Having watched it try to speed run all the troubles of a live service game, I didn’t expect Diablo 4 to come back this hard and fast

I’m no stranger to the highs and lows of live service gaming. As a nine-year Destiny veteran, I’ve seen how pretty much every conceivable crisis plays out. Servers going down for days at a time. Disastrous balance changes that leave the community in chaos. Tone deaf developer statements that get walked back days later. What has been weird though, is watching Diablo 4 speed run so many of the classic problems in its first couple of months.

Personal Pick

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2023, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We’ll post new personal picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

To be fair, the game got off to a rollicking good start, immediately becoming Blizzard’s fastest selling title of all time. Everyone from the hardcore ARPG heads to the most casual console players flocked to experience the return of one of gaming’s biggest names, and what they initially found was pretty great: Here was a beefy campaign dripping with peak Blizzard production values, the spread of classes was interesting enough to encourage running multiple characters, and even the open world stuff actually worked, as evidenced by the Helltide events in which you harvest gear against a timer.

Where cracks soon began to appear, as is frankly always the case with live service games, was with the endgame experience, which basically amounted to running the same Nightmare Dungeons ad infinitum to level up glyphs and… nothing else. The anaemic variety was compounded by any sense of progress skidded to an ugly stop around level 70, after which pushing to 100 as you filled out your Paragon board became a tedious grind of the tiniest gains.

Players regularly beat up on Varshan, a boss who drops Mucus Slick Eggs which are needed to summon Duriel.  (Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Issues with how gear itemisation works exacerbated Diablo 4’s endgame problem further. Meaningful upgrades to your build were absurdly rare, and the amount of time spent sorting through legendary drops with useless affixes from a bloated pool was almost equal to that spent splattering monsters. It felt like Diablo 4 had become Inventory Management: The Game, and players, especially those casuals, dropped off in droves. It wasn’t long before I put the game down too.

If I had to pick a low point from that era, it would surely be the apocalyptically misjudged 1.1 balance patch that dropped before season 1 launched. Whilst the motivation for some of the changes made sense, the effect of so many nerfs without accompanying buffs was to suck much of the fun out of a game that players were already frustrated with. Cue community uprising followed by a sheepish walk back of many of the changes. But if that was the nadir, it was also the start of a revival that has got me back into the game in a big way, to the point that I think its future is very bright now.

How so? Well, in the wake of the 1.1 debacle, Blizzard finally took the fun brakes off. Season 1 brought the addition of Malignant Hearts, which were slotted into your jewellery in place of gems to add potent effects to your build. The flashiest of these was the Caged Heart of the Barber, which delayed but also multiplied your outgoing damage, enabling almost every build to nuke even the beefiest packs. Despite being clearly better than the other hearts, and obviously OP, in a sign of things to come Blizzard let it ride until the end of the season. As fun as the Hearts were, season one didn’t have much meat on its bones beyond a battle pass with some admittedly attractive cosmetics.

It’s fun to be a vampire

One of the events in the Blood Harvest area can drop so much loot you’ll need multiple trips to town to break it all down.  (Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

Season 2 had a vampiric theme, with A-lister Gemma Chan voicing the quest giver for another fairly light series of tasks. However, the actual vampiric powers you unlocked in the process provided a substantial boost to build crafting. There are 22 to play with, of which five can be slotted at any one time, and they range from mundane but strong effects like increasing attack speed and making enemies Vulnerable, to flashier stuff like infecting all enemies with a pox or having the evade move transform you into a cloud of bats. The main new activity was the Blood Harvest, a souped up version of the Helltide event with much thicker enemy density and the most generous lootsplosions in the game to date.

Sorcerers are spamming Ball Lightning like they’re plugged into the national grid.

Crucially, season 2 also came with a substantial addition to the endgame: The chance to target farm bosses for specific pieces of Unique gear. This meant if you were missing a key item for your build, you could find it with relative reliability by fighting the right boss. Blizzard even gave players a deterministic path to acquiring Uber Uniques by beating the boss Duriel. These are the most coveted and rare items in the game, but at launch had such an astronomically low drop rate—we’re talking lottery win stuff—that only a few people in the world found one. That felt like Blizzard creating FOMO to the point of absurdity, and if nothing else looked like a waste of dev time creating them in the first place.

With the drop rate now buffed, endgame players spend their time farming the mats to run Duriel ‘rotations’ in which groups of players take turns to pay to summon the boss. I’ve been doing this on weekends with PC Gamer’s Sean Martin and Tyler Colp, and am in no way bitter that they’ve each got an Uber. Honest: I’m fine. The new drop rate has been estimated at about 2%, so the chances still aren’t great—particularly if you’re after one item in particular—but at least we’re not talking lightning strike odds.

Not the most powerful build, but I’ve most enjoyed playing Bone Spear Necro while spamming multiple ults thanks to a unique shield called The Lidless Wall. (Image credit: Activision Blizzard)

These farms are low stress because Blizzard’s hands-off approach to mid-season balance has seen most classes zero in on a completely broken build that’s able to delete the hardest boss in the game in a couple of seconds (sometimes less). Barbarians are top of the damage tree with their Hammer of the Ancients build, Sorcerers are spamming Ball Lightning like they’re plugged into the national grid, and Rogues are exploiting a bugged pair of pants to dish out disgusting one-hit-kills. Blizzard’s response to the complete trivialisation of pretty much all content in the game has been to say that they’ll fix it before next season but in the meantime GLHF.

We’re glad players are having fun in #DiabloIV Season of Blood and have no plans to nerf it.October 24, 2023

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The one piece of content which can’t be steamrollered is the Abattoir of Zir, a mid-season event with 25 levels of difficulty, the lowest of which was harder than a tier 100 Nightmare Dungeon. Blizzard teased that they didn’t expect anyone to beat the final level of the Abattoir. What they perhaps didn’t anticipate was that it would be so hard that most players would give up after being one-shot a couple of times by an off-screen crossbow or a puddle of exploding ick. Again, the developer has responded to the complaints quickly, hauling down enemy health and damage at the lower levels, but leaving it unchecked at the higher levels to keep the tryhards happy.

Abattoir of Zir is still very much a work in progress as events go, but is presumably being used as a testbed for The Gauntlet dungeons coming with Season 3.

Abattoir of Zir is still very much a work in progress as events go, but is presumably being used as a testbed for The Gauntlet dungeons coming with Season 3 in January. I’ve really enjoyed dipping in for a few runs to level up my glyphs thanks to the wild amount of XP it gives. Abattoir is played against the clock, and still has three very threatening vampires waiting at the end of each run. I found it hold-your-breath tense and pretty much the only time I’ve felt pressured into rotating cooldowns carefully. The rewards could certainly use improvement, but you do get a ridiculously powerful new glyph for your Paragon board that doubled my attack power overnight, making the rest of the game even more of a joke.

That’s fine though, because I’m having fun. I expect next season to stiffen the challenge and reign in the most broken builds. What’s been impressive to me is how, after such a shaky start, Blizzard has been quick to make changes, pivoting successfully off the back of community feedback to bring much-needed life to the endgame. There’s still a lot of work to do, particularly when it comes to loot itemisation (the game desperately needs a filter) but I do think Diablo 4 actually suits the seasonal model. Had the game launched with the same content that Season 2 contained, I think it would have had a huge effect on player retention.

Diablo 4 is finally a game I can legitimately recommend. Where once I was sceptical about creating new characters, I now have three in the 90-100 range and feel excited about making one each season, with Barbarian next in the queue. It’s still a live service game, which means mistakes will inevitably be made and the quality between seasons won’t be even. But if Blizzard can stay nimble and keep iterating on the stuff that works, then I think the core loop of popping packs of monsters like so much bloody bubble wrap will keep me coming back. And Lillith knows I’m going to need something to play if Destiny 2 really does finally implode.

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