The reaction to Diablo Immortal’s announcement at BlizzCon 2018 was an embarrassment. Diablo fans had whipped themselves up into such a fervour believing a Diablo IV announcement was imminent that when Immortal was announced many behaved atrociously. Infamously, one fan asked Lead Designer Wyatt Cheng if the announcement was an out of season April Fool’s joke.
Gamers behaving badly isn’t anything new, especially within fandoms as obsessive and rabid and Blizzard’s, but the response to Diablo Immortal was appalling. While a part of it stemmed from the expectation of D4, another factor is “proper” gamers refusal to accept mobile devices as legitimate gaming devices.
I spend an enormous amount of time gaming on my phone and play games like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra, Candy Crush, Mario Kart, League of Legends and Armello. The days of only playing dodgy puzzle games with an insane freemium economy are long gone. Mobile gaming is here to stay and that’s a good thing. More platforms mean more variety.
So, as a Blizzard fan and someone who embraces mobile gaming, I was beyond excited for Diablo Immortal. After playing it, my anticipation is off the charts.
Hands-on Diablo Immortal Preview
Diablo Immortal’s alpha gave players access to four of the game’s six playable classes, however, I only played as the Barbarian. I fully intended to give every class a go but I was enjoying the Barbarian so much I forgot to swap before the alpha ended. Every night I’d get into bed with every intention of going to sleep, only to open Immortal and lose four or five hours in Sanctuary. It may be a mobile title, but it’s every bit a Diablo game as any of the others.
Set between D2 and 3, Immortal is yet another battle against evil across Sanctuary. I’m not going to delve into what the plot entails so as to avoid spoilers but Diablo fans are in for a treat and a story worthy of the series’ name. Fans will also be pleased to know that Deckard Cain appears early and often.
Visually, it’s a proper powerhouse. Whether I was playing on my iPhone 11 Pro Max, iPad 8th Gen or mirrored on my AppleTV, Diablo Immortal looks incredible. There’s a huge amount of detail in character models and the environments. Everything is crisply rendered and textured such that you could be mistaken for thinking this was a console game. It’s probably not up to the bleeding edge standard of PC visuals available today but it certainly stacks up against PS4 and Xbox One and easily eclipses most of what’s available on Switch. And it’s not just the technical quality of the visuals, Diablo Immortal’s art direction is also a real winner.
Immortal is dark and gothic and feels foreboding. There’s a sense of danger and claustrophobia in every environment (which may be due in part to the smaller screens) and the overall style absolutely shines. Where Diablo III had some elements of WoW’s exaggerated, cartoony art style, Diablo Immortal shies away from that in favour of a darker, grungier, more realistic take. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve seen a mobile game look quite as good as Immortal does. This is merely the icing on the cake since Diablo Immortal plays (almost) flawlessly.
Sticking pretty closely to the tried and tested Diablo formula, Immortal makes a few changes to suit the touch controls and mobile layout. For starters, all abilities are universally tied to cooldowns. There is no mana. No Fury, no Hatred…nothing. While at first I was taken aback and wondered how Immortal would manage to feel ‘correct’ after playing for about 30-seconds I completely forgot that Mana had been removed.
On paper, it’s a huge departure, but in practice, you’ll barely notice the difference. The reason for the removal seems to be partly related to the UI too. Since you play Immortal by touching the screen, having too much information right in front of you would mean even more real-estate taken away from the actual gameplay itself. By removing mana, Blizzard has freed up a significant portion of the screen allowing players to see more of the action and freeing them up from having one more thing to keep track of. On PC or console, the ability to track your mana isn’t so constrained by screen space so it’s able to be implemented like it is in Diablo IV. Immortal needs to have more space for players to touch the screen and see what’s happening and purists may take issue with it but it’s a necessary change that only barely impacts the gameplay.
Diablo Immortal’s inputs are touch-based and while there was no controller support during the closed alpha, Wyatt Cheng told me recently it’s one of the most requested features and something Blizzard is investigating. However, even without controller support, Immortal plays like a dream. One caveat though. If you mirror your device to an AppleTV, it’s not easy to play since you can’t see exactly where your fingers are pressing.
On the left side of the screen, players control their character with a virtual thumbstick and on the right lives a number of customisable ability buttons. Each button can be swapped and changed as new abilities and skills are unlocked letting players find what suits them best.
Best of all, as your character levels up and you unlock new skills and abilities, you’ll find brand-new ways to play and entirely different combos and strategies for combat. There is a deep system at play underneath Diablo Immortal’s shiny exterior and it rewards experimentation. Even the early skills you unlock with the Barbarian combo in exciting and surprising ways and once you start pulling off ridiculous attacks and murdering scores of enemies (who explode into chunks) you’ll be hooked.
I’ve found in the past that virtual thumbsticks are a real pain to use and don’t offer enough fine control. Not so in Immortal. I don’t know what kind of arcane sorcery the devs are using but the virtual thumbstick in Diablo Immortal feels the closest to a physical one I’ve ever used. Controlling my Barbarian felt as good as it does in Diablo III on Switch and while using abilities isn’t quite as natural, it’s close. The only issue I had with Immortal’s controls is when aiming ranged attacks. Some of the Barbarian’s ability’s need to be aimed in a specific direction when used. To do this, you hold the ability button and then move your thumb to move an on-screen indicator.
Every time I’d try to do this, I’d automatically have my arrow facing towards the bottom of the screen, usually away from the action. It’s not a huge issue when the action isn’t especially hectic, but when there are dozens of enemies and you’re frantically trying to perform attacks, it’s easy to hit the ability button without adjusting the aim and waste it. Without mana, you need to wait for the cooldown before trying again. Over time I got better at hitting the ability button and aiming, but it was a bit of a learning curve.
What makes Diablo Immortal stand above the Switch port of Diablo III is the fact that it does use the touchscreen. How many times have you been playing on Switch and wanted to be able to pick up loot by tapping the screen? Well, in Immortal you can and it’s awesome.
Another fantastic facet of Diablo Immortal is the sheer size and scale of the game. Even in alpha, it was enormous. Not just enormous for a mobile game either. This game feels expansive and immense. Exploring each region, different dungeons and towns takes time and adds to the overall impression of a living breathing world. Other games in the series have suffered somewhat from a feeling of interconnected maps, rather than one organic world. Immortal goes a long way towards remedying this. Additionally, the shared world features really help make it feel alive thanks to the appearance of other players. Joining another player ad-hoc before ditching them to continue on your quest has a real pen & paper RPG feel. It’s like finding a great NPC and leaving them to their own devices after you’ve helped each other, only instead of an NPC they’re a real-person!
Like many games vying for your ongoing attention, Diablo Immortal is packed with Games as Service features. These aren’t really anything new to the series but they’re more explicitly laid out and integrated as a GaaS feature here than ever before. For example, Diablo Immortal has a Season/Battle Pass with a free and paid track. It has daily quests, seasonal content and more which has yet to be unveiled. But from what was included in the alpha, it’s clear that it’s a game that’s going to want to monopolise your time and it’s likely to succeed.
While still a ways off, Diablo Immortal is already a fantastic entry in the franchise. It’s a testament to the developers that it’s so good even after being faced with such resistance when announced.
It’s a portable version of Diablo that you can’t play anywhere other than your phone and it’s been designed to perfectly take advantage of the form and function of smartphones. It’s fast-paced, action-packed and incredibly polished which bodes well for its future.
Those fans who are still sceptical of Diablo Immortal needn’t be because it’s a certifiable blockbuster, albeit in your pocket. I’m betting once the naysayers have had a chance to play it, they’ll too be singing Diablo Immortal’s praises.
I for one, am dying, waiting for the next chance I get to play it.
Diablo Immortal was previewed on iPhone 11 Pro Max using code provided by Blizzard.