ANAHEIM, Calif.—This year’s BlizzCon was a big one in many ways, but among them was the presence of playable demos for Diablo 4, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, and Overwatch 2. I attended the show this year and played all three.
While there was some tension in the media coverage and social conversation around this BlizzCon after the company’s decision to temporarily suspend a pro Hearthstone player for making a political statement during an official stream, it was not the dominant mood on the ground. From the keynote through the community events, it was clear most people were a lot more concerned about the games than anything else.
And there were a lot of games. I’ve been to many a BlizzCon, but this was by far the most eventful in terms of announcements. There was the long-awaited Diablo 4, a new World of Warcraft expansion called Shadowlands, a sequel-of-sorts to Overwatch, and a new Hearthstone mode that marks Blizzard’s entry into the popular auto-battler genre.
I actually started my career as a writer writing for a World of Warcraft news site called WoW Insider (now titled Blizzard Watch). For years, though, I had mixed feelings about Blizzard games. I often felt like every Blizzard game had a more sophisticated, more compelling, more hardcore alternative. But as I grew older, and especially as I experienced games through the eyes of my then-girlfriend (now wife) who was new to gaming, I began to appreciate Blizzard’s focus on accessibility, onboarding, and polish.
Based on how it’s designed, it’s much easier to keep up with Diablo 3 if you work full time and have a family than it is to follow Path of Exile. The same goes for modern World of Warcraft compared to many other MMOs. Also, Blizzard games became a regularly shared activity between my wife and I over time. We leveled WoW characters together, each on our own desktops; we gathered Diablo 3 sets in the couch co-op PS4 version; we formed Overwatch teams with my brother-in-law and secured many, many plays-of-the-game; we cheered for our favorite players in Hearthstone esports.
So I went to BlizzCon 2019 as a fan with deep, deep history in these games. And these are my (largely positive) impressions of arguably the biggest new game at the show: Diablo 4.
Atmosphere and vibe
Let’s get this out of the way first: despite modern game design concepts and very modern rendering tech, Diablo 4 looks a lot more like Diablo 2 than it does Diablo 3. It’s not cartoon-ish or colorful; it’s dark, grim, muted, and painterly. If you’re in the cadre of players who were disappointed by Diablo 3‘s lighter, campier tone, you’ll be pleased to see a return to form here.
Every asset in the area I played was created to convey a sense of decay, despair, and violence. And Blizzard has implemented cinematic transitions between areas. Instead of simply clicking on a dungeon entrance and teleporting to a starting point for that dungeon as in previous titles, your character will do something like get on their hands and knees to push vines aside and crawl through a cramped crawlspace, emerging on the other side. The game goes into a Tomb Raider-like cinematic camera view to depict these transitions, then it returns to the standard top-down view once the transition is complete.
There are a lot of bells and whistles like that intended to give the game a bit more gravity and counter the cartoony floaty-ness (for lack of a better term) of Diablo 3. We interviewed two members of the art team at the show, and they enthusiastically listed the major graphical improvements and engine features they’ve introduced this time around. For one thing, Diablo 4 employs physically-based rendering. It also has environments with slopes and hills in a way that even Diablo 3 didn’t, and player characters seamlessly transition between animations in more realistic ways. (Prior iterations simply canceled the current animation when starting a new one, but Diablo 4 follows a model represented by a lot of more modern triple-A games).
It all looks great, but as is usually the case with Blizzard titles, it’s the art that really sells the experience. The technical stuff is in a supporting role.
The look of Diablo 4 was what struck me most about it, but it’s also the hardest thing to convey in writing—so you’ll just have to go off of screenshots, concept art, and videos.
How it plays
There’s no question that it feels a bit like Diablo 3 to play. Class skills have a similar cadence, similar effects, and fall into similar categories to those in 3; which is a good thing, because Diablo 3 feels great to play.
I played as a Druid—a class that shapeshifts at will. The left mouse button attacked in one form (a werewolf of sorts), the right mouse button in the other (a bear). In addition to that, there was an action bar of other abilities—standard Diablo stuff. Like Diablo 3, many abilities involve very clear movement like leaps or charges; it even brings the dodge mechanic over to the PC from the console version of Diablo 3.
It’s tight and fast to play, but fundamentally, if you’ve played any other Diablo-like action RPG, you’ve played this one to some degree. It’s worth noting that there are public events and that it phases players in around you at relevant moments similar to Destiny and its ilk. I fought one large world boss and participated in one random event—both were very similar to what you’d see in modern MMOs.
While the demo was too short for me to really sink my teeth into progression systems, I was able to confirm that it’s something of a hybrid of Diablo 3 and earlier titles. One panel has you picking between options for each ability slot, much like Diablo 3, but the other is a more oldschool talent tree with each point giving marginal advantages like +X% to the crit rating of some ability, or what have you. It seems like it should appeal to oldschool and newschool fans alike.
That said, it’s very clear that this is an early demo. Reports indicated that Blizzard rebooted its work on Diablo 4 back in 2016, and knowing the way the company normally works, having a playable demo only three years into this iteration is quite surprising. You’d be forgiven for suspecting Blizzard rushed to this point to alleviate fan anxiety over the lack of an announcement last year. Because it’s clearly a demo pushed out for having-a-demo’s sake, we can’t be sure much of anything we saw here will stick all the way to launch two or more years from now.
But, what’s here now is already fantastic—a perfect blend of Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 with modern nu-MMO (Destiny, The Division, Path of Exile) sensibilities.
Improving on Diablo 3
When Diablo 3 first launched, I played the campaign but stopped there. It just didn’t grab me; the itemization seemed all out of whack, and the idea of repeating story chapters to grind for legendaries didn’t appeal to me. However, all that changed with the launch of Reaper of Souls, and later, the console version. I began playing Diablo 3 with my wife (then girlfriend) in co-op splitscreen (which Blizzard confirmed to be will also be a feature in the console versions of Diablo 4) for hours a week, and the redesigned endgame (including Adventure Mode, Greater Rifts, and all that good stuff) had us seriously hooked.
Between the two of us, we ended up building every class to max level, reaching embarrassingly high Greater Rift levels, and securing every set for every class. Ultimately, I played Diablo 3 more than I ever played Diablo 2. It became one of my favorite games of all time. But I didn’t love everything about it.
For one, the game didn’t have the same sense of atmosphere that Diablo 2 did. For another, I felt the over-reliance on set-based builds made the endgame a little bland. Sure, seasons could mix it up a bit, but it really meant there was a relatively limited set of viable builds, as there were usually one or two set builds per class that were way better than the others for running rifts, and the majority of your equipment slots were unmovable since it was all about sets.
So does Diablo 4 address both of those concerns? It seems like the answer to both is tentatively “yes.”
While my demo time wasn’t long enough to give me a real sense of what min-maxing in the endgame would be like, Blizzard designers said during Diablo 4‘s BlizzCon panels that this game will de-emphasize sets in favor of legendaries to some degree. They also mentioned that there will be a ton of legendaries, but at a somewhat lower drop rate than modern Diablo 3. That said, legendary drop rates were too low at Diablo 3‘s launch, but the game ended up being a legendary piñata with too-high drop rates later in its life. So it stands to reason that Diablo 4 will evolve too.
As for atmosphere, as noted above, the game has that in spades—in fact, in this very early build, that right there is my main takeaway. It’s dripping, oozing, soaking with weary, hazy, gothic, horrific atmosphere. In that respect, it borrows a great deal more from Diablo 2 than it does from Diablo 3. And while I enjoyed Diablo 3 more than some series die-hards, on that point I believe Diablo 2 has more to offer, so this is a welcome development.
All of this is to say that my short time with Diablo 4 made the game seem promising—but things are so early, it’s hard to say much with certainty. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching this one closely until it releases “Blizzard soon.”
Listing image by Blizzard