Diablo IV - Darkness Returns as We Delve Deep Into The Long-Awaited Return to Sanctuary
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 01:45pm 13/11/19 | Comments
Formally announced and even playable at BlizzCon 2019, Diablo IV sees the action-RPG return to its darker and more sinister roots.
Throughout the ‘90s and into the early years of naughts, the Blizzard sequel could be viewed as an almost definitive edition compared to the proof-of-concept nature of its predecessor. Compare Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995) to Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994). Improved real-time strategy combat, cinematic storytelling, and scope to spare. The same could be said of Blizzard North’s Diablo II (2000), which moved the action far beyond the labyrinthian crypts found below the sleepy town of Tristram.
The definitive edition in this case propelled players into the wider world of Sanctuary, from abandoned towns and villages to windswept and desolate sandscapes, to eventually venturing underground and into the depths of Hell. Improved strategic depth, timeless action-RPG combat, cinematic storytelling, and scope to spare.
Where you go from there becomes a matter of evolution or gliding through the subsequent years on the winds of change. After its somewhat shaky debut, Diablo III came into its own with the release of 2014’s Reaper of Souls expansion. Arriving well over a decade after Diablo II, the shift towards faster, fluid combat, with character progression and build diversity that focused on speed and becoming the style of superhuman demon slayer that you wanted to be - felt like a shift and change in direction for both the series and the genre.
“[Diablo II had] improved strategic depth, timeless action-RPG combat, cinematic storytelling, and scope to spare.”
With Diablo III there was also a sizable dose of high fantasy that injected colour into the world of Sanctuary. A shift away from the darker, gothic vibe of the first two releases. Which, admittedly, was dialled back a bit with Reaper of Souls. Both then and even now it was hard to shake the feeling that a little bit of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002) had managed to jump a few tables to find its way into the new millennium’s vision for Sanctuary and the Nephalem. And the design of Diablo III’s look and feel.
This is not an indictment of Diablo III – or Warcraft III. Both are brilliant. It’s more of a roundabout way of saying something cliché like “take a step back before you decide to leap forward”. Or Yoda-like, with “leap forward you must, take a step back first you will.”
In other words, Diablo IV is dark and bleak in a way that evokes the desperation that permeated the towns and villages and locations seen in Diablo and Diablo II. Bleakness for bleakness sake, or gore for the sake of gore, this isn’t. As captured perfectly by the simply stunning cinematic short ‘By Three They Come’, there’s beauty to be found within Diablo IV’s brand of horror. Seeing the daughter of hatred, Lilith, standing with a sinewy and translucent cape made of blood in the closing moments of this stunning cinematic debut – is an image that you simply cannot help but stare at in complete awe.
Emerging from a cavernous crypt to wander the grassy hills of an overcast and dreary Scosglen in Diablo IV, you see a small village in the distance. Between you and that peaceful respite – monsters, beasts, goat men, and other creatures to slay. The new real-time cinematics that feature heavily in Diablo’s return allow Blizzard to highlight and put a focus on character as well as the vast open world of the now seamless Sanctuary to explore.
“Seeing the daughter of hatred, Lilith, standing with a sinewy and translucent cape made of blood in the closing moments of this stunning cinematic debut – is an image that you simply cannot help but stare at in complete awe.”
From dynamic weather effects, art direction that highlights the stark contrast between light and shadow, seeing things like the grass sway according to the whims of the wind, the day-night system that can change the overall feel of the familiar in an instant, to the improved geometric detail in the environments – Diablo IV looks incredible. Like some of the most evocatively dark concept art for the series come to life.
And then, like clockwork, the camera settles into that familiar isometric position and you begin to fully grasp the tagline - ‘A Return to Darkness’.
Diablo IV is being built on a new engine, and surprisingly is not utilising the underlying tech first seen in Diablo III. It has been (and continues to be) designed in this manner to accommodate a clear shift away from the linear approach of the three previous entries. In its place quests, human stories of despair and strife to discover, characters to meet, and a plot that covers a single, continent-sized chunk of Sanctuary. According to Blizzard you could make the trek from the tip of Scosglen right down through the sandy dunes of the Dry Steppes, over the ice capped Fractured Peaks, and right into the swamp lands of Hawezar without encountering a single load screen.
And you could choose to do that at any point during the main questline.
The world is so large that Diablo IV will for the first-time feature mounts, and each class will have their own special dismount attack ability. When it comes to dungeons, of which there will reportedly be hundreds – sporting randomly generated Diablo III Greater Rift-like layouts (with each dungeon being unique in both look and feel) – this also means no loading the deeper you delve into the unknown. A dungeon in Diablo IV could begin in an outdoor setting before you enter a cave or crypt, and then descend into a pit of light and shadow. And blood.
All this in a shared world that you can experience alone, with friends, or randomly grouping up with ten or so Nephalem to take on a giant world boss in a public event. Described in this manner one could assume that this is Diablo by the way of World of Warcraft, an always online action-RPG with MMO tendencies and design. And based on that assumption one could begin to wonder if Diablo IV, outside of its overall look, was perhaps a return to darkness in, well, tone only. And not the spiritual successor to Diablo II certain fans have been waiting many years for.
“The world is so large that Diablo IV will for the first-time feature mounts, and each class will have their own special dismount attack ability.”
After playing through the BlizzCon demo multiple times with each of the three playable classes – Barbarian, Sorceress, and Druid – let’s try and dissuade those notions with a little alchemical wisdom. Diablo, in many ways, defined the action-RPG genre. The style of game where an isometric perspective blends with simple to learn action and deep role-playing customisation. Dungeon dwelling by the way of clicking on nasties and hovering over coloured text to get the mathematical gist of a potential change of pants.
Exploring the surrounding lands in lieu of following the main story to discover a menacing high-level dungeon – feels like Diablo. Seeing the camera pull back to reveal Ashava and many other players ready to do battle with this monstrous demonic force – feels like Diablo. And when the word Diablo in this instance could be replaced with the genre that it helped define – the action-RPG – getting to play this early version of Diablo IV, there wasn’t a moment where the balance shifted or felt like the series was evolving into an always online live service along the lines of World of Warcraft.
All its elements, from the dark tone to the wonderful animation to the familiar skills of the playable classes, and yes even the online stuff, are in service of Diablo IV as a pure action-RPG. According to Blizzard you’ll be able to play the entire campaign solo, without ever running into other players.
There’s also quite a bit of thought and care gone into every darkened corner.
At a glance, and on a pure comparison level, Diablo IV looks more like Diablo II than III. But there’s a pace, rhythm, and fluidity to the movement and action that feels like an extension of the excellent combat found in Diablo III. It’s not quit as fast or flashy but seeing things like a dedicated evade button (taken from the console release of Diablo III) in addition to the way Blizzard has put an emphasis on animation being in service of the player is commendable. For the Barbarian, who can now wield four weapons (two two-handers and two one-handers) triggering skills that utilise either combination of demonic cutlery will seamlessly break the current animation cycle to instantaneously begin the next attack.
“All its elements, from the dark tone to the wonderful animation to the familiar skills of the playable classes, and yes even the online stuff, are in service of Diablo IV as a pure action-RPG.”
For the Druid, a class that hasn’t been seen since Diablo II, being able to shape-shift into a bear or wolf follows a similar approach. On a pure artistic level there’s a Stan Winston quality to the metamorphosis that happens on-screen when you activate, for lack of a better term, Beast Mode. You can see the exact moments where the Druid is more human than beast, and vice versa. But, in being in control of a character, activating skills or pulling of various manoeuvres, there won’t be a need to wait until the transformation sequence is over. Not even for a split second.
Wonderful animation with flowing liquid metal-style responsive controls, Diablo IV is thrilling to watch and tactical to play. Even in its early state Diablo IV’s movement and combat feel make it the sort of game and experience people are referring to when they say things like “the controls are smooth” or “it controls great”.
Without a specific release date, and one of the reasons this article has referred to the playable slice of Diablo IV as an early demo, is because the sense we got from speaking to Blizzard during BlizzCon was that development still had a long way to go. Being able to travel from one side of the continent to the other - well, we’re pretty sure most of Sanctuary still needs to be built.
That said, even as pre-alpha or proof-of-concept or even as a vertical slice, Diablo IV was polished and felt confident. Long after the battle with the Drowned Witch was won, and the demonic blood washed clean from our armour and weapons of destruction, the one side of the action-RPG that the most diehard fans of the genre look at for inspiration, has a distinct and clear direction. This being itemisation and how skills and talents work.
Its deep, complex, and intricate in ways that are truly exciting. Blizzard has a plan and was happy to share the details. Talent trees are back and the ability to level individual skills like the Barbarian’s whirlwind ability or the Druid’s big bear attack already adds layers to the somewhat lacking nuance found in Diablo III’s skill-and Rune system. Runewords are returning in Diablo IV with a cause and effect approach that opens the door to numerous combos like – “Whenever you use a health potion, your next five attacks will automatically be Critical Hits.” Sockets in Rare (yellow) items lead to potential builds without the need for Legendary Items at all.
“Its deep, complex, and intricate in ways that are truly exciting. Blizzard has a plan and was happy to share the details.”
Coupled with how the team is approaching Legendaries as more than things that buff damage numbers or individual class skills, it all begins to sound like action-RPG heaven. By the way of hell. With an emphasis on class fluidity between Legendary bonuses, build diversity is a key focus for the team at Blizzard. Set items will make a return but Legendary items and builds built on combinations will be the more powerful approach – with players, again, left to create and hone their classes and characters based on how they want to play versus doing the things that set bonuses tell you to do.
All of this was merely glimpsed in the demo on hand at BlizzCon, with items Legendary weapons and Runewords all present. Blizzard being so open about its choices and reasoning when it comes to this side of the experience make Diablo IV sound a lot further along than it probably is.
The question now becomes, how long until we all get to play it? To take those first steps into a wider Sanctuary. To spend several minutes customising the look and facial features of our own Barbarians, Sorceresses, and Druids. To pour over armour details and talent trees before taking a moment to centre ourselves as we delve into an underground ruin lit by the menacingly warm glow of a strange fire.
The approach Blizzard is taking with Diablo IV is, above all, reassuring. And for the moment, just knowing it exists is enough to tide us over. For a little longer at least.