How Blizzard are bring grimdark back in classic fantasy adventure
Fans of grimdark hack-and-slash adventuring finally got what they desired when Blizzard unveiled Diablo 4 this weekend at BlizzCon 2019. The opprobrium that greeted the mobile Diablo Immortal last year was swept away as a bloody, gothic cinematic trailer promised a game that was going back to demon-hunting Diablo’s darker roots.
And in the hands, Diablo fans are likely to be delighted with a game that pays homage to its past while looking to nudge it into a modern day that has seen countless games take inspiration from the Blizzard RPG’s loot-heavy philosophy.
As the gameplay trailer suggested, Diablo’s time-honoured core remains intact. Choose a warrior from a variety of classes -in this demo a Druid, Barbarian and Sorceress, each with gender and/or race variants- and batter reanimated skeletons, ghouls and beasts with a clutch of skills until they drop the good stuff. Better gear means better battering, and so on.
It’s familiar stuff and, thus, feels rather good. Naturally it is underpinned with more advanced technology than its forebears and looks to stretch that muscle. As a druid I wade into gangs of skeletons, morphing into a wolf or muscular bear, swatting them aside. Or launching rolling balls of rock or, most spectacularly, raining down lightning strikes.
It all hits with tremendous force and fizzing visual effects, bringing a weight that belies the frenzied mouse-clicking happening on the other side of the screen. It is an impression that Diablo’s creators are rather proud of.
“We’ve updated our animation tech so we have layered animations,” says Diablo 4’s senior producer Tiffany Wu. “We’ve added these death kicks so depending on how you kill monsters, that’s how their body falls apart so the barbarian should decapitate them. If it’s a sorceress she can just roast all the meat off the bones or she can freeze them and they’ll shatter into a billion pieces.”
“It’s Diablo, so you have to dial it up to 11,” adds Allen Adham, Blizzard co-founder and executive producer on Diablo 4.
Part of the reason for this violence is a desire to make Diablo dark again, following a lighter tone is more recent additions. The gory cinematic trailer was a clear marker for that and Adham says that the decision was driven partly by fan (and creator) desire, but also that Diablo 4 grim hopelessness is a “counter-point” to the colourful Overwatch’s chirpy optimism in Blizzard’s line-up.
“Diablo is only our only mature IP,” he says. “It’s nice to have the freedom to position our games very differently from the other. So we love Overwatch and its optimistic view of the world. We also love our dark view of the world and we think they both coexist. Depends on what mood you’re in.”
Diablo 4 will need more than occult vibes and exploding skeletons to bring it up to date, of course, and it seems that Diablo has taken some cues from its spiritual progeny Destiny in terms of structure. Not that the developers are prepared to admit it, but the parallels are clear.
The world is one ‘contiguous space’, rather than the zones of Diablo 3. And, as an always-online game, will be shared with other players. You can roam the maps together in co-op with pals, but some areas will see strangers out and about. Adham is keen to stress that “there won’t be players everywhere”, but certain areas will offer up timed events that players can descend upon together to duff up a big bad in return for shiny trinkets.
As I work through a quest for a townswoman to find a missing boy, a couple of events with suggested levels pop up on the map to go off and plunder. There isn’t the time to see how fundamentally this will change the game, but Diablo is one of the original treasure-hunting dungeon crawlers; having its own meet-cutes for loot makes perfect sense.
And those meet-ups might happen across different platforms if the developers have their way. “We’re very excited about cross-play,” says Adham. “There are technical details and details to work through with the first parties, but it’s our goal to get to cross-play.”
That loot will need to be desirable of course, with lead game designer Joe Shely saying that the team ‘reinterpreted the philosophy’ on gear. Full sets will still be important to buff your characters, but legendary items will offer up modified or entirely new skills to wreak havoc no matter the class. Wu adds that the art team are busy creating choice threads to make your character more stylish when going into battle.
Even in a short play, it seems the loot is paying off. I quickly upgrade my gnarled stick and tatty robes to an antlered staff and spiffy red jacket and am immediately drawn to the character screen on any new find.
It seems, then, that at the very least Blizzard is getting the basics right on Diablo 4. There perhaps isn’t anything earth-shatteringly new on show as it looks to reassure its demanding audience that this is the Diablo they know.
But there is a long way to go, with Blizzard saying that Diablo 4’s release date is a way off yet and that it is working on plenty of other features, including competitive action. “PvP is something that we’ve been thinking about and working on since the very first day in Diablo 4,” says Adham.”That’s been a long time coming. We don’t have specific details to share, but we’re in the middle of prototyping some really interesting approaches.”
And while the game has been announced for PC, PS4 and Xbox One, Adham says that while there is nothing specific to announce about next-generation consoles, “you can bet we have our eyes on it.”
Plenty to come then, with any luck, but on this showing Diablo 4 will be, at the very least, a bloody good time.