Here's a confession: I was all set to dislike the Diablo 4 beta. I was a huge fan of the original Diablo and liked Diablo 2 well enough, but D3 did me wrong and I'm the kind of guy who holds a grudge. But I was curious, and this was one of my rare opportunities to join in on the fun with my PC Gamer pals, and so with expectations set appropriately low, I jumped in this past weekend.
After waiting for some brutal queue times to pass, I finally made it to Sanctuary and rolled up a barbarian, a class I like because it's all about simplicity: Have hammer, will hit. I enjoyed the grim, grey prologue chapter, and the memorable cut-scene in which Lilith introduced herself and made some very good points in favor of Team Evil, and it all seemed perfectly fine, if not much more than that. I figured I was in for something akin to a Call of Duty beta: A free game for a weekend, reasonably fun and eminently forgettable.
My attitude changed when I noticed that it was 2 o'clock Saturday morning and I was still playing. It was a classic "lost in the game" moment, and that's when it hit me: This is Diablo. I'm playing a Diablo game. Real, no bullshit, so-grim-it's-silly Diablo. Big Red is back, baby!
It's not a mechanical match, of course. It's been almost a quarter-century since Diablo 2, in case you'd forgotten about the relentless creep of time, and action-RPGs have evolved immeasurably in terms of depth and complexity over that period. But the vibe is real. It's brutal and bleak, and so much more restrained than Diablo 3. I'm not into numbers and buildcrafting and all that peak-performance bullshit, but the aesthetic is vital—it's the only thing that matters, really—and the Diablo 4 beta nailed it.
What really sealed the deal for me was a moment during a run through a side-quest dungeon. All was going well, I was applying boot to ass as only a barbarian can, until out of nowhere I heard two of the most chilling words ever uttered in a videogame:
The Butcher. An unexpected, and thoroughly unpleasant, beta test surprise from Blizzard.
How many of you ran into The Butcher in @Diablo IV? pic.twitter.com/nzt5biyro0March 19, 2023
It's almost impossible to overstate how terrifying the Butcher was in Diablo. He's the first real boss in the game and absolutely brutal, especially when you've been kicking ass and taking names up to that point without really breaking a sweat. He's a massive, cleaver-swinging menace who'll chase your ass all over the dungeon once he's loose, which is double the fun (which is to say, not fun at all) because you'll end up kiting not just the Butcher but dozens of other mobs behind you as you rush from room to room in a desperate attempt to get away. It rarely ends well.
Diablo 4 handles The Butcher differently than the first game. Instead of holing up in a predictable (and avoidable, if you prefer) room, he's a random spawn: He just turns up to get in your shit while you're doing other things. And you know what? It works, but it sucks, because the approach may be different, but the impact—the momentary freeze, the panic, the oh jeez gotta go—is the same.
For a second after I realized who I was facing, I decided to stand and swing with him. I'm a tough guy, right? I'm a barbarian! I cracked him in the face with my hammer. I think that annoyed him: He swung back and my eyes popped as I watched a significant portion of my health just vanish.
Behold my noble, dignified single combat with the dread beast they call The Butcher. (Apologies for the occasional choppiness, I had some issues with the capture.)
I very quickly decided that I too needed to vanish, and so—shades of OG Diablo—I hauled ass in the opposite direction, with the big man in hot pursuit. The linear level design in Diablo 4 means it's much easier to clear dungeons as you progress through them than it is in the more grid-like Diablo 1, and so I was lucky enough to avoid being caught in the midst of large, angry crowds of mobs as I fled.
I couldn't outpace The Butcher, but my determination to get the hell away from him carried the day: I kept running and he eventually grew tired of my cowardly shenanigans and gave up the chase. After catching my breath, I carefully picked my way through the rest of the dungeon, expecting that he was the boss I'd have to face at the end, and absolutely dreading the moment. He was not. He was gone. I haven't seen him since.
As traumatic as it was, the encounter is what really snapped me to attention. I've played and loved a handful of other action-RPGs in the 23 years (that's right, 23 years) since Diablo 2—Titan Quest and Grim Dawn are particular standouts in the genre—but playing the Diablo 4 beta, I really felt like I was playing a Diablo game. That's special. Will it hold up over the duration of a full game? That'll be an open question for a good while yet. But it's a hell of a strong start, and I'm genuinely eager to blow the next weekend on it. I don't think you can ask for much better than that.