The Diablo 4 closed and open betas have run their course, and we must admit, we're fairly impressed. Boasting a sizable amount of content alongside a level cap of 25, the beta provided the perfect opportunity to see how Blizzard's upcoming action RPG is coming together. For the sake of clarity, we had already played much of what was present in the beta via a limited preview build last year — and it was great to see just how far the project has progressed.
That previous build was very much a work in progress, complete with placeholder dialogue and developer workarounds for parts of the adventure that simply didn't exist yet. But even with those drawbacks, we still enjoyed our early trip to the world of Sanctuary, and the potential was clear to see.
With the beta, much of that potential seemed realised. We're looking at an evolution of the Diablo formula here — an ambitious implementation of a massive open world map and the introduction of an always online, shared experience. That latter point is something that we're not totally sold on, but it does feel like the developer is finally able to capitalise on the richness of Sanctuary by opening it up to freeform exploration.
In this article, we're going to run through our main takeaways from the beta, and what we're now expecting from the full release — which is still targeting the 6th June.
A Step Up in Storytelling?
Diablo 4 still has a main campaign that tells a suitably dramatic story, but it's now spread across the aforementioned map, broken up by loads of side quests and optional adventuring. The beta featured a large chunk of Act I, and it's abundantly clear that Blizzard has poured a lot of resources into in-game cutscenes.
Simply put, this is the most cinematic the series has ever been. A good thing from a storytelling perspective, but we did find ourselves skipping through longwinded dialogue here and there. Perhaps it's because we knew that we were in a time-limited beta, but it's always been difficult to fully invest in a Diablo narrative — especially when there's such a heavy focus on the addictive action.
We're also a bit worried that the plot will quickly devolve into a very predictable series of events. In the beta, our eyes rolled when supporting character Nyrelle — a talented but naïve young woman — decided on finishing her mother's clearly corrupted plans to commune with a demonic entity. Always a good idea!
The thing is, we could stomach the predictable plot points in Diablo 3 because they were over so fast. But if Diablo 4's keen on pushing a more involved story, then it's got to keep us engaged with intriguing twists and likeable characters. Anything less, and we might be reaching for that skip button...
A Better Sense of Adventure
We've already touched on this, but there's an enjoyable sense of adventure to Diablo 4 — arguably something that was missing in its predecessors. Your character's a wanderer, and you certainly feel like one when you're trudging over snowdrifts and wading through swamps. The world is still broken down into what are effectively zones, but they're now seamlessly connected to one another, with towns and villages peppered in between.
Diablo 4's open world manages to feel both freeing and quite oppressive. Tracking down an elusive objective marker as you battle through hordes of monsters makes for some fun journeys, especially since the map itself is only revealed as you progress. Throw in optional dungeons and side quests, and it starts to feel a bit like an isometric Skyrim; there's always something that's trying to tempt you from the beaten path, and so it's all too easy to get sidetracked for hours on end in an impressively organic fashion.
Deliberations Over Dungeons
Blizzard says that Diablo 4 is absolutely stuffed with dungeons, and based on the beta, we believe it. However, there is a concern that these handcrafted delves will start to get a bit... tedious in the full release.
Past Diablo titles have built their endgames around dynamic dungeons — locations where your character's build will be put to the test, rewarding you with powerful equipment upon completion. And so actually playing through them needs to be engaging, even when you're on your tenth run of the day.
In Diablo 4, dungeons seem to be rather static. The same enemies, the same layout, the same objectives. Now, again, there are supposed to be over 100 dungeons in the finished product, but even in the beta, we were starting to notice the copy and paste nature of these locations. This was especially true of the 'cellars' — one-room dungeons that barely seemed worth the effort of going through a loading screen.
Taking the game's open world structure into consideration, it's possible that our dungeon concerns are premature; it does feel like Diablo 4 is built to encourage exploration, instead of running through the same environments over and over again. But for hardcore players, we do wonder whether the dungeon design will be a sticking point.
The Art Direction Is Immaculate
The art direction and the sheer amount of detail in Diablo 4 is seriously impressive. From the atmospheric lighting and painstakingly made assets to the mouth-watering weapon and armour equipment designs, this is absolute peak Diablo.
Blizzard has basically crafted a fully 3D world that boasts a level of detail you'd find in a AAA release... and then it's zoomed the camera out. The result is an almost diorama-like presentation, where zooming the camera back in reveals all kinds of tiny visual touches. It's a truly gorgeous game at times — despite the decay and disrepair — and we're very excited to see more of what Sanctuary has to offer.
Always and Perhaps Unnecessarily Online
We're not sure how to feel about Diablo 4's shared world. Yes, you can play the whole game solo if you want, but in the beta, that didn't stop you from running into other players, both in towns and out in the wild. Diablo's a solemn experience at its core — it's always been about your lonely stand against the forces of hell — and so there's something oddly distracting about stumbling across another all-powerful adventurer.
Now look, it's not like Diablo 4 is overcrowded or anything. These chance meetings appear to be fairly rare, and thankfully, you don't encounter other players in dungeons, where they could potentially speed ahead and kill the boss before you're anywhere close (we're looking at you, The Elder Scrolls Online).
But still, we're left wondering why we have to see other players going about their business in a Diablo game. It doesn't really make Sanctuary feel more alive (if anything, seeing other players dart around actually damages immersion), and let's face it, if we're going to play co-op, chances are that we'll be inviting friends.
You do have world events to think about, we suppose. The beta featured a range of shared-space activities that encouraged players to work together in order to defeat strong enemies or complete challenges. That kind of stuff can be cool, but the cynical side of us fully expects hardcore players to demolish these events before anyone else gets a shot.
Character Progression Concerns
It's impossible to judge a game's character balance on a beta, but we do feel as though some adjustments will have to be made in the final build. Just to recap, the beta featured all five playable classes: the Barbarian, Sorcerer / Sorceress, Rogue, Necromancer, and Druid.
If you spent time with two or three different classes, then you'll have probably realised that some have a much easier time of slaying demons than others — at least initially. More specifically, we found the Sorcerer and Necromancer to be incredibly straightforward and powerful right from the word go, while melee-based classes like the Barbarian and Druid could seriously struggle against certain types of enemies.
There's a disconnect in how Diablo 4's combat plays out between classes, and in the beta, the gap was so extreme that your choice of character could paint your experience in a completely different light. In short, it feels like close quarters combatants are at a near constant disadvantage — at least until you're stacked with legendary items.
Fortunately, the act of mowing down hordes from hell feels great at its core thanks to chunky animations and sound effects, but ideally, levelling up certain classes should never feel like a slog.
And then there are the skill trees, which, while well presented and easy to understand, can come across as a little undercooked at times. In the beta, some skills — across all of the classes we played — simply rose well above others, making specific character builds feel underwhelming almost immediately. Balance is never easy in a game with multiple characters (and it's even harder with branching skill trees), but for the sake of build diversity, Diablo 4's full release is going to have to smooth things out.
This point becomes even more important when you start to consider legendary weapons and armour, and the unique effects that they bestow. In a similar way to how Diablo 3 worked, legendaries look like they're going to be crucial in creating effective character builds — and that's a slippery slope.
The biggest criticism of this kind of system is that your style of play is heavily dictated by whatever legendaries you happen to find, which goes against the idea of forging your own path, relying and building upon the skills that you enjoy using. Hitting the beta's max level revealed signs of this strategy, and we can't see it going down particularly well with some players — not when it was already a point of contention in the previous game.
So, we enjoyed our time with the Diablo 4 beta, but it has raised some questions and concerns ahead of the action RPG's June launch. Obviously, the finished game could well laugh in the face of our potential criticisms — and we're hoping that it does — but what did you think of the beta? Gear up in the comments section below.
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