Blizzard is trying to make Diablo 4 characters look cool while keeping them 'grounded in reality'

Diablo 4 Barbarian
(Image credit: Blizzard)

A new Diablo 4 quarterly update takes a deep dive into the graphical side of the game, with art director John Mueller, lead character artist Arnaud Kotelnikoff, and associate art director Nick Chilano sharing insights into their stylistic goals and the ways they went about achieving them.

Diablo 4's visual style will almost certainly come under intense scrutiny as the game continues to develop: One of the most persistent criticisms of Diablo 3 is that it was too bright and cartoon-like. The announcement of Diablo 4 pretty clearly promised a return to the "darkness" of the first two games in the series (although whether Diablo 2 was actually as grim and dark as we remember it is a matter of some debate), and the images shared in this update certainly seem more muted than the visuals of the previous game. But it's also definitely not lacking in color and flair.

"When I think back to the beginning, I think at the highest level, our goal was to make the characters in Diablo 4 look as artistic and as hand-crafted as possible using the latest tools and techniques," Mueller said. "Over time, our ambitions around what we thought we could achieve evolved and really solidified into what you see today.

"We wanted to use the latest tools and techniques, but we did have a concern about leaning into 'realism' in a way that wouldn't have that hand-crafted feeling we felt was fundamental to a Blizzard game. We didn’t want the characters to feel procedural or generic because of these processes."

One of the focal points of the update is Diablo 4's character customization system, which will allow players to outfit their characters with hundreds of unique armor pieces as well as detailed facial and body characteristics. An expanded dye system will also let players customize individual pieces of armor, or entire outfits, "in a range of colors that still feel grounded and realistic in the world we’re building."

(Image credit: Blizzard)

The process isn't quite as straightforward as one might assume, at least if not versed in 3D rendering techniques. For example, the artists have to consider how materials will appear in different lighting conditions.  

"Diablo 4 is intended to have a look that is grounded in reality, and to achieve that we need to follow some basic rules of color value, such as PBR [physically-based rendering], which means our materials look and react to light in a realistic way," Kotelnikoff said. "The challenge for the 3D artists is to transfer the color of a concept drawing to a PBR value. For example, in PBR, silver is a very bright grey, almost white, and the reflection of the material makes it look darker. All the characters in Diablo 4 follow the PBR rules, to ensure that our characters look as good in daylight as they do in a dark dungeon."

Each armor set in the game will be available in two body types, as seen in the Rogue and Barbarian sets below:

Blizzard also shared a couple of video clips showcasing the level of detail in the armor sets, their movement and how they'll interact with the in-game lighting.

A handful of enemies get a turn in the spotlight as well, beginning with the Blood Bishop, a "high-level boss based on vampiric blood and magic: who casts direct damage and area-of-effect spells:

There's also the Skeleton Lord, a melee-focused enemy built of bone and bits of meat:

Probably the worst of the bunch is the thoroughly disturbing Spider thing:

And finally, the Succubus, whose wings are for some reason attached to her head, "a detail that needs a closer look to see but doesn’t complicate the look from different cameras":

Like everything else we've seen so far, all of these images are clearly labeled as "pre-alpha," but they look awfully good, and to my eye, at least, definitely more in the vein of Diablo 2 than Diablo 3. I'm not convinced that's going to make Diablo 4 a new action-RPG standard-bearer—I'm inclined to agree with Fraser that the Diablo series faces more fundamental challenges than simply its visual style—but for fans looking for a return to a more overtly dark, gothic vibe, I suspect Blizzard is on the right track.

Diablo 4 does not yet have a release date, and unfortunately this update did not offer up any kind of hint about when it might arrive. It's possible that it could be out in 2022, but we think 2023 or '24 is more likely. Here's everything we know about it so far. 

Andy Chalk

Andy has been gaming on PCs from the very beginning, starting as a youngster with text adventures and primitive action games on a cassette-based TRS80. From there he graduated to the glory days of Sierra Online adventures and Microprose sims, ran a local BBS, learned how to build PCs, and developed a longstanding love of RPGs, immersive sims, and shooters. He began writing videogame news in 2007 for The Escapist and somehow managed to avoid getting fired until 2014, when he joined the storied ranks of PC Gamer. He covers all aspects of the industry, from new game announcements and patch notes to legal disputes, Twitch beefs, esports, and Henry Cavill. Lots of Henry Cavill.