Blizzard Entertainment recently held the early access and open beta weekends for its upcoming action-RPG, Diablo 4. With a couple of dozen hours poured into both betas, it’s safe to say that the next Diablo is about to be a slight departure from the formula: players have noticed the clear signs of an MMO beneath its surface. While it’s not a full-blown MMORPG (and Blizzard is still not marketing it as such), these elements have left plenty of good, bad and ugly impressions in my experience so far.
The Diablo series has never fully dabbled in MMO elements until now. Some could say Diablo 4 has MMO-lite features that tick off several check boxes: shared world, players running around hub towns, world events, spontaneous social moments and more. It has all the hallmarks of an MMORPG but it’s still a Diablo game, which has sparked a divisive reception online over the past few weeks.
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However, I think Blizzard has struck a good balance here regarding its MMO-lite elements. It’s always on the edge of embracing several MMORG features but never fully commits to it which I believe is both a positive and negative.
I’ve never been one for the MMORPG genre – the last one I actually properly got invested in was World of Warcraft in my teenage years. Diablo 4 can be described, at face value, as an MMO and that experience certainly awaits players in the final game. It kind of dawned on me as soon as I found myself racing to The Crucible to team up with dozens of other players to face off against the world boss, Ashava. This seemed familiar.
That said, I could just as easily ignore all the online multiplayer shenanigans happening around me and just play through the game and explore at my own pace. Despite all the MMO-lite features, it still felt, at its core, like a traditional Diablo experience. Blizzard finds a good middle-ground with keeping the franchise’s formula while expanding the scope of the online world. This does raise some red flags and concerns too but we’ll get to that in a bit.
For the most part, you could still play Diablo 4 as an isolated experience from everyone else. The story only unravels when you choose to tackle main quests so you don’t miss any beats or live in constant fear of your party progressing the narrative without you. You can also enter dungeons on your own without having other players in the world getting involved in your affairs. This is great since it assured me that I wasn’t getting into the kind of game that devalues the single-player journey by mixing in this massive (or more like medium?) multiplayer online ticks.
On the other hand, once you get to the first area’s hub town of Kyovashad, the MMO fluff is obvious. You’ll constantly see other players running around, opening portals and min-maxing their gear while running from their stash to the blacksmith. If the narrative paints you as a lone hero who has to stop Lilith, I can see why it might deter story-driven players seeing dozens of other “lone heroes” with the same purpose all over the place.
After a while it just didn’t bother me that much since I could look past it and continue on my own adventures uninterrupted. The only time I really came across other players while out exploring was during world events – I actually didn’t mind the odd player wandering in to help me since it made the loot grind a lot easier. Solo dungeon-crawling, which is the bread and butter of Diablo‘s addictive gameplay loop, still felt like old-school Diablo which I appreciated.
Looking beyond the positives, I was made aware of something I didn’t really consider before about how these MMO-lite elements might be detrimental to players. While playing with a friend in the hub town, he spotted another necromancer player with shinier gear and wondered how they got it. With Blizzard’s promise of “cosmetic-only” microtransactions, I put two-and-two together and it’s not pretty.
Having other players running around in towns with shinier gear might spark the curiosity of others, who will then be indirectly swooned into those cosmetic microtransactions. The “it’s only cosmetics” point is not the righteous boast that companies think it is anymore, especially when you consider how that system can be morphed into players having a knee-jerk reaction to seeing other players in their class with better gear – sometimes the only way of acquiring them being through shovelling out bucks on the store.
This isn’t something new to the MMORPG genre but in Diablo, it just feels weird and out-of-place. One could argue that you could simply go out and do some loot grinding (as is the norm with Diablo) but having access to layered armour from the get-go – which is great, don’t get me wrong – only kind of highlights the problem with how the industry views and abuses “cosmetic” microtransactions these days.
I sincerely hope that Diablo 4 doesn’t go down that shady path because, in all honesty, I absolutely adore the game. It’s stacked to the brim with great content, the gameplay is the best it’s ever been, the story hooked me from the opening hours and the customisation and build options are incredible. At least in the betas, the MMO-lite elements weren’t intrusive enough to ruin my experience but I’m approaching that with a level of caution and hope that Blizzard does right this time. A far-reaching hope, I know, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
Diablo 4 launches on 6 June 2023 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and PC.