If I showed you the sounds of parchment scrolls, healing potions, and a key falling to the ground, you could probably guess which game they were derived from in a second. There are few game series that can be as identifiable by sound alone as Diablo. I'm happy to report that this is still a staple in the fourth game. When I started the open beta for the massively anticipated Diablo IV, on its first day I didn't get to play much. I had to queue and wait for over an hour at a time. Once inside, I was kicked out after an hour of playing. All this was expected however, and by day two these problems were resolved.
The first thing that strikes you is how familiar everything is. At its core, Diablo is a role-playing game that wanted to focus on the action sequences and minimise the narrative. Slaughtering monsters has always taken centre stage, and I've always enjoyed it myself, however, I have also wanted to see more of the world and its inhabitants and Diablo IV surprises because of the amount of storytelling. With new camera work (your character appears and speaks), more characters to talk to than before, and many cutscenes, Diablo breaks some new ground. If we get more narrative, it has to be of good enough quality to be interesting and my early impressions with Diablo IV is that it is, at times.
I love pondering over the art books, listening to Deckard Cain talk about some monster or just knowing a little bit more about the world. In Diablo IV, my experience is that Blizzard has put extra effort into making more sense of the world and its people, and this also includes the supernatural. We've learnt things about the main characters in previous series and there's no change here. Inarius, an archangel who has been banished takes on the role of a father figure, and the contrast to evil is a focal point. Then there's Lilith, a demon and daughter of Mephisto, who is introduced as the mother of Sanctuary. Both once created the world but are now in conflict with each other. Everyone and everything falls directly between these forces and some others try to manipulate events in their favour. Even though I recognised the characters, I still wanted to know how it all ends. The main missions follow the colossal confrontation, Horadrim's last breath, but most of it was locked away in the beta. Out of respect, I won't reveal the plot, but what I can say is that I'm looking forward to following the journey to its end.
The gameplay is also relevant. What surprised me was all the activities in the world. All the little side missions and all the little world events that followed each other. There was repetition in the design of the events, but most of the missions had good voice acting and interesting stories. These could be about exorcism, to burying a child or saving a friend, and I liked the quality of many of these. They spoke of life in the cities, the influence of demons, sadness and hope. But, the activities were unfortunately repetitive in nature. There may be caravans or individuals you are supposed to protect that are repeated, and while you don't have to do these, I hope we will see some more variety in the full game.
It's clear that Diablo IV follows in the footsteps of the third game and Immortal. This is built to accommodate lots of players and be a more social experience. I certainly had a lot of fun killing one of the world bosses and running around in a group was a blast. This is bolstered by the classes, which have some exciting synergies, for example, an ice mage lends itself well to someone who can do a lot of damage. Still, it's when I'm alone running down an old crypt among tombs and parchment scrolls that Diablo is at its best. The battles in these locales are as fantastic here and I would say they feel the best in the series.
I chose to play as a Sorceress. Barbarian and Rogue are good classes in Diablo IV as well, but I preferred the Sorceress. This class makes a mess of the environments with magic, and unfortunately, I did not get to test the Druid or Necromancer in the beta to compare, as they were locked. I immediately chose to specialise my mage with electrical abilities, as throwing lightning bolts that bounce around and literally fry monsters is fun. I found that every ability had a use, and that the only problem was that I could only level up to level 25. This resulted in me having to opt out of other ability sets, such as the fire and ice abilities. As for the class development, the skill tree is divided into branches you move through. You can only proceed if you have put a point in the previous ability and to get to the next branch, you often need to acquire a certain number of abilities before you can choose more powerful ones. It's simple, intuitive and works brilliantly.
To help your character survive beyond your powers in battle, there is a classic item system. Your equipment is in your rucksack and, in classic terms, you choose what to wear and what to put in your rucksack. What stands out is that you don't have portals, identification scrolls or lots of potions. This time you have a number of health potions at the start that you can upgrade with resources you find in the wild, and which depend on the level your character is at. By completing certain challenges in the game, you can also upgrade the amount of potions you can carry. Just like in Diablo III, enemies drop red items, which you can pick up to top up your potion count. It's simplistic and streamlined, and clearly a mix of Diablo II and III.
In the cities you can also sell, buy, upgrade, scrap, and add magical bonuses to your equipment. I took the opportunity to clear special caves to unlock powers that I could then spend money and resources on to improve my weapons or armour with additional effects such as barriers around you if you stick your sword in a difficult enemy. The classic gem system is back as well, and you can put these together to make bigger and more powerful ones of the same type. Just like before, the stones provide percentage-based increases to the abilities of your equipment.
Once you're equipped, armoured, magically enhanced and set out into the world, you'll notice how big the game is. It takes time to navigate the world through all the enemies, and while the beta didn't have provide access for long enough to acquire horses, they are present to help cross large distances. There are of course also teleportation portals as before, but they are few and far between and no longer exist in caves but only in cities on the world map. However, don't think that this means long distances without much happening. On the contrary, you are attacked constantly, you encounter side missions all the time, plus finding caves and events. Sometimes I could say that the game throws too much at you too often, but I did have fun with the beta when it was working. The gameplay is good, despite some repetitive bosses and events, and I like the story. The enemy variety is also great, however, it's not perfect and I hope we don't have any technical problems like what happened on day one of this beta at launch.
The biggest flaws and concerns I have encountered so far have been technical. Lag, rewinding steps and so on, because the server doesn't recognise what you've done. Then there's getting booted and having to wait for hours to log back in. There's a lot to say about this problem, and they are all a result of having to stay connected to the internet at all times. Other concerns are too early to say anything about right now.
I had a lot of fun with the beta and Diablo IV when it was working, and it looks to be one of the highlights of the year for me. Maybe I play it "wrong" according to the developers, but it is still more fun to play alone than with others. Despite its online focus, I think the foundation for a good game is here. There are mostly good improvements to older systems and it feels like I can to customise my abilities in many ways. The story is engaging and the combat is probably the best in the series.