'Diablo IV' Review: Activision Blizzard deals old-school devilish delights
I rounded the corner of the dungeon as "Bob," my brooding fire sorcerer, hot on the trail of the demon Lilith. Instead, I was greeted by a mighty Blood Bishop, towering and bursting with dark-purple energy. Donning a shield of pure fire, I conjured a serpent of flame to squeeze the life out of the demon until there was nothing left but a shower of gold coins and rare items.
Dozens of hours in Diablo IV, the triumph was thrilling, and the game may also succeed at lifting developer Activision Blizzard out of a hell of their own making.
Confronting past demons
Activision Blizzard might have as many skeletons in their closet as they do in their long-running, fantasy RPG series. In 2021, the state of California filed a lawsuit against the video game developer, alleging a "frat boy" culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. In 2022, it drew ire for monetization practices in the mobile-focused Diablo Immortal. Earlier this year, the company scrapped their highly-publicized plans to add a story campaign mode to Overwatch 2, enraging fans.
It's a lot of baggage for Microsoft, which wants to buy the company for nearly $69 billion — potentially the largest video game acquisition in history. Antitrust officials in several countries may block the deal. The company needs a win, a redemptive title that proves to core fans that they can listen to criticism, and to the world at large that they're a responsible company.
It's clear that Activision Blizzard believes Diablo IV could answer their prayers. Stewed in a pressure cooker of past franchise failures and expectations, it's an expansive homage to the gothic, heavy-metal sensibility of the first two Diablo games with a colossal open world and shiny new graphics.
The push extends to the game's marketing campaign: the studio commissioned a massive Diablo 4-themed mural for a deconsecrated Jesuit cathedral in France in March, teamed up with companies like KFC for merchandise and game tie-ins, and has offered players exclusive windows to play the game in the months leading up to its release.
The devil in the details
That advertising blitz may pay off for Activision Blizzard because Diablo IV is wicked fun. As soon as you complete the Prologue, the gargantuan and mysterious world of Sanctuary opens up like a book, teaming with vendors, monks, beggars, thieves, demonic creatures, and harsh landscapes.
You take on the role of "The Wanderer": a Rogue, Sorcerer, Necromancer, Barbarian, or Druid tasked with quashing Lilith and her lackeys. Your character's appearance is now completely customizable, a new feature for the franchise. I gave Bob, my fire sorcerer main, long, greasy hair and smoky eye shadow that wouldn't be out of place at an industrial rave.
Along the way, you team up with a core group of helpers (including Lorath Narh, a minor character from Diablo III), sometimes solving puzzles, but mostly pummeling baddies. It's a familiar rhythm: level up, loot, repeat, hour after hour. Up to three others can also join your party to co-op world bosses, capstone dungeons, and much of the campaign.
Lurking behind the myriad activities of Diablo IV's open world is a carefully-crafted story. This time, the game's campaign focuses on Lilith, the ultra-evil, ultra-powerful niece of the titular Diablo. Previously banished from Sanctuary, she's returned to take the mortal realm as her own. There's much, much more to know, but the juice, as they say, is worth the squeeze: Even with a few moments of obvious throwbacks and fan appeasement, the twists and turns form a deeply rewarding campaign.
Activision Blizzard have insisted that Diablo IV's monetization strategy will only affect cosmetics and not power-ups — a sticking point for players burned by past money-making schemes, like the controversial auction house that initially launched with Diablo III. But like Diablo III, seasonal content will drop every three months, with new cosmetics, power-ups, and quests.
All players can access seasonal content (both cosmetic and level-boosting), but only players with premium "Battle Passes" — an upgrade developers have priced somewhere in the $10 range — can get season's cosmetics. In the same vein, players can buy in-game currency to spend on cosmetics. Such features have become standard in "living games," despite increasing fatigue from core players.
A hell of a time
I completed a full playthrough of the campaign in a little over 20 hours with my sorcerer "Bob," equipped completely with fire-based attacks and multipliers from the skill tree. Each type of playable character has its benefits - smashing baddies with the barbarian, commanding undead armies with the necromancer, expertly sniping demons with arrows as the rogue - but I found the sorcerer to be one of the strongest during the early game (conversely, I found the the druid to be somewhat weak before reaching level 30). Combat in Diablo IV is scaled by both player level and how many friends you're playing co-op with, meaning defeating minor enemies with your friends will never be too easy, while defeating major enemies will never be too hard.
The world of Sanctuary is so intricate that, after the Prologue, I spent several hours chasing down side-quests and confronting every enemy unit in sight. It was addicting, so much so that I had to focus almost exclusively on the campaign in order not to lose the storyline. My sorcerer reached level 43 at the conclusion of the main campaign, which is just as well because (without revealing any spoilers) the main story ends on a cliffhanger, setting players up for hours and hours of post-endgame and seasonal content.
Simply put, I found Diablo IV to be a near-perfect action RPG experience. Combat flows smoothly, and the massive world of Sanctuary entices with endless quests and enemies to conquer. The main campaign deserves every second of your attention, even with some rare moments of grating fan service. While Activision Blizzard certainly isn't without sin, Diablo IV is a devil well worth dealing with.
Diablo IV releases generally on June 6th on PC, PlayStation and Xbox.
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