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Diablo IV’s first hours provide welcome twists on a familiar formula


Stop, drop, and roll!
Enlarge / Stop, drop, and roll!

It’s not a stretch to say that the Diablo series is one of the most influential role-playing game franchises of all time. As one of the early action-focused loot games, it offered a deeply compelling and satisfying take on the classic concept of the dungeon crawl. Its many sequels advanced its foundations of rewarding character growth and addictive loot collection. The Diablo games are still well-loved today, but other titles have picked up the baton and taken the genre in new directions.

So with the upcoming Diablo IV, developer Blizzard is seeking to reinvent the classic action RPG, taking the series’ first steps into a dark open world filled to the brim with gruesome violence. While staying true to the game’s isometric action-RPG and dark fantasy roots, Diablo IV brings a more ambitious and freeform adventure, with many new ways to customize your hero as you adventure across the land.

I was able to play over 12 hours of Diablo IV’s opening act in an early beta preview of the game, which showcased its expansive open world and gave a sample of how much power a budding adventurer can attain. It’s already apparent that Diablo IV is less about providing a series of linear dungeon crawls and more about opening the player to a wider world filled with monsters to fight and loot to collect.

Embracing a dark past

Several decades after the defeat of Malthael in Diablo III, things have not improved in the world of Sanctuary. With humanity falling into despair, a desperate group of adventurers seeking loot and power summons the malevolent arch-demon Lilith, who embarks on a brutal campaign to retake the ruined world. With the land poised to plunge even further into darkness, a Barbarian, a Rogue, a Sorceress, a Druid, and a Necromancer take their first steps into Sanctuary. They team up to amass power and infamy, all in pursuit of gaining the strength to defeat Lilith and her army throughout the world of Sanctuary.

According to Diablo IV director Joe Shely, the development team felt it needed a more consistent and striking tone for their trip back to Sanctuary. “[Diablo IV] is much closer to the horror and fantasy roots than recent interactions of the IP,” Shely said during a pre-game presentation. “We want the world of Sanctuary to be scary, challenging, and engaging, but we also want it to be a place worth fighting for. The main theme of the game is ‘hatred.’ Hate will consume Sanctuary and the hearts of our characters, and we will explore its lore and its dire consequences.”

The dark tone of <em>Diablo IV</em> extends to the color palette in scenes like this.
Enlarge / The dark tone of Diablo IV extends to the color palette in scenes like this.

From the game’s opening hours, it was clear that Diablo IV is the series’ darkest and most violent entry. The bloody opening act—filled with undead monsters, human sacrifices, and lots and lots of blood—effectively sets the mood for this grim adventure. If Diablo III was akin to Peter Jackson’s director’s cut of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Diablo IV is much more in the vein of the dark gothic horror of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This dark atmosphere will be familiar to anyone who remembers the first two Diablo games and their vision of a dark, gothic fantasy world. But Diablo IV’s take on the genre feels more brutal and grotesque. The violence and bleak atmosphere of the game can be a lot to take in at times, but it all connects to the more significant vision of a ruined world.



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