Diablo 4 is finally the phenomenal action RPG I wanted it to be

Season 4 'Loot Reborn' celebrates what Diablo is all about.

May 15, 2024 - 06:50
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Diablo 4 is finally the phenomenal action RPG I wanted it to be

You're not supposed to defeat a boss 20 levels higher than you in most RPGs, let alone Diablo 4. I just did, alongside an army of skeletons, in its most pivotal season yet. It wasn't particularly hard to pull off, but it would've taken a game-breaking exploit to do it a year ago. Diablo 4 season 4—and its massive list of permanent changes to the game—has finally made it into the action RPG I'd always hoped it would be.

There are 10,000 lines of patch notes to read if you want, but the gist of the update is that every class is exponentially more flexible than they were before. Necromancers have long suffered a life with skeletal minions who fall apart as soon as you enter a room. Now, they're effectively wearing the same armor as you are, which has made them so powerful that I've pulled a speedrunner move and sequence-broke the normal route through the game.

The Diablo 4 that released a little under a year ago wouldn't have allowed that to happen. The design emphasized moment-to-moment combat: evading out of attacks and careful ability usage. Loot was weighed down by a number of stats that didn't mean anything and were unintuitive to build a character around. Why would anyone want to be really good at dealing damage to enemies only when they're about to die? While it felt good to dodge-roll like I was playing Dark Souls, finding good loot—in a game all about it—was like solving riddles.

That era of Diablo 4 is finally over. It's no longer precious about a healthy balance between mechanical skill and powerful gear. You have control over that now as you pick and choose between loot with stats that clearly synergize with your skills. Within a few hours of starting season 4, I was torn between adding a stat onto my necklace that made my minions stronger or one that made me run faster. It only makes a small difference in the early levels, but it's a choice that forces you to think about what kind of character you want to be and how you'll have to play around what you're giving up.

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Blizzard)

It's the season of the necromancers and their undead armies, so I juiced up my boys in bone. It stung a little bit to not have that boost in movement speed, but my stronger minions trivialized the boss I wasn't supposed to kill at such a low level. There were a few close-calls where a little extra speed would've let me walk out of a telegraphed attack, but while I focused on that my skeletons demolished the boss in under a minute. 

Diablo is finally back

(Image credit: Tyler C. / Blizzard)

In season 4, every build works while you're leveling up.

A good action RPG should let you feel like you're breaking the rules and give you plenty of opportunities to change your mind on how you want to do it. Season 4's focus on Helltide, open world events that dump high-level demons into a region every hour, is built to surprise you. Helltides have always been Diablo 4's best feature: They bathe an entire area of the map in blood and possess NPCs in nearby towns to get on their knees and worship the demons. Monsters are everywhere and are always slightly higher level than you, making Helltides just tough enough to keep your attention as you roam around collecting currency to open loot chests.

Season 4 lacks a unique mechanic that empowers your character, like the robot spider from season 3 or the vampiric powers in season 2. Instead, your job is to help a group of mercenaries from Diablo 2 defend themselves from the Blood Maiden, a new summonable boss in Helltide. Your reward is a bunch of caches filled with gear that you'd normally find at max level. I got my hands on a ring that automatically casts Corpse Explosion and a few other abilities on my necromancer. I wasn't planning on using that skill, but when life hands you an absurdly powerful unique item, you change your plans and make use of it while you can.

I was overwhelmed with a pile of legendary items I could bend my build around and, to me, that's exactly the kind of problem you should have in an action RPG like Diablo 4. Nobody wants to be forced into playing the most accessible leveling build they read off of a guide. Everything should be strong enough for you to experiment. If there was one critical issue with loot before season 4, it was how long it took for your gear to enable an actual build. The leveling process was a desperate search for multiple pieces of loot with the right stats to make a build smooth enough to use. In season 4, every build works while you're leveling up, and individual pieces of gear can augment it with skills you might not have otherwise used. You no longer have to worry if your favorite skill is good. It's all good and you get to decide how it's good. 

Diablo 4 at launch had so much potential to be a game that celebrated playing with every toy in the sandbox and letting you embody the fantasy of its classes. Its obsession with its own past—specifically Diablo 2—buried the joy of creating your own hero of Sanctuary. As Blizzard has put in the work over the last several months to transform its core systems, I've come to appreciate the ways that original philosophy anchored the game to a muted aesthetic that let its classes and monsters stand out. Before the game loosened up, it was hard to notice how sorcerer lighting skills crackle and leave trails that look like they're animated at a low frame rate, giving it an almost-retro feel. Or how barbarians send out waves of heat like they're going to combust into a rage at any moment. All of these things deserved to be in a game where you got to feel just as cool as it all looked.

Diablo 4, I'm so happy to say, is finally, finally that game. 

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