Hands-On With Diablo IV: Dungeon Delving With An Open-World Twist

Hands-On With Diablo IV: Dungeon Delving With An Open-World Twist

Diablo IV’s announcement at Blizzcon yesterday was packed with gruesome death. The long-awaited sequel’s tone is dark, and that carries over into the gameplay. My hands-on time with a demo build was exciting. Diablo IV eagerly ramps up the gore and dark magic for an experience that feels old-school but adds a few modern twists.

Diablo IV’s journey has been rocky, as it was conspicuously absent at last year’s Blizzcon. Fans had to make do with Diablo Immortal, a mobile game iteration whose announcement was met with disappointment. There’s been a tumultuous development history, with a Dark Souls inspired project finally giving way to a more traditional game.

That project, which became Diablo IV, went by the codename Fenris and had a major design ethos: embrace the darkness. Playing Diablo IV is a bloody experience. Sorceresses wade through crimson rivers, bosses fall apart in fleshy chunks, and innocents are sacrificed to vengeful gods. It’s the return to Diablo II that many fans want, and it’s damn fun to play.


There are only three playable characters announced for Diablo IV at the moment: the barbarian, the sorceress, and the druid. These are classic archetypes familiar to the series. As a fan of flashy magic users, I selected the Sorceress. Starting the demo, I immediately found myself in a dark crypt full of shadowy beasts. My objective was to recover a magical lantern at the behest of a local village chief.

Thus began the dungeon delving that Diablo is known for. As a sassy mage lady, I had plenty of great abilities at my disposal. I could conjure freezing rain to slow down enemies or encase them in ice if they lingered in the storm—hitting skeletons and beasts at this point shattered them into frosty bits. If I was in trouble, I could transform into a ball of sparking electricity, rushing around a room to zap foes into dust. Most impressively, I could target an area and call down a massive meteor and blow enemies into bits. My talent tree teased the possibility of snappy teleportation spells and brutal ice blades. It ties into design ethos, which sound supervisor Kris Giampa summed up to me in one word: to make every interaction gratifying.

“We want you to kick arse when you’re in the game,” Giampa said. Even breaking a barrel should feel gratifying. If you were to close your eyes and play the game, you will hear exactly what’s happening. Chopping a goatman in half, squashing him with a boulder.”

The goal is an experience that’s dark and magical, and not too humorous. Diablo IV plays like a deliberate response to criticisms, both from players and within Blizzard that Diablo III was too cartoony. I never really understood that complaint and thought that game had a solid split between dark fantasy and dry wit, but it’s clear that Diablo IV is meant to be a crowd-pleaser more than anything. If that means an extra layer of blood and edge, so be it. Diablo IV feels like a very safe game but there’s no denying that matching through dungeons and blasting apart water-bloated witches is a good time.

There are some new ideas here, too. Diablo IV structures itself more like Destiny than its predecessor. While there is a main story that players can focus on, the world itself is more open and not merely a collection of zones you teleport to. Even in the short demo I played, the map was large and held plenty of side areas to explore. There were cliffs to jump down, walls to climb, and while they weren’t available yet there will be mounts to ride across the larger areas.

Other players crossed my path during my travels, and we were able to help each other out or even participate in world events to defeat unique bosses. Diablo IV is more social than previous entries. You can party up with players you meet along the way, trade items with them, and under the right circumstances, fight them. The last is an eagerly awaited feature, but one that the development team is approaching carefully.

“We want PVP to be opt-in,” lead game designer Jesse McCree said. “It’s not fun to be attacked when you least expect it. There will be some conditions for participating but we’re figuring those out. I wouldn’t want you to run into someone with crazy gear who one-shots you as they walk past.”

Diablo IV activities aren’t walled off between different modes or multiple toggles. Non-linearity is another goal. If you want to follow the main story with your friends, go for it. If you simply want to explore the game world for dungeons, go ahead. Wandering around could lead to surprise encounters with players and demons alike. Instead of teleporting from challenge to challenge, the hope is that players will take charge of their own experiences. If there was another key thing to change, McCree told me, it was the pacing.

“The gameplay videos make it look frantic but the pacing is down a little bit,” McCree said. “I think it adds more atmosphere, more time to take things in.”

The result was a Diablo experience that I really enjoy and definitely want to check out again before Blizzcon is over. There’s a focus on pleasing players, bringing back competitive battles and allowing them to focus on what they want. Underneath the gritty looks and the expansive world is the monster mashing gameplay folks love.

“Smashing stuff is really fun,” McCree said.

It’s Diablo through and through, and more Diablo is always a good thing.


        • I think it’s real enough that it’s early (not even alpha) game play.

          can blizzard rip it up and do something different? sure they’ve done it in the past
          is blizzard likely to rip it up and do something different? probably not given the public reception so far is (largely) positive

          • Indeed. I think Kotaku’s comment that “If that means an extra layer of blood and edge” completely misunderstands Diablo. If anything, part 3 tonally shifted away completely from what Diablo was previous to it, the darkness and blood soaked atmosphere just wasn’t present in its transition to 3d. However, this return to part 2’s aesthetic, looks appealing as hell 🙂

          • I actually think D3 served to highlight the tone better. You could wander around some relatively “pretty” fields then there are a bunch of monsters and corpses scattered around. And when you started on the tower levels some of the imagery was terrific and horrific. The giant, chained and flayed creatures writhing in the background of the tower levels was impressively creepy.

            I think juxtaposing normal with horrific makes the horrific much more shocking. If it’s all bleak all the time the effect kinda wears off. At least on me.

    • I’m thinking 2021, although it might scrape in as late 2020. Interestingly D3 was announced nearly 4 years before it was released… so that doesn’t bode well for a timely release 🙁

          • I’ve literally seen that comment about so many games, including the original Star Craft. It’s always surprised me how many times I’ve been told ‘it’ll never happen’, then bam, it does.

            The fact is, if a company knows there’s a market for it, they’ll end up doing it. Don’t be so fast to declare it ‘won’t’. We’ll see 🙂

        • If you want a modern Diablo II experience, take a gander at Path of Exile. It’s better than both D2 and D3 and free to play, to boot.

          (Personally I think Diablo IV is taking a lot of cues from Path of Exile, at least visually.)

          • I tried POE and couldn’t get into it. Grim Dawn on the other hand… Despite having to pay for it hooked me. It’s very d2 in feel and graphics are nice, but somehow still feel a bit retro (probably due to the engine).

          • Tried it, but it’s not Diablo 2. I literally just want Diablo 2 remastered. I crack that open at least once a year and smash it with mates still, 18 or so years later. A remastered version would be the bees knees 🙂

          • I genuinely cannot play Diablo II anymore. It’s so clunky and… old now that I draw very little enjoyment from it.

            That said, I didn’t play it until years after it came out to begin with, so I don’t have the nostalgia for it that other people might.

  • Diablo IV is more social than previous entries.
    That has me slightly concerned.
    I am very much a solo / single player person.
    I do not want to interact with anyone when I am playing.
    It’s why I have loved Diablo when everyone else was trying to become more “social”.

    • “In order to unlock more stuff to do solo… You must play co-op!”

      Seriously though, I wouldn’t be too concerned given the nature of games like this.

      Unless they go down the stupid fucking Destiny route where PvE players were forced to PvP in order to unlock weapons for PvE. From quest chains that were 90% PvE oriented and the PvP objectives were tedious, gimmicky and your progress on them could actually be lost.

      I mean according to Bungie nothing makes PvE players want to PvP more than actively punishing them for not being good at PvP…

      • Oh man don’t joke. The turning of really good solo games into online social games shits me to tears.
        I’m very much games are my escape. I don’t wanted to interact with people when I’m gaming. I can do that in real life. 🙂

    • My thoughts exactly… dont get me wrong I dont mind dungeon running with mates when we have time but I mostly solo farm my Diablo.

      I would hate for this game to be forced social/open world. In fact the whole social open world thing is making me worried this will have online only again.. something i hate as my pc can occasionally hang or conndction drop and good bye all that effort to get bounties on d3..

      • Right there with you.
        Everything I have read so far really seems like it is going to online only.
        Given how flaky my connection can be at times that’s not good.
        It’s sounding very Grim Dawn like actually.

          • Probably because it’s taking me longer to push things through due to travelling + hustle of a convention + etc. Sorry about that.

          • All good! Hate to harass but Diablo is probably the only game that will really get me to engage. 🙂

          • It’s the one regret I have this year. Only got to play the demo once, unfortunately – kept trying to get more time in with it but just couldn’t amongst everything else.

            Druid was good fun, though.

          • I am very happy to see the druid back.
            I was really hoping they would add it to D3.
            I loved my Druid in D2.
            I still have some reservations from what I am reading about it being possibly always online and trying to force more social stuff on the player.

  • Hmm not sold on some of their design changes, but I’ll reserve judgment til we see it as a finished product.

    Personally, the biggest selling point of any of the Diablo games for me was that I could play solo. Sure it’s fun playing with a friend, but I like the fact that I can jump into the game and still have basically the same experience solo. If my friend isn’t on I shouldn’t have to either wait for them or need to team up with a random player to get a decent experience.

    I especially don’t want to have to deal with other people who could potentially grief or just be lazy asshats. I get enough of that in WoW. So if we’re able to toggle between a “shared world” and a “solo world” I’ll definitely be choosing the latter.

    I’m also not sure about the idea of an open world. I guess it’ll depend on how it’s implemented but one of the things about Diablo is clearing the level. That doesn’t really work if it’s a large contiguous open world. And if you’re doing the speed farming type runs the open world is literally irrelevant since you’d be doing your specific route and reseting. But again, I think we need to see how it’s implemented before we know whether it’s good/bad.

    Or for that matter whether it’s good, but no longer *feels* like Diablo.

  • Well shit… looks like they plan on forcing us to team up whether we want to play solo or not.


    If you got your hands on our BlizzCon demo or watched our gameplay trailer closely, you may have noticed a massive new addition: Ashava. Ashava, the first of our new World Bosses, is an ancient demon lurking below Sanctuary who will take more than just one mighty hero to fell.

    Not only will you need to group up (or at least join several other players) to challenge Ashava, but you’ll want to pay close attention to her abilities and carefully make use of your skills.

    This makes me sad. Forcing me to team up with people I don’t know (who may be assholes or griefing) because that’s the only way to kill a boss 🙁

    • Until people just figure out ways to solo it… I mean isn’t that what half the point of playing these games is, coming up with insane builds to do things you shouldn’t be able to?

      • Not really. I don’t want to have to grind to get a specific build to fight a particular boss.
        Just let me run around and kill things.
        This isn’t WOW.
        And let me adjust the difficulty so that if I want a harder challenge I can do that myself.

          • Yeah but it sounds like in D4 there are going to be bosses that you have to team up to beat and that would annoy the heck out of me.
            I suppose I will take a little consolation if it is just post-game stuff not in the campaign but it’s still annoying.

        • Absolutely part of Diablo’s games in the past is finding out ways to do things you shouldn’t be able to. From speedrunning all the levels in part 1 without being hit, to being able to get to the unholy lord himself in part 3 and doing it in strange, weird ways. It’s always been a part of the game.

          But you’re right, it’s not WoW and people shouldn’t be forced to play multiplayer, but let’s also not pretend part of Diablo hasn’t, since part 1, been about partying up to smash the ever living crap out of the monsters. Diablo games get better when you play with mates. They’re fun solo, they’re amazing multi with mates (not really with strangers…)

          • Oh there has always been that option to play with friends definitely.
            I did have some fun times laning D2 with mate’s, don’t get me wrong.
            But predominantly I have played the game solo.
            I enjoy being able to just vege out and run around killing things and looting at my own pace.
            Not being able to do that at all was just not Diablo for me.
            But your below comment on the site stating you can do the campaign solo gives me hope.
            I just want there to be the option of doing it either way.
            Also an offline mode. For the love of god and Australia’s shitty internet give me an offline mode.

          • Yeah I don’t disagree with you at all. I hate ‘always on’ modes. There should definitely be an offline mode for people like us, it pisses me off when there isn’t :\

          • Yeap. I just mentioned on another post the no offline mode on PC but there is for console is my biggest grip with D3.

          • My reply is still stuck on moderation but I was reading more on D4.
            It really looks like you will need to be always online. :\
            That is not good given the state of our internet.
            It actually kinda sounds like Grim Dawn.

          • That’s pretty much the standard these days for most games on Battlenet I believe. Diablo 3 requires you to be online and has since launch with the PC, it sucks, but eh. It was far worse on DSL2 when I first got it when you could *really* feel that damn lag…

          • Not necessarily though… sure there will be a lot of optimal builds.. but i love d2 because even if you make the most dumbest sub optimal build you can still clear levels.. sure you will get your ass kicked a lot but its still fun knowing you can still clear stages with your own builds.

            Something D3 was sorely lacking in my opinion…

          • As I mentioned earlier I like teaming up with my friends. I’ve done so in previous games. But they are literally my friends, people I’ve known for 20+ years. Not some random person I meet in a virtual lobby.

            It’s *ok* playing with them online. But it was always far more fun when we could lan together in the same room. And when the small group of us couldn’t get together then paying solo was definitely more enjoyable than teaming up with a stranger.

          • That’s exactly the same as me. I don’t play with strangers online. I don’t enjoy it. I only play with mates from real life and VERY few people I’ve met online. D3 I only play with a relative or two and some friends. D2, I got into with a group of friends I knew from highschool and some real life friends, we still play it to this day 🙂

    • Well that’s frickin annoying. Insert more expletives.
      If I have too join a group then I won’t be playing. I was really afraid they would pull this shit.

      • It states on the official page:

        When it comes to the Campaign, you’ll be able to play through the entire story at your own pace or alongside friends

        It’s the same as any Diablo before it 🙂 Hope that helps.

        • While that’s true for most of the game, it’s gonna suck if they lock away certain bosses behind a group requirement. And from what they’ve said that’s exactly what they’re going to do. I hope I’m wrong and (a) I’ll be able to solo those bosses and (b) they won’t be in a “group” area where random strangers can wander in at any moment.

          Part of the problem I have with the idea is that WoW does something similar. You can be fighting a mob solo but others can join in. As people join in the mob gains health so the fight get’s harder (or at least longer). And we already see a similar approach in D3 if someone joins your group. You lose your templar and “the minions of hell grow stronger”.

          Depending on how the mob scaling works it’s potentially a griefers dream. Hit the boss and then stand back. Watch the poor sucker fighting it struggle to deal with a boss with 10% more health and 5% more DPS.

          Heck, its not even necessarily griefers, it could be lazy leechers. Just watch til the boss is almost dead then tag it and gain loot/xp. They really need to think this through 🙁

  • I definitely enjoyed 3 solo. But really looking forward to playing this with my husband in co-op, there aren’t many choices for doing that.

  • I hope they give the PC version controller support because my friends are PC gamers and none of us the digital fortitude to handle frantically clicking a mouse everywhere anymore.

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