Platforms: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Diablo fans are used to being kept waiting. There was a 12-year gap between the second and third core games, which makes the 11-year wait since 2012’s Diablo III seem positively brisk. But when the only other new title to join Blizzard’s action RPG franchise in that time was the controversial Diablo Immortal - a mobile-first instalment that was heavy on microtransactions - those same patient fans were not unjustly cautious that Diablo IV may suffer the same fate.
Fear not - while paid battle passes are planned for later in the game’s life-cycle, for launch at least Diablo IV’s microtransactions are entirely cosmetic and optional. On the plus side, that means that nothing in terms of gameplay-relevant content is locked behind a paywall. On the negative, those cosmetics are horrendously expensive - we’re talking the equivalent of £13 for horse armour, or a “Triune Apostate” armour set for your playable character that will set you back £21. You’re going to have to seriously love this game and have pretty deep pockets to ever wander across to the in-game shop tab.
Thankfully, there is a lot to love elsewhere. Diablo IV almost feels stripped back to the series’ central strengths. The emphasis is on strong real-time action, fun character classes boasting interesting abilities to experiment with, and brilliantly designed dungeons to navigate, all set in a world that feels more consistent and connected than the somewhat fragmented geography of its predecessor. It also enjoys a campaign storyline that balances threat and gravitas - demon queen Lilith, the Daughter of Hatred, has been unleashed on the world of Sanctuary, where she sets about warring with the angel Inarius - with a more grounded approach, rooting your character in the muddy, messy lives of the mortals caught up in the battle, with less of the politicking and dalliances with nobles and rulers of previous entries.
The result is a lot of really great emergent storytelling. While the core plot sees you chasing Lilith across Sanctuary, side quests that don’t immediately appear to link or connect paint a more detailed picture of the lives of the people you meet along the way. A villager who asks you to seek out his missing mother offers deeper insight into the world and its history if returned to with particular trinkets in hand, while revisiting the first village you encounter - where you were drugged by its inhabitants and fed demon blood, drawing you into the hunt for Lilith in the first place - may lead to encounters with characters researching the horrors that befell the fallen community. This is a world that you can’t help but feel immersed in.
Blizzard hasn’t rocked the boat when it comes to the series’ gameplay though, with Diablo IV generally refining rather than revamping. Character classes offer a ‘best of’ roster from the series’ history, with Sorcerer, Barbarian, Rogue, Necromancer, and Druid making their return here, some having not been seen for decades. There’s a solid character creator to customise your player avatar to your liking, albeit with some odd restrictions, such as bigger bodies being the domain of Barbarians and Druids only.
Every class has their pros and cons, but whichever you choose you’ll be wandering Sanctuary slaying the forces of hell - and the occasional bandit or cultist - at every turn. Early on, combat does feel repetitive, tapping out an RSI-inducing staccato of basic attacks, but as you power up, attacks that have cooldowns between uses or, depending on class, drain pools of spirit or fury to cast add a bit more consideration to holding back the hordes. Hordes is the key word, too - Diablo IV excels at spectacle, with some major encounters having countless enemies on screen at once, all attacking in a frenzied hum.
This is a world you can't help but feel immersed in.
And, just as Diablo IV delivers some great moments of emergent storytelling, so too does it offer up moments of brilliant emergent gameplay. Explore Sanctuary and you’ll inevitably come across spontaneous events where you’ll have a limited window to meet an objective, giving a real sense of a living world rather than one that exists only to service your adventure.
Of course, Diablo as a series has always been more about the metagame than the initial hack-and-slash presentation of the base experience, and Diablo IV is no exception. It’s not really about liberating Sanctuary from Lilith – it’s about your character builds, your load-outs, your precious loot and how the shiniest drop from one battle soon becomes junk when something even shinier drops from the next. It’s about everything that comes after the credits roll at the end of the campaign, and how meticulously you can craft your hero for the greater challenges that await. Higher World Tier difficulty levels, seeking out Nightmare Sigils that modify existing catacombs into frenzied Nightmare Dungeons, and ferocious World Bosses that require a host of players to take down are amongst the ongoing dark delights of the endgame.
It’s a shame that the character abilities screen doesn’t better serve this focus, though. Up to level 50, each level gained earns you a skill point to spend, while further points can be gained by completing certain quests or earning renown in a region. These are then spent to unlock skills along a descending grid, progress along it represented as a suspiciously blood-like fluid flowing down the channels of the ability map. Think of a more linear version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and you’re in the ballpark.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to zoom out and see your whole build and where you’ve assigned points in one view, which makes planning those builds tricky. Although Blizzard has tried to mitigate this by having each central node represent a particular group of skills – basic attacks, defensive abilities, ultimates, and so on – when some power-ups can buff others on different nodes, it becomes fiddly to hop between them to make sure you’ve put points into the corresponding ability. For instance, on our Druid (lightning strikes and werebear transformations? Yes, please!), a talent called Endless Tempest increases the duration of the elemental attacks Hurricane and Cataclysm, each of which are found on two different nodes with no clear link between them.
Things only get more complicated after a character hits level 50 and unlocks Paragon abilities, an entirely different board of skills to tackle, many essentially improving on the groundwork you’ll have laid from levels 1-49. Overall, it all feels too busy and granular to navigate, to the point that even veteran Diablo players may find the whole character build system unintuitive. Thankfully, refunding skill points to respec a hero from scratch is easily done if you’ve really messed up allocations, but it’d be better if this integral system was more navigable in the first place.
Despite this, Diablo IV serves up a hellishly good time, improving on Diablo III in key areas without straying from the moreish blend of gory demon slaying or thee compulsive need to explore just one more dungeon or finish off one last side quest that’s made the series such an enduring favourite. With near-infinite replayability, there should be enough here to keep fans entertained until Diablo V crawls from the pits in another decade or so.