What did you want from Diablo 4? Blizzard’s long-awaited sequel was the product of a lengthy, arduous development cycle, during which fans of the series speculated endlessly on what the final product might look like, and how it might measure up to the eventual quality of Diablo 3 and, of course, the iconic Diablo 2.
In hindsight, that was the most important question that Diablo 4 had to answer: how can it stand alongside its predecessors, and therefore justify another return to Sanctuary? In the end, it turns out fans didn’t really need to worry. Early launch bumps aside, the game itself was triumphant. It was everything we’ve all come to know and love from Blizzard’s age-old RPG, reveling in the darkness and horror of the world as Lilith looms above.
Crunchy, satisfying combat? Yes. Gorgeous, gory enemy designs? Yes. Intuitive, engaging gameplay? Hell yes. It’s simultaneously what you expected, and more. So, as 2023 comes to an end, why in Assur’s name have I returned to Diablo 3, only six months after 4’s arrival?
After accruing hundreds of hours in the expansive Diablo 4, I’ve found myself longing to return to New Tristram to help Deckard Cain, rather than continuing to play the fresher, shinier, newer game. This is, I think, for three main reasons.
The first is the most straightforward: the Diablo 4 endgame content isn’t the best. Once the main story reaches its conclusion, after around 30 hours of gameplay, Blizzard’s latest adventure doesn’t do the greatest job of convincing you to stick around. Despite Sanctuary seeming bigger than ever, it suddenly seems to shrink. If you want more, the natural step is to look back to Diablo 3.
The second obvious explanation is nostalgia. In the vast sum of time between Diablo 3 and 4, I waited for the sequel by sticking with Diablo 3. This version of Sanctuary is one that I know intimately. Every repeated line of dialogue (“I promised Marko I’d protect him, and now he’s dead!”) and every musical arrangement is seared into my brain. When I’m away from it, I miss it. It was, and remains, a formative game for me and many others.
The final reason is also the hardest to explain. After waiting impatiently for the game to install, selecting a class, and watching the first cinematic, I was instantly compelled to compare every aspect of Diablo 4 to Diablo 3. That might sound obvious: it’s a sequel, after all, but this became obstructive.
With every dungeon completed, every boss beaten, and every skill point assigned, I was reminded of what I loved so much about Diablo 3. Instead of celebrating killing X’Fal, I was thinking back to King Leoric. To use a Star Wars analogy: it’s like watching the sequel trilogy but wishing you were watching the original trilogy again instead. It turns out, for me, Diablo 3 was enough. It gave me everything I wanted, and no matter how perfect Diablo 4 is, I don’t need it.
This isn’t a problem that’s restricted to Diablo. When I picked up Starfield, I almost instantly just wanted to go back to Skyrim. It’s a broader quirk and conundrum. But is it one that it’s possible to circumvent?
As always, Half-Life 2 remains the blueprint. Here, Valve created a sequel that maintained the core identity of its predecessor, and the essential mechanics of its gameplay (an FPS game with environmental obstacles and silly physics puzzles) while expanding on the scope, progressing the story, overhauling the visuals, and introducing new characters.
The result is something that feels completely distinct from the first game while being recognizably of the same series. When I play Half-Life 2, the differences are such that I’m not simply reminded of the 1998 game.
But for Diablo, the problem is that I don’t necessarily want this approach. I didn’t (and still wouldn’t) want Diablo 4 to feel completely different from Diablo 3. That game series is what it is, and you can’t break that formula without completely upsetting its finely crafted balance. So maybe Diablo’s stuck, then. How do you continue to progress this series without it becoming stale, or just reminding players of earlier games?
If Blizzard ever sets its sights on a Diablo 5, after it finishes creating new content and DLCs for 4, it’ll have to find an answer, somehow.