An existential crisis around Diablo IV

Diablo IV provokes an existentialist question: can one fantastic gameplay hook make a game’s vapid elements forgivable? Over twenty hours in, the answer appears to be an emphatic “yes” with caveats.

The game’s core combat loop is one of the best I’ve ever played. System balance, especially with an action RPG of this scale, is deceptively tricky, but somehow Diablo IV keeps the operation humming along like a well oiled machine. Every wave of enemies has just enough resistance to be challenging but not too much to be frustrating.

The artistic and design elements that surround the combat package are stellar. The sound design has a rich soundstage with good speakers or headphones. Waypoints and level progression are easy to follow. The atmospheric lighting is impressive, taking advantage of HDR to give dungeons a murky, often foreboding look. As my sorcerer levels up and I try new spells, I’m also happy to see elemental variety and different combat approaches open up.

And yet, so many parts of this venerable action RPG series are slight. The narrative feels like an afterthought. Combat reflexes and timing are highly forgiving by action standards, a “podcast game” where I jam buttons to cast spells repeatedly until enemies explode. Monsters often lack variety; even early through the main story, I feel like I’ve bumped into the same skeleton warrior and attack bear thousands of times.

Diablo IV also has aggressive level scaling. As I level up my character, all missions and enemies in the world scale up to remain a challenge. A departure from previous Diablo entries, the mechanic can rob any sense of progression.

I play other games for the destination; for Diablo IV I’m delighted with the here and now. Combat kicks ass, I’ve got a sorcerer build that’s fun to play, and nothing else matters. It’s the casino of AAA gaming, drawing me in with endless blinking lights and having me slam buttons to watch the numbers go up. A few hours fly by, and I power down and wonder what happened with my time.

And just like my real life experiences on the Vegas strip, Diablo IV is the kind of disposable escapism best in limited doses. I’ll chip away at the massive campaign in short bursts, inevitably dispatching the final boss later this year. I expect to watch the credits with a big grin and happily delete the game from my hard drive the next day.