The woman in the church is really stoked about the murder she’s committing. You can see it in her eyes.
It’s a very early cutscene in the video game Diablo IV, wherein a modestly clad villager bludgeons one of her fellow townsfolk. Her newfound lust for horrific violence comes courtesy of dark magic from the demon Lilith, Diablo IV’s primary antagonist. Lilith, also known as the Daughter of Hatred, has a simple pitch for the residents of Diablo’s world of Sanctuary: Violence is fun. You should try it.
The woman goes feral on the man before her. Knocks him to the ground. She clenches a spiked mallet and goes in for the kill. She bludgeons him again and again. Blood splatters across her face. Her friends join in too—kicking, punching, stabbing. The woman’s eyes are wide sunken orbs, glazed over as her conscious mind melts away into a red haze, focused on nothing but the goopy, crunchy splatters of gore she spills out before her. Her mouth twitches into a grin.
I can relate.
At least while playing Diablo IV. The latest installment in the demon-filled franchise is a sprawling brawler that lets you traipse across an open world and turn a billion demons into a billion red smears. The gameplay is a dizzying mash of pulsating, eruptive encounters. The sound design is immaculately gross. Every attack and explosion makes just the right THWACK and KA-SPLOOSH. It is a thrilling, visceral experience. I wish I could stop playing it.
Diablo IV is a new game, but also not. It will feel very familiar if you’ve played anything like it. The game is a blend of good and bad elements from old-school and modern gaming, and it incorporates much of what makes the Diablo franchise work—like the crunchy combat and addictive Skinner Box-like pursuit of loot. It’s got a seamless multiplayer experience that is cross platform and scales so everyone can play together, regardless of character level. It also allows couch co-op, if you’re one of those weirdos with real-life friends. And it has microtransactions, a Battle Pass system, and a ravenous appetite for every second of your attention.
The thing it feels most like, when all the systems are working properly and everything melts into a fuzzy red haze, is Destiny 2. A similar live service game, Destiny has nearly perfected the art of devouring your time with activities. Despite being a very different proposition, Diablo IV follows right in those footsteps. MMO-like community events let you seamlessly join with other players to battle waves of enemies and slay bosses. As soon as one is done, another starts nearby. The events are varied and the loot that drops feels just as enticing every time. It’s a great way to lose hours and hours.
The game starts with a character customizer and then almost immediately lets you start running around its world and smashing stuff. There are abundant options for customizing your character’s look and equipment, including what skins you stick on your weapons and armor. Robust skill trees let you optimize your character’s murder capabilities. And if you decide later on that you’d rather use a different kind of lightning skill or whatever, you can easily re-spec all your stats.
The character classes are about as classic as you can get for this kind of high fantasy fodder. The barbarian is a thicc melee tank, the rogue is a swift ranged and/or backstab aficionado, the sorcerer … does sorcery. The other archetypes ported over from a D&D handbook are the druid—a shapeshifting forest dweller built like a WWE wrestler, and the necromancer—the angsty emo kid sulking in a corner at the party. I’ve tried all the classes but have spent most of my time in Diablo IV playing as a necromancer. I’ve nicknamed her Bloodlynn for her propensity to drain her enemies’ life force and splatter gallons of their gore across the ground.
Here’s my hot take: The necromancer is the “best” class in Diablo IV. Sure, you may prefer the zippy stabby-stab of the rogue or enjoy transforming into a werebear as the druid, but the necromancer just feels right in Diablo IV’s dark world. Namely because it’s all very gross. You can utilize the mountains of enemy corpses you’ll create to raise an army of skeleton minions that keep you company or use a skill called Corpse Explosion that does exactly what it says on the tin. There’s really nothing more Diablo-y than holding down a button that blasts body after body into a mist of meaty shrapnel. In fact, the only thing that feels off-canon about playing necromancer is that it’s so gruesome I wonder how I’m still considered the good guy in this story. I’ve now exploded so many innocent NPC forest creatures (by accident!) that I should be the villain in a hundred Disney movies.
I harp on the necromancer because it’s a play style that goes well with the rest of the game’s deliberately unpleasant aesthetic. The world of Sanctuary is downright depressing. The setting is grim in both tone and vision. And when I say vision, I mean literally. Pro tip: Turn up your screen brightness in Settings. Sometimes the game world gets so dim it feels like you’re battling through the pitch black of that one Game of Thrones episode. (You know the one.) And the bleak vibes aren’t just out in the battle zone. Even friendly areas like cities are muddy, ramshackle settlements, filled with sobbing townsfolk and dilapidated dwellings.
It’s a very purposeful misery. Blizzard elected to evoke the grittiness of Diablo II over Diablo III’s more cartoonish World of Warcraft-style graphics. And for the most part, that gloomy unease works. Just when I think I’ve been fully desensitized to the constant onslaught of gory, wet explosions, I wander into a new area and find myself gleefully unsettled all over again. For example, one early quest sends you into a flesh cavern made of tentacles and asks you to “destroy the Tumors of Hatred blocking the path.” The experience is exactly as goopy and gross as it sounds.
That said, it does all get a bit old after a while. You go from dim, grim forests to dim, grim mountains to dim, grim fields. There are more than 120 dungeons in Diablo IV, and many of them have repeated layouts—or at least aesthetics that make them feel like something you’ve done again and again. The main story is fine, but it takes itself entirely too seriously. There are enough little twists and turns and interesting character moments to hold your interest, but it is utterly humorless.
Diablo IV is very good, but it also plays it very safe. For all its brash horror aesthetic, it never feels truly new or weird. Combat is fluid and crispy, but it soon stops surprising you. Enemy tactics vary, but eventually everything boils down to holding a few buttons and watching your character slice away at the horde around you.
It helps that it’s all so seamless. There’s next to no downtime between enemy encounters and community events. Any time your inventory gets encumbered with loot, you can create a wormhole to teleport instantly back to a vendor and sell it off. Joining someone for multiplayer is simple. It works so well that it all becomes automatic. It feels almost clinical, like it’s been perfectly manufactured for mindless mayhem. It’s easy to sit there and while away the hours in a sort of bored bloodlust.
Just as smoothly incorporated is Blizzard’s micro-economy. This is Diablo as a live service, birthed in an era of battle passes and endless microtransactions. On day one, there’s stuff you can buy for extra money. Blizzard has gotten into trouble with this kind of thing before, with many criticizing the company for stuffing its mobile Diablo Immortal with sometimes game-breaking microtransactions. The company has been very careful to point out that what’s locked behind microtransactions in Diablo IV are only cosmetic items that don’t affect gameplay. Still, the move has made some people bristle, since the whole Diablo franchise is built around trying to find cool loot. Sure, it is frustrating when games make you grind endlessly to get some cosmetic you want. (I’m looking at you, Destiny 2 cowboy hat.) But it’s also annoying to see a cool hat you can unlock for $24 right when a game launches, because clearly they could have just included the item in the main game.
There are many good games out right now. And sometimes it feels like there’s simply too much good game inside Diablo IV. I’ve played the game in a prerelease beta and server slam, and then splattered my way through a review copy. I’ve played for dozens of hours already, and I know Diablo IV is built to gleefully extract hundreds more. Faced with the prospect of starting anew, I can’t say I’m eager to grind my way back through hell.
Except that of course I’ll do it. I find myself picking the controller back up, eager to slog my way back through Sanctuary. Suddenly, hours have vanished. Now I feel very much like the woman in that cinematic. My eyes are wide, unblinking, staring off into the middle distance. I’ve lost track of what enemies I’m fighting, distracted by a dozen different events and thousands of loot drops. Still, my hands mash every button on the controller. The screen fills with blood. I am content.