Updated: Sep 21
When I think about Diablo, I think about the idea of a “Podcast Game” — the kind of experience people like to just vibe with. Pressing buttons feels good, the numbers go up and you don’t have to think much. For me though, Diablo is my “Wife Game,” something that has come to represent bonding time and gaming together with my spouse. So it was weird to play Diablo IV with my wife removed from the experience entirely, plucking along by myself while she was barred from co-op. It was also weird knowing my progress would be nuked after Blizzard’s review access period ended. Basically to review Diablo IV, I had to completely alienate myself from the reasons I like to play these games in the first place.
Weird right? That’s on top of all the internal miasma of baggage wrought by Activision Blizzard’s whole existence in the industry in Current Year. The lawsuits, unionization efforts and merger drama are still ongoing. This discourse has been going for multiple years now as fans, media, influencers and even devs had to confront twisted brambles of ethical scrutiny. What does purchasing, covering or engaging with this company’s products mean? Who is supporting who by doing what? Diablo IV’s launch will give more oxygen to these dilemmas without a doubt. As for myself, a writer in this world of shrinking opportunities and layoffs, it’s simple. I got a family to feed so let’s rip this bandage off, baby.
I was always able to make the “return to town to sell junk” parts more fun with a little wardrobe detour.
Bandages are probably a scarce resource in the world of Diablo IV; there is blood everywhere in this turbo-edgy videogame. Lillith, the game’s antagonist, opens the whole story emerging from a weblike portal made of three entire dudes’ blood reserves. As the player you often have to stand on blood-draining pedestals to activate certain events. Major story sequences are telegraphed by hauntingly beautiful flower petals billowing in the wind, but also the petals are blood (definitely not flowers). There’s blood all over the environments, enemies are covered in blood (and spill lots of it when you hurt them). Blood, blood, blood. It’s like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie in here.
Part of this feels like the team at Blizzard reacting to the past. Diablo III was a more colorful game that was criticized for looking like World of Warcraft. Diablo IV doubles down on grit, realism and darkness. It’s a gorgeous game for sure, one of the most impressive in the whole action RPG genre in terms of visual fidelity. But it’s also extremely dour, which is kind of a bummer if you actually liked the splashes of color in the last game. But there’s also no weird nonsense like the real money auction house (although there will be a Battle Pass-like structure later), so in my eyes it’s a fair trade. Diablo IV feels like a complete game at launch, and one that offers a staggering amount of both content and freedom to tinker with my character.
Diablo IV doubles down on grit, realism and darkness.
Customization feels like a huge deal in Diablo IV, greatly expanding the options I have to make my experience feel more personal. There’s a fairly robust character creation system to start things off, one that finds a comfortable spot to provide options without compromising fidelity. After that though, you can transmogrify your armor to your heart’s content, without having to bleed (heh) money and scramble for resources like dyes. This was easily my favorite part, as I was always able to make the “return to town to sell junk” parts more fun with a little wardrobe detour. There’s also an interesting degree of customization in the game’s skill tree, depending on what you’re looking at. For example as a Barbarian you have several different weapons, and some skills will let you choose which weapon is used. It’s weird minutia buried in a menu, but stuff like that is wild to see not only considered but implemented.
That sense of freedom coats Diablo IV’s core gameplay as well. The map is an open world, gradually filling out as you explore without having you load up different zones. And that map is ludicrously populated with stuff to do, whether you’re just messing around, advancing the story or running around with other players. We saw some of this in Diablo Immortal (and other MMO-like games) with world events. There’s also a ton of big dungeons that offer “Aspects,” rewarding you for veering off the critical path. Smaller chunks of content like Cellars and Lillith statues that provide permanent stat bumps are scattered all over the map too, giving completionists plenty of food.
Diablo IV feels like a complete game at launch, and one that offers a staggering amount of both content and freedom to tinker with my character.
As a reviewer working on a limited time frame, with progress deletion looming on top of a spoiler-averse wife and ADHD, I hated Diablo IV. I was never a big fan of the series growing up, only really getting into it as something my wife loved. But I came to enjoy the loop of slaughtering mobs, finding loot and not listening to NPCs vomit dull lore at me. Relaxing and bonding with my significant other with gaming rules! Now, I’ve had the parts I like taken from me and replaced with existential pain and stress. Oh boy! So that’s why, with sadness in my heart, I give Diablo IV a five out of ten.
Just kidding! Obviously there’s no such thing as an objective review, but while my personal experience was flavored by despair, I’m also capable of taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. Once the full game comes out and I can jump in there and engage with it how I like, I know it’s gonna be a blast. There are so many new ways to just goof around and customize my character, and so much more stuff to engage with, I can’t wait to take my time with it alongside my partner. Diablo III was fun too, but it didn’t have the juice to motivate starting over or continuing to play. Diablo IV could easily be a more semi-permanent fixture. And that’s an exciting prospect for me, even after hours upon hours of grinding through it already. Besides, I played Rogue instead of Barbarian so this barely counts as a dry run.
That’s the fascinating thing about games like Diablo IV. There’s so much of it, and so much context, I can see so many ways it can be meaningful for players. It’s because of that near-perfect mixture of agency, progression, social texture and depth. The fidelity and polish afforded by Diablo being… Diablo is crucial as well. Diablo IV is a tremendous game in scale and scope, but it still feels authored and managed instead of bloated and frivolous. That it was put together amid so much external and internal strife and holds together as well as it does is a mind-blowing accomplishment. I’m beyond stoked to start it for real soon.
Gives players tons of agency
Big map full of content that doesn’t feel bloated or stale
Top-shelf production values
Storytelling is delivered dryly outside of cutscenes
Lots of complex menu-drilling
Arguably overcorrected tone
Early review access was provided by the publisher, and was played on PlayStation 5.
Diablo IV is launching on June 6, 2023 for Xbox Series X, PlayStation 5 and PC. The Early Access launch is June 1.