Welcome to the future, which is bleak, dark and delicious. Diablo’s roots were in a dark place, with enough occult and blood oozing out that parents worried about the effect the game was having on their children. Now Diablo IV is back to that, taking the essence of Diablo 1 & 2 and giving them a brand-new coat of paint. Don’t ask what is in the paint though.
Diablo IV’s opening cinematic is a role-playing dungeon crawl gone terribly, terribly wrong. It also sets the tone of the game and if you were worried that about the game and the cinematic clashing in any way, put those fears out of your mind because you need space for new horrors.
I picked a sorceress in my first playthrough, after standing behind a bunch of people all picking Druid for their playthrough. After watching how smoothly the Druid moved into groups of enemies, ripping them apart and seamlessly transforming, I was curious as to how the ranged spellcasters would fare. The demo only runs for 20 minutes, but that time definitely left an impression on me. Diablo has finally grown up.
After picking my char and her look (I think any fan of Diablo will appreciate some variety beyond armour), my sorceress started off in a small crypt. The walls and floor were slick with damp and an in-game cutscene showed my character moving through an unsteady section of the cave, clambering through before everything started to collapse. The first few enemies were playthings for me to test out my arsenal of spells. Left-click fired off a large icicle, while right-click unleashed a weighty fireball. I had a few other tricks up my sleeve too: Turning a section of ground cold and icy, which was perfect for the meteor that was about to hit the ground. A magical dart that flew around my head, seeking out nearby foes to impale and turning into pure energy, zipping through enemies while letting off blasts of lightning damage as you teleport around.
Enemies collapse in piles of ash, broken ice formations and electrocuted gibs. Blood splatters all over the place, adding to the muck on the floor. It is dark, gory and watching bigger enemies slowly explode their various organs means I don’t see as much of the demo as is probably possible, but who can say no to big death animations that result in pieces all over the place? Mini-bosses end up coating a large area with their innards, but never too much. It is a fine line to tread between gratuitous gore and going overboard, and so far it feels like the mix is right.
Besides the amazing lighting effects, a few other things catch my attention: There is a dodge button. Whether just breaking things up as you move through dungeons with a little leap forward or to actually get out of danger, it seems the dodge from the console version of Diablo III has made its way to PC as well, giving an option to move away from something really quickly without picking a skill that offers that mobility. And yeah, you are going to need it. The very first enemies, packs of zombies, rush towards you and if you happen to run out of mana, you will want to dodge the swarm until you can fire off a bigger spell to wipe out the pack.
After killing zombies and finding some treasure chests, I find a way out of the crypt/cave and into the light. It feels so natural to just leave an area rather than clicking on the standard “exit cave”, allowing the action to continue seamlessly. Some clever camera tricks remind you that you are changing between levels, zooming in or out a bit as you traverse. There are other places that use clever camera tricks, like large world bosses. Get a friend, because these enemies are tough.
Sometimes you want to adventure alone and other times, a helping hand is required. Diablo IV seems to understand this, with pretty clever integration of public areas in the game world. As I wandered into town, I could see other adventurers going about their quests and heading out for more killing. Then I was back on the road again, killing things and hunting for quests. Without breaking things into zones, the world map feels a lot more open, similar to how you knew where things were in Diablo II as you left Tristram.
On the map, I can see a massive pentagram. Obviously I was going to head there, that just seemed too good to be true. On the way, I found a chest with runes and slots. I asked earlier and the demo’s loot luck had been ramped way up so that everyone would have a chance with some good loot. One legendary item I got gave me +1 level to all skills, which doesn’t look shiny, but that damage increase is so vital. Another turned my fireball into three fireballs, fanning out to cause damage to other enemies in a large pack. The runes remind me of Diablo II, but with some caveats: My item has two rune slots, and the slots are two specific shapes. The two runes I got matched those shapes. One rune was a trigger rune: it activated the effect of the paired rune every time I drank a potion. The other rune, when activated, increased my crit chance for a few seconds so like an anime character if you hurt me I just lash out harder while healing up a bit. Hopefully we will see more runes and possible interactions as we get closer to the game.
But I was talking about the pentagram on the map, right? So I headed to that spot on the map, which had a neat rocky cliff to climb up to find the enemy. I arrived and it was quiet. Too quiet. Then the camera zoomed out.
It revealed a creature bigger than a whole screen at normal zoom. Her claws were insanely large and a massive health bar appeared at the top of the screen. Sounds around me muted. All I could hear was my abilities and this monstrous creature roaring and swinging claws that looked like they could use me as chopsticks. I hit with a fireball and watched this massive creature dodge a meteor strike, moving to hit another player. I was in a place that reminded me a bit of Destiny 2’s world events, players coming together to kill something way larger and tougher than what one player could handle. Just as well, because they weren’t playing around. Her attacks were deadly or near-fatal, arcs of blood and bone turning players into corpses. Quickly we learned what the dodge button really was for: getting away from attacks that could one-shot us. As the enemy jumped around, I was a bit frustrated that my big attacks were missing. I was the one that dodged big spells, not the enemy! Another bar appeared under the health bar. When it hit max, the enemy was stunned for a while, letting us all unleash big attacks that would hit this time. The fight was so much more fun with a group, and the enemy could really do full damage without worrying about how fair it was to a single player. The world boss dropped, exploding across the screen. Slowly the camera zoomed in, bits of loot shooting out of the exploding corpse. My demo was about to end, but I just wanted to look at skill names and talents and I couldn’t help thinking how much time I would probably be doing that in future.