Over the weekend of 24 to 26 March, plenty of players took a dive back into the world of Sanctuary. For returning fans, the open beta for Diablo IV felt like a homecoming, with its gritty presentation jarring nostalgic memories of Diablo II. The opening cinematic further played into the experience, shifting from the harsh winterly outdoors to a poorly-lit, blood-drenched confined space that sets up a dramatic reveal of Lilith and Rathma in all their menacing glory.
It was a stunning, breathtaking start to the three-day affair, which handled network connectivity and queue times more deftly than its early access beta run from the previous weekend. While there was a short wait time imposed after logging in on the first day, players were able to go into the game almost instantly on the subsequent days — even as the rubberbanding, described as the backward popping of characters in motion to their recently occupied spaces that results from high latency in the network connection — persisted throughout the period.
Cast aside these live-server woes, and the Diablo IV open beta proved to be a fun, gripping, and satisfying return to a beloved franchise. The dark tone, established right from the get-go, oozed constant appeal, especially when its influences are carried over to the environmental design, as seen in a Necromancer-specific dungeon, where the crawling tree vines and breathing fleshy walls evoked strong atmospheric horror cues.
The main narrative, too, does a great job at retaining intrigue. The chunk of story made available in the build was an interesting study in Lilith’s character, skimming the surface of her messy, complicated, and morally ambiguous relationship with humanity, the Heavens, and her archangel consort. Hunting down every bit of lore may be a chore in some other titles, but in the wilderness of Fractured Peaks, the endeavour came with a healthy dash of allure and the promise that more will be unpacked in the full game.
With Fractured Peaks, the starting zone for the game, Diablo IV has offered a glimpse of a seamless world. The biomes are a nifty feature here, serving as a bridge that connect high to low ground, entrances to exits, and the like. This allows players to traverse various environments, such as climbing down cliffs to a snow-covered path, or ducking into a damp cave to reach the other side.
On paper, it’s a clever mechanic that makes world exploration feel more natural. The lack of loading screens introduces an added immersion, and the team has clearly paid a lot of attention in bringing the environmental detail, which also carries over to dungeon exploration. The underground setting oozed charm with its presentation of different undead forces, mechanics, and design — in one cellar, spirits were haunting prison cells; in another, tomes needed to be collected and placed on a pedestal before the boss monster can spawn. It certainly helped that the undertakings were often highly rewarding, which further incentivises exploration, even if the grinding got repetitive after a while.
Some of the shine, however, was dulled in the Diablo IV open beta due to slow network speeds, especially during peak periods. Rubberbanding occurred frequently during transitions when server connection flailed, and it would take a few seconds before the character was able to move into the next zone. Considering that these instances cropped up on an RTX 4060 GPU-equipped laptop, it’s likely that lower-end PCs were plagued with even more performance issues.
The roughest of times, however, were encounters with other players on the server. In towns, the stutter was particularly bad, leading to temporarily frozen screens and janky movements; outside of them, the multiplayer feature proved handy for combat situations and world bosses. Still, it can be a little bit of a double-edged sword in certain situations: some side quests, for instance, require solo kills to farm souls from specific creatures, but the additional assistance would mean a lower individual count, and by extension, more time to complete them.
Unlike the mainline quests, these smaller missions felt more like filler material than narrative progression. While some had interesting developments, a handful of them felt hollow with little to no purpose, which puts the lore potential of Diablo IV to waste. The emote quest is a prominent example, tasking players to find a location, only to have them accomplish it by performing an emote. Under the occasional circumstance, the busywork would be acceptable, but even in the open beta, there were too many of such undertakings to be worth the trouble.
Class imbalance was another area that left much room for improvement. Where Rogue, Barbarian, and Sorcerer were available in the early access beta, the open beta added Necromancer and Druid to the list, offering different experiences for players. A few hours in, and the distinctions made themselves known: the Necromancer is easily the most overpowered of the lot, while the Druid doesn’t make for a good starting pick, largely due to a lack in mobility. As a melee class, the Barbarian isn’t as deadly as the other classes, but makes up for it with a straightforward and tanky build.
Sorcerers are a force to be reckoned with as they can dish out very high ranged damage, whereas the Rogue comes highly recommended for versatility and critical damage, albeit with a steeper learning curve. For easy reference, the classes have been ranked in the tier list below:
As an action-RPG, Diablo IV continues to feature a heavy reliance on the skill tree, and it isn’t the most beginner-friendly system to pick up. The respective branches are highly intricate and diverse, requiring much thought and trial-and-error to achieve maximum potential, but that’s where the fun lies in. Even during the open beta, it quickly became evident that the game rewards experimentation, as players have to be open to swapping out abilities and learning new ones that best benefit their rare and legendary equipment. Mixing and matching the skills was one of the most enjoyable parts of the open beta, with the element of flexibility serving as a modern solution to an age-old problem.
Still, it’s easy to miss out on the constant need for reallocating the distribution of skill points (otherwise known as respec-ing) at the beginning, since the game doesn’t explicitly points players to do so, which may affect the starting gameplay experience. Newcomers will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the sheer technicality of it all, and the best way to learn is simple: just mess around and find out.
Alas, there are some niggling flaws in the open beta for Diablo IV that don’t quite justify its full US$70 price tag. While the extended play session did tease a promising return to vintage Diablo, the increase should offer a more robust customisation system, varied town designs (they all look the same in Fractured Peaks), voice lines unique to each character class, more nuanced side quests, and some polish to the in-game visuals.
It goes without saying that the network issues need to be ironed out, but credit has to be given where it’s due: Blizzard is well aware of them, and did resolve some of the known issues from the early access beta during its most recent run. Ultimately, endgame content will determine the value for returning fans, and only time can tell if Hell is truly worth the return trip when Diablo IV releases on 6 June 2023.