Diablo 4 review: The road to hell is paved with reinventions Play4ever

Blood! Loot! Numbers! Cows! Diabo is a series with a storied legacy, built on strong pillars that have held up the ARPG classic for years now. It’s a name that still holds some well-deserved clout, even if Diablo Immortal (and, to a lesser degree, Diablo 3) soured that reputation in the minds of fans. With Diablo 4 almost here, Activision Blizzard has a chance to get your mind off stolen breastmilk, cancelled PvE modes, union busting and struggling acquisitions with a good ol’ fashioned bloody brawl.

Diablo 4 is a game that, from the get-go, was clearly meant to harken back to the Diablo 2 era: dark and dire, unafraid to throw the grim reality of a demonic invasion around, and keen to splatter heavy religious overtones across your face. Diablo 3, while good, always felt more like a fantastical epic. Diablo 4 nails a return to grisly, Hadean form – but, perhaps fittingly, it is betrayed. Betrayed by puzzling design decisions, betrayed by bugs, betrayed by issues that range from simply aggravating to totally devastating.

Hell is other people (specifically, Lilith).

With that in mind, let’s start with what Diablo 4 does well. I will not spoil the narrative, but if you played any of the betas you’ll know that both the world of Sanctuary and the characters within it are syrup-rich with personality. Diablo 4 is a metal album, sure; packed with climactic moments and great battles against ghastly foes and dire odds. But it’s also sad. Damn sad. Tragedy flows through Sanctuary as you’d expect in a world where the threat of demonic incursions is a reality to be dealt with. There’s not a spot on the world that seems a decent place to live. Every inch of Diablo 4 is Port Talbot, Wales.

This is not a game you’ll want to play alongside a podcast, (at least not the first time through). The Diablo 4 OST is exceptional; equal parts haunting and daunting, just like its traumatised world. Traversing the broken countryside, I found my ears perking up often when I wasn’t knee deep in a fight. Boss themes are especially good – with the final boss track standing out as perfect crescendo to the game’s epic conclusion.

A good OST goes a long way for some of the game’s sadder moments.

Two decades later, the cinematic staff at Activision Blizzard remain some of the best in the business. Watch the embedded trailer above for a reminder – when we’re gifted these tantalizing peeks into Diablo 4, the world around your monitor is removed. These fully-realised pieces of Diablo are a testament to Blizzard, and a high-tide mark of the quality the studio is still capable of putting out.

The direction and voice acting is equally prestigious. Ralph Ineson effortless bounces between sage wisdom, bard-like charisma, and utter dismay as Lorath in a performance that may just fill the hole that Michael Gough as Deckard Cain left in our hearts. Donan, a character you do not want me to discuss in detail here, is also masterfully portrayed.

A grim tone seeps from Diablo 4 like the run-off from a freshly-baked molten chocolate cake. You get that sweet taste early on that makes your mouth water – a beautiful collaboration between talented environment designers, animators, composers, and voice actors. It’s the sickly sweet that offsets the dark bitterness of the world and setting. And it’s impossibly moreish.

So, suffice to say Diablo 4 is an audio-visual feast of gory delights. But how does it play? Well, there, it’s more like a steak cooked rare. As a Barbarian, you may dash through blood-soaked swamps and slam your axe down on one of countless horrifying monsters. As you hope, the resulting splatter is enticing, sticky, appealing. The team responsible for making the player feel like a dreadnaught in their respective class has worked wonders – whether you’re cleaving, casting, or conjouring, Diablo 4 makes you feel unstoppable.

Diablo 4 has five distinct classes, each with unique skill trees, class specific features, and the expected arsenal of exotic weapons and armours each packing distinct modifiers. Much like its peers in genre and series, Diablo 4 is a game that rewards the die-hard willing to experiment, all for the sake of pushing content of increasing (and eventually staggering) difficulty.

Sorcerer combat in Diablo 4
There’s plenty to love about each of the classes available.

But this trek into hell isn’t without its shortcomings. For those unaware, Diablo 4 throws aside the somewhat linear format of other games in the genre in place of one large, open map. There are still acts, but these now refer to a main story quest that, generally speaking, guides you through each of the major regions. After beating the game and messing around with the endgame content, Diablo 4 loses valuable momentum and becomes settles into a predictable, grind-focused rhythm, far earlier than you’d expect.

You stroll into Scolsglen for the first time during Act 2 and come to the zone’s main hub town. You’ll be met with several side quests there; fast and engaging side objectives that go alongside the main path and break up the monotony. Here though, due to the open world MMO nature of the game, you receive objectives like ‘kill 10 boars’, or ‘kill specific enemies until they, randomly, drop a quest item’. If this sounds a bit like World of Warcraft, well, it’s because it is. If you’re the kind of player that likes wrapping up each area the moment you arrive, you may find yourself walking into Duskwood, circa 2004.

I suspect this is the case because it needs to be – these side objectives must have you go out and farm quick-respawning mobs because the game must assume that you and 35 other hellbound conscripts are all doing so at once. If you were heading out to kill one specific exciting, elite enemy, I imagine this wouldn’t be a problem. Stick to dungeons! They are far better ways of passing the time between story missions. I’d trade 50% of all these quests for a cow level.

If it wasn't for the stellar gameplay at the heart of Diablo 4, I'm not sure I'd go for another round.
If it wasn’t for the stellar gameplay at the heart of Diablo 4, I’m not sure I’d go for another round.

If you just want that good old fasioned Diablo narrative to sink its teeth into your neck… too bad! I played through the campaign on World Level 2 the first time through, which gives you a bonus to experience gain. Even with that, you’ll find yourself under-leveled as you head into main act quests. It’s better to zone out and fly through a few strongholds or dungeons when you can, rather than have to stop right at the entrance to the final area in the game.

It’s here that you begin to feel that the molten chocolate cake from earlier seems a bit over-filled, a bit repetitious after one-too-many mouthfuls. You want to go back to that steak – but Blizzard has moved on, now. You’re stuck with this course, for better or worse/

But there are positives to this. Open world bosses and events are great fun. Anyone who took part in the beta or has booted up an MMO in the last 10 years can tell you that. It’s cool watching other players wandering around, and while I didn’t actually get a chance to kill anyone in the open world PvP zones (not for lack of trying – I did spend a few seconds chasing down a rogue collecting altars of Lilith), these are avenues for gameplay that I’m sure lots of people will like.

The largely boggish side content means that the act of leveling new characters in future runs, where most of the long-term enjoyment of ARPGs comes from, rests heavily on the quality of the game’s seasonal updates. We don’t know what these are yet, and as such I cannot speak to whether or not going back through Diablo 4 is a tempting venture. If Diablo 4 seasons only provide slight variations on the general gameplay, then I won’t be pumping too much time into repeat playthroughs. And I may do a hardcore run, because I am a masochist.

screenshot of paragon board in Diablo 4
It’s clear even at a glance that the real juice for many will be hidden behind the credits.

No matter what meal you’re eating, you don’t want to find bugs in it. Some performance issues and glitches were conveyed to reviewers ahead of time, but I have run into a series of technical issues that really slapped the joy out of the whole Diablo 4 experience. The worst, by far, came with an Act 3 boss, which would cause my game to crash repeatedly. I brute-forced this boss through around seven crashes, running back into the dungeon from a nearby waypoint each time. To say it took the wind out of my sails is an understatement; it damn near ripped the mast from hull.

While my experience was largely issue-free with a co-op run of the final boss, my colleague Sherif experienced intense lag, found himself stuck in the final cutscene without audio, and was able to see my rushing around beating up enemies in the foreground. By the time he could play, the boss was invisible, and I’d already made good progress through the fight. Not the most climactic way to wrap up the story, is it?

I’m also concerned about the presence of a battle pass and the in-game store. We’ve not been able to see either, although a screenshot of some of the store has been provided to reviewers for the sake of clarity. Obviously, these things when done well are largely a non-problem, and love it or hate it, a reality of games these days. However, looking at the track record of monetization in Activision Blizzard titles lately has me concerned.

Diablo 4 character on horse overlooking chasm.
The game, as it stands, is fine. let’s hope it’s not fumbled in the future.

Overwatch 2’s costly battle pass rewards, and the WoW token being added to Classic WoW are just two recent examples of this. I recommend that those cautious sit back and wait to see how the company approaches this aspect of the game. If it’s just cool horse skins then so be it, but fans of Blizzard titles should have learned some skepticism by now.

Diablo 4 is good, but it could have been more. It’s a damn good entry to the series as a whole, and will give the vast majority of its players a bloody good time. Bugs and live service concerns aside, it’s a good package (even for players that find themselves more fond of the old ways of doing things). The development team has gone to great lengths to drag the best bits of Diablo back from hell, emboldened and enriched. But you never return from the dead without a grim trophy or two reminding you of your time at rock bottom, can you?


Pros

  • The same great Diablo action, bloodier than ever
  • A great story, equal parts depressing and staggeringly cool

Cons

  • Open world structure waters the goodness down a bit
  • Some serious bugs that could impact your time with the game on launch

Version Tested: PS5. Copies of the game were provided by the publisher.

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