Diablo 4’s fan-pleasing visuals feel behind the times

BlizzCon 2019 has come and gone. Going into the show, there was much talk of protest and controversy. Internally at Blizzard, there was undoubtedly talk of a different kind. The company just wanted to avoid last year’s poor showing. There would be no “April Fool’s Joke” moments this time around, not with the one-two punch of Diablo 4 and groundbreaking Overwatch 2. A couple of weeks removed, those up in arms found a new torch to wield, and Blizzard fans have been satiated by the big reveals. And in that process of satiating fans, Blizzard went back to its dark visual style from the first two titles. Even though that is what some have proclaimed to want, it makes the game look like an older product from another time.

Diablo 4 Visuals | Opening Vault 666

Back in November of 2015, Bethesda released Fallout 4 to generally positive buzz. People seemed to like the game well enough when it came out, but it quickly faded into obscurity. Considering the lasting impact of its direct predecessors, this was unfortunate, to say the least. Beyond some repetitive Skyrim-style quests and a strange focus on crafting, one aspect really stuck out: its similarity to its predecessor. It felt like a direct sequel, but it was coming out seven years later rather than two or three. You could see all the little improvements to the Fallout formula, but the bigger problem was that other open-world games had moved on, leaving Fallout 4 as a weird relic even on launch day.

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Diablo 4 can relate to this situation. It’s been seven years since Blizzard released Diablo 3. The sequel’s presentation was certainly flashy, but it showed an eerily familiar lack of imagination in terms of where the franchise is going, especially from a visual standpoint. Everyone on stage felt the need to stress how dark this new game would be, how it harkens back to the roots of the series. The style seems to directly reference the Xbox 360 generation, as Sanctuary was overwhelmed by blacks, grays, and every muted shade in between. You just have to look at the gameplay released so far to see it. With monsters bearing a single grey tone, blood and armor blending together, it’s like everything went through the wash one too many times.

Diablo 4 Visuals | The crimson mask

Why would Blizzard do this? Casual fans of the franchise may not remember, but a full decade ago, Diablo‘s art style came under fire. In 2008 (the height of the Xbox 360 era), new sequel Diablo 3 inspired rage for daring to have color in its visuals. Fans released doctored images on what they wanted the game to look like. By all measures, the final product was a success, but you can surely find fans who still say that Diablo 2 is a purer action RPG experience. Blizzard even mocked the controversy in-game with a hidden level filled with rainbows and My Little Pony-style characters.

However, despite mocking the outrage, it seems that it has steered part of the art direction for this new game. Blizzard wants to satisfy this hardcore fan who hated Diablo 3 because it was something different. Much like Bethesda with Fallout 4, they’re looking at criticism from their last release in the franchise and trying to adjust based on that. They don’t want outside influence tainting their vision, and they trust the feedback they got from fans. This is a fine way to do sequels, especially for a rapid-fire franchise like Call of Duty or Assassin‘s Creed. But it gets trickier when it comes to a more slow-paced series like Diablo.

Diablo 4 Visuals | Saturday morning magic

A lot has changed since 2008. Blizzard should know this most of all, as it inspired a lot of current art trends with their own Overwatch. There are still some dark games but many are are full of larger than life characters and fantastical settings. The most popular games in the world are living cartoons, forgoing realism for whimsy at almost every turn, leaving Diablo 4 as a counterbalance to those games in some ways but somewhat dated in others. Some may see this as “strictly for kids,” but these kinds of games stand the test of time more easily. Not only that, but these stylish graphics demand much less from PC hardware, widening the playerbase and saving developers money. It’s almost as if the entire industry finally woke up to what Nintendo has been doing for decades.

Even Doom, its decidedly demonic brother in arms, looks like an Adult Swim special these days, with evocative creature designs and flashy locales that burst off the screen. 2016’s iteration faced a similar backlash for its glory kills, but id stuck to its guns and changed the formula of the shooter franchise for the better. In leaning so heavily on the fact that Diablo 4 is dark and grimy like it was before, Blizzard doesn’t seem as confident. This is a company that wants to please, not an artist moving the needle forward. Why should Diablo go back to this style just to please a mythical group of fans from a decade ago that may not even care about the game at this juncture?

Diablo 4 Visuals | Clash of cataclysms

Hopefully, Diablo 4‘s gameplay is something special, especially with a color palette that seems so stuck in the past and Blizzard has plenty of time to push the title in a more artistically inspired direction. The action RPG market itself is also different now since Diablo 3 came out, now headed by Path of Exile and its recently announced sequel. Blizzard’s new entry has to be something big because it is going up against a free alternative with constant updates, years of content, and plenty of depth in addition to splitting the difference between traditionally Gothic horror and colorful baddies to slay. Diablo 4 looks like a great game, even in its early stage, but it doesn’t quite look like a sequel that’s nearly a decade in the making. In trying to rectify sins from its past, Blizzard may be ignoring the present, creating a game that will only appease gamers with a time machine and a fondness of late ’90s edge.