Over the last week or so, we've spent around 20 hours with a preview build of Diablo 4 on PS5, with near full access to a generous (and mostly snowy) chunk of the game's open world map. Complete with a series of main story missions and a range of side quests, it's fair to say that we've developed a decent idea of what the upcoming action RPG is all about.
The short version is that Diablo 4 is more 'grounded' than Diablo 3, while also being much more ambitious in terms of scope. There's no doubt that it still feels like Diablo, but it's Diablo in the mould of a somewhat traditional role-playing adventure, as you journey from village to town to city, solving people's problems and battering all manner of monsters along the way.
You still have your hub areas — in the build we played, our central port of call was the distinctly grey town of Kyovashad — but there's a clear emphasis on exploration in this long-awaited sequel. Again, Diablo 4 is set within an open world, populated with roving bands of beasts, procedurally generated events, and distressed quest-givers. You're very much free to go and do whatever you like, although some regions demand a higher player level than others, lest you be pulled apart by much stronger foes.
Based on what we've played, the game does an admirable job of coaxing you into trekking off the beaten path. It almost feels like an isometric Skyrim at times, thanks to a map that's peppered with dungeons and points of interest, purposefully teasing you away from your current objective marker. And, of course, that's without mentioning the promise of all-important loot, found in treasure chests and dropped by slain enemies.
Despite playing an unfinished — and content-capped — build, we couldn't help but become invested in our character's progression. Diablo's addictive qualities are already shining through, as the game keeps you hooked with equipment drops and a near constant influx of experience points. Even the skill tree's branching design pulls you in, forcing you to choose between different abilities and then different versions of those abilities. It's not long before you're thinking about increasingly effective character builds, resetting your skill point allocation for a small sum of gold before committing to an entirely new and exciting style of play.
Indeed, there's a lot of room for experimentation here, especially since you can always wander out into the open world and put your combat prowess to the test with no limitations. We only had access to three character classes — the Barbarian, Rogue, and Sorcerer — but each of them feels as unique as you'd expect, and that only becomes more and more apparent as you work your way through the aforementioned skill trees.
However, level 25 was the cap in this preview version, which means that we could only get a taste of what a super powerful protagonist might play like. We can say, though, that there's definitely a more tactical edge to Diablo 4's combat. Perhaps the biggest change from Diablo 3 is that battles aren't just you crunching your stats against your opponent's — at least, not in these opening hours. You're still cycling through your abilities and making the most of your gear, but the lack of automatic health regeneration means that you need to make use of healing potions when things get dicey.
As such, combat is about being efficient. Correctly positioning yourself before unleashing a high-damage ability can make all the difference, and that's where the game's new dodge mechanic comes into play. Dodging is on a five-second cooldown now, so it has to be used sparingly, like when you've got no choice but to evade a boss' special attack. The result is that Diablo 4's fights have a much more deliberate flow to them, and to top it off, everything feels weightier. Not to a point where responsiveness is impeded, but if you're familiar with Diablo 3's arcade-y approach, you'll notice the added crunchiness.
This weightiness is present in the animations, too. Every attack has a heft to it, and the visual effects can be oh-so satisfying. One ability in particular, the Barbarian's 'Upheaval', is a perfect example: the warrior rips his or her two-handed weapon through the ground, hurling slabs of rock and earth towards the enemy. The whole animation is pleasingly brutal, especially as the projectiles crush your foes.
But the most important thing is that Diablo 4 feels great to play, even at this early stage. Once you've unlocked a suite of abilities that you can mix and match, there's a fantastic sense of rhythm when you're cleaving through hordes of creatures.
Going up against bosses hasn't felt quite so rewarding, however. In an obvious bid to try and differentiate proper boss battles from standard skirmishes, big baddies have clear attack patterns and chunky health bars. That's nothing necessarily new for Diablo, but the bosses we fought in this preview build had a habit of relying on bullet hell-esque sequences that didn't quite click. Dodgy hitboxes and poor readability often made these sections a bit of a chore, and that's not ideal when you're working with a limited number of health potions.
Hopefully the boss battles are improved ahead of the full game's release, because outside of these somewhat awkward encounters, our short stint with Diablo 4 has been a blast. Its addictive loot and character progression systems appear to be in place, while the move to an open world structure seems to bring a newfound appreciation of the setting to the experience.
In some ways, this fourth instalment in Blizzard's long-running franchise is a melding of Diablo 2 and Diablo 3. It's the latter's approach to punchy combat and potentially dizzying power trips, but it's also the former's love of fantasical horror. This is especially true of the game's main story — which we can't say too much about — but it's most definitely leaning into that darker side of the series. And the art direction really plays into this as well — it's an unashamedly grim adventure, but it's all the more engrossing for it.
Diablo 4 is one to watch out for in 2023, then. While there are some parts of the game that long-time fans may not be immediately fond of — such as the title's MMO-like, shared player hubs — this feels like an inevitable evolution for the property, complete with promises of long-term, live service support. The proof, as always, will be in the pudding — but based on what we've played of Diablo 4 so far, we're hyped to hell and back.
Are you looking forward to Diablo 4 next year? Are you a big fan of the series? Start planning out your character in the comments section below.