Originally published at: Review | Diablo IV - XboxEra
The Diablo series is near and dear to my heart. Between I, II, and III I’ve sunk over 4000 hours into the series across PC and consoles. I can say, without reservation, that Diablo IV is the best the series has ever been. You get all the gothic gore of the early games with the pulse pounding and more balanced gameplay of III. I put over 70 hours into the title for this review, and all I wanted to do was play more. Blessed Mother, Blizzard has done it again.
Story & Classes
The lore of Diablo is rich, with the heart being the world of Sanctuary. Created in an unholy communion between the Lesser Demon Lilith and the Angel Inarius, it is home to the Nephalem. Diablo’s story always comes back to the World Stone, and its reality-shaping abilities. As always, I’ll keep this review spoiler free outside of Act I, which was available in three different public betas. Set after the events of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, The game begins with Lilith, daughter of Mephisto and “Mother” of Sanctuary, being summoned back by the mage Elias.
Lilith wants the people of Sanctuary to awaken their suppressed Nephalem powers so that they can face the looming threat of the Greater Evils, who are reforming in Hell. In the lore, the humans of Sanctuary were showing themselves to be too powerful, so the World Stone was used to suppress their burgeoning abilities. There is so much more to it that it would take me thousands of words to break it all down. Just know that this game feels more faithful to the rules set up in the past than Diablo III did and as a fan of the series I loved where they took the story…. Mostly. There are a few quibbles I have around character motivations, though they are minor in the grand scheme of things.
You will begin your campaign by choosing between one of five characters, they are:
- Barbarian – My main choice for the first private Beta, the Barb is a class that struggles early on but became extremely powerful as I leveled them up. Fully devoted to melee, the Barb works as both a damage dealer and tank for co-op play. You’re a whirlwind of weaponry, with a unique gear setup that lets you equip both 1-hand and 2-hand weapons at the same time.
- Necromancer – The most powerfully broken class at the time of review, the Necromancer focuses on raising the dead to use as their instruments of war. This is the class I’ll be playing at launch in the full release, as most agreed during the review period that Necros are the strongest class for now.
- Sorceror – The main magic-focused class, Sorcerors can use the elements of Fire, Ice, and Lightning to deal massive single-target or group damage. They’re the coolest looking to play as, with a never-ending assortment of in-game fireworks. Strong early, I did have survivability issues in higher levels when my gear drop luck ran out.
- Rogue – They are an intriguing mix of stealth melee and ranged combat. This is the class I’ve played the least, though other reviewers found great success through the campaign and endgame with them.
- Druid – This is the class I put most of my time into during this review, roughly 50 hours of it as I worked into World Tier’s endgame. Druids start out rough, feeling incomplete until you’ve unlocked their Passive Boon abilities. Once those boons were unlocked and I had a few solid legendary items I teared things up in all three forms. Druids can become Werewolves, Werebears, or cast spells as a human.
As seen in the betas, Diablo IV’s map is enormous with hundreds of various-sized dungeons to explore. You begin the game by choosing your class and then lightly customizing their appearance. This is a ¾ view isometric Action RPG with a twist. During various in-engine cutscenes, your character and other models will be shown at more traditional camera angles. The various character models, especially Lilith’s, did look higher quality than the Druid I came up with. Still, it was nice to see that the character I created, and the outfit I was wearing were always represented during story beats. There are a few pre-rendered CGI cutscenes in the game, including one of the first that was shown, that are spoilerific and gorgeous.
While the map is huge it only comes in two forms for now. The majority of the time you’ll see it in the corner of your screen, and a press of the view button brings up the full view that has no transparency behind it. The one thing I found lacking was the very lack of that transparent third map view that goes over your character to help guide you more easily through the game’s many winding corridors. To make up for this, you get a mount. Well, you do deep into your first campaign. I have a colleague that was so focused on clearing the map that after 40 hours they were nowhere near unlocking the mount because they had neglected the story.
Once unlocked, your mount is available for all new characters you create from the start as well as the choice to skip the campaign entirely. The campaign is so damned good though that I would only reserve this for future seasonal content, especially if they continue the tradition of seasonal leaderboards that require you to start a fresh character. There is an excellent variety of locations and enemy types in Diablo IV. I felt like nothing was missing for both new and returning locations/enemy types alike. As you explore the map, on foot or on hoof, you’ll constantly run into world events that procedurally pop up on the map. This happens in and out of dungeons and provides a solid incentive with random loot drops and experience bonuses. Ah… the loot!
The treadmill of loot is the heart of a Diablo title. Diablo IV makes some interesting changes that worked well for me as I progressed through the campaign and into the endgame. Each character has the same main armor slots, with differing weapon ones. Helm, Chest, Legs, Boots, Amulet, Rings, and Weapon slots will empower your character to match your skill choices. Diablo IV feels like a good balance of drops in comparison to something like Borderlands 3. There is a ton of it, but it’s easy to know if something is or is not an upgrade for you. The stats are clearly sorted with red or green signifiers to let you know if a number is higher or lower quickly.
Throughout the campaign you’ll see a lot of the same items, but that all changes as you progress through the endgame. For the first 50’ish levels you’ll have access to World Tiers 1 and 2. Once the campaign is completed you can attempt a Capstone Dungeon. This is a long, difficult series of dungeons that you must complete if you want to enter World Tier 3 and see the true endgame grind. This is a spoiler-free review, so what that grind is and how World Tier 4 (the final one) differs will be saved for you to find out on your own. At a high level, I can safely state that it adds a ton to your character’s power level and feeling of customization. Drop quality improved markedly with unique items tied to the higher difficulties making it worth the immense jump in enemy health and damage output.
For those of us worried that there would be a similar finite feeling to the endgame grind that Diablo III suffered from at launch you can rest assured. Diablo IV is a 40+ hour campaign that will most likely take you another 100+ hours to see all of it at launch. With the promise of constant seasonal content starting in July, including new characters over time, I feel confident that this one will be worth its $70 asking price. That is due in large part to just how damned well it plays.
Diablo IV, for those who haven’t played a game in the series before, is an action RPG. From a ¾ overhead camera view you’ll move your character with the left stick while using the face buttons and triggers to activate specific abilities and attacks. All but your main ability require either resources or operate on cooldown timers. You’ll have a main resource-using ability that defaults to X when unlocked. Y, Right Bumper, and Both Triggers will be filled with unlocks of your choice with the Right Trigger ability defaulting to an “Ultimate”. Pulled from Diablo Immortal these are more powerful attacks that operate on a significantly longer cooldown. The fun is in finding the right skill and equipment build to synergize together in a way that deals endless damage to your enemies.
One of the main complaints of Diablo III was its restrictions on where skills could be assigned at launch. While this was fixed over time you have full freedom on what you unlock or upgrade when and where you place it on your action bar. The talent tree is large, with talent points being handed out slowly enough so that it doesn’t feel overwhelming. You start out unlocking your main resource-building ability and every point spent goes towards opening up the latter trees.
Abilities or passive bonuses start with one point to unlock them, which allows you to choose branching modifiers. Your early abilities will have ranks to add to, and finding the right balance of active abilities, modifiers, and ranks will be an ever-changing metagame for years. On top of this is a paragon system, something only added post-launch for Diablo III. I got close to unlocking the paragon system in my time with the game, but as our review build was a bespoke Xbox Insider version of the game that will not carry over to launch I couldn’t bring myself to grind it out.
Allow me a short aside but knowing that all my work would be gone 4 days before the early launch of the title was a bit disheartening when it came to the thought of hitting 100 hours or so of playtime. Still, the game is so damned good that I couldn’t stop myself. Diablo IV’s endgame grind is the perfect podcast/music game for me solo, and the crossplay provided between Xbox, PlayStation, and PC makes it easier than ever to play with up to three of your friends. I’ll be creating an Official Xbox Era clan at launch, another part of the social-focused aspect of the game that I’ll hit on in the next section.
Diablo IV is a perfect blend of Diablo II’s feel and III’s gameplay with Diablo Immortal’s always-connected social experience. Every character can dodge with a press of the B button, giving you immunity frames and the ability to traverse through enemies on a cooldown. While leveling and through the endgame positioning is key, as you have a limited number of potion slots, which are tied to your left bumper. Enemies can drop potion refills at random and boss encounters have specific health amounts where the boss will drop a couple of recharges as well. I utilized a mix of high damage and crowd control abilities on my Druid to help mitigate the huge chunks of damage that were being dealt out to me on World Tier 2. I found that extra challenges prepared me better for the Capstone Dungeon and the eventually increased difficulty of World Tier 3. Balance and fresh content will be key to the long-term health of Diablo IV, at launch though I think it has more than enough content for the casual player and a solid roadmap for the hardcore.
To aid you in this journey are various vendors. Blacksmiths, Jewelers, and more are available to break down, sell, and customize your gear in what felt like a well-balanced grind. Aspects are a huge part of the game and can be found on various legendary items or in the game world itself as you clear dungeons. Every region has a set number of challenges that offer up talent points, gold, paragon points, and more as you earn Renown. Every side quest, area found, dungeon cleared and more in a region will raise this level. This encourages exploration and 100%’ing the map to maximize your endgame builds. It is also the only way to gain more potion slots, which is unbelievably important on the higher difficulties. Finding the right balance on when to salvage gear, sell it, or pull an Aspect off of it if it’s legendary is one of the many systems that adds to the challenge and replayability.
Graphics, Writing, and Sound
Diablo IV is by far the best-looking ARPG I have ever seen. From its normal camera view it looks fantastic but limited due to the perspective. Where it jumps in quality is when the camera moves down, with close-ups of areas and character models that routinely match some of the better-looking AAA games out there. The faces in Diablo IV are an astronomical improvement over the 360-era ones of III, and the use of hero lighting so that your character emanates an inner glow to brighten the environment works because of the camera angle. I tend to find hero lighting off-putting in over-the-shoulder titles like the otherwise gorgeous Horizon Forbidden West. In this stylized, H.R. Giger-esque ¾ view of Sanctuary though, it just works.
There are a few areas of this game that look straight out of Scorn, a terrible game that had one thing going for it. This is a less colorful, more blood and bone-filled game than the previous. A return to gothic, hopeless splendor. That’s not to say that it’s an Unreal Engine 3-style brown and gray-mess. There are areas full of light, life, and color. They’re never as vibrant as Diablo III was, using more natural tones to convey the sad hopelessness of this World that is not supposed to exist.
Those story beats drive the campaign, as things start slow and full of melancholy before picking up into an Epic worthy of the franchise. There are a number of callbacks, and most of them work well. A few felt out of nowhere, as did some late plot points. I loved the neutral morality of it all in the end. No one felt cartoonishly evil, or without point. Character growth felt earned for most, with a couple of choices that were clearly made to lead us into the seasonal content. For those not interested in continuing playing after the campaign ends I can see it disappointing them. I’m the type that wants as much Diablo as Blizzard can healthily give me, so I wasn’t bothered.
Finally, I need to talk about the audio in the game, perhaps its strongest feature. That’s a weird thing to say after I’ve praised nearly all other aspects of the game so profusely. The dialogue and writing are excellent, and the music is fantastic, but the audio mixing is some of the best I can remember in any game. The perspective does make people talking to you occasionally feel a bit odd as they go in circles if you’re moving around them. During combat and exploration, it is a perfectly mixed cacophony of chaos. Using the Xbox Wireless Headset and DTS:X headphone setup on Series X every second of this game was an auditory delight.
I ran into no major software bugs, only a few server-related ones. That is a concern as there is no offline mode in this game. You are at the mercy of your internet connection and Blizzard’s servers. They did run a few stress tests during our time with the game, where rubber banding and disconnects did occur. I had one odd issue where I ran into an invisible wall while trying to go to certain areas. It happened twice and was only solved with a restart of the title. With quick load times, it wasn’t the worst issue, as the game does a great job of remembering where you are and plopping you back there quickly.
As stated in the intro I played rough 70 hours in the game, with the majority of that time being on a Druid. I reached World Tier 3, just barely, but failed to get to 4 or see much of the Paragon system. If this version of the game had carried over to retail I would have easily tried to put 125 hours in during our 10-day review period. I only stopped because it all disappeared when we lost access to this Xbox Insider build on May 26th, at 12 pm… a very sad time for us lucky reviewers. I do fear for how the game runs at launch. Diablo III didn’t work for a long time after it launched, and I hope the betas have helped Blizzard prepare for the onslaught of players entering Sanctuary. There will be microtransactions and battle passes galore, I am sure. I’ve become numb to the practice but for those of you who despise it be ready for an onslaught of cool-looking items vying for more of your cash post-launch.
Diablo IV is a triumph. It fulfills its promise, combining the aesthetics and feeling of Diablo II with the fantastic gameplay of III. It is dark and gory, featuring a meaty campaign and endgame that should delight fans of the series for hundreds if not thousands of hours.