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Everything we learned about Diablo 4 at this year's Blizzcon

Always online, open world and grimdark art - hands-on and more.

Finally, Diablo 4 is flesh and blood, and I've played the demo at BlizzCon 2019 - twice - watched the 'Unveiled' panel and talked to the team making it. Here's what I learned.

I played as the barbarian and the druid but not the sorceress - the three classes (of five) announced so far - and the thing to know upfront is Diablo 4 is gorgeous, muscular fun. Abilities have a chunky, physical presence in the world, like the druid's boulder, which bowls into enemies and keeps knocking them back as it rolls. Freezing, smashing, charging - it's a game which makes you constantly feel powerful, and where pushing enemies around is more important than ever.

I was also impressed by the attention lavished on your bread-and-butter left-and-right-click attacks. The barbarian now has four weapon slots (and reaps the benefits of every weapon equipped, statistically) and could, in the demo, switch between a dual-wield attack with two weapons, and a two-handed shockwave attack, at the click of each mouse button with no interruption. Similarly, the druid, a returning Diablo 2 class, can seamlessly change from attacking in werewolf form to pulverising the ground in bear form. In and out of shapes he shifts and it feels terrific.

Evade plays a key role now too, having evolved from Diablo 3's console dodge roll. In Diablo 4, evade has you dash, or leap, a short distance, and it's incredibly useful. I leaned on it constantly as the barbarian, dashing through big bosses just as their big hits were about to land. It speeds up the flow of battle too.

You have four other abilities to play with, in addition to your bread-and-butter attacks, and these include an eye-catching ultimate which, in the case of the druid, unleashed a storm of tornadoes and lightning all around me. The sorceress - another returning Diablo 2 class - turns into a ball of lightning.

Someone has filmed all three characters playing through the Diablo 4 BlizzCon demo.Watch on YouTube

The skill system, though, is new - new from Diablo 3, anyway. Like earlier Diablo games, you spend points on skills to improve them, and they can even gain new effects at higher levels. Diablo 3's skill rune system is gone.

On top of skills, there are talent trees, as in a game like World of Warcraft, and each class has dozens of options to choose from and further customise their build. On top of that, there's the new Rune Word socketing system for equipment and, presumably, weapons. And on top of that, there are all the legendary item effects you've come to expect from the series. It's a whopping great customisation pie (and you can choose different faces for your hero).

But the biggest idea of Diablo 4 is a non-linear, shared open world, which means, for the first time ever, we won't be going from Act 1 to Act 2 to Act 3 and unlocking a new area each time. Now, we'll be free to go where we want. There'll be a story running through it - about Mephisto's daughter Lillith, who you saw in the trailer, who's the mother of humanity - but you'll be able to meander away from it as in other open world games.

What's more, other players will show up in your game, which means, controversially, you will not be able to play Diablo 4 offline. "Currently, we don't have plans for that because we feel these features just add so much to the game," senior producer Tiffany Wat told me. "It's really important to build that experience and keep you immersed in the world and have these public events and the opportunity to trade with other players."

So how does the shared world work? It will focus on certain kinds of content, where players will be more likely to appear (I don't know how you opt in or how you join games). In the demo, it was automatically a shared world, we didn't have to OK anything, and several players appeared at a world boss, which we killed and earnt, I think, our own individual loot. Think of the shared world events in a game like Destiny - it's like that.

But you won't see other players all the time because Blizzard doesn't want that. "Your dungeon experience will be the same as it's been in the past," said Tiffany Wat: "a privatised instance for you. If you choose to invite some friends, or people you meet in social hubs, you can do that, but you determine how you experience that.

"When we talk about the world of Sanctuary and the tone we're going for - that feeling of dread, isolation, desolation - it's not a great place to be, so we want to make sure we maintain that feeling as you're adventuring because that's just core to the story we want to tell.

"But if you come upon an event that's more difficult, say like Ashava, the world boss, that is a situation where our engine allows us to seamlessly bring other players in. Whether you choose to group up with them, or if you go there solo, there will still be other people that have chosen to go fight that boss."

You don't have to group with people, you can just fight alongside them (there is a social menu where you can invite people to groups and it has a clan section, suggesting that's a thing) but you cannot stop them from appearing. "Not for world events like that," Joe Shely said, "but there are a lot of areas where you do have that kind of control."

Watch on YouTube

Areas like dungeons (as already mentioned) and the campaign, which you can play through, fully, on your own. "Even though the campaign is in the open world, it's still a private space for you and the people you invite," Shely said.

Other places you're likely to see players are town hubs, where you can trade with them, which sounds cool but I didn't try it, and when you're engaged in PvP. Yes, PvP returns to Diablo after failing to materialise in Diablo 3. But how you engage in PvP is unclear and it's all still under wraps. "We can say, though, the philosophy we're approaching PvP with is: because Diablo is a game that's about killing monsters and loot, there's going to be some component of that in PvP," Shely said. "It's not just going to be one-v-one, gladiatorial-style combat."

More importantly: "If you are the kind of player who never wants to PvP anyone, we're not going to sneak someone up behind you and stab you."

The Diablo 4 open-world will be much bigger than Diablo 3's world - 10 or 20 times bigger, according to the Diablo panel, which Tiffany Wat was a part of and confirmed she'd heard said. It will be so large, in fact, Diablo 4 will need - and has - mounts for you to ride around. They weren't in the demo but were shown in the panel. There will be special dismount abilities for them - the sorceress can launch herself off her horse like an icy missile - as well as armour and Witcher-like monster head trophies, all of which bestow statistical bonuses to things like speed or defense.

Only a tiny piece of the map was available to explore in the demo but it was the open world in microcosm. It had a mix of dungeons, a village, story content, side content, random world events and the aforementioned world boss - a big boney dragon brute which killed me in two hits (I respawned quickly and nearby). I'm really excited by these world bosses. They could represent Diablo venturing into raidy, super-boss territory, so I'm eager to see how they turn out.

Diablo 4's other big feature is a focus on being tonally (and literally) dark, like the original Diablo games. It wants a grounded fantasy, not an over the top and ornate one like Diablo 3 presented. In the flesh, it's noticeably more grim, grey and brooding, with dark blood spilled everywhere, and flayed impaled corpses dotted around. It's not a cheery place to be.

But is it scary? I didn't think so. In the Diablo 4 panel, the developers said they'd taken inspiration from The Butcher encounter in Diablo 1, which is terrifying - terrifying because you open the door to a room filled with eviscerated bodies and out races this relentless beast, hacking and hacking until you're down. But I didn't get anything like this from Diablo 4, and I think a lot of it had to do with the game's difficulty.

In Diablo 1, you died. It was hard. So you inched forward, careful to only nibble at enemy hordes rather than try and take them all in one. But Diablo 4 felt like Diablo 3 as I romped, without any real fear of death, through scores of foes. It had none of the tense oppression of Diablo 1.

I put this to lead game designer Joe Shely. "In a world as big as the one we're building, there are lots of opportunities for difficult content." There will be areas you can get to where enemies will be much higher level than you, for instance. But difficulty levels themselves: "We haven't announced anything on difficulty levels," he said. Will there be one difficulty for the one shared world? It presents a tricky problem.

Nevertheless, I thought this was a promising showing. Diablo 4 is solid and fluid, and wonderfully animated and brought to life - so much so it's easy to assume it's further along in development than it is. Remember, this time there's a whole open world to build. "We're not coming out soon, not even Blizzard soon," said game director Luis Barriga in the panel.

I wouldn't expect Diablo 4 until at least 2021, then, which puts it squarely in next-gen console territory. It's only been announced for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One but you can safely assume it will embrace the new machines (think of what Blizzard did with Diablo 3 on PS3 and Xbox 360, then Diablo 3: Ultimate Evil Edition on PS4 and Xbox One).

But what about Switch? Blizzard didn't mention it, despite making a big deal about Diablo 3 on Switch at this very place a year ago. Blizzard even confirmed Overwatch 2 for Switch, which is similarly far away in development, so what's going on? "We don't have anything to announce for Switch," was all Tiffany Wat could say.

Blizzard did hold other Diablo 4 panels at BlizzCon which I haven't had a chance to watch yet, but I will and I'll let you know. I'll try to be in the comments below if you have any questions about the demo. Please ask away.