Slay

gaming

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

My problem with Blizzard’s Diablo series has always been that its cinematics and artwork depict an intriguing epic that its loot-loving gameplay never truly delivers. After playing ten hours of Diablo 4’s blood-soaked beta, its demon-slaying finally feels like it lives up to the box art.

For a start, Diablo 4 is a remarkable-looking RPG – even when a leak-deterring watermark covers my screen. Sporting the same top-down perspective as its forebears, the world of Diablo 4’s Sanctuary now glistens with a sickeningly-shiny sheen of digital despair: bloodstains soak crumbling brick walls and impoverished villagers huddle together for warmth in dilapidated buildings. This is the first time in the franchise Diablo’s wicked world feels alive – and it’s an alarmingly bleak place to be.

You’ll face snarling demons, bandit-filled outposts, and rescue lost villagers from spider-infested caverns

Drawing influence from the more freeform Diablo 2, this new monster slasher expands the small-scale slaughter of Diablo 3 into an ominous-feeling open-world adventure. Instead of merely gathering quests at a hub world and then instancing into a dungeon, Sanctuary’s entire world is your lobby. As you roam across the unforgiving snow-covered scenery, you’ll happen upon everything from snarling demons to NPC-filled outposts, meandering into fully-fledged towns and even rescuing lost villagers in spider-infested caverns. Diablo’s eye-catching concept art is finally up there on the screen and in the lived-in feeling world.

gaming

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Bucking the Disney-esque feel of Overwatch and Warcraft, Diablo 4 offers blood, guts, and unnecessary slaughter

Diablo 4’s shift from its 2012 predecessor is a tonal one. Where Diablo 3 felt fairly PG-13, Blizzard’s latest is a decidedly grim beast. Bucking the Disney-esque feel of stablemates Overwatch and Warcraft, Diablo 4 offers more blood, guts, and unnecessary slaughter than your local butchers.

Take its opening, for example: wounded and struggling to find shelter amongst a snowstorm, a pack of Wargs pursue your weary hero. Seeking refuge in a nearby village, a harsh winter and the sudden start of a demonic apocalypse have its residents feeling pretty uneasy. Thankfully for my red-haired rogue, I’m soon offered food and shelter. The catch? I have to bound over the hill to slay some troublesome beasts. Heading past a gurgling and clearly distressed traveler, I sprint off to vanquish the village-bothering fiends. So far, so family-friendly fantasy.

Upon my return, I’m rightfully treated as a hero. As the bards sing in celebration and I  gratefully sip the tavern’s mead, everything suddenly goes black. Awakening drugged and tied to a wheelbarrow, I’m dumped beside a pile of disemboweled corpses – a blood-filled satanic summoning circle foreshadowing my fate. Thankfully, I am saved by a mysterious stranger, and we charge through the cult-filled village, slaughtering every hooded lunatic in sight. It’s a far cry from what I expected from the franchise, with this welcome commitment to skin-crawling satanic horror making Diablo 4 feel unlike any of its peers. It’s a prologue less reminiscent of Lord of the Rings and more akin to Resident Evil 4. 

gaming

(Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

My time with the beta showcases an RPG dripping with atmosphere. While the dialogue shown so far is forgettable, the script does enough to keep the story going – providing you with a purpose for the relentless slaughter. It says a lot about the overall feel of Sanctuary that despite not caring for its characters, I am still utterly immersed in its gothic fantasy.

In boss battles tackling tomb-filling horned demons, the world demands a tactical play – adding welcome depth to the mindless murder

Despite the sprawling new open world wrapping, missions largely take the same dungeon-y form they always have. While smaller quests may see you roaming across Sanctuary’s forests or mountainous paths, Diablo 4’s more substantial missions see your chosen hero battling through a typically enclosed dungeon, either venturing through these deadly zones alone or flanked by other players or NPCs. Combat largely remains the same, simplistic, frantic affair it’s always been. With five classes to choose from, you can tweak the difficulty to suit your adventure. So far, so Diablo. Yet while the early combat is familiar, it’s in boss battles tackling tomb-filling horned demons that the world demands a sprinkling of tactical play. With a sea of deadly demonic orbs crashing into me, the oft-ignored ‘evade’ button suddenly comes into play, demanding swift reactions and a careful eye for positioning.  It all adds some welcome depth to the mindless murder 

I’ve always felt Diablo is’ a franchise frozen in time, a relic from the Windows XP-chime of 90’s PC past. Yet from the ten hours I’ve spent with Diablo 4, this open world sees Blizzard dragging its devilish delight into the 2020s. This feels like a game unashamed to re-evaluate the tenants of its core DNA, splicing together a refreshingly gothic and demonic reboot of an aging franchise. 

Diablo 4 is still the same loot-collecting dungeon crawler fans remember but set in a far richer, more alluring world. While it’s too early to say whether the campaign will remain this compelling throughout, it’s a welcome change from the disparate dungeons of Diablo 3, with the new freeform adventuring and litany of side quests providing a compelling reason to press on with your loot-generating journey. Even if you’ve had your doubts before, you should know Blizzard’s latest is shaping up to be one of the most compelling RPGs of 2023.

    Tom Regan

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