RIP to my free time.

It’s rare for a game to come along that I can’t stop thinking about, even when I’m not playing it. There are plenty of great games out there, don’t get me wrong, but a precious few keep running in my head even after I’ve walked away from my PC. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I can’t stop thinking about Diablo 4. Even in its current unfinished state – Blizzard wouldn’t let us capture our own gameplay footage, likely due to the placeholder audio in my build and other normal in-development stuff that doesn’t make for a pretty video, so you’re looking at b-roll they put together for us here – Diablo 4 is absolutely crammed with story, content, beauty, character customization, and so much more. I played roughly 12 hours of Act 1, bringing my Barbarian from a barely clothed level-1 bodybuilder to a decked-out, blunt-force-trauma-inducing level-25 powerhouse by the time I reached the end of this build’s content.

One of the first things that struck me in the first couple hours of Diablo 4 was just how much story there is. Relative to previous games in the series, you’ll spend a lot of time watching cutscenes of both the cinematic and in-game variety (the former are, per Blizzard tradition, always gorgeous, and the latter are impressively varied in both camera angle and length). If I’m being honest, I think the frequency of the cutscenes in the early game combined with the unavoidably lousy feeling of being at the lowest point on the power curve when you’re just starting out makes Diablo 4 feel a bit slow for the first hour or two. This isn’t really a complaint, though, as I applaud Blizzard’s effort to layer more story into Sanctuary. Making it feel more alive and filled with more history is a good thing. Besides, you’ll still spend an overwhelming amount of your time slaying monsters in combat.

Diablo 4: December 2022 Screenshots

diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25
diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25

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diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25
diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25
diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25
diablo 4 hands-on preview: we played act 1 and hit level 25

As you’ve heard by now, Diablo 4 is more open-world than ever, and Blizzard’s implementation works well. Sure, you can wander anywhere you want, but the regions outside of where you’re supposed to be in Act 1 are at a significantly higher level – enough to crush you like a bug for roaming into lands you’re not yet welcome in. (For context, the regions you visit in Act 1 look to be a noticeably small portion of the total land mass of Sanctuary.) But you are heartily encouraged to explore the areas you do belong in, as you’ll earn Renown for discovering new areas, picking up and completing side quests, and more. The more Renown you tally, the better the tangible rewards get – notably in the form of skill points. Furthermore, as you level up, you’ll be able to do things like visit the Alchemist to improve your health potions’ healing ability. Exploring both towns and the open fields of combat alike will yield frequent blue exclamation marks on your map, designating another side quest. The layers here run both wide and deep, again making Diablo 4 feel like an extremely content-rich experience.

The layers here run both wide and deep, again making Diablo 4 feel like an extremely content-rich experience.“

Speaking of insane layers of content, the skill tree is bonkers in this game, in the best of ways. It snakes along sprouting hub-and-spoke clusters, with each hub along the way offering between 4-8 choices, some of which are either/or picks. I’m sad I don’t have footage of my own Barbarian build to share, but as is my preference in Diablo games, my goal is to be able to deliver the maximum amount of pure pain at any given moment. I dumped several points into Bash, my concussion-inducing, Fury-generating secondary attack, while going with the bleed-inducing Flay as my primary attack and adding Whirlwind, Leap, and Death Blow as my three special abilities and then Wrath of the Berserker as my Ultimate, which I unlocked near the end of my time with this preview version. Meanwhile, you can respec anytime you want for a reasonable fee of in-game gold. I only ended up undoing one point, near level 25, in order to pick a different branch of the skill tree to spend my action point on. Sadly I have no footage of any of this to show you, but alas…

The heart of any Diablo game, though, is of course the way you utilize your skill point choices. My general strategy, depending on what I was fighting, was to go after the most annoying and/or dangerous bad guy in the mob first, blunting him with my Bash attack until he got stunned, allowing me to switch to my primary attack and slash his life bar down to zero. Anyone causing me problems from range had their personal space rudely invaded by my Leap attack, which I also put several skill points into because of its usefulness. Oh, and the sadistic joy it brought me to watch my foes get crushed underneath my feet as the ground all around me caved in upon landing.

On this note, I should compliment how beautiful Diablo 4 looks. It’s got delectable lighting and delightfully violent effects. The aforementioned Leap feels like a devastating, almost superheroic action. Similarly, Whirlwinding through a dozen monsters at a time and watching them explode into a crimson paste one by one is a hell of a power trip. And using all of your attacks within one battle – as you’ll need to do quite frequently before too long – makes Diablo 4 look like a demon-slaying orchestral performance that you get to conduct.

As I carved up Hell’s minions (except the times where they carved me up!), my time traversing Sanctuary never got old – not just because of the surplus of side quests that frequently popped up (heck, even some of the random dungeons with no side quests attached to them were so big that they took me half an hour to clean out), but also the seemingly random in-game events, both public and private. I rarely saw other players due to the relatively small group of people playing this preview build, but you will, and that means you’re likely to have an easier go of those public events than I did. I held my own in most cases, though I do confess to getting beat down mercilessly by the Stronghold event, marked on the map with a red skull. It’s a multi-step torture chamber that ended in me getting smote by the final boss of that encounter. I’d meant to come back later after leveling up a bit more, but sadly I ran out of time.

This is going to be a huge game by any definition.“

Ultimately, Diablo 4 feels like a massively plussed-up version of Diablo 2, which is the best-case scenario for it, in my book. Not that it ignores Diablo 3 – there are clear notes taken from the best of that game too – but tonally and artistically, it leans more heavily into the Diablo 2 playbook. Regardless, this is going to be a huge game by any definition: the initial campaign projects out to about 50 hours based on my time with Act 1, plus the endgame stuff Blizzard has specifically focused on that we haven’t even seen yet, the opportunities to play as different classes and roll different builds within the same class, and the development team’s promise to keep feeding the community new content for years to come. Heaven help any game that ships anywhere near Diablo 4, because I know I’ll be too absorbed in my adventures in Sanctuary to care about anything else.

Ryan McCaffrey is IGN's executive editor of previews and host of both IGN's weekly Xbox show, Podcast Unlocked, as well as our monthly(-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He's a North Jersey guy, so it's “Taylor ham,” not “pork roll.” Debate it with him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan.

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