Diablo Immortal is the best and the worst of the series all in one
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I get huge mixed feelings while playing Diablo Immortal. On the one hand, the core of the game is really good – I’d even go as far as to say it’s borderline great. All the stuff I love about Diablo is here: the fountains of loot, the showpiece bosses, the waves of enemies designed to make you feel powerful as you rip them apart. And it’s not stingy with this stuff either. Diablo 3 was turgid at the beginning but Immortal throws everything at you from the moment you begin – boss encounters, set pieces, big stuff. And it all makes for a hell of an introduction. It genuinely feels like Diablo at its best.
The game feels natural in your hands on a phone, too (I’m using a Pixel 6). It loads quickly (for me) and plays smoothly, and the virtual joystick on the left tracks my thumb around the screen fairly reliably, and I can fire off abilities with my other thumb, on the other side of the screen, fairly reliably too. There are occasional snags, though. Sometimes the joystick doesn’t pick up my thumb movement, leaving me standing still, which is not great in the middle of battle and has made me shout out in anger a few times. And sometimes the abilities, which are on the other side of the screen, flip direction when I’m trying to deploy them, leaving me to manually, awkwardly, realign them. But most of the time you can pretty much play Diablo, as hectic as it can be, just fine on your phone.
(Incidentally, you can also play it on PC, in a beta version of Immortal accessed via Battle.net. Don’t get carried away: it’s a pretty straight port of the mobile game, it’s not a bespoke desktop version of it, so the resolution is low and some of touch controls feel out of place as you simulate them with the mouse cursor. But it does control better in combat, and it’s a nice touch being able to play on both platforms and carry your progress across.)
Squint at it on mobile, and it can even look like a genuine next iteration in the series. It feels more alive and more bombastic than Diablo 3, more advanced, more evolved. There are more characters (all voiced), there’s a more elaborate storyline, the dungeons seem more thought-about, more concise and filled with interesting enemies and bosses, and varied with puzzles, and the world is more detailed. It’s as though all of the best bits of Diablo 3 – including Rifts and Bounties (Adventure Mode) – have been taken out and polished and put back again in a sparkly new package. And there’s barely a minute of downtime before you hit level 30, several hours in (that’s not a cap by the way, but a point at which progress slows a bit).
I actually think in Immortal we’re getting a sneak peek at some of the ideas that could make it into Diablo 4 – a bit of a test bed, if you like. I played Diablo 4 at BlizzCon a couple of years ago, and while the styling of the games is different, the multiplayer part of the game, the shared world, seems to behave similarly. It’s the sort of thing we’ve become a lot more used to nowadays: town hubs filled with other players, open adventuring zones where you bump into them but not all the time, and then closed-off instances for story missions or dungeons where you can take groups or go alone. And in Immortal it all seems to work sensibly, in that, players are where you expect them and where you might need them – outside dungeons, or around tougher zones with bosses in them – but you get plenty of alone time too, which is a really important aspect for me in a Diablo game.
But I’ve only experienced Immortal to level 30-something, which is where the game plateaus and you have to do a bit of grinding before you can survive in a tougher area. This is when things open out and the dizziness of non-stop rewards relents, and where you begin to appreciate how other people can help you do things quicker.
It’s something that always happens in online multiplayer games like this: they push you towards multiplayer. And although it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s also not necessarily what I want while playing Diablo. There’s definitely a sense that to get the most out of it, you will need to organise and play with other people, you will need to raid, to schedule, to organise.
There’s another side of the game that worries me too, and one I know I won’t be able to hold off for much longer. It’s, inevitably, the shop, the free-to-play guts of it all. The more I play, the more it makes its presence felt and tempts me to reach for it, for skins or gems or equipment or currency. You name it, there seems to be an option to buy it. It’s noisy, like playing inside a casino, and it’s a free-to-play reward-loop approach that stretches across the rest of the game too. You’re always claiming rewards for things, presumably in the hope that when you’re not, you will miss it. It’s a game designed to make money this way. Philosophically, it’s a different kind of Diablo.
There’s a question of trust related to this too. My trust in Blizzard is something that’s been severely knocked with the reports of sexual harrassment and discriminatory practices at the company. It’s also something that erodes when I read news stories about Diablo Immortal allegedly requiring you to spend money – a lot of it – in order to fully power up a character in the game. That’s not Diablo and it’s not right. It’s ugly, and I hope Activision Blizzard hears that.
That’s why I have mixed feelings about the game.