Diablo Immortal plays just like you’d expect on mobile, and it’s great

Diablo Immortal didn’t make a great first impression. It was announced at Blizzcon in 2018 when most fans were expecting the next mainline Diablo title, not a free-to-play spinoff for smartphones. Since then, Blizzard has been very quiet about Immortal (though Diablo IV was eventually announced).

That’s starting to change. Ahead of a technical alpha that’s set to kick off soon, I was able to play through the early stages of the game. And while I can’t speak to every aspect, one thing was immediately clear: this feels like a proper Diablo game.

A mobile version of Diablo makes a lot of sense. There are already countless clones and Diablo-inspired titles on smartphones, while the Nintendo Switch version of Diablo III proved just how fun the series is to play on the go. There’s just something about the hack and slash gameplay that makes it a great fit for a handheld experience. It’s the kind of game that can suck you in for hours and yet, paradoxically, is also something that doesn’t always require your full attention. I spent part of my time previewing Immortal while I was also in a Zoom meeting. (Don’t tell Nilay.)

Immortal takes place between the events of the last two Diablo games, and it’s surprisingly story-heavy for a mobile title. There are brief cutscenes and lots of voice acting, though the actual narrative is typical Diablo fare: you’re dropped into a small village overrun with the undead and cultists, while Deckard Cain tells you to collect magical shards that can stop some world-ending calamity — you know, regular Diablo stuff.

More important is how the game plays. Immortal features entirely touch-based controls (there’s no gamepad support right now) and they work surprisingly well. The left side of the screen is a virtual joystick so you can move around, while the right features all of your powers. It works just like a regular Diablo title for the most part. You have a main attack and will quickly unlock special abilities, each with their own cooldowns. You just tap on the abilities to use them, and some require you to actually aim. The only big addition is a new class-specific “ultimate” ability, which is reminiscent of Overwatch; it’s an incredibly powerful attack, but one that builds up slowly, forcing you to use it sparingly.

The early-game dungeons I played through were all relatively small, which made them great for mobile, as I could squeeze them in when I just had 20 minutes or so to play. They were also relatively straightforward: I didn’t find myself doing much exploration in search of loot or other secrets. That said, I really enjoyed the boss fights and raids, which do a good job of increasing the scale with massive monsters and big waves of enemies.

Really, the fact that the game feels so familiar is arguably the best-case scenario. Blizzard seems to have done an admirable job of transporting the spirit of its loot-heavy roleplaying game to a smartphone. But there are also a few elements of the experience — ones that will likely be key to its longevity — that I couldn’t test out in this preview. For one thing, Immortal is billed as a massively multiplayer game, one where tens of thousands of players exist simultaneously on one server. I saw a few players running around dungeons and graveyards while I played, but I couldn’t test out any of the actual social features.

Perhaps the biggest question mark, though, is how Blizzard will monetize the game. The developer says all character classes and story content will be entirely free, and that gear isn’t something you can buy. Instead, you have to collect it out in the world by defeating monsters or completing quests.

But there’s still plenty to buy, including stones that let you reforge an item, “crests” that add better rewards when you complete a randomized dungeon, and a battle pass that Blizzard says will refresh monthly. There’s even a player-to-player marketplace — though the developer is quick to say it’s nothing like the infamous auction house from Diablo III.

Here’s how Blizzard explains it:

Before we get into the details let’s be clear — this is not the Diablo III real-money auction house. Player exchange has been a part of Diablo’s history, and we’ve learned many lessons–both good and bad–along the way. In Diablo Immortal we want players to have the ability to participate in a fair, healthy, player-driven economy that doesn’t circumvent gameplay.

The market connects anonymous buyers and sellers, with no ability to cash-out. There are limits to what can and cannot be put on the market. While it will be a possible source of certain materials, supplementary items, and legendary gems, it is not a place to acquire gear. It’s also a way for players who wish to remain free-to-play to exchange items they find for additional in-game currency, beyond what they’re able to earn through play.

Those are some important question marks, though it’s likely it’ll still be a while before we have a complete picture of what Diablo Immortal is. Blizzard is opening the game up to a small amount of Android users in Australia as part of this alpha, but there’s no word on when it will be available more broadly, as the game still doesn’t have a release date.

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