Hands-On With Diablo IV: Dungeon Delving With An Open-World Twist

By Heather Alexandra on at

Diablo IV’s announcement at Blizzcon yesterday was packed with gruesome death. The long-awaited sequel’s tone is dark, and that carries over into the gameplay. My hands-on time with a demo build was exciting. Diablo IV eagerly ramps up the gore and dark magic for an experience that feels old-school but adds a few modern twists.

Diablo IV’s journey has been rocky, as it was conspicuously absent at last year’s Blizzcon. Fans had to make do with Diablo Immortal, a mobile game iteration whose announcement was met with disappointment. There’s been a tumultuous development history, with a Dark Souls inspired project finally giving way to a more traditional game. That project, which became Diablo IV, went by the codename Fenris and had a major design ethos: embrace the darkness. Playing Diablo IV is a bloody experience. Sorceresses wade through crimson rivers, bosses fall apart in fleshy chunks, and innocents are sacrificed to vengeful gods. It’s the return to Diablo II that many fans want, and it’s damn fun to play.

There are only three playable characters announced for Diablo IV at the moment: the barbarian, the sorceress, and the druid. These are classic archetypes familiar to the series. As a fan of flashy magic users, I selected the Sorceress. Starting the demo, I immediately found myself in a dark crypt full of shadowy beasts. My objective was to recover a magical lantern at the behest of a local village chief. Thus began the dungeon delving that Diablo is known for. As a sassy mage lady, I had plenty of great abilities at my disposal. I could conjure freezing rain to slow down enemies or encase them in ice if they lingered in the storm – hitting skeletons and beasts at this point shattered them into frosty bits. If I was in trouble, I could transform into a ball of sparking electricity, rushing around a room to zap foes into dust. Most impressively, I could target an area and call down a massive meteor and blow enemies into bits. My talent tree teased the possibility of snappy teleportation spells and brutal ice blades. It ties into design ethos, which sound supervisor Kris Giampa summed up to me in one word: to make every interaction gratifying.

“We want you to kick ass when you’re in the game,” Giampa said. Even breaking a barrel should feel gratifying. If you were to close your eyes and play the game, you will hear exactly what’s happening. Chopping a goatman in half, squashing him with a boulder.”

The goal is an experience that’s dark and magical, and not too humorous. Diablo IV plays like a deliberate response to criticisms, both from players and within Blizzard that Diablo III was too cartoony. I never really understood that complaint and thought that game had a solid split between dark fantasy and dry wit, but it’s clear that Diablo IV is meant to be a crowd-pleaser more than anything. If that means an extra layer of blood and edge, so be it. Diablo IV feels like a very safe game but there’s no denying that marching through dungeons and blasting apart water-bloated witches is a good time.

There are some new ideas here, too. Diablo IV structures itself more like Destiny than its predecessor. While there is a main story that players can focus on, the world itself is more open and not merely a collection of zones you teleport to. Even in the short demo I played, the map was large and held plenty of side areas to explore. There were cliffs to jump down, walls to climb, and while they weren’t available yet there will be mounts to ride across the larger areas. Other players crossed my path during my travels, and we were able to help each other out or even participate in world events to defeat unique bosses. Diablo IV is more social than previous entries. You can party up with players you meet along the way, trade items with them, and under the right circumstances, fight them. The last is an eagerly awaited feature, but one that the development team is approaching carefully.

“We want PVP to be opt-in,” lead game designer Jesse McCree said. “It’s not fun to be attacked when you least expect it. There will be some conditions for participating but we’re figuring those out. I wouldn’t want you to run into someone with crazy gear who one-shots you as they walk past.”

Diablo IV activities aren’t walled off between different modes or multiple toggles. Non-linearity is another goal. If you want to follow the main story with your friends, go for it. If you simply want to explore the game world for dungeons, go ahead. Wandering around could lead to surprise encounters with players and demons alike. Instead of teleporting from challenge to challenge, the hope is that players will take charge of their own experiences. If there was another key thing to change, McCree told me, it was the pacing.

“The gameplay videos make it look frantic but the pacing is down a little bit,” McCree said. “I think it adds more atmosphere, more time to take things in.”

The result was a Diablo experience that I really enjoy and definitely want to check out again before Blizzcon is over. There’s a focus on pleasing players, bringing back competitive battles and allowing them to focus on what they want. Underneath the gritty looks and the expansive world is the monster mashing gameplay folks love.

“Smashing stuff is really fun,” McCree said.

It’s Diablo through and through, and more Diablo is always a good thing.