Lilith spreading her wings
Screenshot by Dot Esports

Diablo 4 is the best action-RPG ever, but only for a few seconds at a time

I want more action in my action-RPG.

Killing stuff in Diablo 4 looks and feels great. There’s a wide variety of skills, abilities, and affixes to choose from, and unleashing combinations of them upon your hapless foes is not just fun but very, very satisfying. Yes, the combat in Diablo 4 is awesome. So why the hell isn’t there more of it?

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I’ve just finished the Diablo 4 campaign, and yes, it took me a while. I reached the end in just under 50 hours, spread across nearly six weeks. That might seem like a lot of playtime from a casual point of view, but in Diablo terms, that basically means I hardly touched it. And honestly, I didn’t feel like playing it that much because, for me, it just didn’t deliver anywhere near enough of the stuff that makes the Diablo brand synonymous with the action-RPG genre. And that’s… action.

This is me throwing down the Gauntlet

A screenshot from the arcade version of Gauntlet
A door with a massive swarm of enemies behind it. Diablo used to do this too. Image via Atari Games

Gather round, grandpa’s gonna tell you a story. Back in 1985, Atari launched Gauntlet into arcades around the world. Gauntlet was a co-op hack-and-slash adventure for up to four players who could choose between a warrior, a wizard, a valkyrie, or an elf. The aim of each level was simply to get through a maze and reach the exit to take you to the next level. There were traps and puzzles along the way, but more importantly than that, there were swarms of enemies. And I mean swarms. It was pretty common for the whole screen to be filled with a mass of skeletons, grunts, and gargoyles.

Gauntlet was frantic, panic-inducing, intense, adrenaline-fuelled, and action-packed. It was, in short, awesome. It became one of the most popular and successful games of the mid-eighties and thoroughly deserved it.

So, when I played Diablo for the first time, back in 1997, my first thought was, “Hey, this is Gauntlet but with a deep RPG loot system.” And I wasn’t dismissing it. There’s nothing new under the sun, and even Gauntlet itself was derivative enough to have gotten itself in a bit of legal hot water. Diablo’s combination of Gauntlet’s mazey levels and swarming enemies, and a procedurally generated loot system with more stats and figures than you could shake a D20 at was an incredibly effective formula. It was, in short, even more awesome than Gauntlet.

Related: Diablo 4 battle pass: How it works and all rewards

I wanted Diablo 4 to give me hell, but it gave me a walk in the park

A Rogue wandering unchallenged through the Silent Expanse desert
The Silent Expanse is every bit as empty as it sounds. Screenshot by Dot Esports

So, fast forward to the present day, and I’m playing Diablo 4. It started off promising enough. Even those first encounters using just basic attacks feel meaty, chunky, and satisfying. And as I started adding skills and fleshing out my character, things felt like they were escalating nicely. I remember thinking, “This is going to be awesome when the training wheels come off, and it starts throwing swarms of enemies at me.”

But it just never happened.

The Diablo 4 campaign is 45-50 hours of long walks, even longer dialogues, and minor skirmishes that are always over way, way too soon. Setting boss battles aside for a moment, 99% of my encounters in Diablo 4 went the same way. I’d unleash each of my skills in quick succession, then pick off any survivors. It typically took about 10 seconds. And it was very rare that any passing enemies would hear all the fuss and come wandering over to see what was going on, so there’d usually be a clear gap between one fight and the next. And the gaps were usually longer than the fights.

Lorath saying, "Will this never end..."
Lorath mirroring my own feelings on Diablo 4‘s ‘more talk, less action’ approach. Screenshot by Dot Esports

That feeling of being a lone hero struggling against the overwhelming odds of an endless, relentless, monstrous horde—the feeling that made Gauntlet and the early Diablo titles it inspired so awesome—was totally absent. Instead, Diablo 4 feels like an empty, half-assed MMO where the point is to grind for the sake of grinding and not to overcome any kind of challenge.

I saw a burning light at the end of a hellish tunnel

A Rogue dishing out all kinds of hell to a swarm of skeletons
The whole game should be like this. Prove me wrong. Screenshot by Dot Esports

So, while I never felt compelled enough to hack my way through Diablo 4 quickly, it did just about hold my attention enough for me to keep chipping away at it. The whole time I was thinking, “Maybe it’ll get better on World Tier III.” I still haven’t reached World Tier III, and I don’t really expect it to be any more swarmy than World Tier II, but at least the fights should be longer and more challenging.

But I did reach the end of the campaign, and just before and after the finale, I did experience a few hours of something akin to what Diablo 4 should be about. During the first half of the Burning Hells (the Essence of Hatred and In Desolation’s Wake quests), the encounters are intense, with very few interruptions. The path is still too linear to ever feel any threat of being overwhelmed, but it’s still a major improvement.

And then, after completing the campaign, I finally had the chance to attempt a dungeon that didn’t scale with my character level. I half-expected to be locked out of the Cathedral of Light Capstone Dungeon until I reached level 50, but it let me in at just level 46 and for the next hour, I had by far the most fun I’d had playing Diablo 4. The dungeon was packed with an aggressive swarm of enemies, and I finally felt like I was doing something badass, brave, and heroic. My attention was fixed, my brain was fully engaged, and my adrenaline was pumping.

I loved it (until the boss proved impossible to beat, but hey…), but it was my 50th hour playing the game. It absolutely should not take that long for a game to get as good as it can be. And ultimately, all this hour of fun did was reinforce my belief that Diablo 4 could, and should, have been a great game. But for some reason, Blizzard decided to make an OK one instead.


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Author
Gavin Mackenzie
Gavin Mackenzie has been playing video games since the early 80s, and writing about them professionally since the late 90s. Having been a writer and editor on various British magazines including PLAY, GamesTM, and X360, he's now a freelance guides specialist at Dot Esports.