There are video games that strive to distract you from the core manipulations that power so much of this medium; games that transcend the base mechanics of shooting or slashing or exploding bad guys via careful applications of character, creativity—artistry, in a word. And then there are the other games: The ones that know that the reason you turned on your PlayStation or Xbox tonight is because life is stress, and you need some time away from thought, and on the treadmill—so it’d better be the most satisfying damn treadmill you can find.
Diablo IV is a very good treadmill.
Playing for 30 hours on a pre-release version (with a character who has now been wiped from existence—R.I.P. DeadBeth the Necromancer), we have experienced much, if not all, of what Blizzard’s latest had to offer. We’ll get the caveats in that last sentence out of the way early: Everything we say here will apply primarily to the game as a single-player experience, since that’s how our solitary sojourn in Sanctuary went. And it’ll also apply only to the game’s first three acts, and to its character build systems up through level 40 or so. In the past, Diablo games have entered whole new meta-realms with their post-game content, something Diablo IV’s adjustable difficulties and “World Tiers” seem custom-designed to accommodate, but we can only really tell you what the first run through most of the game’s story feels like. (We also can’t speak to the impact on the overall experience from the game’s *sigh* soon-to-be-launched Battlepass.)
What we can do is reiterate something we said about our time with the game’s beta, two months back: Blizzard has finally extracted a decent chunk of mindlessness from Diablo, to welcome effect. Not all, mind you: This is still a game where you’ll mow down hundreds, if not thousands, of demons in an evening, deploying the same combinations of attacks time and time again to take down the majority of the infernal beasts. You still pick your equipment—which comes bursting out of monsters and chests with piñata-esque velocity—by looking at which pieces have the biggest numbers and slapping them into your kit. And you will still trek across mile after mile of largely indistinguishable wasteland, usually differentiated by little more than a few filters, and the difference between blood-soaked snow and blood-soaked dust under your character’s feet.
And yet, time and time again, we kept encountering moments when Diablo IV wanted us to think. Most especially in the game’s skill trees, which impose genuine strategic decision-making on a system brought over, in large part, from the largely mindless Diablo III. The different attacks you pick from these experience-gated flowcharts are mechanically distinct enough as to allow actual combos and strategies to develop around their use—even moreso once you start customizing them with deeper investments of precious skill points. At multiple points, we were forced to genuinely consider our builds—were our skills too focused on area-of-effect attacks, with insufficient focus for larger foes? Was it worth exclusively specializing in bone skills—necromancer, natch—to maximize synergies between them? It even encompassed which of our purchased skills to assign to our hotbar: As a master of the undead, was it worth it to sacrifice one of our precious attack slots in order to bring more minion types to bear on our foes? (Yes: Rolling 8-deep with a golem and a whole crew of skele-bros is extremely satisfying.)
And while basic combat was often a matter of simply hitting the game’s appropriately gnarly enemies with whichever skills weren’t on cooldown at any given moment, the boss battles gave us serious pause. Against all odds, we found ourselves learning attack patterns, watching for telegraphing of moves, and marshalling our resources to hit when the enemy was vulnerable—actual strategic thinking about combat, in Diablo! Grisly wonders never cease. Because, despite its pedigree, Diablo IV doesn’t just want to be a game where you get your numbers big enough to beat the other demon’s numbers with. It’s that unlikeliest of products: A treadmill with a brain.
That applies to the game’s writing, too, which is often genuinely good—although it doesn’t hurt that Blizzard has hired The Green Knight’s Ralph Ineson to lend it a little extra gravitas. The plot itself is a typical mish-mash of the franchise’s demon and angel combat, although it earns points by treating the Eternal Conflict with slightly more nuance than players might be used to. (Starting with the fact that the game’s primary antagonist, Lilith, a demon who helped create humanity in days gone by, doesn’t seem to be entirely disingenuous about her maternal feelings for the human race—for all that she leaves a lot of poor murdered bastards in her wake.) Shock of shocks, we even encountered a few sidequests that weren’t relentlessly grim and pessimistic—including a recurring encounter with a local exorcist that had some enjoyable twists and turns to it. And when things in the main plot do get genuinely horrifying—patricide, filicide, a city overrun by cannibals with an eye toward human factory farming—the game actually makes the creepiness land, even deploying some legitimately shocking visuals.
If it feels like we’re grading a bit on a curve here, that’s probably true: The things that are genuinely good about Diablo IV exist at at least a slight remove from the things that make it…Diablo. As with previous entries in the franchise, players will have to do some work to make their own satisfaction, whether that means teaming up with friends, or just learning that there’s very little profit in following every sidequest out into the game’s massive wilderness and killing every damn imp that gets in your way. Our best moments with it typically came when we weren’t fighting monsters, which is a fairly damning thing to say about a game where 90 percent of what you do is kill monsters. But if what you’re seeking is a looter-slayer that’ll respect your brain—if not necessarily your time—then Diablo IV might just fit the bill.