Diablo 4 hands-on: A more expansive, customizable loot-filled adventure

PS4 & PS5

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Diablo 3 followed in the footsteps of series entries before it, introducing a new generation of dungeon crawlers to the hellish world of Sanctuary back in 2012. Since then, thanks to a loyal player base, they’ve kept the hack-’n-slash RPG party going with countless updates. But now it’s time for the future, and Blizzard is molding Diablo 4 to deliver just that.

While the title looks to the past of both the real world and that of Sanctuary for inspiration, the upcoming sequel pushes the Diablo series in new ways. In an immense and gorgeous new landscape, you’ll encounter all-new elements to the Diablo formula that let you control the game’s direction even more while dealing with more darkness than ever. Ready your defenses. We’re returning to Sanctuary.

A return to darkness

Upon jumping into this newly realized Sanctuary during a hands-on session with an in-development PlayStation 5 version of the game, it’s clear that Diablo 4 harkens back to the grim tone of the first two Diablo games. The world is more mature and grounded than Diablo 3, adding to its renewed focus on horror and fear. Dead bodies paint the white snow during travels. You can hear howling cries of anger and distress when passing a populated town. A soft moonlight illuminates the hallowed grounds like a haunted spotlight. With a hefty thematic focus on hatred, how it consumes once hopeful hearts, and its corruption and consequences, it’s easy to quickly get immersed when all of these elements work in tandem. And naturally, it’s inevitable to feel the heroic urge to stop whatever caused all this pain in Sanctuary.

Evolution of classic Diablo

Diablo 4 is a culmination of what made past Diablo entries so iconic and memorable. The bleak tone of the original, the more open world of the second, and the combat of the third all come together here. There are more gameplay options than ever, and the bits of small details and extra care applied to every nook and cranny of its mechanics make it one of the best entry points to the series.

This is your adventure

Diablo 4 marks the first time in the series that you’re truly creating your own adventure. The open world of Sanctuary facilitates a personal journey filled with options. You can ignore the main story and lose yourself in exploring countless dungeons and strongholds, run into random local events, or help a needy lost spirit. Or, maybe you’re not in the mood for action and would rather bide your time and explore a peaceful wilderness to find resources to go home and craft with.

The gameplay variety extends to playthroughs that all present wildly different results. The story is also nonlinear, meaning you’ll face many circumstances that may lead you down various roads. Yes, you still have to tackle the core beats to reach the game’s conclusion, but how you get there is up to you.

A bold new world

What’s a big adventure without a grand open world? Sanctuary, otherwise known as the Mortal Realm, is the name of this world that acts as the setting for the Diablo series. This new rendition is the series’s largest and most unrestricted world. There are numerous areas to explore, enemies to encounter, and NPCs to talk with. And it’s all seamlessly connected with no need for loading screens. You’re constantly trying to find a way through, often running into an optional roadblock at nearly every turn. Just be careful when going off the beaten path, as you’ll often find very powerful optional foes that will give you a real challenge.

This world is a dark medieval playground full of hellish conflict. There are diverse environments with specific monsters and mobs to fight that carry vastly different abilities. For example, the Fractured Peaks’ Iceland Goatmen use ice magic. In the coasts and watery areas, the Drowned hold giant masts from sunken ships that lure in travelers with bells until they cast them into the sea. There is always more to discover here, and it can all be done at your leisure.

Express yourself

Diablo 4’s classes provide tons of player expression options regardless of what build you’re going for. The game starts by inviting you to choose between the worlds of ice, fire, or lightning magic. Each element features multiple paths to get to higher abilities, adding a uniqueness deeper than simple attack selection to characters. A new mechanic also offers players two class-exclusive upgrades to choose between after a skill upgrade. For example, with the Barbarian class, there’s the Violent Whirlwind attack, which allows players to cast Whirlwind for a long time. Or they could pick Furious Whirlwind, which inflicts a bleeding effect on anyone swept into the assault.

Diablo 4 brings unique progression mechanics to each class. For example, the Sorcerer has two unlockable skill enchantment slots that are unlocked during the campaign. When skills are upgraded, you get an enchantment upgrade which presents a special effect. For example, a fireball enchantment causes defeated enemies to explode into a fireball that damages surrounding foes. This new level of character customization gives players the most in-depth character growth in series history.

The skill tree presents one of the core elements of character creation and progression in Diablo 4. Not only are things carefully and clearly contextualized, but upgrades start simple to better onboard you to the process. An upgrade path may begin with simple choices between fire or lightning, then gradually expand. “Do I upgrade towards burn or explosive fire damage?” “How can chaining attacks strengthen my offensive?”  The skill tree gives players access to class-defining choices that change how a character is played.

Visual customization is also new to Diablo 4, rather than being limited to a preset physical appearance. After selecting a class, you pick a body type, skin tone, hairstyle, markings, accessories, and more. Thankfully, you’ll be able to revise these choices anytime by visiting the wardrobe and changing armor and gear cosmetics. There’s also an item store to customize gear visuals along with altering your mounts and their gear.

A shared world

Whether you decide to go on this adventure solo or with a party, you’ll eventually run into other players via towns and event hubs. Unlike in the past, these interactions come organically. You may visit a town, run into a great world boss, and see other players doing the same without needing to open any menus. You can team up with these strangers for world events and world bosses, which are nigh impossible alone. Though you may initially meet these fellow adventurers as allies, there’s also a chance of running into those same players as foes in the Fields of Hatred, a dedicated player-vs-player zone found in different areas of Sanctuary.

Play with your friends regardless of where

Diablo 4 supports online crossplay between platforms. Alongside couch co-op, you can also play with your friends no matter where they’re dungeon crawling.

Modify your loot

One of the best pieces of Diablo 4 is how loot upgrades are handled. You can buff and mod items you find or craft at blacksmiths. Blizzard also confirmed that you can perform equipment-defining modifications, such as extracting legendary power from items and adding that power to other equipment. This also makes almost every piece of loot potentially essential and powerful.

A good defense makes a good offense

Diablo 4 provides more options in the battle against demonic forces. Though enemies may surround you, you now have a new tool at your disposal with the evade mechanic. Evade acts as an evolution to Diablo 3’s dodge roll. The maneuver (on a short cooldown) allows all players, regardless of the selected class, to dash a short distance in any direction to dodge enemies during battle. It can make you feel unstoppable when used perfectly in tandem with the classic Diablo hack n’ slash combat. And if you want to become more nimble in battle, then you can buff it with items like special boots that add a speed boost after it’s performed.

A finely-tuned Diablo experience on console

Diablo 4 is the first in the series to be genuinely tailor-made for console players and was developed with the controller in mind. This results in mechanics such as the new evade being integrated into the PS5’s DualSense controller with dedicated buttons. Blizzard assures that it’s put ample work into making targeting enemies or boxes of treasure as simple and responsive as possible. But if that isn’t for you, you can connect your trusty keyboard and mouse to your PlayStation 5, as Diablo 4 offers full support for this “classic” control scheme.

Diablo 4 launches on PS5 next year.

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