ANAHEIM, Calif.—This year's BlizzCon was a big one in many ways, but among them was the presence of playable demos for Diablo 4, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, and Overwatch 2. I attended the show this year and played all three.
While there was some tension in the media coverage and social conversation around this BlizzCon after the company's decision to temporarily suspend a pro Hearthstone player for making a political statement during an official stream, it was not the dominant mood on the ground. From the keynote through the community events, it was clear most people were a lot more concerned about the games than anything else.
And there were a lot of games. I've been to many a BlizzCon, but this was by far the most eventful in terms of announcements. There was the long-awaited Diablo 4, a new World of Warcraft expansion called Shadowlands, a sequel-of-sorts to Overwatch, and a new Hearthstone mode that marks Blizzard's entry into the popular auto-battler genre.
I actually started my career as a writer writing for a World of Warcraft news site called WoW Insider (now titled Blizzard Watch). For years, though, I had mixed feelings about Blizzard games. I often felt like every Blizzard game had a more sophisticated, more compelling, more hardcore alternative. But as I grew older, and especially as I experienced games through the eyes of my then-girlfriend (now wife) who was new to gaming, I began to appreciate Blizzard's focus on accessibility, onboarding, and polish.
Based on how it's designed, it's much easier to keep up with Diablo 3 if you work full time and have a family than it is to follow Path of Exile. The same goes for modern World of Warcraft compared to many other MMOs. Also, Blizzard games became a regularly shared activity between my wife and I over time. We leveled WoW characters together, each on our own desktops; we gathered Diablo 3 sets in the couch co-op PS4 version; we formed Overwatch teams with my brother-in-law and secured many, many plays-of-the-game; we cheered for our favorite players in Hearthstone esports.
So I went to BlizzCon 2019 as a fan with deep, deep history in these games. And these are my (largely positive) impressions of arguably the biggest new game at the show: Diablo 4.
Atmosphere and vibe
Let's get this out of the way first: despite modern game design concepts and very modern rendering tech, Diablo 4 looks a lot more like Diablo 2 than it does Diablo 3. It's not cartoon-ish or colorful; it's dark, grim, muted, and painterly. If you're in the cadre of players who were disappointed by Diablo 3's lighter, campier tone, you'll be pleased to see a return to form here.
Every asset in the area I played was created to convey a sense of decay, despair, and violence. And Blizzard has implemented cinematic transitions between areas. Instead of simply clicking on a dungeon entrance and teleporting to a starting point for that dungeon as in previous titles, your character will do something like get on their hands and knees to push vines aside and crawl through a cramped crawlspace, emerging on the other side. The game goes into a Tomb Raider-like cinematic camera view to depict these transitions, then it returns to the standard top-down view once the transition is complete.
There are a lot of bells and whistles like that intended to give the game a bit more gravity and counter the cartoony floaty-ness (for lack of a better term) of Diablo 3. We interviewed two members of the art team at the show, and they enthusiastically listed the major graphical improvements and engine features they've introduced this time around. For one thing, Diablo 4 employs physically-based rendering. It also has environments with slopes and hills in a way that even Diablo 3 didn't, and player characters seamlessly transition between animations in more realistic ways. (Prior iterations simply canceled the current animation when starting a new one, but Diablo 4 follows a model represented by a lot of more modern triple-A games).
It all looks great, but as is usually the case with Blizzard titles, it's the art that really sells the experience. The technical stuff is in a supporting role.