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Each class in Diablo 4 fights back against a wave of zombie-like enemies that are attacking in a pyramidal shape of bodies Image: Blizzard Entertainment

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Diablo 4 activates and frustrates my lizard brain

More busywork doesn’t lessen the series-signature lootfest appeal

In the tired village of Yelesna, a man named Denysov hammers away at a studded wooden barrier flanked by a pair of stakes. “Been working on this door for days,” he mutters. “Not much else to do ’round here.” He doesn’t have anything to sell, he says to no one in particular, and this door should fetch a nice price. It’s a simple dream, but Denysov, who probably hasn’t ventured far from Yelesna, has no idea how many doors my Wanderer routinely annihilates on the path to gold and glory. In a kinder existence, perhaps Denysov would be a busy carpenter, living off the constant destruction of the Eternal Conflict — the unceasing war between heaven and hell — and the humans trapped in between.

But in this small, dark corner of the map, Denysov’s unfinished portal just might be one of the most overlooked cornerstones of Diablo mythology. I don’t mean the hypocrisy of the High Heavens or the comically doomed faith everyone has in the efficacy of soulstones. Diablo 4, like its predecessors, is a game about doors — pausing on the threshold of an open maw, bathed in unholy light and anticipation before you meet whatever’s on the other side.

When you think about the existential infrastructure of the game and its visual language, it’s doors all the way down, from humble gates and fiery red portals to ornate stone slabs and yawning caverns. I’ve funneled hordes of monsters through doors to create bottlenecks and pick them off at a distance. There’s a ritualistic, rhythmic power in piercing a series of gates before a major boss, running headlong toward a fate you can’t see until it’s too late. With the Butcher in the first Diablo, arguably the most iconic encounter in the series, the best cheese was usually trapping him behind a door (when you could still close them) or shooting him from a barred portal.

A character rides a horse up to the ledge of a ravine separating an arid landscape from a gloomy expanse in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Diablo 4 has, on the surface, all of the right ingredients for a Diablo game: A lone Wanderer gets caught up in an existential war and becomes the last line of defense against all-consuming doom; this time it’s Lilith, the Daughter of Hatred, who created Sanctuary with the angel Inarius. There are ominous glowing gateways, self-righteous zealots, bad parents, bad children, and those abominable strings of flies that instantly kill you. Not long after exploring Act 1, it’s clear that Sanctuary has embraced a return to moody gothic horror. If Diablo 3 was a somewhat sterile attempt to maximize loot churn and make us love seasons (as well as “revolutionize” in-game spending via the short-lived real-money auction house), Diablo 4 clings to the same trends, but with much better set dressing. It’s unreasonable to hope that corporate Blizzard will ever roll back on gacha-fication and commodified satisfaction, but at least it’s leaning back into the macabre.

For starters, there’s an aesthetic return to the guts of the series: the infinite grossness of weird little freaks from hell and the viscera left in their wake. It’s a glorious comeback to fetid, bloody obscenity. There are some real 120 Days of Sodom vibes to the broken bodies piled up in one of the game’s major cities — ordinary but imperfect souls who believed in the Cathedral for salvation, whose bent limbs and flayed buttocks speak volumes about the indifference of power and the spectacle of flesh. The ossuary-themed dungeons are my favorites, with gorgeous detail and lighting; I live for dank, squelchy environments with entrails and eggs, and corpse “trees” that contort themselves into brittle, strained explosions.

A character fights off enemies with fire-based attacks near a bulbous growth in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

This is also the first open-world Diablo game, and to that end, “civilized” Sanctuary is much more than the fixed hub it was in previous games. I find residents of the Fractured Peaks visiting a neighboring swamp as medical tourists in search of exotic remedies. There are backwater towns caught up in their own drama, and parallel mythologies to the Eternal Conflict that soften the rigidity of Sanctuary’s historically binary lore. There are in-jokes and pop culture references (most noticeably to Game of Thrones, which is understandable, given the overwhelming influence it’s had on medieval-style fiction over the last decade). Across this vast continent, there’s a powerful sense of distrust among the smallfolk, whether they’re fanatics ready to scream “heresy” or villagers just trying to preserve their traditions against the Cathedral’s brutish influence.

But in stretching the intimate, deliberate claustrophobia of Diablo’s original one-town scope to fit a whole world, it’s lost that taut sense of terror that so beautifully defined the series’ smaller and more vulnerable spaces. There’s now a fixed overworld map for the continent of Estuar, and it’s enormous. The procedurally generated dungeons don’t vary much in layout and feel like missed opportunities to have fun with randomized architecture — and no, adding more dungeon to a dungeon doesn’t necessarily make it better or more interesting. Capstone dungeons — multi-stage trials that function as gear/level checks between difficulty tiers — feel like a non-solution from a sadistic bureaucracy instead of an invitation to get rich or die trying.

The horse, a new feature in the series, was a luxury I tried to avoid, because I wanted my Wanderer to fully engage with her material environment like a fragile little meatball. This is, after all, a game about treasure hunting, and while you can still loot chests while riding, skirting monsters conjures a very specific kind of Diablo FOMO. Still, given the size of Estuar, once you’re past the initial leveling and basic gearing stages, four legs do help to speed up the drudgery.

The Paragon board in Diablo 4, showing sockets and their corresponding abilities on a busy grid Image: Blizzard Entertainment

With more real estate comes more busywork, like one-off stronghold challenges, world bosses, Legion events, and a random world event on Nightmare difficulty called Helltide, which is the only source for certain rare materials. Nightmare dungeons are the new rifts — they’re ordinary dungeons “enhanced” with Nightmare Sigils, and they allow you to improve your Paragon build with a rather obtuse glyph system that I still don’t fully understand (I did my first Nightmare dungeon a few hours before the review-period server went down). All the events and dungeons reuse the same handful of mechanics to deadening effect: fetch an item, activate a pedestal, and so on.

Certain quest items will pop out of your inventory onto the ground if you leave the quest area (not great for a series where users can infamously disconnect at the worst times). The long arm of the law has finally come for town portals — the portal will now close as soon as you leave town, so you can’t experiment or “bookmark” a location for later. It feels a little sour in the context of an open-world MMO where player creativity should, theoretically, be encouraged.

On the unintentional front, the review build was spectacularly buggy — I had to re-clear several major quest areas multiple times for the game to log my progress. Events also glitched out, and I helped a colleague fix a bug that required him to party up to leave his server. Occasionally, you’ll come out of town and see someone riding an invisible horse. It was half amusing, half frustrating waiting to see if I was lagging or the game was crashing; the silver lining was that I was using a temp account for this review and going to lose everything anyway.

A character rides a horse in a swamp-like area covered in fog in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

Since my character was getting nuked before launch, I decided to stick to one class, the Sorcerer (for the open beta, I rolled a Necromancer). Playing around with classic staples like Frozen Orb and Blizzard was pleasantly nostalgic, and I tried various mediocre multi-elemental builds until I found a pyromancy-boosting legendary staff that prompted me to go all-in on fire. By the time I hit level 40, my boosted Meteors and Inferno (the pyro’s “Ultimate” skill) easily obliterated most bosses, and I was able to complete the first Capstone dungeon, the Cathedral of Light, several levels below the suggested 50 (albeit very carefully). The new skill tree also took some getting used to, mainly until I realized I could hit S and see my current build in one neat window instead of an interminably long, zig-zagged scroll.

The new legendary system is also an acquired taste — in Diablo 3, legendaries were basically collectible items with powerful aspects that could be extracted using Kanai’s Cube. Most seasonal meta builds revolve around specific synergies between legendaries and other gear that define the endgame experience. In Diablo 4, you can still extract their aspects and imprint them onto rare items with better stats. But instead of being stored in a permanent “library,” these aspects now reside in a special inventory tab as one-time consumables.

For instance, if I find a Runic Orb of Engulfing Flames — a legendary off-hand weapon that gives extra Burning damage — I can extract its Engulfing Flames aspect and imprint it onto a ring with high Intelligence and Pyromancy skill stats. I can’t extract the aspect again from the imprinted ring — the only way to make a new Engulfing Flames legendary is to find another runic orb with the same effect. The same goes for aspects acquired from class-specific dungeons — they’re kept in a Codex of Power, but consumed after use. All of this translates to an inordinate amount of labor (and luck) to re-find one specific legendary — it forces the player to try other builds to progress, but it also means a whole lot of grinding, which, at lower difficulties, is grim work.

A character uses a whip-like lightning attack in a dimly lit room in Diablo 4 Image: Blizzard Entertainment

When I finally emerge from the Cathedral of Light into World Tier III, things start to pick up. I start getting decent drops. I participate in the ultimate gachafest that is Helltide, which involves furiously collecting Helltide-only currency to unlock Helltide-only loot boxes before time runs out. Passing that first Capstone threshold rekindles a long-buried hunger, and I start making a fast peace with the new systems and MMO-ification of Sanctuary (mixed feelings, truly!) while admiring the detail on every hellbound colossus and wet intestine-snake that adorns my surroundings. I think of Denysov toiling away at his door in a perfect bubble of oblivion, just trying to get by in an economy where doors should make him rich. His presence is obviously a little joke, but in a world predicated on an endless celestial cycle of conflict and the never-ending grind for one side to come out on top, it’s actually a lot funnier than the average throwaway line.

I even forget that in a few hours, my Sorcerer will be gone, and I’ll have to start over again at launch, but it’s OK — I tell myself this is just involuntary Hardcore mode. Estuar is constantly regenerating doors and gates and chests to be opened and crushed, and I want to be there for every single one of them. Diablo 4 doesn’t even have to be a Good Game for me to crave playing it — it’s the intrinsic lizard-brain appeal of magic-finding and getting more powerful that’s kept the third installment alive for so long. It’s the pure uncut result of gamifying the “god, why must you give me your hardest battles” meme with one of the most beloved action-adventures of my generation. I can almost feel Lilith cradling my face, calmly explaining that not only am I Sanctuary’s weakest hero, but this is only Nightmare mode, and I have many, many more doors to obliterate before reaching Torment.

Diablo 4 will be released on June 6 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Blizzard Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.