When I close my eyes, all I see are the numbers. The clashing of steel and the rending of flesh fade away, but the numbers remain. Ones and threes and zeroes, they fall from the bodies of my once-fierce foes, pooling among the viscera into a twisted numeric version of alphabet soup. The entire battlefield, every inch of the dungeon floor, bears the imprint of these numbers. As I trek back towards the exit door, I look down and read in that never-ending integer a history of my recent violence, a record of my cruel victory rendered in cold, unfeeling digits.
Diablo 4 is, at its core, a game about these numbers: Damage numbers, stat numbers, numbers as parts of other numbers on a checklist. It’s a game about building up the biggest numbers you can, to the point where the numbers of the enemy fade into irrelevance before you. While this is my first full foray into Blizzard’s venerable series, I’m fairly confident in assuming that this is the way it’s always been; that the inherent human drive for bigger numbers, the easily-swayed part of the brain into which the casino barons of the world plunge their jangling hooks, has always been the core driver behind its enormous success. I’m confident in this because, as I dissect the game with one hand, I’m still playing it with the other, the ceaseless drip-feed of numbers bearing me on until dawn creeps through my office window.
The first run is free
This is one of the core pillars of Diablo as a series: its addictive nature. You can jump in for a quick dungeon crawl, and find yourself startled four hours later as you finally check the clock, receiving a sharp reminder of your other responsibilities in the process. Whether a game built to exploit these compulsions is a moral good or not is a larger discussion worthy of its own series of articles, but what is undeniable is that it makes for an incredibly compelling gameplay experience.
The key is in the execution. With the switch to open world, there are now vast sections of land filled with creatures of the night, ready to be dispatched on your way to one of the series’ traditional self-contained dungeons. While simple in nature, these intermediary brawls provide both gold and experience, as well as a chance to try out freshly-acquired skills in a (relatively) safe environment. They’re supported by Cellars, tiny one-room affairs that provide a quick hit of combat and loot, as well as random world events, wherein you and other players can work together to achieve a common goal, usually the killing of several waves of monsters.
These quick-fire side activities are a great fit for the Diablo formula, giving you the chance to hone your combat patterns and movesets as you journey from one story mission to another. Crucially, they also maintain momentum during what would otherwise be sections of menial downtime while you travel around. Of course, you could ignore the story altogether and focus exclusively on this side content, but Diablo 4, to an extent I haven’t experienced before in an open world game, actively discourages this approach through its mechanics and structure.
On a cosmic scale
The primary reason for this is the game’s approach to level scaling. As you level up, so too do your enemies, wherever they may be in the world. Different areas have different level floors, thus preventing you from fully exploring early on, but from the mid-game onwards everything will be more or less adjusted to your level. This creates an odd dynamic in which the game tells you you’re getting stronger, but the battles you fight don’t really get any easier, for the most part.
Since leveling up only grants access to more skills and not increased stats, the bulk of your progression will actually come from random loot drops. These are plentiful, and it’s not uncommon to receive multiple upgrades to the same gear slot in the course of a single dungeon, but it does put the game’s difficulty in the hands of fate, since a run of bad item drops during a leveling spree will actually make you weaker than your enemies by the end.
The intent behind this system may have been to discourage the kind of extended grinding sessions that Diablo has become notorious for, but in practice it just makes the game’s challenge level feel fairly flat; more of a difficulty line than a difficulty curve. There are deliberate exceptions to this, though. In my early travels, I stumbled upon the Stronghold of Kor Dragan, a vampire-infested fortress rife with tricky enemies. At level 25, it was two levels above my character: a fact that I took for a sign that I should come back later, when my level met or surpassed 25. After a bit of side-dungeon action, I hit 25 and returned, only to find that Kor Dragan was now level 27. Those wretched vampires had been grinding too!
While I appreciate the psychological need for players to have an indicator of their character’s progress through the game, the way in which level scaling has been implemented in Diablo 4 makes leveling feel almost pointless; If everything levels up, does anything really level up? Many have made similar remarks before, but scaling of this nature serves only to undermine the idea of the game world as a living, breathing place, and reinforce the idea that it’s an artificial creation suspended in digital space. This may not sound like a problem for a series as gameplay-focused as Diablo, but it comes across as odd when this fourth entry seeks to expand on the story element that was lacking in previous titles.
Based on a new story
This is clear from the start, when an 11-minute cutscene sets the stage for the game to come. I was surprised not by its quality, which is to be expected from a developer as renowned as Blizzard, but by its length: Diablo has always struck me as a ‘right down to business’ type series, and this extended introduction seemed to immediately undermine that philosophy. This persists into the main story too, with other cutscenes and long sections of dialogue between characters not uncommon as you pursue Lilith across Sanctuary.
Many critics have praised this new focus on narrative, but I feel that any such praise should come with an asterisk attached: Diablo 4’s story is great * (* for a game in this genre). Examined in a vacuum, the narrative in Diablo 4 is nothing special. The plot beats are tried-and-tested, the writing is unexceptional, and the channels through which it’s all delivered are industry standard. The voice acting does deserve a nod, though, for pushing the material as far as it can go, with some excellent performances throughout.
Beyond questions of quality, however, the story in Diablo 4 faces a challenge unique to the genre: it actively clashes with the gameplay intent of the experience. The systems that underpin Diablo 4 encourage constant change and iteration: gear is replaced, skills are swapped out, dungeons are found, rinsed, and never visited again. Through its mechanics, Diablo 4 ensures that players never form a sentimental attachment to any part of the experience, but rather push them aside as quickly as possible to get to the next, shinier piece in the line.
In an environment where this kind of pragmatic abandonment is expected and encouraged, why should players form attachments to anything? Why should they care about the unique weapon gifted by a grateful NPC if they can spend 30 seconds in a dungeon and come away with something that outperforms it in every way? Why should they care who Lilith is if her meandering monologues get in the way of their next dungeon run?
It would be going too far to say that the structure of the Diablo series is incompatible with a meaningful narrative, so instead I’ll say that it’s incompatible with a traditional one. Perhaps a hands-off, post-story approach a la FromSoftware would work well, or perhaps leaning into the looping structure of play to deliver narrative through vendors you visit regularly a la Hades would play more to the series’ strengths, but in any case the approach used here simply doesn’t serve the experience.
The guts and the glory
It is this experience that, despite the extensive criticism I’ve layered on above, makes Diablo 4 an excellent game regardless. When you strip away the story; when you forget about the scaling; when you stand alone in a poorly-lit dungeon as an enemy force charges at you from across the room; that’s when it really comes alive.
You’ll duck and dodge, weave and dash, flick your eyes between your character and their skill toolbar, constantly checking on cooldowns to optimize your play. You’ll string together premeditated combos, going from setup to execution in the blink of an eye. You’ll scope out the variety of enemies in an encounter, and in just a few seconds put together a plan for dealing with each in turn. You’ll find time for healing amid the chaos, feeling the wash of relief as the sliver of red in your orb swells to full size just in time. And, through it all, you’ll enjoy the constant rush of the numbers. Those beautiful, beautiful numbers.
At times like these, Diablo 4 is unparalleled. It feels smooth and responsive, not to mention intensely personal, owing to the intricate skill trees and character customization options that really let you make your playstyle your own. You’ll be drawn onto the endless treadmill of better loot and skills just because you want to play more of it, and you’ll devour every last morsel you can get as you progress beyond the story and core content into the endgame. Diablo 4 is the rare game that makes you hungry; makes you so keen to chew on more delicious-if-familiar gameplay that you’ll forget everything that lies beyond. Even now, as I write these words, the Battle.net icon beckons like a blue Eye of Sauron on my toolbar, lulling me back into the fray with the promise of further dopamine-laced thrills.
Eyes on the horizon
Is that a healthy relationship to have with a video game? Probably not. Does it bring me right back to my childhood, to those glorious years when days stretched on to the very tip of the shadow of the setting sun, and responsibility was a mere glint on the horizon, not to be properly considered for many moons to come? Oh yes.
That said, as much as it can remind us of the days before life was complicated, Diablo 4 cannot truly undo those changes. In fact, the game represents an object in a constant state of change itself. As we observe Diablo 4 now, it is already in flux, with balance patches addressing outliers of all kinds, from character classes to dungeons. It’s a mercurial creature, a hot lava flow that won’t solidify into a final form until it has run its course through the rugged plains of Hell. To evaluate it now is a balancing act, a performance in which one must attempt to reconcile the game Diablo 4 is with the game Diablo 4 will be.
Similar sentiment applies to most modern game releases, of course, almost all of which receive a steady parade of updates as time goes on, but it rings particularly true for titles that lie explicitly in the ‘live service’ category, as Diablo 4 does. The quirks and imbalances I covered here may stick in the player base’s collective craw for a week or two, but a year or so down the line, when Blizzard has got maintaining Diablo 4 down to a fine art, with all those rough edges sanded away, we’ll look back on them fondly. Through the looking glass of time, the irritation they caused will melt away, replaced by a warm sense of a moment shared by those who were there from the start.
In many ways, Diablo 4 calls to mind last year’s seminal Elden Ring, in that it represents a beloved developer and franchise taking the bold step into an open world structure and achieving unprecedented levels of success in the process. Whether it reaches the same lofty heights as FromSoftware’s masterpiece remains to be seen, but the quality of the launch experience, and the promises made regarding maintenance and improvement going forward, are incredibly hopeful signs. If Diablo 4 carries on down the road it’s traveling now, then the millstones of Hell will make statisticians of us all.