The Diablo IV Server Slam report

This weekend, Blizzard released a beta build of Diablo IV, the “Server Slam” meant to test the quality of the game’s network and hopefully prevent the access errors that plagued the previous game. When this was first announced as another always online game, my interest sank rapidly. I didn’t get Diablo III until it moved to console and dropped the online aspect. Even then, I didn’t really care for most classes, and only managed to finish the game once with the witch doctor.

The thing is, after I got my new phone and found it could play Diablo Immortal, I reactivated my Bettle.Net account to see if it was as bad as I’d heard. I didn’t expect to play much, so I named my first character AynGonalaslong. I played for a few hours, and then I started other character classes to see how they were, and now I’m only missing notes on the Necromancer before I can give a full, proper review. But the short version is, I love playing Diablo Immortal. So, in light of my enjoyment of this always online game, I decided to see what Diablo IV could offer.

Much like Immortal, Diablo IV has a tutorial section that’s offline. As soon as I completed that, I got hit with massive lag. I thought it was my crap PC, so I removed the high definition assets and lowered all the graphics settings to low. That didn’t work, but on restarting the game, I noticed the other players popping up in the hub town around me and realized it was network lag. So I logged out for a few hours, had some lunch and tried again. This time, things were better. I still experienced moments of lag, but they were fleeting, and only occurred every few hours instead of being a constant slog through rubber band hell. (During my first attempt to play, every time I stopped moving, my character would slide backwards to meet up with where the server thought I should be.)

Before we get to my impressions of the game and the one class I got to try out, I need to vent. This was supposed to be a full weekend to test out the game’s prologue and first region, and for folks in the US, they got from Friday afternoon till midnight on Sunday to play. Being in Italy, I wasn’t even allowed in until 9 PM on Friday night, and because the game immediately downloaded another 1.7 GB of data, I didn’t get to start until 11. Then on Sunday, I raced through dinner, hoping to get a final crack at the region’s boss. I got upstairs at 10 PM, only to see we’d already been cut off. I get it. It’s a beta, but 48 hours isn’t enough time to fully assess the network reliability, to say nothing about reporting issues with the various character classes. (For reference, they nerfed and then buffed Necromancers due to player feedback. I just feel like every class should have been given more time to reveal if they needed similar retooling.) If on launch it turns out there are problems, that’s on Blizzard for giving us so little time to kick the tires.

With that gripe out of the way, let me start with my choice of class, as I chose the rogue. I did so because they seem very similar to the demon hunters in Diablo Immortal, and the class is able to dish out lots of pain even in early level builds. As I was limited to only level twenty, I figured I’d need all the help I could get to stay alive. I was not wrong about that, and my choice of class turned out to be perfect for the beta.

The prologue starts in a sleepy village with a single dungeon to clear out. Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil any of the story, but as intros go, it was pretty good. Initially, only the primary and secondary attack are available, so if you’re a mouse and keyboard gamer, this will feel just like old school Diablo. (Left click most of the time, with occasional right clicks for larger crowds.) I’m not a mouse and keyboard gamer, and haven’t been since Quake III destroyed my right wrist. Even after all these years, I can’t game with a mouse for more than ten minutes before I get stabbing pains in my wrist. So for me, the prologue forcing me to only use two attacks even though I had six levels and six flavors of death on tap felt very limiting.

Right, you know about the lag incident, so let me skip ahead to when I could get into the game properly. Unlike Diablo III, the online aspect is much more ingrained into the world. You see other players, and in a pinch, you can help them, or they can help you. I learned this early on when I stumbled into a “world event” that saw me being ambushed by thirty enemies. I was out of health potions and running for my life while watching my skill cooldown count down when a higher level player came swooping in to give me some breathing room. Once I got powerful enough that these kinds of ambushes weren’t as dangerous, I went in on helping the lower level folks in the same way. In that respect, being always online becomes a feature much like MMORPGs, instead of just being an excuse to make sure we aren’t all filthy pirates.

Once I got to level 10, I had a build better suited to crowd control, with a perk that knocked back enemies who got close to me. When those flying enemies hit their buddies, all of them fell down, at which point I switched to firing a Legolas-like stream of arrows that could ricochet and hit more monsters farther away. Then around level 15, I got the ability to set up poison traps, and another couple of perk points made it so that enemies stepping into those traps would get knocked down, again giving me the chance to go all Legolas on their prone asses. There’s a whole ton of options in the skill tree, and it’s a MASSIVE improvement over Diablo III in terms of letting me decide what kind of build I want. So when I do get the game, I can say with certainty that I will be investing a lot of time testing out builds across all the classes.

The best part is, all skills can be reset for a bit of gold, (you make a ton of gold just walking between villages, so the cost is never an issue) and because of this, you never have to worry about rerolling a new character of the same class. You’re not locked into your choices, so you don’t have any anxiety over whether your choices are good or bad. Just try something out, and if it isn’t for you, reset and try something else. That’s a huge win in my opinion.

One of the features I had heard about from the closed beta a few months back was that The Butcher was now one of the world events. At any time, he could show up, forcing players to choose to fight or flee. Well he showed up in my game, and when I saw how little damage I was doing to him, I chose flight over fight. But I’d barely begun my escape when The Butcher glitched out and froze at the top of my screen. I shot a few test arrows to see if he would budge, and he didn’t. So I get a free level up not due to my mad gaming skills, but because a high level boss just stood still and let me chip away at his gigantic health bar.

While that didn’t happen often, this kind of glitch occurred enough that I noticed it. I’m guessing a few patches will eventually iron out the bug, but as I said, it was common enough that I felt I had to highlight it.

One feature I’m not sure how to feel about is that as players level up, all the monsters do too. It means it’s never going to become a cake walk to mow through ambushes. I like doing that in other RPGs, going back to earlier areas just to stomp down the mobs. But on the other hand, the enemies’ rising power levels were somewhat matched by my increasing arsenal of options. I’m not saying the fights got easier. I just had more ways of dealing with the challenges. I think I’ll need more time with the full game before I can decide if this is good or bad.

Oh, something else that I found interesting is how durability works. At first, I thought it was turned off for the beta, but it turns out, you only lose equipment durability when your character dies. For me, it was ten durability per death, and the cost of repairs was reasonable. So, say for instance I struggled to take on a boss and kept getting reset to the next room over from said boss. In that case, I could just teleport back to town to have the blacksmith sort out my gear, and pop right back into the fight. I like that a lot, and I prefer it to the Dark Souls or Fallout 3 flavors of durability, where every hit ticks off damage to gear.

All told, I came away with a much more positive view of Diablo IV. Not enough to prepurchase it, since I already have a lot of unplayed games to tide me over. But I can see getting it in the future, and I expect a proper review would take a lot of time to crank out because there’s so much to do and experience. Just playing in the first region, I was still finding new side quests and world events, and I would say they were mostly fun. I got so sidetracked that I didn’t get to play the region’s big boss more than once. (She wrecked my shit hard on my first run, forcing me to teleport back to town to repair my gear, and the beta closed before I could get back at her for another whack.)

In conclusion, I went in a skeptic, and came out ready to be a fan like I was back in the Diablo II days. That’s a massive improvement, so as long as Blizzard doesn’t cock up the game post-launch with microtransactions or season passes gatekeeping content, this could be a genuine game of the year contender. I’m not exactly on the hype train yet, but I do look forward to seeing how the full release works out.