful didn’t hit quite as hard as I expect they were intended to. The conclusion was at least satisfying for what it had set up, but threads were clearly left for their live-service plans.
Kill, loot, repeat
If Blizzard holds the crown for cinematics, they sit on the throne of tight gameplay loops. Playing as a Rogue, I knew from the first dungeon that every aspect of combat was scientifically crafted to trigger those pleasure sensors in my brain. Hits echoed with deep, punchy impacts, animations flowed like liquid, and the pacing was always tense but never overwhelming.
Loot was a small concern for me. I have never been a fan of looters, even dropping games like Nioh due to the incessant gear management, but Diablo 4 hits a great balance of drops with intuitive inventory management. Playing on console, I never had to stop for more than two or three seconds to sort my inventory and continue on to the next encounter.
Skills offer almost too much choice, despite the clear effort to gate things off. You start off with a single set of branches to invest in, with around somewhere between five and seven skills in each. Each skill can be leveled up five times, as well as having one or two modifiers you can invest in. Further branches are unlocked after set level intervals, opening up even more new things to try. That many options felt a little paralyzing as a newcomer, and I felt like I was spreading myself a little thin by getting the new exciting skills before deepening my investment in older ones. Thankfully the game never punished me for it at my difficulty level, but it took too long to feel like I was making an effective build instead of just piling on abilities. The option to respec whenever I wished (for a small cost) encouraged me to experiment and take risks to see what worked, but the system as a whole feels designed for more seasoned players.
Difficulty in general is very lenient and customizable thanks to the World Tier system. If, like me, you’re new to the genre then starting at the lowest rank will help come to grips with the systems. Whenever you’re ready, upping the tier is easy and rewards you with more benefits for the higher challenge. It is a refreshing system and a perfect way for the hardcore to test their skills and builds without alienating the more casual players.
I was very pleased to know that playing solo was not only possible but accounted for in the main story. While I wasn’t drawn to try out the end-game dungeon content, I’m sure that’s where having a more strict build and team composition would come into play.
Not a full believer
Diablo 4 managed to deliver such a polished and flowing system that even someone who typically bounces off of loot-driven ARPGs saw the entire game through with a smile. Despite not following the genre, this is clearly the most refined and streamlined version yet, with tons of quality-of-life features designed to keep you in that dopamine loop of killing, looting, and leveling.
The story, despite having all the ingredients to draw me in, ended up being a blemish on the experience thanks to illogical character decisions and fan service. Had it even been half as compelling and well-crafted as the presentation and gameplay, Diablo 4 could easily have raised the bar for an already exceptional and beloved franchise. Regardless, there’s no denying that the gameplay alone is enough to satisfy fans and newcomers alike. It remains to be seen how the live-service model will shake out, but what is presented at launch will satisfy even the most dedicated adventures.
- Unrivaled cinematics
- Gripping performances
- Accessible yet deep skill and loot systems
- Combat flow never tires
- Illogical character choices
- Poor story and main quest pacing