Diablo IV beta: Early access review of the dark fantasy game that has sold millions

Fighting  on the beaches in Diablo IV  (Blizzard Entertainment)
Fighting on the beaches in Diablo IV (Blizzard Entertainment)

A new Diablo isn’t so much another sequel as a milestone in the development of one of gaming’s all-time greats. It says much that Diablo III is still being played over 10 years on from its original release, while a remaster of the ancient Diablo II sold millions of copies on its launch last year. Fans don’t just blast through a Diablo and move on; they can’t resist coming back for more.

The secret of the series’ success has always been its demonic dark fantasy aesthetic, its multiplayer-friendly action and the lengths its developer, Blizzard, goes to in keeping players engaged. Most of all, though, it lies in its gameplay loop, where you wade through dungeon after dungeon, slaying demons and the undead by the dozen.  The more you slay, the more powerful the skills and gear you get to slay them with, and the more spectacular the mayhem becomes. No other series has honed this vicious cycle into something as devilishly addictive or absorbing that’s so much fun to share with friends in co-op play. If Diablo’s roots lie in classic Dungeons and Dragons, you can see its influence everywhere from Destiny 2 to Elden Ring.

Epic battles are the order of the day in Diablo IV (Blizzard Entertainment)
Epic battles are the order of the day in Diablo IV (Blizzard Entertainment)

Judged by its early access beta – there’s a second open early access beta next weekend – Diablo IV is not going to do anything to mess things up. Giving fans the chance to try out three of the game’s five classes across its first icy zone and its entire first act, it shows that the loop is as strong as ever – and that Diablo is evolving in other ways as well.

Up to a point, it’s a case of Blizzard listening to the fans. Some moaned about Diablo III’s brighter colours, so Diablo IV doubles down on the grimmer, darker style of Diablo II, pushing further into horror territory than the series ever has before, with some extra lashings of blood and gore. Yet there’s also a sense that Diablo is opening out, becoming less linear and giving you more freedom to explore its massive areas.

You might meet Little Elias in your wanderings (Blizzard Entertainment)
You might meet Little Elias in your wanderings (Blizzard Entertainment)

The opening section showcased in the beta is a vast landscape of muddy forest valleys, icy crags and frozen wastes, studded with dungeons and ruins to explore and monsters to dispatch. Sometimes a doorway will open into a cellar full of skeletal swordsmen and archers, ready to ambush the unwary, while the centre houses an imposing stronghold where it’s a challenge just getting to its fearsome boss. Meanwhile, frequent public events call players to join forces against waves of spectral fiends or work together to disrupt dark rituals. This isn’t just a campaign to be worked through, but a game that’s designed to be replayed and enjoyed with other fans.

That doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t matter. In fact, where the plotlines in previous titles were little more than an excuse to slaughter demon legions, Diablo IV shows a new confidence, introducing interesting characters, more ambiguous situations and a new arch-villain, Lilith, who’s more than just another cackling baddie from the fiery pits of hell. Not only is she oddly stylish, you can even feel a little sympathy for this devil.

The combat, meanwhile, is more satisfying than ever. The three classes in the beta give you a selection of different play styles. You can wade into the hellspawn swinging your battleaxe as the Barbarian, or play with speed and subterfuge as the Rogue, and it’s satisfying either way. I played through the whole first act as the Sorcerer, slowly progressing from weedy fire bolt spells to devastating combos of fireballs and lightning, and there’s nothing like destroying a horde of charging beasties in a storm of flame and fury.

The Barbarian isn’t short on charm either, as you balance powerful defensive skills with berserk attacks you can only maintain by hurling your axe-wielding hulk into the next affray. Fans are going to have a lot of fun just experimenting with different combinations of weapons and skills.

Rogue ability ice barrage is at your disposal (Blizzard Entertainment)
Rogue ability ice barrage is at your disposal (Blizzard Entertainment)

If anything, this is Diablo at its most accessible, with an Adventurer difficulty level that goes easy on new players, and many of the old issues that added friction – wrangling loot in your inventory, warping out of dungeons – rendered almost hassle-free. True, you could grumble that there’s still too much loot being thrown at you every other minute, and that a little more quality rather than quantity might be appreciated, but you still get enough good stuff on a regular basis to stop you feeling hard done-by.

In fact, the biggest issues with the beta are hopefully temporary, with some lengthy waits to join the action and weird periods where lag crept in, with your hero seeming to teleport uncontrollably around the map or repeat actions you’d triggered moments ago.

This stuff needs to be fixed, but little else about Diablo IV seems broken. On one level, it’s a clever and calculated comeback aimed straight at long-term fans, but it’s also a welcoming entry point for new players and made with an eye towards the next 10 years. The full game arrives in June and, for all the blood and brimstone, it can’t come soon enough.