Even in beta, it's clear to me that Diablo 4 is game of the year material

Diablo IV beta
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The Diablo 4 early access beta has ended. Thousands of demons have been slain, hundreds of players have been squashed by The Butcher, and many bug reports were filed. While pockets of the internet debate and wade into full-blown arguments over Diablo 4's finer details, as I sit here I am elated. 

Diablo 4 was everything I'd hoped it to be, and more. I can't stop thinking about it. I lay awake at the end of Act 1, haunted by the depravity of Sanctuary's denizens, and the hopelessness of existence in Diablo's painful, dark world. I want to live there. 

It's true that there are many questions Blizzard still needs to answer. There are many bugs that need to be squished. Concerns about endgame itemization and even monetization are valid, given some of Blizzard's other recent service games. But, if you want wanton negativity about Diablo 4, you won't find it here. Right now, I am basking in the zealous hope that the legendary franchise has returned to a path of greatness. 

For those who couldn't participate, absolutely gear yourself up for this weekend's upcoming Diablo 4 open beta. Diablo 4 has the makings of a true masterpiece. I am confident that Diablo IV will be hailed as Blizzard's best game for many years to come.

A huge story telling step up for Blizzard

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Late Sunday evening, I completed Diablo IV's first act. Blizzard had noted that Diablo IV's beta was going to be beefy, and the file size hinted as much, clocking in at over 70GB. What I hadn't expected, was just how much of an impact this "demo" would have on me. Wide awake at 3 AM, I wrote to friends in a group chat how haunted I was by the things I had seen in Diablo 4's beta — one scoffed at the idea of playing Diablo for its story, of all things. Yet, right now, this is the aspect of the game I am most excited for. 

Diablo is set in Sanctuary, a magical realm that arose as a result of the eternal conflict between the forces of Heaven and Hell. Unbeknownst to most of its denizens, a union between the angel Inarius and demoness Lilith resulted in Sanctuary, a realm both hoped to exist beyond the view of the bitter war between the light and dark. Many angels and demons joined them inside this pocket dimension, high on the idea of existence beyond war. The vision was corrupt from the outset, as both Inarius and Lilith twisted Sanctuary for their own ends. 

Without giving too much away (and seriously, if you can: avoid spoilers), Diablo 4 is a huge step up in storytelling quality and tenacity from Blizzard. Even in the brief glimpse Diablo 4's beta offers, it feels as though Blizzard has well and truly ditched the guardrails in pursuit of the acerbic darkness earlier Diablo incarnations represented. 

(Image credit: Future)

The first aspect of this storytelling revolution is all about tech, and how Blizzard has changed its pipeline for delivering cinematics in-engine. 

As a fixed camera perspective game, there's no real need to have every single object putting out maximum texture quality and geometric fidelity when you're zoomed so far out a lot of the time. The downside is that, during those times that you do want to do a bit of storytelling, you may need to build entire pre-rendered cutscenes in order to do so. Blizzard is arguably already the best at in the business when it comes to prerendered scenes, from World of Warcraft to Overwatch, and Diablo IV itself. The opening cinematic of Lilith's summoning is among the most impressive visual works ever committed to CGI, and many of these blockbuster-budgeted 3D works will feature within Diablo IV. However, they are also expensive, particularly if all you want to do is deliver some quest text, or push the story along. 

In response, Diablo IV represents a massive leap in intricacy within its 3D models. Every screenshot I have used in this article was from in-engine, in-game sequences, and not from pre-rendered trailers. The characters are orders of magnitude more emotive and expressive than in some of Blizzard's previous games, allowing for in-game scenes that keep you grounded in the game's world. Your character will perform in these scenes too, and not simply narrate them, making proceedings all the more immersive. 

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As the player character, you find yourself lost in a blizzard, doomed to freeze in the biting gloom. A mysterious, bloodied hound appears, before setting you forth to a dilapidated hamlet. A mad monk raves, as the townsfolk speak of awakened evil in a tomb to the north. Resolving to aid your shelterers, your fate becomes intertwined with the game's big antagonist, known in legend as Lilith, the Daughter of Hatred.

I am aggressively skirting around the details I really want to share because I want anyone and everybody reading this to experience it for themselves firsthand. There's a deep sense of foreboding in every word delivered in Diablo IV, with each character class and gender having a unique and fully voiced dialogue. Your character appears alongside major heroes and story figures within these scenes, anchoring you into the dark world that is Sanctuary. I feel invested in Diablo IV in a way that simply hasn't been possible in similar fixed-camera action or even tactical RPGs as a result, and I hope it will be a watershed moment for the genre. 

Diablo IV's beta allows players to experience the first act only, and in that brief stint I experienced things I would never have expected of Blizzard. Death is not simply an environmental design pallet in Diablo IV. I found myself becoming fond of even the most minor characters, only for the game's various evils to snatch them away in the most traumatic ways imaginable. Adding emotive value to the game's citizens and characters only elevates your investment in the game's narrative and adds weight to absolutely everything else about Diablo in its wake. I care about my character, I care about my role in the world and the world itself, and thus, I care about playing more.  

Oftentimes I feel like the larger publishers rarely stray from "safe" storytelling devices. The few times they have strayed, it isn't always elegant in execution. Diablo IV is delivered with a level of unapologetic conviction reminiscent of the strange cults and sects that dwell across Sanctuary. Depraved, twisted, blasphemous. I love it. 

A sublime slaughterhouse with stunning scenery 

(Image credit: Windows Central)

I still have some reservations about the way Diablo IV's itemization and combat scaling will play out over time, but let's put that aside for the next section for now. One thing Blizzard absolutely nailed here is the way the game feels to play. The combat in Diablo IV is absolutely exceptional and remains the benchmark for others in the genre to follow.

In the beta, we had access to barbarians, rogues, and sorcerers, giving a pretty broad spectrum of playstyles to pick from. Each of these classes could be specialized further, vastly altering how they play in practice too. As a rogue, you could focus on dagger combat, or ditch the blades for crossbow bolts and traps. You can even build out combinations of both playstyles, with a hotbar of six skill slots to customize to your content. I dabbled with various types of gameplay before settling on the sorcerer, primarily wielding shattering ice spells that cause enemies to explode into broken shards of frozen meat. The chilling effects also helped out my groups, slowing enemies down or freezing them in place for others to land critical blows. 

Diablo has always revolved around obliterating scores of demonic beasties in waves of explosive attacks. Diablo IV is a big step up in terms of visual feel, taking advantage of modern systems with spectacular lighting, satisfying physics, and dynamic destruction that lends weight and power to your attacks. 

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Diablo 4 also has some of the most intricate environmental design ever committed to digital paper. Blasphemous tombs ensconced with meticulous, artistic reliefs and sculptures. Fleshy growths that writhe as you approach, built on absolutely gargantuan humanoid corpses that defy all reason. Every corner of the game feels lovingly tended to and purposeful, as you whirl through the shadows in a blitz of blades and fireballs. 

There's just something so fundamentally satisfying about Diablo's combat loop. Lining up your gear passives with your skills to perform shatter combos or spread fire or lightning critical hits just forms the basis of an infectious game I know I'll be playing for hundreds of hours. And indeed, if Blizzard wants players to be coming back for hundreds of hours, you would hope that they paid careful attention to what you'll be doing most in the game: slaying thousands of demons. Thankfully, the team absolutely nailed it in this regard. 

Diablo IV's incarnation of Sanctuary is an open overworld, shared by other players. The overworld branches off into instanced dungeons, which contain bosses with an elevated chance of dropping legendary items. The overworld also contains dynamic events which can be joined by other random players, as well as world bosses that spawn on a set timer. I wasn't able to catch a world boss at the time of writing, but it sounds as though it was rather punishing — with rewards that meet the challenge.

(Image credit: Windows Central)

The dungeons in the overworld vary in complexity. Some are side-quests of little import, although they do come with powerful passive rewards that you can unlock for different character classes. Story dungeons tend to be a little more intricate, and come with big story set pieces and unique boss fights. 

Diablo 4 is a "soft" MMO in that regard. You're never forced to team up with other players, and can in fact leave social chat channels and just play the game entirely solo if you so choose. The final boss of the first act felt pretty tough as a solo affair, but I managed through. Roadblocks like that may present incentives to double back and upgrade your gear a bit. Powerful combinations of legendary item passives and abilities can have a dramatic impact on your damage. I found a legendary that increased my damage by 30% while standing still, for example. That also stacked with another legendary I had that increased my damage while at maximum mana. The various modifiers you can get to your abilities will potentially add some of the depth core ARPG fans will be looking for, without being utterly overwhelming like some other titles within the genre.

Indeed, as one looks to other competitors in the genre, it does create questions around Diablo 4's final execution. 

Questions still remain

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Diablo 4 asks players to accept its always-online functionality, in return for persistent online connectivity, and ongoing updates. Games like Path of Exile frequently pop up in discussions around Diablo IV's itemization, dungeon design, and customizability. Indeed, many of Diablo IV's dungeons seem "fixed" in their layouts, with little in the way of randomness. The objectives inside these dungeons have also been the subject of criticism since most of them revolve around going inside to find a couple of keys that unlock a boss room. The boss designs haven't seemed particularly varied yet either, at least in part because everything in the game scales to your current gear level. 

It makes the gear grind feel less impactful potentially, since every time you gain power, so too do all of your enemies. You can't return to earlier bosses and steamroll them, as such. The trade-off, of course, is that all content remains relevant and challenging, but what's the value in gear and progression in that case? These are some of the challenging questions Blizzard still needs to answer as we look ahead to Diablo IV's final launch date, slated for June 6, 2023. 

Blizzard has another Diablo 4 beta slated for this upcoming weekend, this time fully open to the public. Even the early access beta saw hefty queue times, so I suspect this free access period will be a true test for Blizzard's hard-working networking teams, as the game is doubtless going to be among this year's most popular titles. 

Even though I have some concerns about dungeon variety, boss dynamism, and endgame progression systems, I remain optimistic. We simply don't know how a lot of these features and systems will play out. Call it hopium, but I'm eager to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt following the recent successes of Diablo II: Resurrected and World of Warcraft: Dragonflight

If Blizzard can build an entire game with this level of evocative storytelling, and compelling combat, wrapped in an ongoing service that me and my friends can play for hundreds of hours — it's not hard to imagine Diablo IV taking home many game of the year awards later this year.

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Diablo 4

Diablo 4 represents some of Blizzard's best work today. Gritty, bleak, and unapologetically dark, Diablo 4 drops players into the unforgiving world of Sanctuary in a massively multiplayer action RPG world.

Buy from: Amazon | Xbox | Best Buy| Battle.net (PC)

Jez Corden
Co-Managing Editor

Jez Corden is a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by tea. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his XB2 Podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!