Diablo 4 is an incredible game. While I still have so much to see and try in the title (and serious questions remain about its future), Diablo 4 instantly inserts itself into a very competitive game of the year discussion. At the very least, Diablo 4 already feels like a significantly better game than Diablo 3 often did. In fact, Diablo 4 has already redeemed one of Diablo 3‘s greatest design sins.
Diablo 3 remained a divisive title for much of its existence. While some of the sequel’s design features clearly didn’t please everyone, many of the game’s biggest controversies can be attributed to the decision to make Diablo 3 an always-online game. At the time, Diablo 3 team members said that the feature would help prevent cheating and other detrimental issues. However, many suspected that the feature was really there to curb piracy. It was the early days of a DRM debate that hasn’t really gone anywhere since then.
Keep in mind that internet quality and access were also objectively worse in 2012 than they are now. For some, Diablo 3‘s always online requirement made the game impossible to play. Others simply found that the game’s congested servers made the game nearly impossible to play. Instead, Diablo 3‘s infamous Error 37 message was what too many players saw when they simply tried to play the game at launch. It was quite some time before most of Diablo 3‘s player base was able to access the game whenever they wanted.
By comparison, Diablo 4‘s launch has gone much better. Yes, some players found themselves stuck in queues on public launch day. Yes, disconnects have brought a sudden end to some players’ runs. And yes, you will almost certainly run into some kind of glitch during Diablo 4‘s early days. Anyone who tries to deny any of that is simply lying. But, Diablo 4‘s launch has been remarkably smooth for an online-only game of its kind. Some are calling it the smoothest launch of a Blizzard game ever, and I’d have to agree with that. Maybe that’s a low bar given modern launch standards, but Diablo 4‘s debut has been remarkably drama free from a technical standpoint.
However, that’s not the Diablo 3 sin I’m talking about. No, the thing that Diablo 4 is already doing that Diablo 3 never really did is justify its always-online requirement in ways that enhance the experience of playing the game.
The Diablo 3 team may have hesitated to talk about piracy when they talked about the game’s online requirements, but the message was clear enough. Diablo 3‘s always-online requirement offered a messy solution to a topic that a lot of studios at that time considered to be a big problem. Whether piracy really was (or is) that big of a problem is up for debate. The lengths studios would go to in order to prevent it (even at the cost of their paying customers) is not. Diablo 3‘s launch was a victim of that mentality.
Mind you, the game did itself very few favors in that department once more people were able to play it. Diablo 3‘s online-only features were limited, to say the least. It was nice that your progress was saved to the cloud to prevent hardware failures. It was nice that it was fairly easy to join someone else’s game compared to how Diablo 2 handled that process. Beyond that, the game did little with the idea that everyone was connected to servers. Actually, the one major feature that clearly utilized that concept (Diablo 3‘s auction house) soon became so hated that it was removed from the game.
Diablo 4 offers quite a few ways to make the most of its online requirements. In fact, the game essentially offers an MMO-lite experience. You’ll often encounter players in the open world, and you can easily formally (or informally) team up with them to take on World Bosses, World Events, and other such world challenges. If you want to play with friends on other platforms, you can do so almost instantly. Hell, you can even transfer progress from one platform to another with relatively little effort.
For as often as Diablo 4 reminds you that you’re sharing your experience with others, though, it never forces that experience on you. If you want to play Diablo 4 by yourself and never intentionally intact with another player, you’re free to do so wiht no notable additional efforts required. The game is entirely enjoyable as a solo experience. While some will lament the lack of an offline mode and the server queue/lag-free experience such a mode offers, it’s a testament to Diablo 4‘s design that solo players are really only missing out on XP bonuses, expedited dungeon resets, and the fun of playing with others.
For as much as I worried about Diablo 4‘s MMO-like features, I now can’t imagine playing the game without them. Diablo 3‘s always online requirement was largely there for the benefit of the game’s parent company. Diablo 4‘s online requirement is the fuel that propels the game to heights no other Diablo title has reached before.
The ability to share Diablo 4‘s world with others has resulted in a world that feels so much more substantial and alive. It doesn’t even matter if you intentionally play with others. The game finds other ways to use its online requirements to constantly change the world around you in interesting ways than enhance even the solo experience. Rather than bounce between dungeons and other pieces of legacy content by the time you reach the endgame, Diablo 4 encourages you to explore the spaces between. Doing so often results in the kinds of adventures that fulfill the more traditional RPG requirements that some Diablo-like APRGs (even great ones) sometimes lack.
It’s no surprise that Diablo creator David Brevik recently revealed that his original vision for Diablo 3 was a kind of ARPG and MMORPG hybrid. His belief was that a well-designed version of such an experience could combine the epic communal nature of a proper MMO with the additive action of an ARPG. It turns out that he was right. It’s just that a tragic set of circumstances and poor decisions prevented Diablo 3 from being that game. Actually, Diablo 3 was the game that got a lot of people worrying about the very idea of that kind of game.
But while it has a long way to go, Diablo 4 has already made one thing very clear. Great ARPGs are even better with a little MMORPG in them.