Diablo 4 - Impressions

Its been enough time after Blizzcon for the hype dust to settle as we prepare ourselves for the long wait for Diablo 4. After stating that the game is not coming out anytime "soon", not even Blizzard soon. Best estimates put the game in development for about 2 years, before we can get our hands on the release version. While I am a huge fan of the franchise, and even played Diablo 3 from release until Reaper of Souls, I’m going to use this post to explain why we should all taper our expectations of Diablo 4 as being the sequel to Diablo 2 we all wanted.

The more headlines I read about Diablo 4, such as quarterly updates on the game’s progress, the less I feel it's going to live up to people’s expectations. And not just to be a negative Nancy, I enjoyed and thought the initial release of Diablo 3 was fine, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy Diablo 4 also. But what I’m trying to say is that it’s not going to on par with Diablo 2, which is what a lot of people are hoping for. I’ll outline some of the reasons why people are so excited, and my thoughts on each.

While transparency is always good, I feel that the way they are welcoming all feedback and promises to adjust based on community feedback is just PR and pandering to the fanbase. Some companies do this well, such as GGG on Path of Exile, but Blizzard and many AAA developers have a lot of talent, and those people in leadership positions are making those big decisions. It's easier for an indie studio or single person to incorporate feedback because they are using their fan base as knowledgeable experts. When you already have a team of skilled and talented teams that have run successful projects, there is less need to rely on community feedback, as concepts, mechanics, and bugs can be solved in house. But even at big studios, similar to big-budget movie studios, sometimes the person in charge can just lead the project in the wrong direction. We can see what happened to Diablo 3 with Jay Wilson’s original version compared to what D3 is now after he left for another team within Blizzard.

Unfortunately, Blizzard knows that most people will buy the game just because of its name. Today’s Blizzard is no longer the Blizzard North that released the classic Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft games that everyone remembers fondly. Today’s Blizzard tends to make be more retroactive changes after the product is launched to keep their player base from leaving or attract new players. World of Warcraft and their subscription model is what Blizzard excels at now. Designers on D4, like David Kim, have mentioned there are plans for expansions already, but I'm confident that there will be major content patches released so we don’t have to wait more than two years for 1st expansion. I followed the D3 development process and a few features were taken out of the main release, such as the Mystic, to be added in the expansion. Whether this was due to design issues or spreading out content over time, I don't want to see this done intentionally to entice players to keep coming back. Generally I don't return to games for DLC or content updates, so I want a complete game upon release.

Another red flag that sounds similar to the D3 development process is that core mechanics from Diablo 2 that a lot of players want in Diablo 4 is not being prioritized because lead game designers think that doesn’t make for a fun game. Things like global cooldown on spells or potions I don’t enjoy having, but are in Diablo 3 and returning for Diablo 4. I’m not a game designer and respect the developer's choices, but I feel it is pandering when they make it feel like the community has more say in the development in the game than they actually do. By introducing all classes from Diablo 2 in D4 so far, they are definitely playing into the idea that this is just like D2, but of course, most of the mechanics are different and more similar to D3.

The reason why I loved Resident Evil 2 remake was that it was a faithful remake of the classic game, whereas D4 is trying to play a tough balance of being a new game in the franchise but playing to a fanbase that just wants things as close to D2 as possible. One example of a major change is the morphing mechanic for the druid. Instead of using a spell to transform into a werewolf or werebear form, specific attacks momentarily transform you into one of the three forms. While interesting, and I look forward to how this will play out upon release, this is a drastic change for how the class plays. Not being able to transform on command, makes the class feel less of a shapeshifting class that I enjoyed from D2. It feels more like extravagant animations than being able to harness the powers of the wolf or bear for a short period. This is where the dichotomy of developer ideas and new mechanics conflict with staying faithful to D2, and player feedback conflict.

One of the biggest reasons why the game is being promoted as a game more similar to Diablo 2 is the darker environments and tone. A lot of people complain that Diablo 3 is too cartoony and looks more like the World of Warcraft. I don’t see why this is such a major selling point for D4. The game does look better, which is expected since the original Diablo 3 released about 7 years ago, but to me, the graphics don’t look all that different. Reaper of Souls already added a lot of great environments and darker imagery that is reminiscent of what was shown in D4. Just changing the color palate a little doesn’t seem like a huge game-changer to me. Even the trailer for the game, which was celebrated for being so bloody and gory, returning to its “roots” wasn’t something that got me more excited than seeing any of Blizzard’s other great cinematics. Showing blood doesn’t automatically make a game scary or invoke horror. Diablo 1 and 2’s cinematics weren’t overly bloody but had a sense of tension and foreboding that invoked something in your imagination that made it scary.

Blizzard’s games have followed a trend since the release of Starcraft 2, where villains are not threatening because they are always talking or foreshadowing their plans. I’m at least glad in the trailer that Lilith didn’t say a word. It’s always more terrifying when villains are confident in their own plans and don’t need to explain everything. What I do like seeing is that Diablo 4 is not mentioning that the characters you play as in D4 are Nephalem, which are so powerful that angels and demons don’t stand a chance. In Diablo 3 and in the modern World of Warcraft the writing team has made the story focus around your character, an all-powerful savior or chosen one that has the power to save the world or universe. In vanilla World of Warcraft, you were just one random adventurer and in raids full or other random adventurers, and I hope in D4 you are also just average people, but of course still enjoyable to play as. Of course, I knew the lore of Diablo, humans are in fact decedents of angels and demons.

Blizzard has gone out of its way to avoid saying the word MMO in association to D4, as it will make a comparison to WoW and put off people. Even if they don’t say it, it’s without a doubt incorporating many MMO features that have worked for the company for many years. I’m not bashing MMOs since I do like MMORPGs, and Blizzard has done a lot for the genre with its updates and works on WoW for almost 2 decades. Even though the devs emphasized that you can play the entire game solo, I wish they would just incorporate private and public games like D2 had, instead of a shared world. While they said that you won’t see many other people unless for a specific open-world boss encounter, seeing a lot of heroes and not having to take down the enemy yourself takes me out of the immersion of the game. I played with many friends and strangers in D2, but I also liked the option to create a private game where I didn’t run into another player.

Another missed opportunity, which I didn’t see ever happening, was providing an off-line mode. I know its crucial to prevent cheating for an online game, but you would have thought a developer like a blizzard would have been able to make it work by now if they really wanted to. D4 is also going to have BoE and BoP items like WoW. I enjoyed the trading system in D2 and would love to see every item being able to be traded and re-traded as many times as I want. I never really like the character-specific drops form D3, and if I find a rare item on one character I should be able to trade it to another player for an item that is useful to me, even if it was something like Stone of Jordans. And I don’t like the idea they are currently proposing of making certain items only tradeable once, because after I find an upgrade I should be able to trade it again to someone who could use it instead of destroying it. Imagine in real life if you could never sell anything that you bought, or only sell it one time before it has to kept forever or destroyed.

Another MMO aspect that D4 looks to take from the MMO model is the content structure. In past statements, D4 devs already mentioned that they plan on telling an extended story. This aspect alone killed any hype I had for the game. It reminds me of Final Fantasy 15 or Kingdom Hearts 3. This statement is already hedging their bets for an incomplete story at launch so they can continue selling expansion packs or story content over several years or in Blizzard's ideal case, decades. I want a satisfying story or conclusion to a game. But I understand that Diablo is one of Blizzard's major franchises and they don’t want to let it go, seeing how they are not having success creating new IPs, other than Overwatch to make up for their lack of revenue. I see Blizzard riding on the success of great minds from back in the Blizzard North days, but similar to Star Wars today, people will still buy it just for the nostalgia factor. I hope that if Blizzard messes up D4 up this time, that they will lose more support from their longtime fans and eventually feel to pressure to either make a great game regardless of thinking about their shareholders or come up with new ideas so they don’t have to keep dragging Diablo’s name through the mud.

Thanks for reading this opinion piece. Let me know what your impressions of Diablo 4 are. Even though this post is mostly negative, I do hope that D4 turns out to be a great game that I can spend a lot of time playing. I encourage all those that are fans of the series to have your voice heard and make posts on the official D4 forums, as this will be the best opportunity to have the feedback actually affect the game.