We spent some time with the Diablo IV preview beta and found a game both trying to stand out and reestablish its genre crown.

Few games nail their concept right out of the gate. And yet, the original Diablo was a breath of fresh air in a genre of PC RPGs at a time when crunchier, more dice-rolling-based experiences were the norm. I preface this because it's not a knock when I say that "Well, Diablo IV is more Diablo." It does make one wonder if the world needed more Diablo, however. My time with the Diablo IV preview beta--while as bug-ridden and wait-filled as everyone else--reveals a fun game with a bit of an identity crisis.

The ARPG has found fresh blood and new ideas in the time since 2012's Diablo 3. Titles such as Path of Exile, Torchlight, and more carry the spirit of the Diablo franchise with them, begging the question:

What is Diablo in a post-Path of Exile world? The answer gleaned from the beta, for better and worse, quotes my favorite Talking Heads song.

Same as it ever was. Let's take a look and see what Sin Mommy Lilith wants from us all.

Diablo IV Preview: The wait is Hell

The advent of Diablo IV is a bit funny. Used as a bargaining chip to keep the masses happy after the...less than stellar reveal of its mobile/Tencent joint venture, Diablo Immortal. The game was a promise that Diablo wasn't changing in the face of sweeping shifts of trends. And yet, not only are mobile games here to stay, but the Asymmetrical RPG is a genre that found a new identity outside Diablo.

You could say that it started with Torchlight and its cheap price of entry, "it's just Diablo but cute" aesthetic. And that wouldn't be wrong. However, the real trend-changer has been the free-to-play Path of Exile, released in 2013. It wouldn't be false to say that Path of Exile is Diablo but far crunchier, perfect for our new "games as a service" world.

But if the beta opening day response is any indicator, Diablo still holds weight. Queue times were long as the servers were hammered by Diablo fans and Double Down fanatics alike. I waited over an hour just in the authentication queue, just to be met with the game's opening cinematic. Honestly, I was in fear throughout the entirety of the video that I was just going to disconnect again.

Then comes the sun. Or, we should say "there went the sun." The game starts in a deep blizzard and doesn't thaw.

Created for your amusement

For a game with the system specs of a baked potato it's astounding how nice Diablo IV looks. Despite not having that fully shiny, HDR-ified, "next-gen" look, Diablo IV has a grit and feel to its art that is fantastic. The character models have a berth of textures to their armor, weapons, and cosmetics.

And while you'll probably never look at your character in-depth again after the creation screen it's a nice foot to start on.

Despite some chugging, this visual fidelity holds up throughout. Icey fields of blood and sinew showcase terribly gruesome enemy models while the plasma sprays every which direction. The game did lock up and lose frames when large masses of enemies would spawn, but it is a beta after all.

This won't be the last time I take Path of Exile's name in vain, but Diablo IV holds a similar in-game look to its ARPG peer. Water shines and reflects wonderfully while dank dungeons recreate the feel of a smoke-filled dankness. Outdoor textures and lighting mix to create a world of Sanctuary that is both horrid and beautiful to behold.

My hope is that the technical problems and performance issues clear up by June. While Diablo IV doesn't push any envelopes in relations to graphical power, it's still a sight to see.

A treatise on Marvel Heroes

Released in 2015 and given a slow, painful death by end of 2017, Marvel Heroes shares common DNA with Diablo. And no, not just because both were ARPGs and the former was clearly structured like the beloved franchise. The both share a father in David Brevik, former President of Blizzard and the creator and developer of Diablo.

Brevik left Blizzard in 2003 to make his way in the world of independent gaming, eventually landing at Gazillion Games in 2009. This is where the development of a massively multiple asymmetrical RPG based on the Marvel universe began. Taking elements from MMORPGs, online shooters such as Destiny, and a liberal application of the Diablo formula, Marvel Heroes was born.

And the reception was mixed. While the game featured a complex skills and combat system that many--this writer included--preferred to Diablo 3 and Torchlight, Marvel Heroes had other issues too large to conquer. This included massive system requirements for the time, a microtransaction system that bordered on sinister, and server issues that plagued the game until its final week.

And yet, the game the Diablo IV preview feels like it is most trying to emulate isn't Path of Exile, it's Marvel Heroes. A forgotten sibling that was just another victim of the Disney buyout of Marvel.

Diablo IV so far feels like a marriage of that game and Path of Exile, which is to say it doesn't feel new at all.

The (game)play's the thing

I bring up Marvel Heroes because Diablo IV is desperately bringing a Single White Female kind of vibe with its game structure. While the core is classic Diablo, it's things like a massive and--at times--unwieldy skill tree system and a sloppy public events mode that most showcase Diablo attempting to catch up to the ARPG zeitgeist.

Similar to Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes, each classes' skill trees features a number of nodes that contain both abilities and min/maxing statistic increases. Not nearly as large and cumbersome as the trees in Exile, the Diablo IV skill tree still boils down to a lot of crunchiness that almost feels like it belongs in a more traditional RPG.

Skills at work

However, those abilities shine through in the tried and true Diablo combat we all know and love. Bones still go crunch. Abilities continue to make waste of enemies in ways that are most satisfying. Playing at the Veteran World Skill level, I also found a true challenge in the game. At one point during an optional dungeon I hit a wall against a particularly difficult enemy.

The beast continued to kill me in only a few hits. I soon realized that respeccing my skill tree on the fly was a boon and absolutely needed. The cost was only gold, and soon I found the right combo of skills to win the day. The Diablo formula is in place. It's still great, just not any different than a decade ago with Diablo 3.

If we're being honest, that's more of what I wanted from Diablo as a franchise. Something more than me pressing a button while my character goes "brrrrrrrrrrzt" through hordes of enemies. A lot of thought went into the range of skills for each class and it shows.

And that's good, as you'll be doing a lot of murder as you trudge through the game's grim and gory story. While the beta only shows Chapter One of the tale, it's one so far that feels different from previous Diablo games. With a newfound focus on the potential evil of humanity and the hero being linked to the big bad from the start, it's a Diablo story with intrigue. I wasn't expecting to be most looking forward to this aspect of the game post-beta, but here we are.

I am genuinely curious to see what Halsey Lilith has in store for me come June.

To be continued in June

Is Diablo IV just a Path of Exile clone? It's kind of a funny question to ask given that the inverse gets tossed in the face of the latter game. And yet, I do believe there's room for both as, Diablo can only ever be Diablo. Its fans still crave that universe and the distinct feel of a game that can only come from Blizzard. Only time and the post-launch will tell if the ongoing content and gameplay will keep players coming back like its free-to-play peer.

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