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Diablo 4 Hands-On Preview - Stay Awhile and Listen
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:00am 08/12/22 | Comments
Pull up a chair and take a sip from a fresh health potion because we played through the opening hours of Blizzard’s Diablo IV as a Rogue, Barbarian, and Sorceress…


When the original Diablo was in development before its 1997 debut, the team at Blizzard North hit a significant milestone when it decided to find out if the turn-based combat of a gothic dungeon crawler could work in real-time. The test was relatively simple to carry out, and in the space of a day, the team could walk up to monsters, click on them to attack, and watch as they fell dropping gold and loot. It was the moment when the action RPG was born, transforming not only the game but the industry at large.

One of the byproducts of Diablo’s real-time action was just how accessible it made the heady stat-based dungeon crawler, where using the mouse to direct movement and attacks was all you needed. This one-click accessibility has always been at the heart of Diablo, where a deep well of customisation felt almost neverending once you took a peek below the surface.


It wasn’t so much that it was easy to learn and challenging to master, in that Blizzard way of creating games. Learning was the reward, in and of itself. And from there newfound knowledge opened the door to stat-filled, theory-crafting, demon-slaying bliss. Even though it features a wide-open Sanctuary to explore, a nonlinear cinematic story to savour, MMO-like questing and PVP zones, and deep endgame systems where Legendary loot is but one tool to draw on, Diablo 4 still celebrates this core aspect of the franchise.


On the visual front, it comes as no surprise that Diablo IV is a return to the dark and gothic roots of the franchise, and it’s kind of surprising how the game throws you into the deep end when it comes to bleak, overbearing dread.



Getting the chance to go hands-on with a pre-release build of Diablo IV, a game that’s on track for a 2023 release, we got to see a near-final version of Sanctuary and play through the first 25 levels and Act I of the story as either a Barbarian, Sorceress, or Rogue. Or, as it would turn out for me - all three, on repeat. Limited to the first biome, the snowy Fractured Peaks, Diablo IV’s open world feels unlike any other. Structurally more Diablo II meets Diablo III than the vast plains of Hyrule or Skyrim, but you can pick and choose which pathways to follow and where to go. And outside of jumping into dungeons, there are no load screens.



On the visual front, it comes as no surprise that Diablo IV is a return to the dark and gothic roots of the franchise, and it’s kind of surprising how the game throws you into the deep end when it comes to bleak, overbearing dread. You begin in a snowstorm with low visibility and bear witness to horror in a darkly beautiful mix of blizzards and orange fire. The latter isn’t all that inviting, even in cozy fireplace form, with the first dungeon and village setting the tone for danger lurking behind every door and dusty bookshelf.

It’s true to the series, with the level design supporting the action in a way that amplifies every hit. Of course, being limited to the first 25 levels, and getting excited over yellow weapon drops that add a few skill points and buffs to abilities, this preview was just the first whiff of something tasty coming from the kitchen. Starting as the Rogue, the other first impression relates to the feel of combat, which even at low character levels, is fluid and responsive.


One of the reasons real-time combat in the original Diablo worked so well was the simple satisfaction you got from feeling the impact of each hit, spell, or thwack of a large blunt instrument. Diablo IV’s impressive art direction, animation, and world detail take this to a whole new level. Each character now has a dash move, and movement is agile and responsive in a way that puts controller input on par with the traditional keyboard and mouse setup. It’s akin to Diablo III, but with way more diversity.


One of the reasons real-time combat in the original Diablo worked so well was the simple satisfaction you got from feeling the impact of each hit, spell or thwack of a large blunt instrument. Diablo IV’s impressive art direction, animation, and world detail take this to a whole new level.



Best of all skills and abilities don’t feel like the culmination of attack speed, damage over time, and other stats with a fancy elemental overlay. Even though they are exactly that. Blizzard has done a commendable job making each skill and ability feel distinct from a visual, animation, and damage-dealing standpoint. The Sorceress’s Basic Fire Bolt attack shoots out with impressive force, burning enemies to a crisp. The Rogue can dash in, drop Caltrops, fall back and fire a Barrage of arrows with the help of spectral bow wielders. The Barbarian can rip and tear and shake the foundation of Sanctuary itself with a well-timed ground slam.



The combat is polished to the point where the game feels complete. Even though there were several World Events and quests that featured unfinished dialogue and missing elements, it’s good to know that the action side of Diablo IV is in a great state.

Each character has a detailed skill tree to work through, with new categorised abilities unlocking at regular milestones. Getting to Level 25 means unlocking your class’s Ultimate ability, your Rain of Arrows for the Rogue, or your giant flaming snake for the Sorceress. Only one Ultimate can be equipped at any time, but everything else is free for all. Most skills feature their transformative passives to unlock, shaping the ability in a way that best suits your current build. Or experimentation. Basic attacks are the generators, with Core skills being the main damage dealers.


Items can roll with sizable buffs to either Basic or Core skills, or even add skill points to a specific skill further down the line. Or something new you might not have even thought to equip. This is brilliant because each ability and skill feels so well-formed, you could make a selection based on what sounds like the coolest option and justifiably leave it at that. Trying out different skills is easy, and respeccing costs gold in a way that isn’t prohibitive. And you can do it at any point from the Abilities screen.


The combat is polished to the point where the game feels complete. Even though there were several World Events and quests that featured unfinished dialogue and missing elements, it’s good to know that the action side of Diablo IV is in a great state.



Where Diablo IV breaks new ground or takes the series in a slightly new direction, is with Class specific mechanics tied to quests, lore, and their place in the world of Sanctuary. For the Sorceress, you discover ancient texts that allow you to equip a skill as an Enchantment which turns a previously castable ability into a powerful passive. The Rogue has similar class-specific mechanics around movement and being able to draw on what sounds like a fighting game Super Bar. The Barbarian is given the ability to specialise in various Weapons to unlock new passives and power in a classic Elder Scrolls “the more you use it” skill progression sort of way.



It’s deep and rewarding long before you see your first Legendary Item drop. On that front, being limited to the first 25 levels of character progression I only saw a single Legendary for each class. This is about right and the good news is that even though Legendary powers have transformative qualities, they are not the be-all and end-all like in Diablo III. An interesting movement buff here, and a moderate damage boost there.

For the preview, there wasn’t an option to dig too deep into Unique items or fully use the whole extracting Legendary powers thing. That said, there was one new system that stood out and it’s tied to dungeon completion. And speaking of dungeons, Sanctuary is littered with them, with dozens available in the Fractured Peaks biome alone. Some of these are tied to the story, others side quests, but most are just sitting there, ready to tell their own story of slaying demons in detailed environments. From an art and tech perspective, they all look impressive.


Blizzard has previously noted that the full game will feature over 100 unique dungeons, and playing the preview we saw that each dungeon unlocks a Legendary-style passive you can use to augment items. Most are class-specific and tied to skills and playstyles, and some are defensive. Unlocking each one adds it to your account-wide Codex of Power, ready for you to craft your Legendary item from scratch or fire up a new character with powerful items ready to go.


Speaking of dungeons, Sanctuary is littered with them, with dozens available in the Fractured Peaks biome alone. Some of these are tied to the story, others side quests, but most are just sitting there, ready to tell their own story of slaying demons in detailed environments.



It’s a very cool incentive to roll a new character and one that sits alongside the unique class mechanics and the distinct feeling that comes from playing as a Barbarian versus a Rogue. Speaking with Blizzard after playing through the preview I got confirmation that the Codex of Power and its buffs aren’t quite as powerful as what you’d find on a Legendary Item, with some of them being less powerful versions of existing Legendary item stats. The Codex of Power creates more choice and freedom in the act of creating a build, without being beholden to specific items. It’s very cool, and a small part of a much larger collection of systems and mechanics that build on top of each other.



In the end, after a dozen or so hours spent playing Diablo IV, the biggest takeaway was that it felt new and familiar at the same time. Familiar in the sense that it still feels like a Diablo game, and new in how it expands Sanctuary into this massive world to explore alone or with others. Outside of the seamless open Sanctuary and the shared world though, it doesn’t seem to break a lot of new ground when it comes to the traditional isometric action RPG.

Depending on who you are this might be a good thing or a bad thing, as there’s no real environment interaction outside of breaking pots and barrels, and the dungeons are pretty much always “kill x or press this thing” before heading into a boss room. The flip side to this is that the customisation and player choice in terms of build and playstyle feels a step or two above even Diablo II.


The narrative is similar in that there’s a Diablo II-style “following in the footsteps of” structure but presented in a way that is impressively cinematic and thematically richer. The role of Sanctuary, Angels, and Demons, is given a fresh spin - one that revels in the grey of its main villain Lillith. And speaking of Lillith, her introduction is hands-down one of the best real-time cinematic sequences in a Blizzard game to date. Her presence resonates beyond the screen, in a way that’s unsettling and yet oddly inviting. Quite possibly, the best villain in a Diablo game.


In the end, after a dozen or so hours spent playing Diablo IV, the biggest takeaway was that it felt new and familiar at the same time. Familiar in the sense that it still feels like a Diablo game, and new in how it expands Sanctuary into this massive world to explore alone or with others.



This preview barely scratches the surface of what’s on offer in Diablo IV, there are secret account-wide stat boost shrines to discover out in the world, not to mention several World Events and bumping into other players whilst in a town. There’s a lot and after 10 hours there was still well over 70% or more of the map to uncover. Diablo IV is definitely shaping up to be an epic release, and well worth the long wait it took to get here.

And it still remains my most anticipated game release for 2023.
Read more about Diablo 4 on the game page - we've got the latest news, screenshots, videos, and more!



Latest Comments
samatt
Posted 02:30pm 10/12/22
When break ups go bad

Just make the game pong with these cut scenes :)
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