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Saturday, April 13, 2024

I’m worried Diablo 4’s open world is only there to sell me stuff

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My colleagues have their complaints, but personally? I’m enjoying Diablo 4. My Necromancer—a kind of Wiccan Kate Moss—walks into rooms and makes everyone in them fall down, then I pick through the carcasses for lucre. This is living, folks. I’m having a good time.

Survive Sanctuary with these Diablo 4 guides

Diablo 4 guide: Everything you need
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Diablo 4 Renown: Fame and fortune
Diablo 4 Altars of Lilith: Stat boosts and XP
Diablo 4 Murmuring Obols: Get Legendary gear
Diablo 4 Gems: Buff weapons and armor

But, well, there is one thing. All those rooms are pretty similar, and boy are they far apart. Blizzard talked up its switch to a more MMO-style open world during Diablo 4’s long development, but now that I’m in it, I’m struggling to see the benefit. 

I don’t remember any of the people I meet, the landscapes aren’t exactly a visual feast, the presence of other players kneecaps old-fashioned Diablo’s feeling of desolate and lonely horror, and I could navigate the world’s many cellars and dungeons with my eyes closed. It feels like there’s a thin layer of content spread across an impossibly wide surface area, and I can’t shake the feeling that, at the end of the day, all that’s really achieved is that I can see and lust after the shiny cosmetics my fellow players have bought.

Remember when

It’s partially Diablo 1’s fault. After I played Diablo 4’s first beta and found myself unexpectedly enjoying it, I went back and played through the original game to learn more about the series’ roots. It’s occupied a corner of my mind ever since. Every character in Tristram, every biome of its singular dungeon, the boss encounters with The Butcher, King Leoric, and all their merry friends, it all stuck with me.

But where Diablo 1 felt focused and interesting, Diablo 4 feels bland and sprawling. I’m doing the same Diablo things I always do, but stretched out over hundreds of miles and tens of hours. It’s homoeopathic Diablo: The thing you really enjoyed watered down to an infinitesimal point by the sheer volume of everything surrounding it.

These aren’t the rantings of a bitter nostalgic (or at least not a bitter nostalgic about Diablo); I played Diablo 1 for the first time literally a few months ago. Plus, I might sound harsher than I mean to. Like I said, I’m enjoying Diablo 4. All the right animal regions of my brain light up when I reduce enemies to a smear of meat and valuables, but I just don’t know that the open world and the utter quantity of really-quite-similar stuff in it has anything to do with that. Instead, it makes everything feel a bit less special, a bit less memorable.

Take, for example, the characters. Yes, yes, no one plays Diablo for the story, but there’s a reason Blizzard keeps bringing back Deckard Cain. He was likeable, interesting, and we formed a rapport with the guy, and he was one of fewer than 10 friendly characters from D1. Diablo 4 has approximately 50,000 (numbers inexact) unhappy NPCs with indeterminate accents and the only person I really remember is the man voiced by the “I serve the Soviet Union” guy from Chernobyl. I believe he’s called The Lorax. 

Not another person I’ve met—and I’ve met many—endures in my memory like D1’s Adria or Wirt. No tinny warble echoes in my ears like “I sense a soul in search of answers“. That’s not inherently a problem of open-world design, of course. Plenty of games have sprawling settings filled with excellent, multilayered characters, but those qualities aren’t what Blizzard focuses on. Diablo 4’s characters are empty vectors for plot and side-quests, more functions than characters. That’s true in every Diablo I’ve played to some extent, but I can’t help but feel that a tighter, more focused world that didn’t require such a mass of generic NPCs would have had a chance to shine a bit brighter, and to linger longer in the mind.

Keeping up appearances

So it feels like the only thing Diablo 4’s open world achieves is more Diablo, which isn’t necessarily better Diablo. But it succeeds with great panache in providing a big, wide open space for other players to roam about in, loosing their limited-edition emotes and redolent with expensive sparkles.

This is the part that really discomfits me, I think. While I don’t doubt that Blizzard’s devs genuinely wanted to try something new with Diablo 4’s structure, I can’t help but notice that it sure does work very nicely as a big, blank billboard for its many microtransactions to parade about on.

I’m not a Diablo expert. I’ve played a little of 3 and although I beat the second game, I did it when I was eight years old. My mind might be playing tricks on me, but my memory of it is one of desolation and isolation: You against the hordes of evil. That’s definitely my feeling about the first game, anyhow, and I only put that down in March.

But Diablo 4 is a party and all my mates are invited, and by god are they dressed to the nines. It’s lost something, in the big drift of its open world, and I worry that it’s lost it in part because it made commercial sense to do so. The tight experience of Diablo 4’s forebears (or at least of 1 and 2) is gone, traded in for a grey waste of endless content that me and my friends—or some people I stumbled into a world event with—can tackle forever, eyeing each other’s cool cosmetics and slowly persuading ourselves that, yes, I should buy one of those. Better be quick, the store refreshes in seven days.

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