Reception to Diablo 4's early access beta has been broadly positive, and I can understand why. With its darker atmosphere, visual polish and enormous world, it makes a striking first impression. But the more I got into the real meat of the game—the combat—the more I felt like Blizzard hasn't learned anything about action-RPG design in the 11 years since Diablo 3 came out.
I started out as a Barbarian, which it appears was my first mistake. This melee-focused class, in its current state, makes every fight an uphill struggle—low damage and a limited ability to stay out of danger meant my focus was mostly on boring things like health potion management, and even basic enemies felt like a slog to wade through.
Switching over to Sorcerer, the experience was completely the opposite. Bouncing lightning spells made short work of anything that dared to get within a mile of me, and it was trivial to stay out of damage range. Spells that work as well for single target damage as crowd control ensured I never had to engage my brain.
It's a bad enough contrast that Blizzard has already said it's working on buffs and nerfs. People have said playing these two classes is like playing two completely different games, and to a large extent that's true. But my concern is, I don't think either is particularly fun, largely because of the problems that they do have in common.
After the wild superheroics of Diablo 3, it's clear Blizzard's intention here is to create something a little slower and more grounded. But it doesn't seem to have any idea how to do that without just literally taking Diablo 3's combat and making it slow. Enemies have spongier healthbars, and attacks take their time coming out. Key skills that should be your satisfying finishers are stuck on super long cooldowns that prevent you from getting into any kind of good rhythm. Even your active dodge takes 5 seconds to recharge, making your character feel sluggish and unresponsive during hectic boss fights.
Though the skill tree tosses some of Diablo 3's more obnoxious hand-holding, it's essentially still in the same format, offering very few real choices and combo opportunities. Skills are slotted into different categories that very strongly define their role, pushing you to take one of each in the exact configuration Blizzard wants you to. The game literally tells you: this one is for defence, this one is for repositioning, etc. Those long cooldowns and tight constraints on what generates and what spends resources all discourage experimentation or unusual combinations.
The result is it doesn't feel like you're creating a build, it feels like you're scanning through the skills trying to find the builds Blizzard wants you to use. Playing a Barbarian with the bleed attack as your basic skill? Well then you're going to want to take all the subsequent skills that mention bleed. Your only ability to break the mould is via legendary abilities assigned to items—to Blizzard's credit, those are now earnable almost right from the start, instead of being endgame goals, but all they do is give you more set templates of what goes with what in the developer's eyes. Theorycrafters will have these classes 'solved' in weeks.
If Blizzard's going to tell me what to build, then at the very least their guidance should lead to fun gameplay loops—but as it stands, it simply doesn't. In theory, my Barbarian's strategy was all about stacking up bleed damage, and then hitting a finisher that triggers all bleed damage at once and spreads it around to nearby foes. In practice, the finisher's lengthy cooldown means that's a loop I can only rarely pull off, and most of my time is spent just trading blows with enemies that have already got enough bleed on them to eventually die but just don't know it yet.
My Sorcerer build has the same problem. It's supposed to be about killing enemies with lightning, generating sparking orbs, then dodging and teleporting around to pick them up and gaining a damage field that picks off the rest. But again, that mobility is limited hugely by cooldowns, and in practice I end up having to gather most of the orbs post-fight for later use—less magical power fantasy, more tidying up after myself.
Of course I understand that this is a beta. Numbers will be tweaked, balance will be adjusted, rough edges will be sanded down. I've only been able to play the relatively early stages of the game, and it's very possible it gets faster and more exciting in the endgame—perhaps via some generous cooldown reductions on items.
But the problem is that I don't think we've seen anything in the core design yet that suggests that Blizzard is taking any real steps forward from Diablo 3. A new Diablo game from Blizzard, especially after all this time, should be genre-defining. From what I've seen so far, Diablo 4 is a long way from that.