diablo 4orse discourse

the horse is fine.

pictured: boudicca (me) atop her beautiful steed (not me)

no, it is not as versatile as the horse in elden ring with its double jump. it’s not as fast as link’s horse of choice in the latest zelda joints, and its burst of speed is more limited in use-cases and cooldown. this is all fine, though, because it is intentional, and because diablo 4 is not elden ring or zelda and doesn’t want you to play it like those games, or even to play it like diablo 2 or 3.

the horse in diablo 4 is an opt-in movement speed buff that, while used, locks you out of combat. it is given to you close to campaign end-game, after you’ve already unlocked most of the major waypoints on the enormous map. it does not prevent you from getting sandbagged by a nasty pack of enemies along your route, nor does it prevent you from getting blockaded or forced to jump a cliff on your own.

this is because diablo 4 is built around you walking little trails for questlines and exploration, and the horse is meant not to skip but instead to encourage those activities. you’re supposed to hop on it for little clearings and then hop off for a bit of sustained combat before traveling on. hence the lengthy cooldowns.

a different thing about diablo 4 that I do find annoying: you can’t have multiple quest objectives visible on your HUD at once. I’m often playing the game such that I have 3 to 4 quests active within a certain region, and it would be convenient and efficient for me to be able to track and knock out quest objectives in parallel. the map menu gives you this, but it’s not efficient and it’s not a pause menu so it’s not without danger while in the middle of hostile territory.

again, though, I think this is intentional: the quest design encourages getting invested in the little side stories, which often have multiple acts and pivots within them before you get your chunk of reward XP. a rescue mission to bring a sick woman back home ends up going awry and getting the whole town infested, so now you’re on another trek to collect stuff for a soup, but then the soup doesn’t quite work, so now you’re going over here. a woman with magical powers is ostracized by family and community, repeatedly, and you keep having to pluck her from distress or help her find a new path forward.

if you’re playing this game like a checklist — like your standard baal runs in diablo 2 or the “friction-less” postgame quest design of diablo 3: reaper of souls — you’ll skip the atmosphere, the consistent and strong voice acting and writing, the ways so many of the questlines attempts to weave its own beginning, middle, and end within your larger journey. they’re not all successful, of course, but they can’t work unless the game forces you to give them a chance.

we’ve all had this conversation before, haven’t we? friction in games is not negative. game design choices are almost always deliberate, and even if they’re cash grabs they’re also thematic. I find it pretty easy to ignore diablo 4’s monetization, built as it is around a small helping of cosmetics. yes, the menu item is always marked with an obnoxious exclamation point that claws at my desire to have all checkboxes ticket, but it’s a quick thing to pass by, which once again feels intentional on the part of the many game designers involved who didn’t care how blizzard-activision wanted to live-service this game to oblivion.

diablo 4 wants you to ruminate within the decay of a world now running through its fourth apocalyptic scenario. (some plot spoilers follow; skip the paragraph if you’re not interested.) those who know more about the never-ending theological sparring have grown either tired or manic, clinging to cynicism and alcohol or else to extraordinarily tenuous faith in absent or explicitly dismissive deities. even the deities themselves are done with this crap — lilith wants to kill her dad and end the eternal conflict for good, damn the rest; meanwhile inarius just wants to go home, that poor stupid guy.

the way the game uses its legacy to this effect is interesting. you see locations from the first pair of games in passing visions or nightmares. one (non-demon) character returns in a way that let’s just say keeps with the themes. there’s a notable use of a location from diablo 3 but the place is a crumbled waste; you end up walking through entire chunks of the same map as that previous game, but all your former destinations, merchants, and traveling partners are dust.

you walk (or trot) through a half-dead world, and there are all these people still trying to make it into a place worth living, whether through delirious faith or little familial comforts or whatever vices are available. it’s a compelling space while also going for a different vibe than the previous games’ claustrophobic corridors and souped-up character tropes (the wizened guide, the eastern mystic, the booming archangel).

it still feels like diablo but I find it harder to play for sustained periods, which I think is to the game design’s credit. do a quest or two, fight a helltide, then get out for the day (or for the next few hours, at least). I haven’t even started a second character yet. the game seems to discourage the “end game is when you’ve unlocked everything and are grinding forever” mindset locked into veteran series gamers, which is good, because that mindset and approach came out of the absence of proper endgame in previous games. I might one day see everything in diablo 4, but it’s the first of its franchise’s worlds where that feels like a distant end goal rather than a first step to the “true” game.

the horse is both a concession to this game’s “open world” billing and yet a statement of semi-defiant intent. yes, there are many checklists in this game, but there’s also a lot of aesthetic and thematic work happening within each detail, so the game’s been built to slow you down—and aggravate you, if necessary—to keep paying attention to those details.

once the game’s seasonal content comes most of this thoughtful approach goes in the bin, but that’s the way of a game being corporate-engineered into everlasting life, yes? I’ll avoid that, and I think many of the game’s designers would hope you’d do the same, in some secret part of themselves. diablo 4’s heart, to me, will always arise from its depiction of the sluggishness and insanity that come from being too aware of your doom. you can’t gallop your way past the grim scenes or skip the fact that every inch of good you bring back to this place is just an inch, one at a time, against an ever-rising tide.

[7/10, though, because it retains those flying bugs from 3 that spit out smaller poison bugs? or something? they’re less monstrous here than they were during diablo 3’s original release when they could one-shot you but they still evoke sour memories]