After missing the last two Diablo 4 beta weekends, I was more than a bit eager to hop into Sanctuary for last weekend's Server Slam. Initially, the lack of queues and impeccable presentation made me think that the wait was worth it, but after hours of boredom capped off by a dismal boss fight, I'm now mostly filled with regrets.
I was really taken aback by how conservative those first 20 levels felt. The early game is never where ARPGs shine, but even by the standards set by the likes of Diablo 3, Path of Exile and Lost Ark, Diablo 4 is very restrained, revealing little in the way of novelties or fresh ideas. From the skill trees to the quest design, it all just felt incredibly basic—not what I'd expect from ARPG royalty.
The cutscenes and atmosphere really carried things, but when it came to exploring Fractured Peaks and fighting its many denizens, I was on autopilot the whole time, spitting out lightning and watching everything around me die. My Sorcerer's spells, and the way they worked or were subtly altered by passive skills, were all painfully familiar, so I never had to engage my brain.
Switching to a Druid didn't help. Going down the shapeshifting route, I was less effective than I was as a Sorcerer, but the shapeshifting skills are so uninspired—hit things as a bear, charge at things as a wolf—that I didn't feel motivated to continue. There was absolutely no excitement when I got the opportunity to select a new skill, or surprises when I was able to deploy it.
But like a magpie, I had to get my shinies: the handful of rewards Blizzard was doling out for players who managed to get to level 20 and defeat Ashava, the beta's only world boss. The wolf pup backpack was the only one actually calling to me, but I figured I might as well try to get them all. Which is why, after hitting 20 and really wanting to stop, I persevered and headed to Ashava's stomping grounds.
Setting the Server Slam's level cap at 20 while still keeping Ashava at 25 feels like a form of bullying. Most of the beastie's attacks seemed to be one-hit-kill deals, littering the icy battlefield with the corpses of a lot of frustrated level 20s. Resurrecting a fallen ally is as simple as clicking on them, but you wouldn't know that from how hesitant other players were to lend a hand—even when I was in a party with them.
To be fair, I assume a lot of the folk standing right next to my corpse and refusing to help just didn't realise they could. Up until Ashava, especially if you're on World Tier 1, where the risk is lower, there's no reason to team up with other players, aside from the joy of camaraderie. So, for most people, Ashava was probably the first time they'd encountered a downed player.
Being able to respawn right next to the fight was handy, but respawning degrades your equipment by 10%, and with all those one-hit-kills and the awful cooldown on the evade skill, I suspect a lot of my allies were fighting without the benefits of their gear. Given the alternative, I can hardly blame them.
In one Ashava attempt, I thought I was being very sensible when I teleported back to town to repair the damage, but it proved to be a terrible idea. When I hopped back in the portal, I was deposited in a different instance where Ashava still had most of its health, compared to my previous instance where it looked like we were going to win before the timer ended. I risked one more 'port, but the instance I returned to was one where Ashava had already been defeated.
Ashava's ridiculous reach and the featureless, flat battlefield make the fight especially irritating for ranged characters, since the best way to avoid its most devastating attacks is by sticking right to its arse, at least until the phase where it starts attacking the players to its rear. But my biggest bugbear is how Diablo 4, despite being more like an MMO than ever before, fails to replicate the teamwork component that's inherent to most games in the genre.
I'm just talking about the basic stuff here, like players fulfilling different roles. I don't know what it's like to fight Ashava at 25, but at 20 it's not a monster you can tank. And Diablo 4 doesn't really have support roles. There are some healing abilities, I believe, that can help other players, but you don't have dedicated healers. And that makes sense in a game where your main goal is to eviscerate everything—but less so when you're fighting a single giant boss and everyone is dying.
The shared open world and huge bosses everyone in the area can fight is an awkward match for a game that's still focused on 4-player parties where everyone is on the offence. What makes sense for an instanced dungeon where you'll never see more than three other players doesn't make as much sense when you're looking for trouble in the open wilderness.
Maybe, once we all have a bit more experience with Diablo 4, we'll start to see how classes synergise and these fights will seem more tactical, with more evidence of teamwork. I don't want to judge the whole game just on a beta weekend. But I can't deny that I've been massively put off. I wasn't having much fun before Ashava, and after I finally defeated the bastard I was glad to be done. And this should be an easy sell. I adore ARPGs, and while Path of Exile is my drug of choice, I've still got a lot of love for Diablo. But I'm just not feeling it this time.