Despite the original backlash over the “Do you guys not have phones?” comment from Blizzard developer Wyatt Cheng during BlizzCon 2018, I’ve been excitedly awaiting the release of Diablo Immortal. I understand that many fans were upset and expecting the announcement of Diablo 4, which came later during BlizzCon 2019. However, I always saw this as something extra and not taking away development from the core franchise because it’s being co-developed with NetEase on a platform outside of Blizzard’s normal scope.
One of the biggest factors for my excitement surrounding Diablo Immortal was the simple fact that if a mobile game could be done well, an iconic Blizzard Entertainment franchise would be the place to do it. Currently, most mobile titles are clones or ‘ports’ based on successful console or PC games, or gacha games designed to rake as much money from players as possible. A few decent games have popped up here and there, but they’re always the exception not the rule.
If it walks like a Duck
With all that being said, I’ve finally got my hands on the Diablo Immortal Closed Beta. It looks like Diablo, plays like Diablo, but there are a couple of aspects that don’t quite feel like Diablo. That doesn’t mean the game isn’t turning into a very enjoyable mobile ARPG, but it is definitely watered down in some areas that I think many Diablo fans care about.
Currently, the game has 6 classes: Barbarian, Wizard, Demon Hunter, Monk, Crusader, and Necromancer. Thankfully, none of these are gender locked (yay!) and each has a couple of different face options available. Even though aesthetic choices have never been a big part of the Diablo franchise, I feel like they could have taken this further, and hopefully they do before the game goes public.
The atmosphere of Diablo Immortal very much resembles Diablo 3. The art style, environments, gameplay loop, abilities, and character designs are much closer with D3 than any of the previous titles. While this might not be gritty enough for Diablo 2 fans, the team has done a great job of making this look like it belongs with the rest on the series.
The problem, however, is that the design team has done such a good job making this look like Diablo 3, that it feels like you’re playing Diablo 3 with a slightly different story. Instead of being its own separate game, it’s closer to Diablo 3: the Prequel.
A Step Back
Additionally, many of the gameplay design elements have been watered down. Many of the complaints that Diablo 3 initially received were how much more simple the skill tree designs were than its predecessor. Well, skills are even simpler now.
Each class eventually has access to a primary attack and 4 skills at any given time. These can be chosen from 2 different primary attacks and around 8 skills. Additionally, primary attacks can become temporarily charged up by killing enemies.
This is the extent of skill customization. There are no runes to convert skills into different abilities and no skills trees to customize your class. Furthermore, all skills are based around cooldowns. There are no resources (Mana, Rage, Arcane Power, etc.) and thus no abilities that expend resources. This feels very restrictive as the resource spending abilities in Diablo 3 were some of the most powerful in the game, and this limits future game design decisions.
There is one additional ways to modify or enhance your skills, and that’s through obtaining legendary items. Legendary items either offer a buff to your skills or completely change what they do. I’ve spent most of my time playing the Necromancer class and have focused on a minion master build using the Command Skeletons, Skeletal Mage, and Command Golem abilities.
By equipping the Crown of the Gilded Leash, my skeletons transform into a single Skeletal Captain that can perform a whirlwind attack at a targeted location. While some of the upgrades are interesting, fun, and powerful, you’re completely reliant on having those specific legendary items drop. If a new legendary item drops that doesn’t fit your current build, you either have to continue using the lower level item or change your skill setup. I found myself constantly finding legendary items for skills that didn’t fit my playstyle, which either sat in my bag or ended up as salvage.
In addition to modifying skills, items can also be equipped with basic and legendary gems. Basic gems increase things like life, damage, and armor. Legendary gems typically provide a bonus to all stats and a unique ability such as applying chain lightning on attack or summoning vines when you take damage.
The old crafting system has also been scrapped. Instead of building items from scratch, players can salvage gear to power up their current items or craft gems. This might seem like another step back, but crafting was rarely useful while leveling in Diablo 3 and it’s nice to be able to get some additional mileage out of your gear. Also, upgrade levels can be transferred to new items without having to pay resources.
While item design might be on par with Diablo 3, attributes are another aspect that appear to have been simplified. Items provide benefits to core attributes: Strength, Intelligence, Fortitude, Vitality and Willpower, and they can also have a single magical property such as critical hit or attack speed. This is greatly reduced from the number available on Rare and Legendary items in Diablo 3 and make it impossible to focus on niche builds that priority critical hit, critical damage, and/or attack speed over survivability.
Finally, a single charm can also be equipped that provides a small stat bonus and additional ranks to 5 different skills. This feels like a throwback to the Diablo 2 Grand Charms that increased skill levels.
Overall, Diablo Immortal has increased the breadth of item and skill enhancement at the cost of depth.
One aspect of Diablo Immortal I really do like is the focus on a shared world instead of lobbies. Back in the days of Diablo 2, lobbies were incredibly important for farming, trading, PvP, and hanging out with friends. Now that there are easier and more efficient ways to trade and communicate, it makes sense to remove the lobby barrier and create a seamless world.
Diablo Immortal has opted for an ‘MMO-lite’ experience where other players can drop in and out of the world around you. This makes the game world feel more alive and it’s often nice to get assistance from fellow players. Additionally, if there’s a certain group you’d rather play with then party options are still available, and non-party members cannot join instanced missions or dungeons.
The end game offers a good variety of options for different types of players. Challenge dungeons are designed as a solo or team competitive PvE space. Elder Rifts, dungeons, and hidden lairs provide a more casual PvE farming environment. For those looking to test their skills against the living, Diablo Immortal finally offers coordinated PvP.
Finally, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: monetization. Diablo Immortal is free-to-play and won’t require any purchase to complete the story or take part in any of the base game. However, the item shop can provide significant boosts to players who spend money. For example, players can buy Legendary Crests for Elder Rifts that guarantee legendary gem drops, and the Empowered Battle Pass provides significantly more materials for character progress. So far, not spending money only seems to temporarily slow down progress, but we’ll likely have to wait until the game officially launches to better judge the gap between free and paying players.
In its current state, I feel like Diablo Immortal has turned out much better than many fans were anticipating, but it also lacks in some important areas as well. Removing resource-based skills and watering down item modifiers limits playstyle customization enough to really hold the game back. While this might not be a contender for the best Diablo game ever, it’ll certainly scratch that itch when you’re away from your PC or console.