Diablo 4 Review – IGN

Diablo 4 Review – IGN

Like seeing your favorite band play their greatest hit live, Diablo 4 is completely awesome to behold even though you know exactly how the song’s going to go from the moment you hear the first iconic note. Diablo 4 doesn’t do much to reinvent ARPGs or push the boundaries of a genre its series helped pioneer, but the tweaks, improvements, and borrowed ideas it does introduce have forged this latest model into the best Diablo we’ve ever had. The finely-tuned combat, extensive build options across each class, stellar graphics, and strong live-service foundation are all among the most impressive in the genre, and the endgame activities and grind are so well thought out that I struggle to find any fault in them – as rare an occurrence as rainfall on Mars. A weak story and some irritating bugs do occasionally throw a wet blanket over the fires of Hell, but the 80 hours I’ve spent in Sanctuary have still been overwhelmingly positive, and even after all that demon slaying and obsessing over loot rolls, I’m still very excited to play a whole lot more.

Diablo 4 is the latest in a demon-centric series quickly approaching its 30th birthday, and it largely succeeds at modernizing the depths of Hell enough to finally match its more recent ARPG peers. You’re once again sent on an endless string of dungeon crawls where mastering your hotkey-bound abilities, optimizing your DPS, and improving your survivability are generally more important than things like an engaging story or explaining the insane diarrhea of flickering lights and elemental effects that typically occupy the screen – and practically every moment of that is really, really enjoyable whether you’re playing alone or with up to three friends. Running dungeons captures that familiar but just as compelling loop of killing hordes of enemies, completing objectives, and downing bosses, and running sidequests to learn more about the world’s lore and characters is usually a very good time even while the main plot meanders.

If you were hoping Diablo 4 would shock the ARPG world with massive innovations to the genre, however, you’re likely to be disappointed in that specific regard. Instead of trying to revolutionize ARPGs in any major way, Blizzard mostly seems content to play it safe by making smart but unsurprising changes to the formula, with things like more customizable skill trees and more diverse playstyles between its iconic character classes. This series had a lot of catching up to do in the 11 years since Diablo 3, and whether it’s borrowing combat inspiration from Path of Exile or online elements from Lost Ark, there isn’t really anything about what Diablo 4 does so well that is completely unprecedented. But while there may not be much in the way of game-changing innovations, the good news is that lack of experimentation has resulted in a game that’s unbelievably well-designed and succeeds at practically everything it tries.

I’m one of those weirdos who actually closely follows the story in Diablo, and although Diablo 4’s probably isn’t going to win any awards, it is still a massive step in the right direction compared to its predecessor. The quest to find and stop Lilith, daughter of one of the Prime Evils of Hell, after she unleashes her fury upon Sanctuary serves as a fantastic kicking off point that I was still eager to unravel even after my eighth playthrough of the first act during the pre-launch beta. Gone are the days of WWE-like voice performances and dreadfully cheesy dialogue, and the queen of succubi is one of the most complex villains the series has ever seen, with motivations that even made me question the justness of my own cause.

Sanctuary is a gorgeous sight to behold, and sounds even better.

But before you get any real payoff for what’s expertly set up in the first act, you’ll spend the vast majority of the next four going on tangentially related errands with more filler than a packing peanut factory, before finally getting back to the task at hand. The result is an interesting but disjointed story with a payoff that doesn’t quite stick the landing. The real shame is that anytime Lilith is on-screen or closely involved in whatever action is going on, it’s absolutely engrossing stuff. But she’s largely hidden behind a curtain waiting for the final act for the vast majority of the campaign, and the diversions you’re sent on along the way consistently feel like unnecessary detours. Combine that with some seriously disappointing boss fights I won’t spoil, especially the campaign’s final one, and it’s hard not to feel let down by what this could have been.

It does help that Diablo 4 looks and sounds fantastic regardless of what’s going on in the story. Between the rare but breathtaking CGI cutscenes and the more numerous in-engine cutscenes that happen in between major story missions, as well as the detailed, disgustingly corrupted environments found in dungeons and out in the world, Sanctuary is rarely not a gorgeous sight to behold. It’s no small feat, then, that Diablo 4 sounds even better than it looks, with one of the most memorable OSTs in recent memory, mostly great voice acting, and lots of gross demon roars and shrieks as you lay waste to the minions of Hell.

The ending of the story at least nicely sets up a whole host of possibilities for Diablo 4’s live-service future and inevitable story expansions, but I find myself excited about the potential of where things might go more than I am happy about the base campaign we got overall. It’s no wonder that Blizzard allows you to skip the campaign entirely for every character you make after the first time you complete it – a five-minute recap video would be just as effective as replaying the roughly 15-hour story. That might have been more disappointing if the brief campaign were meant to be the main course of this meal, but thankfully rolling credits in a Diablo game means you’ve only just finished the appetizer.

When it comes to the things that really matter in the long run like combat, buildcrafting, hunting for gear, and especially the endgame, Diablo 4 absolutely knocks it out of the park in practically every way. Even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, all five character classes are a ton of fun to play as. The rogue darts around to deal extreme damage either in melee or from afar with a deadly bow in an exhilarating high risk/high reward tradeoff; The sorcerer creates horrifying cocktails of destruction, like an absolutely disgusting lightning build I brewed up to stun everything around me constantly; The necromancer raises an army of the dead, steals life, and manipulates the corpses of fallen enemies to carry out their foul desires, for when I’m in the mood to keep my distance and let someone else do the hard work for me; When I just want to Hulk my way through the depths of Hell, the barbarian is an expert in all forms of smashing who can charge forward to destroy everything in their path; And the druid uses their Animorph abilities and the power of mother nature to wail on all manner of demons, with probably the most build diversity of any of the classes.

Buildcrafting for each class feels distinct in some really cool ways.

Part of what helps make each option feel unique are the class mechanics that unlock at various points in the campaign. For example, the Sorceress gains access to the enchantment system in Act I, which allows you to enchant a couple of their spells to augment how they work. I used one of my enchantments on my teleport spell to turn the standard dodge every class gets into a second teleport cooldown, greatly improving my mobility. Each class has their own unique twist, whether it’s augmenting your ranks of the dead as a necromancer or bonding with spirit animals to gain beastly enhancements as a druid, and that goes a long way to making your playthrough and buildcrafting on each character feel distinct in some really cool ways.

Gear can also substantially affect the paths you might choose to take a character down. For example, after completing a job for a demented tree, you could be rewarded with a magical pair of pants that heals you over time when standing close to enemies, warranting a shift in your build from slaying enemies from afar to something close quarters. Or maybe, like me, you’ll get devilishly lucky when you find a weapon that has a chance of casting a random lightning spell for free whenever you cast an initial one, leading to absolute mayhem when you bring your electrical might to bear upon an unsuspecting huddle of bandits.

Trying out new builds and experimenting with powerful new pieces of equipment is one of the best parts of Diablo 4, and I spent most of my time on my sorcerer, where I continuously discovered new and extremely rude ways to be the best glass cannon I could be, like equipping an ice shield that froze enemies for the sin of attacking me to remove said shield. The variety of systems available to optimize your character are so numerous that it can be pretty dizzying at first, even for a Diablo veteran like me, but when properly mastered this is easily one of the best buildcrafting toolboxes of all time. Whether it’s the dense skill trees, the endgame paragon boards and powerful glyphs that can be upgraded and socketed into them, the plethora of loot options across various world tiers and rarity levels, the gems and vendor upgrades you can use to make that equipment even better, or the fact that gear perks can be tweaked to optimize them for a certain build, Blizzard seems to have thought of just about everything. And all that control meant I never came close to feeling like my time wasn’t being respected when a loot drop didn’t happen to go my way.

There are just so many ways to interact with your build and make smart use of your gear. For example, whenever I outleveled a cool piece of gear with an effect I loved, I could extract its key perk and keep it in my inventory to be imprinted on a more powerful piece of equipment down the road. And thankfully, Blizzard has backed down from its previous promises to make skill tree respecs prohibitively expensive. Instead, they merely hurt your in-game wallet enough that switching high-level characters to a new build is a serious consideration, but not one that’s impossible or sends you straight to the poor house. After 80 hours on a single character, I was still discovering new ways to tweak and improve my build or new equipment perks that opened up exciting possibilities. That makes it very difficult to log off even when I found myself playing nearly until the sun came up once or twice.

Running through bone-riddled dungeon halls is a consistent joy.

Running through murky halls with my decked out murder machines feels significantly more streamlined since the dungeon tweaking Blizzard rolled out in response to feedback from the beta weekends, with far less backtracking and wasted time. That keeps things moving along at a great pace and makes diving into the bone-riddled halls of an ancient tomb or what I can only assume is a demon body parts exhibit a consistent joy. No matter what class you’ve chosen, shredding your way through piles of wretched reprobates is usually effortless fun that lets you flex your unrivaled power, though some of the more difficult activities like Nightmare Dungeons are bound to put those skills to the test. There’s also a good chance you’ll run into a random event that might have you rescuing some poor souls who find themselves lost in a crypt, or get attacked by The Butcher, a familiar demon who enjoys meat hooks more than I thought possible.

Admittedly, regular minions have very few unique mechanics I could discern in the few seconds it took to send them back to Hell with my coldest regards. Most just run at you while yelping or hurdle some pointy object at you from nearby, which doesn’t make them feel all that different to fight even when they are part of some distinct and cool-looking enemy faction. But you do get the occasional breath of fresh air, like shamans that summon new enemies to the battlefield, making their summary executions a high priority, or skeletons that slowly shamble toward you with big, beefy shields until you’re able to tear through their defenses and finish them off. Dungeon bosses have a bit of a similar inconsistency – I can only fight so many big, floating demon wizards called “The Curator” or some such nonsense before it all just blends together into one big pile of satisfyingly defeated gore. But others are much more memorable, like one where a laughing cultist repeatedly summoned waves of freaks until he ran out of steam and was quickly turned into a bowl of mashed potatoes by me and my friends.

Speaking of friends, Diablo 4 is great for making them, as an online connection is required to push back the forces of evil. While this comes with the expected but rare hitches like getting disconnected from the live servers in the middle of your adventures or having to wait in short queues to get play during a particularly busy time, the benefits far exceed the drawbacks. There’s a much greater sense of discovery now as you encounter other players out in the wild (or murder them in cold blood in a PvP zone), and those chance encounters when you’re taking down a world boss, for example, can turn into new online friends. It’s especially cool that trading and clans seem to have greatly increased in prominence compared to previous Diablo games, and there’s a real sense of community around taking down endgame group activities together and helping one another optimize your builds. That’s the kind of magic you can get in an online game and I’m very excited to see what ridiculous shenanigans the community gets into.

Optimizing your build and coordinating with your squad means nothing if there aren’t endgame activities waiting to be conquered, and Diablo 4 has quite possibly the best day-one endgame experience I’ve seen. Once you’ve beaten the campaign, you’ll be able to run bounties for the Tree of Whispers, an evil plant with dismembered heads hanging from it, which spawns new activities infinitely in exchange for high-level loot drops. Doing so at higher world tiers (essentially harder difficulties) also gives you keys to Nightmare Dungeons, which are more challenging versions of existing levels that add crazy stuff like an invincible crystal that magically chases you around the entire time trying to crush you and your dreams while you fight suped-up versions of the dungeon’s enemies and bosses.

PvP is possibly the endgame activity with the longest tail.

I was around level 43 when I finished the campaign, but at level 50, you’ll also be ready to tackle the first Capstone Dungeon – a mostly by-the-numbers dungeon that serves as a power and skill check in order to unlock the third world tier, and which grants access to a variety of new activities and loot drop ranks. Some of those are called Helltide Events, a completely awesome type of activity where blood begins raining from the skies in certain zones, and uber-deadly enemies swarm everywhere. Killing them and collecting nonsensically named Aberrant Cinders without dying allows you to open special chests that are positively crammed with sacred loot.

But PvP is possibly the endgame activity with the longest tail. You’ll find two PvP zones in Sanctuary where you compete to slay NPC enemies to collect materials while keeping your head on a swivel to defend against rival players who might decide to kill you and take your resources for themselves. Running around in these chaotic zones is completely nerve-wracking and hilarious, especially since even your own party members can betray you by scooping up the valuable materials that are not shared between players, leading to rifts in even the strongest alliance – you might even be tempted to leave the party to rid yourself of that pesky friendly fire protection and lash out at a former ally.

Then at level 70, you get another Capstone Dungeon to unlock the final world tier, which gives you access to even better loot, tougher enemies, and more XP, and, there’s yet another final endgame dungeon designed for level 100 characters after that – the treadmill of things to conquer is so well designed I didn’t want to get off even when I felt like I had seen 95% of what was on offer. The whole time you work towards the max level of 100, you’re earning Paragon points to make your character ever more deadly against your increasingly formidable foes, which serve as a carrot to keep grinding your way through Tree of Whisper Bounties, Helltide Events, and PvP zones. Even after more than 80 hours on my primary character I haven’t reached level 100 yet, but there is a cap on both leveling and earning additional Paragon points once you do, a smart move away from Diablo 3’s philosophy of letting players earn nigh-endless stat increases in favor of a system that forces you to make meaningful choices with the limited upgrades your Paragon Boards can contain. I prefer that approach to the bloated monsters that Diablo 3 characters were known to become, and the endgame grind to reach that max level is practically perfect in terms of variety, replayability, buildcrafting, and more.

Even if you somehow run out of things to do in the endgame for one character, rolling a second or third character instantly becomes a fresh experience since the campaign is optional and many unlocks like Altars of Lilith (fonts of power hidden throughout Sanctuary) and potions/skill points granted from gaining renown in regions of the map are account-wide bonuses that instantly apply to your character. The most important of these instant unlocks is your mount, which allows your new characters to hop on a horse and race off to faraway parts of the map so you can begin leveling by playing whichever activities you want, rather than being stuck to the campaign’s railroad tracks every time you want to try out a new class. Tackling dungeons or participating in PvP from the fresh perspective of a whole new class immediately shakes off any dust Diablo 4’s lengthy grind might gather and extends the good times even further than I thought possible.

The best part about Diablo 4’s endgame successes, though, is that all of it’s built upon a live-service foundation that will allow the world, meta, and activities to evolve over time. Whether or not that model will be updated with content frequently enough to keep people interested remains to be seen, but even without it, the vanilla endgame experience is strong enough on its own. I can only imagine how exciting it’ll be when new experiences are added to the Diablo 4 playground that challenge your maxed out characters in exciting ways and expand upon the story or available character classes. Live-service games get a lot of hate nowadays, and I understand why when there are so many recent examples of how not to do them (I’m looking at you, CrossfireX). But that model can also breathe endless life into a game when done right – we don’t know yet if Blizzard will do it justice, but right now I couldn’t be happier that the groundwork has at least been well laid for Diablo 4 to potentially thrive going forward.

Hopefully some of those updates come sooner rather than later, too, as Diablo 4 does suffer from a few nasty bugs at the moment. For example, if you enjoy teleporting around as a sorcerer, be prepared to get stuck in the ground literally hundreds of times, as Blizzard apparently didn’t account for vertical geometry changes when zipping around the top-down levels. Thankfully the issue can be resolved by just teleporting back to town, but it also forced me to retrace my steps to my original location, wasting tons of time…only for it to happen again when I teleported a few minutes later. There’s also some weird rubberbanding that sometimes goes on when you try to go from one region to another that prevents you from entering a zone. In some instances, my friends and I had to use one another as teleporting waypoints to get into regions we were completely unable to enter. Most of Diablo 4’s issues are extremely specific things that will likely get patched, but they were bad enough to tangibly impact my enjoyment a bit in the meantime.

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