Game Preview: Hands on with Diablo IV’s open beta

I must admit, for as popular as Diablo III has been since its launch, it had never managed to grab me, nor keep me around for more than a couple of months after its release. That being said, Diablo IV’s open beta seemed like the perfect opportunity to become reacquainted with the franchise that might have deserved a second chance. Diablo IV is without a doubt a promising look at an action RPG that’s brimming with atmosphere, tension, and a downright addictive gameplay loop that feels fresh and revitalised, yet wrapped in the tradition of Diablo’s lasting sensibilities.

Split over two consecutive weekends, the Diablo IV open beta gave players the chance to try out the game’s prologue, introducing the return of Lilith, daughter of Mephisto, as she seeks to possess and slaughter the inhabitants of the world of Sanctuary. While it admittedly feels straightforward in terms of development and progression, your custom character is created to put an abrupt end to Lilith’s recent reign.

The first thing that’s immediately noticeable about Diablo IV is its cinematic nature. Cutscenes now linger for the sake of context and depth, expanding more so on the ambitions of our villain to otherwise great effect. It’s incredibly gory and downright creepy to see just how the chaos unfolds, particularly between main quests.

The first of the two weekends served as an early access beta for those who had pre-ordered the game. With the Rogue, Barbarian, and Sorcerer classes to choose from (available to level 25), I went with the Barbarian class, as it had once been my class of choice in Diablo III. Combat is certainly fun and frantic, but more so after the first few hours, when you begin to unlock and assign numerous abilities to multiple commands on either controller or keyboard.

While the combat itself feels a little floaty mechanically, mixing these abilities yields the true satisfaction behind many of your encounters, as you scurry to find the most effective attacks and patterns to dispatch your enemies.  Loot and gear are plentiful, from armour and clothing upgrades to specific weapon types each complete with their own statistical advantages and perks. In line with Diablo’s core, you’ll always be upgrading and swapping both weapons and gear, which keeps that constant feeling of progression alive.

You will however earn skill points to unlock and upgrade abilities, which ultimately serve as fresh attacks for players to utilise in combat. While each class features its own exclusive ability, you’ll also be able to build and refine an expansive skill tree that’s admittedly so expansive it can make your head spin. From basic attacks to special attacks that require a portion of your Fury meter, classes and players alike will feel spoilt for choice. Defensive and Brawling abilities also provide support in terms of speeding up ability cooldowns or building your Fury meter for more devastating attacks.

Cycling between these attacks and developing your own rhythm feels essential to unlocking the true nature of combat, even if the challenge presented during the beta feels relatively mild. Each individual skill also features its own assortment of specific upgrades, which will more than likely encourage playstyles and specific builds as players strive to master an area of the skill tree as opposed to the entirety of the skill tree itself.

My second weekend with the open beta, now open to everyone, prompted me to start over as the Necromancer, a class made available along with the Druid, only within this second weekend. The Necromancer’s main ability gives players the chance to resurrect and traverse along with an accompanying group of undead soldiers. It was within this weekend that Diablo IV shifted dramatically in tone, bolstering its combat and variety, yet losing much more of the game’s challenge. This class simply feels overpowered. Within a couple of hours, I strengthened my undead squad by improving their stats and even unlocking some soldiers with ranged abilities.

But even throughout this eight-or-so-hour run, I had only died once. I wouldn’t say Diablo IV’s beta or Necromancer class felt broken, but more so unbalanced, given the feeling of mowing down demons felt incredibly satisfying compared to the more lonesome Barbarian, which made me feel a little more accountable in combat.

Visually, Diablo IV is impressive. Environments feel incredibly detailed and lived in, along with minimal loading times to boot. Performance, on the other hand, felt like a mixed bag, but it’s unclear whether this comes down to common glitches within most betas, or if the rabbit hole goes a little deeper into the game’s main structure. That being said, frame rate drops and bugs felt minimal and infrequent, even if they only really fixed themselves once the game had been exited and restarted. For example, my undead squad on numerous occasions, clipped in and out of environments while moving in stuttering motions rather than their regular walk animation. As I said, not necessarily game-breaking, but undoubtedly noticeable. But given the beta’s nature as an early access experience, I am confident these will more than likely be addressed in the coming months.

Diablo IV will certainly draw fans of the franchise back for another ride, with a fleshed-out world, an intriguing villain, and addictive gameplay. But I also urge newcomers and distant fans alike to jump on board, for a promising ride that is sure to soak up multiple hours in the coming months, thanks to its constant sense of progression and deep character development. We simply can’t wait to play more.

Diablo IV will launch on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, and Windows PC on the 6th of June, 2023.

Matthew Arcari

Matthew Arcari is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. You can find him on Twitter at @sirchunkee, or at the Dagobah System, chilling with Luke and Yoda.