I feel like I’m supposed to mention up front that I’ve got a friend who worked on Diablo 4, even though it won’t make a difference in what I’m writing about the game, I’m not a game reviewer, and I’ve got a new policy where I don’t waste time writing about stuff I don’t like when there’s so much stuff that I do like.
After I tried the open beta, I said that I was impressed enough by the game’s introduction that I was re-considering my belief that story is superfluous in Diablo games. As much as I love these games — I have bought at least two versions of every entry so far, across multiple platforms and remasters — I’ve always had this condescending idea that all of the art and lore and such are just fancy dressing on a random number generator.
Now that I’ve played through that opening sequence three times1Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game, I’m not so sure that it holds up as well to repeat viewings. It’s still extremely well done, but this is a game that encourages you to create multiple characters, but then puts them into a story that ostensibly relies on surprise and discovery. I was starting to fear that the game had gotten so much larger than its simpler action-RPG roots that it had succumbed to the scourge of ludo-narrative dissonance.
After several hours more play-time2It feels like I’ve been playing for a long time, but the various challenges and world map and quest log makes me think I’ve only just barely scratched the surface, I feel like Diablo 4 is so far on the other side of that discussion that any early-to-mid-2000s theories about video game storytelling are completely irrelevant. The longer I play, the more I realize that everything in the game is in the service of being fun and feeling like a complete bad-ass.
I think my favorite example of that is the sequence that plays out whenever you level up. As in previous games, your character is fully healed, your mana/energy is refilled, and you get a new skill point to spend. In Diablo 4 — I can’t recall if this also happened in earlier games, but if so, it wasn’t done as memorably — your character also sends out a shock wave that does damage to every enemy on screen. It won’t immediately win a boss fight or knock out an elite enemy. But if you’ve been dogpiled by a bunch of lower-level enemies, then the game instantly goes from heated battle to complete calm, as your character stands in the center of a ring of foes they’ve obliterated.
Like so many other aspects of this game, it’s got such a satisfying weight to it. Barrels explode, crates splinter, and coins and loot go flying just as you’d expect in a Diablo game, but this one applies that same kachunk and thud of gratifying power to just about everything. Doors slam, hammers pound, demons are taken out in a flurry of blades too fast to see.
A lot of games feel like a power fantasy, but I think Diablo goes beyond that. It’s more a visceral, deep-down feeling of oh hell yeah. It feels like a perfectly balanced, crafted, and tempered machine in which every component is designed to make you feel like a total bad-ass. Sure, I admit that I have compared the almost sinister perfection of its schedule of dopamine hits to a slot machine or a roulette wheel, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying!
And that level-up sequence has all the feeling of satisfaction as earlier games, but like so many things in Diablo 4, presented with an absurd level of artistry and technical mastery. The whole game feels like the platonic ideal of Diablo; everything the series has been trying to do is realized here. I keep thinking that Diablo 4 is the game that was in my imagination while I was playing Diablo 2, which is some of the highest praise I can give to a video game.
For a long stretch at the beginning of the game, I worried that it had been over-produced and over-stuffed to the point of being at odds with itself. As I already mentioned, I wondered if the story might be too elaborate for the get-out-and-murder-lots-of-stuff pacing of the game. Not just with pacing, but is it tonally off? Do we really need a 5-minute cut-scene about humanity’s resilience in the face of apocalypse when the game itself is 90% just pressing the left mouse button over and over?
That kind of tonal dissonance is all over the place. The game’s setting is impossibly, almost comically bleak: miserable people trying to survive in the most inhospitable, endless winter while beset by monsters and demons of all sorts, as bodies literally pile up all around them. But it’s all so beautiful! The environments are so detailed and so impressive, the lighting is just right, the scope is so vast and varied3Even within hostile, frozen-over snowscapes, there’s beauty and variety! that it makes you eager to visit the next miserable town filled with awful people.
And sure, you’re constantly surrounded by slime and entrails and viscera, but see how it glistens!
As I was making my way through a mountain-top temple filled with bandits and werewolves, which felt like it could’ve been an entire game at some of the studios I’ve worked at, but here was just one early dungeon among dozens, I wondered whether the game had just become too big and expensive and bloated. Whether the series and the company it helped make profitable had gotten too successful for their own good, too far away from the simpler roguelike dungeon crawl that had inspired the original. I was going through corridors that were gorgeous and must have been incredibly expensive to produce, but they were just a backdrop to my click-click-clicking my way through another wave of enemies, passed by in under a minute.
But then in the middle of a fight, I leveled up. And the shockwave killed every monster in the room. And I was left in the quiet — as the music perfectly matched the tempo of the scene, the same as it seamlessly transitions from calm to climax in seemingly every battle — and beautiful abandoned room, and I realized I’d been missing the point.
Not just about Diablo but about a lot of the things I’ve been overthinking lately. I’ve been hung up on whether it’s melodrama, or meant to be taken seriously or some type of over-the-top grimdarkness to offset the core gameplay loop, or none of those, or some combination of all of those. And I realized that it doesn’t matter one bit, as long as it all feels right.
And for this long-time Diablo fan, it feels exactly right. I’ve been playing at my own pace, on the easiest difficulty, and so far it’s been meeting me at every step, finding new ways to keep me engaged and keep me going. It feels like the whole experience has been perfected to deliver those moments of victory over and over again, but also that nothing’s been compromised for the sake of delivering that.
Just as with any other video game, there’s always been stuff in Diablo that doesn’t make sense. Like how a swarm of insects could drop a full-sized pike when you kill them. It doesn’t matter, and it has never mattered. Diablo 4 feels like the team spent all their time trying to perfect the stuff that matters.
- 1Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game
- 2It feels like I’ve been playing for a long time, but the various challenges and world map and quest log makes me think I’ve only just barely scratched the surface
- 3Even within hostile, frozen-over snowscapes, there’s beauty and variety!