Diablo 4 hands-on preview: We played Act 1 and reached level 25

There is rarely a game that I can’t stop thinking about, even when I’m not playing it. There are a lot of great games out there, don’t get me wrong, but even after I step away from my computer, there are still some precious games that linger in my head. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’ve been thinking about Diablo 4. Even in its current unfinished state – Blizzard won’t let us capture our own gameplay footage, probably because the placeholder audio and other normal in-development stuff in my build doesn’t make for a nice video, So you’re looking at the tidbits they’ve made for us here – Diablo 4 is absolutely packed with story, content, aesthetics, character customization, and more. I played Act 1 for about 12 hours, and by the time I got to the end of this build’s content, transformed my barbarian from a ragged level 1 bodybuilder into a well-dressed, blunt force trauma-inducing level 25 strong.

One of the first things that struck me about the first few hours of Diablo IV was how much of a story it has. Compared to previous games in the series, you’ll spend a lot of time watching the various cutscenes in both the movie and the game (the former is always gorgeous, and the latter in terms of camera angles and lengths, in Blizzard tradition). Honestly, I think the frequency of the game’s early cutscenes combined with the awful feeling of being at the bottom of the power curve that’s inevitable at first makes Diablo 4 feel a bit slow for the first hour or two. That’s not really a complaint, though, as I appreciate Blizzard’s effort to layer more of the story into Sanctuary. It’s a good thing to make it feel more alive and filled with more history. Plus, you’ll still spend a lot of time killing monsters in combat.

As you’ve heard by now, Diablo 4 is more open than ever, and Blizzard’s implementation is working well. Sure, you can roam as much as you want, but the area beyond where you’re supposed to be in Act 1 is much higher – enough to get you crushed like a bug as you roam into places where you’re not yet welcome land. (For context, the area you visit in Act 1 appears to be a small fraction of the Vault’s total land area.) But we do encourage you to explore the areas that are yours, as you’ll be rewarded for discovering new things Prestige areas, picking up and completing side quests, and more. The more reputation you count, the better the tangible rewards – especially in the form of skill points. Additionally, as you level up, you’ll be able to do things like visit an alchemist to improve the healing power of your health potions. Exploring towns and open battlegrounds will frequently have a blue exclamation mark on your map, indicating another side quest. The layers here are both wide and deep, again making Diablo 4 feel like an immensely informative experience.

The layers here are both wide and deep, again making Diablo 4 feel like an immensely informative experience.

Speaking of crazy levels of content, the skill tree is the best in this game, in the best possible way. It winds its way along ever-emerging clusters of spokes, with each hub along the way offering 4-8 choices, some of which are either/or choices. Sadly I don’t have footage of my own barbarian build to share, but as with my preferences in the Diablo games, my goal is to be able to deliver the maximum amount of pure pain at any given moment. I dropped a few points on Bash, my concussion, the secondary attack that Fury spawned, while having the bleed-inducing Flay as my main attack, and adding Whirlwind, Leap, and Death Strike as my three special abilities, and then It was Berserker’s Wrath as my Ultimate, which I unlocked with this preview towards the end. Meanwhile, you can reassign at any time for a reasonable in-game gold fee. I ended up taking away only a little, closer to level 25, in order to choose a different branch of the skill tree to spend my action points on. Sadly, I don’t have footage of any of these to show you, but alas…

At the heart of any Diablo game, though, is of course the way you utilize your skill point choices. My general strategy, depending on what I’m fighting, is to go after the most annoying and/or dangerous bad guy in the mob first, weakening him with my Bash attack until he’s stunned, allowing me to switch to my main attack and ramp Line his health drops to zero. Anyone who’s giving me problems at range has had their personal space brutally violated by my Leap attack, and I’ve added a couple of skill points for its usefulness. Oh, and it gave me a sadistic joy to watch my enemies crushed beneath my feet as the ground around me caved in upon landing.

At this point, I should compliment how good Diablo 4 looks. It has pleasing lighting and pleasing violence. The aforementioned Leap feels like devastating, almost superhero action. Likewise, it’s one hell of a power trip to whirl through a dozen monsters at once and watch them explode one by one into a crimson goo. Using all of your attacks in a single battle–because you’ll need to do that a lot in the near future–makes Diablo 4 seem like a demon-slaying orchestral performance you can command.

When I carve up minions of hell (except when they carve me!), the time I spend traveling through the Sanctuary never gets old – and not just because of the extra side quests that pop up so often (heck, even some random dungeons don’t have them The accompanying side quests are so large it took me half an hour to clean them up), and there are seemingly random in-game events, both public and private. With relatively few people playing this preview build, I rarely get to meet other players, but you will, which means you’ll probably have more access to these public events than I do. For the most part, I stood my ground, though I admit I was ruthlessly defeated by the Stronghold event, marked with red skulls on the map. It was a multi-step torture chamber, and I ended up getting hit by the final boss of that encounter. I was going to upgrade a bit and come back, but sadly I ran out of time.

Either way, it’s going to be a huge game.

Ultimately, Diablo 4 feels like a massive upgrade from Diablo 2, and that’s the best case scenario in my book. Not that it ignores Diablo 3—there are clear notes drawn from the game’s best parts, too—but tonally and artistically, it leans more toward the Diablo 2 script. Regardless, it’s going to be a huge game by any measure: based on my time in Act One, the original campaign project was expected to last around 50 hours, plus Blizzard’s special focus on us even Unseen endgame content, the opportunity to play as different classes and roll different builds within the same class, and the development team’s commitment to keep delivering new content to the community for years to come. Heaven help any game that releases near Diablo 4, because I know I’ll be too focused on my adventures in Sanctuary to care about anything else.

Ryan McCaffrey is IGN’s Preview Executive Editor and host of IGN’s weekly Xbox show, podcast unlockedand our monthly (-ish) interview show, IGN Unfiltered. He’s from North Jersey so it’s “Taylor Ham” not “Pork Roll”.Discuss with him on Twitter @DMC_Ryan.

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