It's fair to say that last time we got to play Diablo 4, during the two initial weekend betas, class balance was a complete mess. Sorcerers were nuking everything in sight while Barbarians struggled to lift their axes, and Necromancers were standing around AFK watching their skeletons clear entire dungeons for them. Blizzard quickly promised buffs and nerfs, so heading into this final beta, the "Server Slam", I was most curious to see what those changes would amount to. The result? I'm left with even less confidence that Blizzard has any idea how to make this game fun.
Barbarians, at least, felt a little stronger than they did before—it wasn't too back-breaking to beat the Den Mother this time around—but they're still substantially slower, weaker, and less versatile than anyone else. Sorcerers remain walking nukes that can kill enemies three screens away. Meanwhile, Necromancers got nerfed so haphazardly that they had to get rebuffed halfway through the beta test, because their skeleton minions were now dissolving in the presence of bosses and leaving them plinking away with pitiful ranged spells.
In short: class balance is still an absolute joke, and worse still, Blizzard has shown no sign of having any vision for what direction changes should be going in. Sure, this is still a beta, but the launch is due June 6, with early access on June 1—we're very unlikely to see substantial tweaks before then. Right now, we're looking at a day one where Sorcerers and Barbarians are not so much playing different games as operating on different planes of reality.
But really, the class imbalance is just a symptom. The real problem is that it doesn't matter whether your favourite class is firing on all cylinders or shooting blanks—none of them are much fun to play.
For a Barbarian, the game is boring because it's a long, slow slog of whacking at spongy healthbars. For a Sorcerer, the game is boring because you just throw out a handful of very similar spells that work in all situations and things melt in your presence. At no end of the spectrum has Blizzard found satisfying, interesting gameplay loops, other than the endless treadmill of watching the numbers incrementally go up.
As I lamented during the last betas, Blizzard hasn't learnt anything about action-RPG combat in the 11 years since Diablo 3. I'd go so far as to say it's stepped backward. As I went into then, fights are slow and awkward, with any potentially interesting combos or loops hamstrung by long cooldowns that prevent any kind of satisfying rhythm. Character building is the worst of both worlds—streamlined and restrictive, with clear intended paths for characters to take, but fiddly enough that theorycrafting is mostly a matter of hunting for keywords.
Even healing is wrong-headed—spellcasters can just ignore their health, while melee characters have to plan every boss fight around when more potions are going to drop, a completely uninteresting subsystem. There are only two ways to die: either you're a character that can't avoid getting hurt, and you simply run out of resources because your DPS isn't high enough to get to the next step of the fight; or you're a character that never gets hurt, but you take a stray hit from an obnoxiously long crowd control effect, and get battered down before you can unfreeze and chug a potion. Neither is at all satisfying or dramatic.
During the Server Slam, everyone had one goal in mind—to kill the world boss, Ashava, and claim their exclusive cosmetic. But the great beast only ended up being the perfect capstone to Diablo 4's problems. As Fraser discovered, fighting it was just a long, tedious slog that made every part of your character feel meaningless. Playing a tanky build? Pointless, because you die in one hit from one of its enormous AoE attacks. Playing DPS? Enjoy watching an enormous healthbar achingly slowly tick down while you spam one spell that it has no visible reaction to. Playing support? No, you aren't—that doesn't exist. Playing a Necromancer? Sorry, all your skeletons got banished to Double Hell and they ain't coming back. All of that slow, tedious grinding of getting to level 20 culminated in an even slower, more tedious grind of a fight.
Sure, it didn't help that Blizzard made the bizarre decision to point us all at a level 25 boss while the beta level cap was reduced to 20, but even a faster, easier version of that fight wouldn't have been any less dull. At its core, the combat is simply half-baked—Blizzard never found the fun, whether you're adventuring alone or teaming up for flimsy MMO-like activities.
I'm more sure than ever that Diablo 4 is bringing nothing new to the action-RPG table. It's big and shiny, and pretty good looking—a lot of people are going to give it a pass for that. Maybe for mindlessly pushing through while you watch TV, it'll do the job for a lot of them. But not only is there no innovation or creativity here whatsoever, there isn't even a basic understanding of how to make an action-RPG engaging—and the ineffective tweaks made so far are a sure sign that one isn't developing any time soon. From a series as genre-defining as Diablo, and a studio as storied as Blizzard, we should expect far better.
But hey, the servers did hold up remarkably well—I'll give 'em that. At least I didn't have to queue up to get my gruel.