Diablo Immortal Controls Fine, But Reveals Very Little

People aren’t happy about Diablo Immortal. Some of that is a backlash against Immortal directly, some of it is directed towards the state of mobile games, and some due to the lack of Diablo 4.

None of that is a great start for Immortal, which has ambitious plans for the Diablo formula. But judging off what was available in the Blizzcon demo, we’re no closer to understanding how that ambition plays out.

Immortal has been billed as an MMOARPG, rather than your typical Diablo dungeon hack-and-slash. It’s a little reminiscent of where Torchlight: Frontiers is going – the makers of which are headed up by Diablo co-creator Max Schaefer.

You’ve got dungeons that will be restricted instances – a maximum of four, the developers confirmed – and an overarching world, where players will run into each other and be able to co-ordinate on larger world events.

I asked Richie Marella and Matthew Berger, Immortal‘s lead artist and senior game designer, for specifics on how that might work. How long would players essentially be playing solo until they were exposed to other players? How do Diablo fights scale when you’re dealing with more than four players on a mobile – does the hardware and the screen size limit how many enemies can be drawn on screen at any one time?

A lot of those questions they couldn’t answer. Some of that is understandable – the game has only just been announced. Blizzard and NetEase are likely still ironing out what the limits of the infrastructure and what devices can support.

Berger, however, explained that players would have a central city where players could “cook and talk and meet with” others. “The specific cutoff line is not something that we’re ready to talk about, but you will have more players in your game than you’re used to … you’ll be able to run into people you don’t know as you’re adventuring, you’ll be able to form up parties as you’re used to.”

“It’s Diablo with more people,” Berger said. “It’s going to be a fine balance between leveraging that you’re in this mobile MMO, and we want to have as many people as possible so it’s vibrant and feels lively, finding the limitations of the hardware, and finding the right numbers to maintain the tone of Diablo.”

I asked if that meant people could expect public-style events, maybe akin to Destiny or the world bosses seen in Elder Scrolls Online and other MMOs like TERA.

There wasn’t any information on that either, although the official gameplay trailer showed six characters wailing on a single boss. Marella stressed that the demo was a condensed version, largely limited to an initial tutorial with Deckard Cain and a single dungeon that can be played solo or with four other players.

The action itself is rather straightforward, and not too dissimilar from other ARPGs on mobiles. One thumb controls movement with a left virtual stick, while the player activates one of four skills with the right thumb. Like Arena of Valor, you can either tap to use Immortal‘s auto-targeting system, which aims at the nearest enemy, or you can hold the button down to bring up the cone of fire/skillshot guide/AOE reticule.

I spent most of my time with the monk, whose basic combos revolved around drawing enemies in with a vortex-style move before launching an AOE attack. The Wizard and Barbarian aren’t too dissimilar, although the former has some lengthy cooldowns which can be tricky to manage.

But for the most part, the Immortal demo was a vertical slice of the raw mechanics. It was a showcase of the controls, not Immortal‘s ambitions. And as I outlined earlier, action RPGs on mobile aren’t ambitious or innovative. It’s the MMO element within a Diablo context that’s interesting – but Blizzard wasn’t prepared to outline any of that just yet.

The point Berger and Marella kept hammering was that Immortal was a true Diablo game. It’s worth stressing that true in this sense is closer to Diablo 3 than, say, the original Diablo. And Diablo Immortal will create new systems that, according to Berger, will eventually be incorporated into future Diablo games.

“I want everybody to be able to play Diablo,” he said. “One of the wonderful things about Diablo Immortal is that it expands that [Diablo] community, it doesn’t restrict that community, it adds more to it. It’s going to new players who are going to come to Sanctuary, and those players may go and play on console, or they may play on PC.”

“There’s new things we’re going to create for Diablo Immortal that will enhance all Diablo games that will come after it,” Berger added.

But what might those changes be? We’re no closer to knowing, and the Immortal demo is so restricted that it’s impossible to gauge where the game is headed. As a raw action RPG, Immortal controls just fine. But that’s the least surprising element, and the bare minimum for any action RPG on a phone, let alone something with Blizzard’s stamp of approval. Immortal‘s ambitions beyond that could really be interesting, for the franchise and mobile games generally. We just need to wait until Blizzard reveals precisely what those ambitions are.

The author travelled to Blizzcon as a guest of Blizzard.

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