For over 15 years, at least to my mind, nothing came close to matching Diablo 2 at the top of the action RPG heap, including Diablo 3. Then, in 2017, a friend got me to give Path of Exile a shot, and my opinion finally changed. A new champion was crowned.
Diablo 3 has gotten better since its disastrous launch, but for the serious lover of the genre, PoE has been the top dog for years now. Now that Blizzard, with its kajillion dollar budget and huge built-in playerbase, is giving the genre another go with Diablo 4, has Path of Exile finally met its match? Will Diablo 4 crush all those who stand in its path, see them driven before it, and hear the lamentations of their players?
Of course not. There's no way a release-day game can compete in complexity or depth with a game like Path of Exile that's over 10 years old and adds content every three months. I think the better question to ask is whether or not Diablo 4 is going to be released in a state that's playable and enjoyable, one that'll be a strong foundation for Blizzard to build on for seasons to come.
I played the everliving hell out of both Diablo 4 beta weekends, and as a deeply enfranchised PoE player with over 2,500 hours, I think Blizzard can pull that off. To hold my attention for long, though, Diablo 4 will have to evolve in a number of ways before or after launch. Here's where I think Blizzard's return to the APRG needs work, or requires caution.
It's been written, on this site and elsewhere, that Diablo 4 is basically an MMO. There's certainly an argument to be made. The game has an overworld, gathering nodes, mounts, dailies, cities with multitudes of players, rep grinds, world bosses, collectibles, and probably a dozen other things that you wouldn't usually find in an ARPG but that would be right at home in the next World of Warcraft expansion.
A lot of these things are totally fine to have in your videogame, but have tension with the core loop that makes ARPGs great. Am I going to have to go around and click all those godforsaken Lilith statues every three months with a ladder reset? Are a bunch of annoying trolls going to grief me every time I try to take on a world boss? Am I going to get popups about Murloc pets in the new battle pass every time I open the game?
I hope not. I hope that Blizzard changes the fact that every time you level up, you feel like the game just got harder. One of the most satisfying things in an ARPG is hitting a brick wall, something you can't overcome, going somewhere else, leveling up or getting gear, and then coming back with a vengeance. With the overworld and dungeons scaling to whatever level you are, this just doesn't exist in Diablo 4. Everywhere you go, you bring the stronger monsters with you. This kind of system works in an open world game like Skyrim, but in Diablo, I just wanna blast hordes of monsters, get cool abilities and loot, and blast more monsters.
I hope Diablo 4's itemization is better than we saw in the beta, and that unique items are important, flavorful, rare, build-defining items that aren't just more numbers. The gear in the beta was fine, as far as it went. Most of the items were forgettable, interchangeable piles of stats that made my characters stronger. There's promise, however. Some of the legendary affixes open up new playstyles, like the Blood Mist/Corpse Explosion build. The ability to imprint a legendary affix and craft something new is a system with a lot of potential, and the fact that it costs a lot of gold looks like a good early indication that they've given the economy some thought.
I hope that trading in the game works out, and is robust enough to let players build their characters. It can be incredibly frustrating in an ARPG trying to farm for a specific item you need for your build. Trading can alleviate that by letting you farm other things (runes, exalts, Stones of Jordan), and trade for what you need. One of the major reasons I never circled back to Diablo 3 is that you literally still can't trade with people.
This means that everyone has to be able to farm stuff themselves, which means everything has to drop for everyone, which is incredibly boring. I get enjoying a solo self-found experience, but part of what makes that style of play great is that you don't get everything, and you have to improvise. The devs have said that you will be able to trade a subset of items, but not legendaries, uniques, currency other than gold, or anything from the shop. Without the ability to trade for uniques, I'm concerned about certain builds being gated behind RNG, or conversely being so common that they're unexciting.
A lot of whether or not Diablo 4 will be a success will depend on its endgame, something we know precious little about. We at least know that we will use Nightmare Sigils to upgrade existing dungeons to higher difficulties with better loot, but the dungeons will need some work. In the beta, there are very few layouts and they all have issues. Having to wait five seconds to pick up some random MacGuffin, backtrack through areas I've already cleared with no monsters, wait another five seconds to put it on a pedestal, and then go do that again to open the boss door is the worst. (This is something Blizzard specifically mentions in its post-beta retrospective, so that's a good sign.)
'Kill all monsters' dungeons are another problematic design. The famous Diablo 2 quest, Den of Evil, is what these quests are based on, but the Den was created with intention. It was immediately at the beginning of the game, had easy monsters to practice on, and always had the same harmless named zombie at the end to drop a couple magic items for you (I love you, Corpsefire). Repeating this 'kill all the monsters' quest outside this context is both unimaginative and tedious. If they changed this to 95% of monsters, even, it might help to make sure we don't end up backtracking and wandering around in a dungeon with no monsters for an eternity.
UI and the Paragon Board
I hope that they will make improvements to the UI, which in its current state is atrocious. There's no map overlay, and if you actually open the map you can't see your character. There's a delay in seeing what items do when you mouse over them, so inventory management takes forever (and that's before we get into the scrolling you have to do to see the whole item sometimes). Quest tracking is a mess, and why the hell are my combat stats buried inside the same button I use to see how many berries I've picked?
I hope that the Paragon Board gives us a bunch of diverse and interesting builds, and that itemization further complicates the matter. One reason why Diablo 3 feels like such a shallow game is that every season everyone just rushes out, grabs their tier set, and is 95% of where the top players are with 5% of the effort. I was able to try some interesting builds in the beta, but without the paragon board and even some of the classes' specialization quests, it's all still very simple.
I'm at my absolute happiest playing an ARPG when I've got my headphones blasting, I'm crushing Hell Mephisto runs in 45 seconds, I'm offscreening a million mobs with explode BV and clearing t16 maps in a minute, or I'm facetanking Uber Elder with a Molten Orb jugg just because I can. These games let me indulge my inner loot goblin, grow my character to ridiculous heights, and blast stuff. Trudging slowly through a sparsely populated overworld picking herbs or backtracking the same dungeon I've run a thousand times to place the same orb on the same pedestal is probably not going to do it for me.
Diablo 4 is still a gorgeous game with a lot to like. The atmosphere is back to the grim, hopeless feeling that was established all those years ago when we first visited Tristram. The combat is snappy and responsive, and on the builds I made that actually have better movement skills (Twisting Blades/Dash Rogue was a treat), extremely satisfying. If Blizzard can incorporate MMO elements smoothly without losing the sense of speed and pacing of Diablo 2 or Path of Exile, there's potential for greatness here. In the meantime, if you need an ARPG fix, go check out Last Epoch. It's excellent!