Diablo IV’s Most Controversial Feature Is Also a Big Disappointment
Hell is always online.
It has been over a decade since Activision Blizzard released a new full-fledged Diablo game (let’s not talk about Diablo Immortal), but that long wait is about to end. Ahead of Diablo IV’s release in June, an early access open beta occurred over the weekend of March 17. It let fans get just a taste of what’s to come. The world and combat are exactly what fans will be looking for — but Diablo IV is full of online features that leave it somewhere in between an online co-op experience and an MMO. Has Diablo begun to lose its identity?
The core gameplay loop of Diablo has always been running dungeons, clicking on enemies to destroy them with your chosen skills in hopes of finding a nice piece of loot at the end that has a higher number than what you currently have equipped. It's simple but satisfying. It is also better with friends. A big draw of Diablo is the ability to play through content with friends.
Diablo IV is no different. Logging into the Diablo IV beta and forming a group with friends led to hours of the day slipping away as we talked and clicked away at the repetitive mobs. We did quests, gathered loot, sold it for money, upgraded our gear, and repeated the process ad nauseam as we talked endlessly over voice chat.
But the world wasn’t just our playground. Every so often in the overworld, we would pass a player or two, and the influx of other players in towns felt akin to rolling through city centers in an MMO (not to mention how it immediately slowed down my PC due to the server load, but this is a beta after all). Diablo IV is online-only, as was its predecessor, to enable this kind of experience where you naturally run into other players. Yet so far this only works to dilute the fun of Diablo.
It speaks to this entry in the series trying to find where it fits in amongst other popular games. Diablo IV is by no means an MMO; The social and online aspects are not as intense as you would see in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, but it isn’t the co-op experience that the series prioritizes. To encourage a more communal style of play the world is dotted with different types of events for large groups to take part in. There are small events that pop up regularly across the map — akin to FFXIV’s Full Active Time Events (FATEs) — which can be completed in about a minute. Larger strongholds that take a bit more effort. And World Bosses require large groups of players to tackle and only occur a few times a day (at least in the beta).
Yet at no point in doing these tasks with my group did we feel like the game actually encouraged us to engage with the other players in the way a full-on MMO would. But we couldn’t opt out of these interactions entirely because the game was online only. It feels like a half-measure and a product of a troubled development attempting to capitalize on industry trends that are now becoming tired.
Reports indicate that development on the current iteration of Diablo IV started as far back as 2016 when live-service titles were hitting their stride in full. One year later, Destiny 2 would be released, a game that is still going strong. However, like other long-gestating projects that hoped to capitalize on this, the era of live service is already waning. This leaves the online focus of Diablo IV feeling equally too new for the series and too old for the larger industry.
What continues to be the strength of Diablo is the ability to invite a handful of friends to a party and talk as you play through a well-designed but sometimes mindless gameplay loop.
In many ways, it has the same appeal as Destiny 2. Yet the push to make Diablo IV an online-focused game leaves much of the world lacking in meaningful tasks outside of community events. Rather than a game perfect for a casual hang with friends, it feels like a tired exercise in dealing with online servers to determine the experience. Hopefully, most of this is the fault of the beta, and the complete game should have a more varied experience that satisfies any type of play.
Only time will tell, but the future is very online whether you want it to be or not.