Diablo Immortal Review in Progress
Killing monsters just never gets old in the Diablo games. The feel-it-in-your-bones punch and kinetic energy of combat has always been one of the series’ strongest attributes, and Diablo Immortal proudly continues that tradition on iOS and Android devices (and PC, though that version isn’t available at the time of this writing). It also looks set to continue the tradition of near-neverending gameplay, in which the meaty campaign is just a starting point, giving way to dungeons to run, higher-difficulty levels to ascend, and endgame systems in which to take part.
My verdict on whether it succeeds on all those fronts will be some time coming, however, as the early access review version I’ve spent the last week playing was really only a taster. After all, it’s hard to judge a game with MMO aspirations amongst an extremely limited pool of players and an impending progression wipe ahead of launch. Even so, after playing a Demon Hunter (one of six classes at launch) up to level 50, Diablo Immortal has done a great job of scratching my demon-slaying itch. So stay a while and listen to my thoughts so far.
Somewhat to my surprise, I’m a big fan of the touch controls. What Diablo Immortal’s virtual buttons lack in tactility they make up for in versatility, with the ability to easily move your character and aim skills separately, twin stick shooter-style. It’s certainly not as pixel-perfect as using a mouse and keyboard, but suits the initial PVE gameplay really well, where the macro strategy is more important than the micro. The flow of combat for my Demon Hunter was all about utilising a combination of AOE, targeted damage, crowd control and evasive moves, and juggling the cooldowns and recharges on each. With the primary attack and assigned skills, plus health potions, all within easy reach via the touch interface, it was simple to dominate most combat encounters on normal difficulty. Another nice inclusion is that the primary attack auto-targets, meaning I can back away or strafe while still holding the attack button.
Immortal also supports controllers, and it feels good this way, with the right thumbstick used for aiming alongside the shoulder buttons for skills. Navigating menus is a little clunkier with a controller as you might expect, though, so overall the touch controls are seamless enough that they are currently my preferred control method — particularly on iPad, where the screen is large enough that having my thumbs on the sides isn’t much of an issue. Mouse and keyboard is also supported on the PC but I didn’t have access to that version ahead of launch, so haven’t tested this yet.
Diablo Immortal Class Art
This is going to sound contradictory, but while character progression in Diablo Immortal is more multifaceted than any previous game in the series, I’ve never actually spent less time in my inventory in a Diablo game. Immortal boils down every item’s power level to a single number, making it a gratifyingly simple matter to equip stronger items and get back to the killing. Longer-term you may want to pay more attention to what’s dropping, particularly when you have a specific build you’re aiming for, but in the early going this streamlined system puts the focus on the action, which I like.
Salvaging unwanted gear has a very direct benefit in Immortal, too, as the scrap materials and enchanted dust you get is used to rank up your items, strengthening their core attributes, as well as adding random bonus attributes at certain levels. And you never lose that rank, because you can simply transfer it across when you swap a new item in. This system means that not only is all loot useful, no matter how apparently useless, but alongside levelling up and gem socketing, it feels like I’m always making progress on my character.
Speaking of gem socketing, Diablo Immortal has a major twist on that age-old idea. In addition to regular – Diablo II-style – gems for secondary items like rings and boots, Immortal introduces legendary gems, which can be attached to your character’s six primary items and can also be ranked up. These can have some pretty strong effects, such as summoning shadow clones, inflicting agony on critical hits and preventing fatal damage. There are more than 30, opening up all sorts of options to hone in even further on a specific build.
Legendary items themselves come with an “inscription” that modifies a single skill, sometimes drastically. Smoke Screen, for instance, may go from being a defensive manoeuvre to letting you toss grenades. Discovering a new inscription is meant to encourage you to shift up your combat strategy, but in practice so far, I’ve actually found that it can feel like more of a restriction, as I want to stick with any strong inscriptions, even if I unlock a new skill that could serve a similar purpose. After all, why wouldn’t I stick with Strafe for my AOE attack if I have an inscription that boosts its damage and another one that extends its channel time? That said, I do like the ability to extract inscriptions and imbue them to stronger items of the same type.
As for how all these character-progression and itemisation systems tie into endgame gameplay, and also into monetisation, remains to be seen. Not only were all microtransactions disabled on the version I’ve been playing, 20 hours of gameplay is really only enough to scratch the surface.
Similarly, I’ve only had a small sample of what the boss fights might be like once the difficulty cranks up, but there are some encouraging signs. Some bosses have bullet hell-like projectile attacks to evade, others transform or multiply. As you’d expect, many of these foes tower over the player, but the clear signposting ensures you can see attacks coming.
It will also be interesting to see how the Immortals vs Shadows conceit plays out, too. The basic idea is that one group of players on a server hold power as Immortals, and the Shadows — a much larger group that’s broken up into subguilds called Dark Clans — attempt to gain enough momentum to overthrow them. There are numerous activities to compete in and perks to earn as part of this system, but again, with so few players in the early access period I was only able to dip a toe in.
No Money Down
That said, the early access period has been a valuable opportunity to see what the free-to-play experience is like. The good news is that not once, in more than 20 hours, did I hit any kind of unexpected roadblock where it felt like I was expected to make a purchase to more easily push through. Of course, in a modern Diablo, working through the campaign on normal difficulty isn’t meant to be hard, it’s meant to be fun and empowering; an excuse to show off your character’s badass abilities and enjoy the rhythm of combat before you’re tested in the fires of the harder difficulties. Even so, it’s great that Immortal’s business model doesn’t mess with that, and in fact, it nails the sense of progression — the regular level dings, the steady evolution of gear, and the ever-expanding set of skills to use. And by the time I was getting a good feel for a zone I’d be whisked to the next one.
Well, for the most part. The first 10 hours set a breakneck pace, but after that I generally needed to grind to hit the recommended level once I’d unlocked a new zone. I didn’t mind that too much, as Immortal gives you plenty of different options to earn XP, from taking on bounties and contracts, through to running short standalone gauntlets like Challenge Rifts (which steadily increase in difficulty) and Elder Rifts, which keep things interesting through randomised gameplay modifiers that can be both positive and negative. Even just roaming the world can be worthwhile due to the random events that pop up regularly, while Hidden Lairs can be discovered and conquered. The key thing here is that there’s no need to put any money in to make steady, rewarding progress in the campaign, and that’s a fantastic sign.
Diablo Immortal – Launch Screenshots
Low Poly, High Artistry
Immortal feels great to play, and for the most part it looks pretty good, too. The character and monster models don’t stand up to close scrutiny all that well, but from the typical gameplay vantage point the art direction is strong enough to make up for low-poly models and a lack of texture detail. Immortal is very much driven by mood and atmosphere, and in that respect it’s captivating, transporting us from fetid swamps and foreboding woods, through moody caves and blood-smeared dungeons, and on to picturesque peaks. The impressively wide array of beasts, demons, cultists, soldiers, undead and so on also look great in motion, even if they’re largely cannon fodder for my explosive bolts.
Diablo Immortal’s presentation is a little mixed in other places too. I absolutely love the detailed, often severe portrait thumbnails during dialogue, but the voice acting tends towards the overblown at times. The storytelling also often feels like a means to an end – a vehicle for missions that are quite obviously just an excuse to send us on fetch and kill quests. Even so, Diablo II fans will dig that this game takes place after Lord of Destruction, with shards of the shattered Worldstone causing havoc all over Sanctuary, and a number of familiar characters pop up, like Charsi, Akara, and Flavie. Also Deckard Cain. Always Deckard Cain. I also appreciate how smoothly the main quest line incorporates the many dungeons and there is a good sense of momentum throughout.
Diablo Immortal Key Art
On a technical level, I encountered numerous issues with the pre-launch build, from bugged map, skill, and dungeon screens, through to missing audio in cutscenes and dialogue, and even the odd crash. I’m sure a fair number of these will be resolved by launch, but I’ll be surprised if we don’t see at least a few issues in the early days.
Verdict (So Far)
I’ve only just started on my Diablo Immortal journey, but I like what I’ve played so far. The combat feels potent and weighty, with plenty of skill options for building out rounded and fun combat approaches. The story moves along at a brisk pace, opening up new zones steadily, while the many character progression systems ensured that I felt like I was always making progress and growing more powerful. And with more than 20 hours of microtransaction-free gameplay behind me, there’s clearly a lot of content to enjoy before you need to consider spending money, so this is very much a game you can try before you buy. Of course, it’s too early to say whether that’s too good to be true for the endgame as well, which is why I’m not yet comfortable slapping down a provisional score here. That kind of thing can cast a dark pall over even a great game. Stay tuned for my full review in the coming weeks after launch on June 2.