Diablo 4’s Beta Shows the Horror of Modern AAA Design

Diablo 4's Beta gives insight as to what AAA games have become...for better and worse

Diablo 4’s Beta Shows the Horror of Modern AAA Design
Source: Blizzard Entertainment.

It’s been a rough couple of years for Blizzard Entertainment, going from one of the premier studios in the world to one mired in controversy, scandals, lawsuits, and destroying years’ worth of goodwill with their fans. The release of Diablo 4 has been seen as a chance for the company to win back favor — the latest single-player game in a popular series. After playing the beta, I'm not thrilled with what I experienced and what will be available upon release. Diablo 4, at least from the beta, shows what AAA games have become, for better and worse.

Evil Diablo

Right from the start, Diablo 4 removes much of the color and more cartoony vibes of Diablo 3 in favor of the darker greys and browns of the older games. While this may polarize, I honestly liked it, as it lends Diablo 4 more of a horror movie atmosphere compared to other entries. The more stylized cutscenes demonstrate a tone similar to that of a movie like Evil Dead or Hellraiser, with the new enemy Lilith taking center stage.

There’s a new evil on the loose, and it’s going to be up to us, and maybe some friends, to stop her plans for sanctuary. While the beta doesn’t have all the classes that will be present in the full game, it features a kind of homecoming for the Diablo 2 archetypes. However, if you’re thinking that this plays like D2, or even D3, there are several major differences here.

The Skill trees have been greatly reduced in depth, and the same could be said for the rest of the experience. Image Source: Guided News.

Blood Trees

With each Diablo game, the developers have been steadily pruning the skill trees available to each class. Diablo 4 has the most barebones out of all the games, and indeed among the ranks of its ARPG peers. Like before, each class has its own skill tree, but developers broke the trees themselves down into groups of skills. Each group represents a distinct set of abilities — defensive, offensive, energy generator, etc. Within each grouping, there are also passive general abilities as well. The interesting aspect of the skills is that every equipable skill has three passives — one that enhances the properties of said skill, and then two that change the overall ability. Of those two, however, only one can be active at a time — forcing you to decide how you want to augment that skill. Near the end of the trees, you’ll get access to the class’s ultimate grouping, in which only one skill can be active, and the final section is an “ultimate passive” which unlocks around level 30.

While the choices are interesting, it also means that you really can’t start putting together a build until you hit the final unlock tier to try and synergize active and passive skills together, but you are free to respec by spending gold.

Personally, I liked the skill modifiers introduced in Diablo 3 better, as each one could completely change the utility and use of a skill, and you are still limited to one energy generator and six active skills. One thing I do like is that every class gets special upgrades and perks after hitting level 15, which provides a secondary progression and build-focus for each class.

You’ll be using said skills on the redesigned game world, and whether you like it or not, it's a world where you are no longer alone.

Source: Press Start Australia.

A Dead Live Service World

People have been discussing Diablo Immortal in detail, from its pay-to-win characteristics to its attempts to make an MMO-lite game for the Diablo franchise. With Diablo 4, they have expanded the MMO side all the way. Unlike Diablo 3, you literally cannot play the game offline, even if you just want to play in single-player mode. This can present some problems, such as lag costing me a hardcore character during the beta. What this means for the gameplay is that in and outside of the various towns, you can wander into other players.

There are far more side quests and mini-events in the field, which nearby players can team up and do. The world itself will scale to your level, and all gear drops are instanced to you. The game feels far more inspired by MMO design, and perhaps even more by mobile games. There are far more services and features locked behind leveling gates — upgrading gear, applying affixes, upgrading your health potions, and more. While it wasn’t possible to see the end game directly, looking around the various services and shops, one major aspect is going to be generating harder variants of dungeons, which I assume is going to drop the best gear or materials needed at the end game.

The whole thing gives off a live service vibe, where the developers want you to play on a daily basis. At this point, I’m wondering if there will be daily and weekly quests to do in the retail version. Major events in the beta included "world battles" that consisted of a raid boss fight, but I've gone on at length about my aversion towards needing to log into games at particular times.

A Lackluster Roller Coaster

I wasn’t really going to buy Diablo 4 after all the problems and bad PR that came out about Blizzard, and having spent two days in the beta, now I’m really not interested in the game.

Where indie ARPGs have been trying to make pushes forward for the genre — Grim Dawn’s extensive character creator and build diversity, Path of Exile’s skill tree, and Warhammer 40K Inquisitor Martyr’s variety of gear are all examples - this game feels so sterile to me. The game space outside of dungeons is larger, to accommodate more players wandering around, but it also means there’s more dead space (no pun intended) to run through.

One of the World-Bosses, Ashava. Source: Blizzard.

There are now collectibles to find that add up to permanent bonuses for the entire world, and a greater emphasis on the differences of the various difficulty tiers in terms of what they unlock, changes to the enemies, and the gear rarities available to them.

It seems like all the interesting decision-making surrounding different builds and skill modifiers have been backloaded to the items themselves. Legendaries now have unique buffs for each class that can be removed and affixed to another item if it meets its requirements. It wasn’t possible to see it, but I can imagine that end-game builds are going to be entirely determined by getting set pieces and the ultimate tier that unlocks in the harder-difficulty worlds. My problem is that the rest of the game and loot chasing simply aren’t interesting with what’s there. The classes’ unique aspects are interesting, but like Diablo 3, I see this as all window dressing for chasing set pieces and the build-defining buffs.

This raises another question. Given that Blizzard is going all-in on the live service model, what is there going to be to keep someone engaged? Will this turn into World of Warcraft-lite, or a $69.99 USD version of Diablo Immortal? For anyone wondering about monetization in the game, there were no elements that I could see, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any for the live version.

Ultimately for me, what’s old in Diablo 4 isn’t enough to keep me interested, and what’s new is just driving me away. I can tell you that outside of an unusual circumstance, for the first time in a long while, I won't be there on Day One fighting demons and collecting shiny loot.

As always, things are subject to change, and we’ll have to see how/if the retail version of the game will be different.

For more on RPG design, you can find that in my upcoming book “Game Design Deep Dive Role Playing Games”.
If you would like me to consult with you on your design or playtest your game, please reach out.
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