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A Renaissance-style painting from Diablo 4 depicting heaven, hell, Lillith, and other angels and demons

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Diablo 4’s onslaught of MMO features hints at a questionable live-service future

The writing has improved, but the organic tension has largely evaporated

Image: Blizzard Entertainment

The first time I see another player roaming around Estuar in Diablo 4, even before their friendly green nameplate registers in my brain, I reflexively open fire with the righteous fury of a mindless exterminator sent to cleanse the land of evil. Sorry, other person, for mistaking you for an abnormally large Fallen; my first reflex is to machine-gun fireball anything that moves because I grew up running away from the original Butcher. Eventually, after a few more violent knee jerks, I start waving at fellow Wanderers instead of trying to murder them. I didn’t realize that adapting old Diablo instincts for an open-world format would be a thing, but here we are.

In previous Diablo games, the presence of other players was a series of announced incursions. Sometimes the visitor ended up being a serial killer, or a silent weirdo who just wanted to do their own thing (which would sometimes mess up your thing). Either way, in that finite expanse, you were always conscious of what the other players were (or obviously weren’t) doing; it was apparent, for instance, when someone joined a rift game in order to quietly open a cow portal.

Intimacy made sense within the context of the earlier Diablo games, which were one-way descents into hell — a small, stalwart party had extremely poor odds against the Lord of Terror, which made things even more fun; in Diablo 4’s open world, though, that claustrophobic, chilling bite is gone. In contrast, traversing this new incarnation of Diablo often feels generic and lonely, with the exception of some strong moment-to-moment warmth from the NPCs that accompany you in the campaign. In Diablo 2, which had a much smaller scope and player base than modern-day MMOs, I’d often log on solo, but ease into ambient familiarity while scrolling through the lobby to see regulars doing regular cow runs, trading gear, goofing around, or offering help. It felt truer to the essential Diablo multiplayer experience of a ragged community in peril, stubbornly working together against the threat of annihilation.

Diablo 4’s five character classes hanging out around a fire, with a Barbarian on the left, to a Necromancer, to a Sorcerer, to a Rogue, and the Druid on the far right Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

In a series so driven by momentum and inevitability, the average endgame experience in older Diablo games (even, to an extent, Diablo 3) involved being together; never truly alone. Diablo 4’s long and sometimes tedious campaign (which certainly appeals to single–player traditionalists) has few incentives for others to work with you until the endgame, and it’s easy to miss the old days when Sanctuary was a much smaller place.

In Estuar today, things are different. There are plenty of folks around, but for now, I feel truly alone. When I finally get to the endgame, where the “real” Diablo 4 work begins, bringing down world bosses and rushing to other timed events evokes the same camaraderie of waiting with a mob of consumers for a Black Friday sale to open. Trade chat is silent, which I initially attributed to people being busy playing for the first time, but then I realize that there is no Trade chat (there was in the review build). Some of my friend list has already blazed through to World Tier III, which isn’t surprising, given the grind-and-find mentality that Diablo 3 so doggedly drilled into us. Translating that pipeline to an open-world scope is, at best, difficult.

The reality is that after a certain point, one of the many joys of Diablo — and this has nothing to do with narrative quality — is about finding glitches and shortcuts to the endgame, which has followed a predictably capitalist evolution into a broken cottage industry filled with gold peddlers and level boosters. I mentally pour one out for an era where most of the time, we only had the kindness of strangers to rely on — like some dedicated guy doing nonstop uber runs for one and all.

A Barbarian, Necromancer, Sorcerer, and Rogue attack a reptilian dungeon boss in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Diablo 4 is different by necessity. It has more overt literary aspirations that lend themselves well to the new open-world structure. Across this vast patchwork of territories, the game’s designers didn’t have a choice but to loosen the series’ strict cosmic duality that was much better suited to a leaner world. There’s more room to breathe with a longer campaign, and a more holistic look at the impact of the Eternal Conflict on retired heroes and forgotten comrades and, most importantly, the nobodies of Sanctuary. This isn’t just a desolate slab of doomed land with different terrain stretched over it in five acts — it’s now a living slab of doomed land, and it makes a difference.

Donan the retired Horadrim, for instance, thrives in a fiefdom of his own making, in a grimdark version of medieval Scotland where the druidic way of life has been pushed out by the Cathedral; his fellow townsfolk either love him or hate him. There are Knights Penitent serving in godforsaken backwaters where everyone hates them, including themselves (and probably the exiled angel Father Inarius, Lilith’s baby daddy). Diablo 4 makes it clear that the threat of the Prime Evils will never end, that Sanctuary still has its own problems between these cycles, and the Dickensian desperation and squalor of small lives are a vital part of this living, breathing world. Peasant drama is the kind of stuff I live for in MMOs, and in this, Diablo 4 does not disappoint.

In Hawezar, the “final” contiguous region on the map depending on whether you followed the “intended” campaign quest sequence, there’s a hint at a bigger picture beyond the neat divisions of “civilization” we’ve seen so far. Hawezar, according to its residents, is not a part of Sanctuary, but exists separately in service to its all-consuming swamp. The region falls into the weary stereotype of the inscrutable Other — a land of unknown unknowns and baffling superstitions in contrast to the rest of the continent’s love of bureaucracy, routine, and hierarchies. There’s also the suggestion that Hawezar’s magic is somehow more natural and authentic than the Light and wizardry known to Estuar, which teeters close to a kind of wild romanticization of Black swamp culture. It’s much better than the heinous caricature of the witch doctor from Diablo 3, though, so I can’t complain too much.

The Diablo 4 overworld map, covered in quest markers, challenges, and points of interest Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Diablo 4 shines most when the writing shifts away from the opaque machinations of immortal entities. Some of its most effective scenes turn the player’s eye away from heaven and hell and onto the literal flesh of Estuar; when the Horadrim Lorath slices open a misbegotten demon to examine its innards for clues, his brief examination of a “soft noble’s hand” is such a sharp little moment that I want a whole series of CSI: Horadrim where the Wanderer helps Lorath solve homicides across Estuar. I am beyond delighted when I have to pick up a disembodied finger or read entrails in the dirt with a Scosglen seer. Where so much of the high-level story is about existential threats and mind games, I love this return to fat and gristle.

Estuar now has a permanent overworld map that hammers home how people really do have to live here, which tracks with how the campaign’s conflicts have, for better or worse, downshifted from big existential struggles to Succession: The Roys Go to Hell. Much of the drama is interpersonal and generational and has to do with inherited power or knowledge. Frankly, I did not bludgeon my way through hell expecting to negotiate with a demon. Compared to hungry, senseless Evil that can’t be reasoned with, these changes feel right for the material endgame focus. But I can’t help feeling nostalgic for the gut-level terror of the first Diablo games. Lilith’s wish to “empower” humans wades right into the sort of milquetoast girlboss feminism I thought we finally killed off in a post-Daenerys Targaryen world.

Blizzard wants us here for a good time and a long time, but judging from the flat monotony of Diablo 3 and its tendency to rush players into its seasonal content at the cost of narrative quality, only one of those can be true. While the writing has definitely improved in Diablo 4, the gameplay is inconsistent throughout the campaign, and I only felt a rush of adrenaline when I got to hell for the first time — it’s really the most fun I had in the whole campaign. To be fair, starting out fresh in Diablo is never “fun,” and it doesn’t really get fun until you have the beginnings of a good synergistic build. And with the onslaught of MMO features and systems that dilute the core concept of a menacing, viral evil, this new open world is a reminder of the long-haul future that seems to be in store for us: microtransactions, boosts, and an eternal grind.

A Barbarian speaks to an NPC from the back of a horse in an arid town in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment via Polygon

Diablo has always been transactional, but in the best of times, those transactions were made between players without Blizzard barging in like a chaperoning nun. Today, most interactions are dictated by preset emotes, and the closest thing I have to feeling “together but alone” is lurking near someone else for a small experience buff. It’s easy for me to miss the cozy universe of Diablo 2 because there was a tangible sense of fear that drove us to seek solidarity in parties (I will admit that Diablo 4’s Nightmare Dungeons have become a repeat attraction for me with friends — perhaps because they’re so obviously borrowed from World of Warcraft’s Mythic+ dungeons, where each instance has different conditions and affixes, and I was, at one point, very much a Mythic+ junkie).

Now, that organic tension and forced cooperation has been flattened into a very different space where MMO busywork doesn’t naturally invite engagement or community; I expect Clans will become useful here, though part of the excitement of Diablo 2 was meeting new people and doing dumb things with them. We will find a way to make things fun, even if it means learning how to move through a much lonelier world.

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