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Diablo 4's always-online elements could conflict with its desolate art

Diablo 4 Concept Art
(Image credit: Blizzard)

Diablo 4's crypts feel more hateful than Diablo 3's. They're grimier and dustier, with Bloody Piles that explode like popped blisters in slow-mo. It's also shiner on the whole. Lightning shimmers across wet stone, and sometimes it starts raining outside, coating everything with a wet sheen and dynamically generating muddy puddles. It feels retro in a good way: modern tech with an old, filthy look.

I'm hesitant to draw any big conclusions about Diablo 4, because it will probably be quite different whenever it releases—and that won't be very soon, says Blizzard.

The demo was easy, for one thing. I assume Blizzard didn't want people getting frustrated, especially those on the show floor who had to stand in a long line, so they outfitted us with strong characters. I played the 20-minute demo twice, once as the Druid and once as the Sorceress. In the latter run, I was chewing through heavy enemies like the Drowned Juggernauts—big boys who slam down splash damage attacks—without much worry. My mouse-bound abilities, a little ice projectile and a bigger fire projectile, were more than enough, so I only played with her hotkey abilities to spice things up. I used a health potion just once, and I didn't really need to.

The MMO-ey stuff is in the demo, and might be the biggest change.

There are more slopes and ledges, because the new engine doesn't limit the designers to staircases that mark a floor change. At designated areas, I could climb up or down cliff sides, which is a nice bit of variety, but not exactly wild. One thing was a bit jarring, though: There's a moment in an in-engine cutscene where your character steps onto a ledge and looks over the barren lands, kind of like the opening to Fallout 3. Then the camera tilts down and puts you back into the Diablo perspective. After glimpsing the horizon, I couldn't stop thinking about how it's there. I nearly felt queasy.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

The seamless MMO-ey stuff is in the demo, and might be the biggest change. While walking to a quest marker, I ran into two other players at the event. They fought alongside me for a little bit, silently. During a bit of commotion while I zapped a horde of nasties, they ran ahead and I never saw them again. A tip later showed me that I should press 'O' to group with players who appear nearby.

One of the concerns discussed during a group interview I attended was the challenge of balancing the sense of desolation Diablo's landscapes are meant to evoke and the presence of random other players. As part of that thinking, they don't want multiplayer world events to require too many players.

I wonder if desolation and seamless multiplayer can really coexist, though. The world felt pretty desolate until I saw other players bolting around the first town I encountered, and then running toward the same boss I was. When I encountered that boss—the unremarkable, jelly-filled Merinth of the Deep—I thought about how they'd already slain her in their timeline. I thought of World of Warcraft, and of Disneyland (it's hard not to in Anaheim). There's no queuing or anything like that, but seeing players who are clearly on the same quest, but aren't a permanent part of my world, reminds me that this isn't just my adventure.

Diablo is a multiplayer-focused series, but eight players adventuring in a Diablo 2 game (or PKing each other) generates a different feeling than, 'Poof, here are some other people you can play with, but if not, they'll disappear into the server void and you'll meet more people in the next town.' Again, though, this is clearly a demo designed to be quickly digested at a convention, and the developers are considering these problems. PvP zones will obviously feel very different. 

(Image credit: Blizzard)

The explosions of loot are another reminder that I'm chasing numbers in a compulsive loop, to be fair, but maybe I'm immunized to their mood-breaking effect after playing so much Diablo 2 and 3. Legendary items were plentiful in the demo, and had the silly names I expected. The Sheltering Highland Trousers of Grounding gave me +6 damage reduction from enemies out of melee range, and +13 lightning damage resistance. The Stone of Jordan is a ring that game me +1 Rank to all equipped skills, which is pretty sweet.

Visual character customization is new to the series, but we got preset characters for the demo with two looks and a few abilities chosen for us. For the Sorceress, I had the Frostbolt and Fireball abilities I mentioned bound to the mouse buttons, plus Blizzard for AOE damage and slowdown, Lightning Spear which bounces a bolt between enemies, Meteor for a high-damage AOE attack that has to be timed just right, and Conduit, which turned me into a supersonic lightning god who takes no damage and zaps around the map killing things just by existing.

I only played with her hotkey abilities for the hell of it, but I had fun dodging ranged attacks and targeting big groups with Meteor and Blizzard. Lightning Spear was a 'fire and forget' type of ability that bored me. Turning into "lightning incarnate" with Conduit was fun for showing off to the two players I encountered on the road.

The Druid, who returns from Diablo 2, was more fun. His mouse-bound abilities temporarily transform him into a werewolf or werebear as he attacks, and the latter slams his paws into the ground to gore big lumps of enemies (it's kind of cute, in a bloody way). I was a little disappointed there's no Hemlock Grove-like transformation—it's basically instant—but I like how huge the bear form feels. Walking up to a horde of ghouls and then dashing into them as a towering fur projectile with the Trample ability was fun for the whole 20 minutes. I kind of wish the Druid's human form were smaller to make the transformation more dramatic.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Diablo 4 will be online-only again—let's hope for no Error 37 this time—but there are currently no plans for the same kind of marketplace Diablo 3 launched with. There'll be guilds and player trading, but how that'll all work isn't nailed down. PvP was planned from the start. The quality of life improvements Diablo 3 launched without are all there, and setting waypoints on the map and then getting a Google Maps-like guideline on the minimap is great. The spacebar dashing is nice, too—if you're going to include big, telegraphed attacks, it's kind to include a way to escape them.

Along with the grimier art, Diablo 4 is a very 'we've heard your feedback' game, though with some concessions for modernity, in that it's an online game and answers about in-game monetization have been vague. I can see building guilds, braving PvP zones, and making connections to strangers being great. I can also see it distracting from the sense of loneliness I sometimes enjoy in Diablo games. Perhaps there'll be a way to turn off player encounters (I'll ask).

A lot can change between an early preview and release, as we've seen in many other games these past several years. I had fun playing the Diablo 4 demo, but it's just a statement of intent. It's going to be more online, but in good ways, Blizzard says. It's going to be bloodier. It's not going to repeat past mistakes. It's encouraging on the whole, but I'll need more than 40 minutes of poking at Diablo 4's bloated corpses before I say anything definitive. 

Tyler has spent over 900 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.