In an interview with The Guardian more than a decade ago, Warren Spector, the director and producer of Deus Ex, said his dream game would take place in one city block. “There are people who are trying to simulate massive worlds at a level of an inch per mile,” Spector told journalist Keith Stuart. “I don’t get it. I really want deep worlds that you can interact with.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about those comments while playing Diablo IV. Blizzard’s latest is easily one of the best games the studio has released in about a decade, but I can’t help imagining what Diablo IV could have been if it were a smaller, more focused experience.
The story of Diablo IV opens decades after the end of Diablo III: Reaper of Souls, with the world of Sanctuary still reeling from the events of that game. Structurally, the narrative that unfolds is similar to Diablo II. Following a visit to a remote village, your character sets off after the demon Lilith – who is the daughter of Mephisto, one of the Prime Evils you defeated in Diablo II. More often than not, your character finds they’re one step behind Lilith, leading to predictably dire results.
I won’t say much more about Diablo IV’s story other than to note Blizzard smartly grounded it in the tragedy of its human characters. When the narrative calls on elements from past games, it does so in ways that feel natural and earned. Lilith is also a great antagonist. Every time she appeared on-screen, I felt a sense of unease waiting to see what kind of calculated cruelty she’d inflict on those unlucky enough to cross her path. If you only end up playing Diablo IV for its story, I think you will enjoy the experience, but if you decide to veer off its critical path, be prepared to play through a lot of uninspired content.
If you tried Diablo IV during one of the open betas Blizzard held in recent months, you’ve seen most of what the game’s open world has to offer as you’re leveling your character. Did you encounter a world event in the Fractured Peaks that tasked you with protecting a group of villagers hiding under their carts? Guess what – you’ll find another group just like that one again in Scosglen, the game’s second zone, and in other areas, too. I bet you played through a few optional dungeons. Well, there are more than 100 in the full game, and most feature a limited combination of layouts and objectives. World bosses and camps are more fun to complete, but there are far fewer of them than all the other content present in the game. The post-campaign adds more things to do like helltides and nightmare dungeons, but those increase the difficulty of the content, rather than introducing something substantially new.
Sometimes you’ll discover some interesting lore, a nifty bit of environmental storytelling or a named enemy that will drop an item with unique flavor text, but those moments are few and far between. I kept waiting for Diablo IV’s world to surprise me, to do something unexpected. The closest the game came to scratching that itch was when it sent the Butcher, a boss that shows up in nearly every Diablo game, to murder my character in an optional dungeon I was exploring. Even though my barbarian didn’t survive the encounter, I wanted more moments like that. Instead, the game seemed dead set on offering me an endless checklist of samey content if I ever decided to strike off on my own.
That frustration is palpable while playing Diablo IV because so much of the game is immediately compelling. Nearly every inch of its open world is striking, with some of the most detailed and creative assets Blizzard has ever produced. Add to that a soundtrack that is haunting and evocative, and you have an experience that’s begging for players to inhabit it.
Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a live service game to offer something more substantive, but everywhere in Diablo IV, you see evidence that the people who spent years of their lives working on this project wanted the same thing. Just look at character creation. Clearly, the intention here was to allow players to make their druid, barbarian, sorcerer, rogue or necromancer look exactly like they’ve always appeared in their imaginations. Diablo IV offers a dizzying amount of visual customization for each class. In addition to all of the items, you can give your character different hairstyles and tattoos, and modify their skin tone, eye color and other attributes. Add in the transmog system, which allows you to transform the appearance of items to make them look like ones you’ve found in the past, and I can guarantee no two characters will look alike.
Blizzard obviously also put a lot of thought into player agency, allowing each class to be played in a variety of ways. The Aspects system is one of Diablo IV’s most compelling features: By completing dungeons and finding legendary items, you will collect item affixes that modify how skills work, and they’re transferable among your inventory. Some of these can completely change how your build functions. After some initial frustration, I found a build that allowed my barbarian to make short work of both hordes of monsters and Diablo IV’s spongy bosses, and I had a lot of fun with the game. I just wish there was more to do in Diablo IV’s world other than kill countless monster hordes. After all, role-playing has always been part of the ARPG genre.
One last thing I want to note is that I played a version of Diablo IV that did not include any of the microtransactions the final build will feature. If you haven’t followed that aspect of the game’s development, I wrote about Blizzard’s monetization plans for Diablo IV last year. In short, Diablo IV is a full-priced game that also happens to feature an in-game shop and seasonal passes. Blizzard has promised that none of the cosmetic items you can buy in the shop or earn by completing the paid track of a season pass will grant “direct or indirect” gameplay advantages. The studio was also quick to note the shop and season pass will offer “more diversity of choices, not systematically better choices” for customizing your character. After Diablo Immortal, I’m fine with this setup, but I know some people will be put off by the presence of a season pass.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression of my time with Diablo IV; I enjoyed nearly every moment of it. In a lot of ways, it’s the Diablo game I’ve been dreaming of ever since I first set foot in the world of Sanctuary back in 1997. But it is also a reminder of all the ways Blizzard has changed since I first encountered its games. There’s no way the company that released Diablo II in 2000 and even Diablo III in 2012 could have created a game of Diablo IV’s scale, but sheer size is not what makes Diablo IV enjoyable. So often, that scale works against the game, resulting in a world that is, as Warren Spector might say, simulated at a level of an inch per mile.
Diablo IV will be available on PC, PlayStation and Xbox on June 6th.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/diablo-iv-review-a-mechanically-perfect-romp-through-a-shallow-world-160017353.html?sr