I never really had any doubt that Diablo 4 would be a fun game. It was easy to lose hours (even days) to Diablo 4’s betas. Through ups and downs, the Diablo games have long been fundamentally enjoyable to play.
What worried me most about Diablo 4 was the game’s live-service structure and all of the things that typically go along with that business model. Microtransactions, content gating, the exhaustion of keeping up with a game that never ends…you don’t have to dive too deep into hypotheticals to see how it could all go wrong. Just look at what happened to Diablo Immortal.
So after finally getting to play the (mostly) full version of Diablo 4, it’s my strange duty to report that Diablo 4’s best qualities often work because of the game’s live service nature rather than in spite of them. It’s an odd dynamic that often left me wondering how responsible it is to praise a live service game for executing the concept so well at a time when live service games are often responsible for some of the worst aspects of modern gaming.
Diablo 4’s Campaign Is a Necessary Evil
Your first 30 hours or so with Diablo 4 will likely be spent working your way through the game’s campaign. Mind you, that’s a rough estimate based on my experience with the full campaign. Your own journey may be much quicker or much slower depending on your experience, skills, character build, and a bit of luck. The bigger point to keep in mind is that the campaign portion of Diablo 4 ultimately represents a pretty small portion of the intended overall experience.
Structurally, there’s not much to the Diablo 4 campaign you won’t find in other games. Pick a class, complete main quests (and the occasional side quest), and level up along the way. You’ve been down this road before regardless of whether you’ve played a Diablo game or not. There’s very little in the Diablo 4 campaign that will surprise you so far as that goes.
That statement unfortunately extends to the game’s story. Lilith, daughter of Mephisto, Lord of Hatred, has returned, and your created character seems destined to stop her. Though I can’t really go into the specifics of what happens from there beyond what we saw in the beta and the game’s promotional material, that’s honestly not a huge deal. The specifics would likely matter most to those willing and able to keep up with the series’ sometimes superfluous mythology up until this point.
It’s not that Diablo 4’s story is worse than what we’ve seen from the franchise before. If anything, I found it to be one of the more solid overall Diablo narratives. For the most part, though, the story is just…there. Seemingly major moments come and go with little emotional impact. A few setpiece moments flirt with memorability, though they too often pass and leave you with the real star of the campaign: working your way to the endgame.
So far as that goes, Diablo 4’s leveling process can be a matter of notable extremes. For most of my time with the campaign, I played as a Rogue. At first, things went about how you’d expect. The allure of acquiring new skills kept me grinding down the skill tree and every new piece of Legendary gear that dropped felt like a monumental occurrence. All the while, a series of carefully paced challenges forced me to truly master my character, explore the world, and learn the game’s more nuanced elements. These were the golden hours.
However, at about level 30 or so, I began to piece together the foundational components of what became my late-game build. Once I had some of those key pieces in place, I was surprised to find that so many of the thrills that drove me to that point began to fade away.
I don’t think I died once from about level 35 to when I faced the campaign’s final boss at around level 50. Sometimes, I was able to even able to stand in obvious danger zones and not take any notable damage. Because my incredible power level was often dependent on the abilities granted to me by a few key pieces of gear, I even stopped swapping certain items fairly early on. Loot no longer really mattered, there were no challenges that felt truly challenging, and I had acquired all the skills I needed many levels ago. As such, I’m not entirely sure I got to fully enjoy the “intended” leveling experience.
It won’t be that way for all classes, mind you. Barbarians and Druids, in particular, feel more dependent on the natural leveling and gearing processes (sometimes to a fault). If, however, you do suddenly find yourself to be nearly unstoppable as some did towards the end of the game’s betas, you may find yourself mindlessly inching towards the late game as you become a vehicle for a fairly simple skill rotation.
In many ways, the campaign portion of Diablo 4 is the worst part of the game. At the very least, it’s the part of the game that feels the most trivial. So much of it exists to slowly get you to the endgame content. There is fun to be had in it (especially during those opening hours, and especially for those not as experienced with the genre), but you may often find yourself more driven by the grind than the cinematic experience it attempts to offer.
However, longtime Diablo fans probably could have guessed that. Diablo games often don’t properly begin until you’ve reached the end of the main story, and Diablo 4 embraces that tradition via its live-service elements in ways that will make endgame players feel like they’ve just taken a peek inside the Ark of the Covenant.
Diablo 4’s Endgame Is One of the Best Live Service Experiences Ever
You’ll probably finish the Diablo 4 campaign by the time your character reached level 50, though the exact number can depend on how you play. In any case, the real Diablo 4 adventure begins at around that point.
By Level 50, you will have unlocked all of your core skill points and begun working on your Paragon tree: a somewhat complicated series of statistical perks that I’m looking forward to diving into deeper. Once you’ve beaten the campaign, you’ll also start acquiring more Legendary items as well as unique gear that can drastically change how you approach your character build (and therefore the game).
You’ll need all of those enhancements (and more) to survive the numerous endgame challenges that are now available to you. Higher difficulty levels, Nightmare Dungeons that buff enemies (and loot), world events and bosses that make the simple act of traversing the land feel dangerous…the shift that happens at this point in the game is more overwhelming than the process of navigating everything that has come before. I wouldn’t call the Diablo 4 campaign a 30-hour tutorial for what follows, though I absolutely did not expect the first few hours of that endgame experience to feel so much more engaging and substantial than everything that proceeded them.
For instance, after going so long without dying, I was squashed like a bug in my first Nightmare Dungeon. I could have survived, but I tried to play the game as I had been before (diving deep into a pack of enemies without fear of consequences). Diablo 4 soon made it abundantly clear that was no longer going to fly. It’s not that everything I had done up until that point was irrelevant but rather that my autopilot mode just wasn’t going to get me through the storm that lay ahead.
It was an exhilarating moment. For the first time in probably too long, I was now aware of my gear, my skills, and my strategies in ways that I wasn’t forced to be during the campaign. For as satisfying as the act of tearing through enemies and watching them explode into loot was, the reintroduction of consequences brought me back to the essential Diablo experience I had been craving for the last 15-20 levels as well as the last 10+ years.
Though that shift is common in Diablo titles, Diablo 4’s mastery of its endgame concepts has to be attributed to its mastery of live service elements. Diablo 4’s endgame feels alive in ways that no other Diablo title’s endgame has. A constantly shifting world works its will against you to test everything you thought you knew. Emerging events and the players that participate in them add a necessary spice to the meat and potatoes experience of slay, loot, repeat. You didn’t necessarily need an excuse to live in that loop for a while longer, but Diablo 4‘s evolving endgame finds ways to make you feel like you’re always working towards something worth experiencing.
The ongoing nature of those endgame challenges makes you appreciate the fundamentals of the Diablo 4 experience in ways the campaign does not. The game’s satisfyingly weighty combat is bolstered by a renewed sense of purpose. The excellent gothic visuals and soundtrack now mesh with challenges that feel equally dark and dangerous. The numerous ways to customize, build, and gear your characters actually seem to matter when your decisions are more clearly reflected in your successes and failures. Even previously easily ignored elements of the game (like brewing potions, crafting gems, and upgrading gear) now seem as essential as clicking the mouse.
What’s crucial to keep in mind, though, is that Diablo 4 isn’t trying to offer a Path of Exile-like endgame experience at this time. Path of Exile has been consistently updated for 10 years and offers layers upon layers of new systems. Many of those systems are based on the idea that the people using them are likely veterans and desire an already complex game diving even deeper into entirely new ideas. It was a game designed with ARPG veterans in mind, and it has (quite brilliantly) continued to cater to that demo.
By comparison, Diablo 4‘s endgame is slightly more considerate of newer players and those who are not as concerned with getting there as quickly as possible. While that approach may be partially responsible for the slower nature of the campaign (for veterans, that is), the pay-off is a game that scales well with the time you put into it. Diablo 4 is accessible enough to make it that game some will return to once in a while for months to come. It’s also that game that seems surprisingly well-prepared for its most hardcore players at launch. The magic trick is the way Diablo 4 allows wildly different kinds of players to share a world without feeling like they’re playing the other person’s game.
You won’t feel compelled to log in to Diablo 4 because there is something you have to do. You’ll feel compelled to log in to Diablo 4 because there is something you’ll want to try or some challenge you’ll want to overcome. That Legendary skill you’re missing, that world boss you’ve yet to defeat, the levels you haven’t yet reached, and the bosses that continue to make you feel insignificant will linger in your mind well past the point you’ve found the strength needed to pull yourself away from this game.
Many live service games offer the facsimile of such an experience, but Diablo 4 is unique in the ways that it presents not just the illusion of a game that you can play forever but a game that feels like each of its 100+ hours of gameplay was carefully designed to offer a genuine role-playing experience. Too many live service games keep you hooked through familiarity and the fear of the sunken-cost fallacy. Diablo 4 feels like it would have simply been limited by any other format.
Of course, there is something sinister about the ways that Diablo 4 fulfills the wicked promises of the live service genre. In this case, though, the biggest devils may be found in the details we don’t know.
Diablo 4 Can Redeem the Sins of Live Service Games or Succumb to Them
In its current form, Diablo 4 feels poised to offer hundreds of hours of content at launch. If you’re willing to dive into the game’s multiplayer content, PvP options, Hardcore mode, and multi-character options, you can expect to spend much more time with Diablo 4 than that. Of course, none of that takes into account the numerous free updates the game will eventually receive as well as the premium expansions that are part of the game’s future. Those could potentially keep you playing this game for years to come, though we honestly don’t know what they’ll look like yet.
Unfortunately, the same is true of many of Diablo 4’s other live service elements. Most notably, the game’s Battle Pass and Microtransactions weren’t enabled in the review build of the game. I didn’t feel their absence in any notable way (you can clearly play the game without them), but that doesn’t mean that their eventual presence won’t be felt in other ways.
While the Diablo 4 team has insisted that the game will only offer cosmetic microtransactions, we’ve seen numerous examples of games with cosmetic-only microtransactions that manage to make those cosmetics feel more important than they actually are. That’s what happens when you fill a game with microtransactions of any kind and when all of your progress is measured by a battle pass. What you actually unlock is sometimes less important than the idea that the value of your time with the game is being measured by those unlocks.
Even if we assume that Diablo 4’s microtransactions and live service multiplayer elements (especially its time-gated content) will not feel as egregious necessary as they did in Diablo Immortal, the fact of the matter is that I can’t tell you what they will feel like at launch or in the future. For that matter, I can’t even tell you how stable the game’s servers will be at launch or in the future. Nobody can at this time.
It’s what makes the very concept of those games such a devil’s bargain. Nearly infinite entertainment from a single game sounds like a great deal on paper. However, there is almost always a price to pay. Diablo 4 will easily lure you in with the promise of a masterful gameplay experience, but what happens after you put your name on the dotted line and get exactly what you want remains to be seen
It’s easy (and perhaps wise) to be cynical about that arrangement. Too many live service games have turned the desire to play them into the justification for predatory microtransactions and other design decisions that make obligated to keep playing long past the point of actual enjoyment. So far as that goes, it doesn’t help that the aforementioned Diablo Immortal represented the worst elements of the live service concept. The Diablo 4 team is saying all the right things when it comes to this game’s live service future, but the rewards for being just a bit greedy are tragically well-documented.
This is the kind of game that people will willingly spend hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars on. At present, Diablo 4 gleefully offers the chance to spend those hours while brushing aside the notion that those dollars are necessary. How many games of this kind from major publishers have been able to resist that temptation for long, though?
However, I really hope that Diablo 4 stays the course. Live service games are not going anywhere. They’re too popular, too profitable, and, let’s face it, too much fun. In the age of increasingly expensive entertainment, it can be nice to have a “main game” you return to time and time again that finds ways to refresh the pleasantly familiar. Of course, the idea of having such games has rarely been the problem. It’s the exploitation of our desire for such experiences that has given the entire live service concept a bad name.
So in lieu of the unrealistic expectation for the death of live service games, I feel compelled to hope and cheer for titles like Diablo 4 that put themselves in a position to use live service elements to enhance a fundamentally incredible gaming experience. I just hope the coming months don’t make me regret my decision to Faust around and find out.
Diablo 4 is scheduled to be released on June 6 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC. Those who pre-order the Deluxe and Ultimate editions of the game can also participate in its Early Access launch.