You’d be forgiven for thinking that Diablo Immortal had vanished from Blizzard’s lineup entirely. The game went from being the closing mention last year to being inconspicuously absent during this year’s opening keynote, and it doesn’t even have a separate listing on Blizzard’s official press site, instead being nested within the Diablo 4 assets.
And that lack of separation makes sense given its early days for the mobile Diablo. The game has no release date. The monetisation is still up in the air, and there’s still questions on how the shared player experiences will function. But one thing is clear: Immortal draws so much inspiration from Diablo 3 that it almost plays like a clone.
I had a lot of fun with the Switch port of Diablo 3, primarily because the stakes were so low. That’s a weird thing to say for a Diablo game, and yet it was a perfect fit for Nintendo’s handheld console. Flicking the right stick to roll everywhere, wandering into dungeons and slapping everything around with a bunch of CC abilities and AOE spells that the Switch just barely handled: it was a great way to unwind, and it worked super well in offline mode, whether you were on a plane, the train or the loo.
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That casual nature doesn’t really jive with the grim, gothic roots of the original Diablo games, of course. But if you’re on the go and you’re probably playing without sound, it’s not a problem. And it’s the experience that Diablo Immortal reminds me of, even down to the visual styling and moment-to-moment combat.
You start out on a small dinghy, being ferried over to Wortham where you’ve heard the undead are on the rise. You’re quickly introduced to basic attacks and abilities, and then you’re given a fairly large map — think a space the size of Diablo 3‘s Fields of Misery — to wander around for 15 minutes.
The level looks like something ripped straight out of that first Diablo 3 act, too. The colour palette has a lot of soft blacks, dark blues and greys, with most of the brightness and contrast dedicated towards the player abilities and animations. It’s a necessity given that Immortal has to assume most people are playing on a screen barely bigger than five inches. But there’s a degree of comfort to it as well. By echoing more of Diablo 3‘s look, Immortal feels more like a true Diablo game by extension, which certainly doesn’t hurt.
This year’s Blizzcon demo is timed, running for long enough to hit at least level 6 while typing notes on a laptop. You can get further if you’re determined though: I finished one run with the Barbarian (whose abilities are more about crowd control and pulling creatures in than raw damage) halfway to level 9.
Most abilities handle in a manner identical to how you’d aim them on the Switch. The virtual right-side buttons function like a second joystick to give you finer control over placement and aim, but you can execute them in the direction you’re facing with a single tap.
Irrespective of what class you’re playing — I tried out the Demon Hunter, Wizard and Barbarian, having played the Monk last year — most of the abilities will have a large focus on AOE and crowd control. That’s akin to how Diablo 3 plays out as well, with the main challenge around positioning and space rather than the threat of individual enemies or bosses. You’re never worried about going into a one-on-one fight. It’s managing the massive numbers that are the bigger problem, although the difficulty of the Immortal build meant dying was never a serious concern.
It was about as serious a challenge as playing Diablo 3 on normal difficulty, which is to say there isn’t a challenge as such. It’s more just an opportunity to mindlessly roll through and slap a bunch of demons and undead down with a range of flashy attacks, and most people will find something to enjoy in that.
There’s a few mechanical changes from last year, however, that made Immortal enjoyable enough that I wanted to return for a second and third playthrough. The demo units next to the Blizzcon press room were running off iPhone XRs (except for the iPad versions of the game), as opposed to the builds on Samsung Galaxy S8 phones last year. I don’t know if the handset played a part, but this year’s build was a lot smoother. It ran at a steady 60fps, with some great intro clips at the select screen for each of the heroes. There was no noticeable drop in performance when spamming abilities and ultimates in the heat of battle, and the animations for the in-game menus are easy on the eye.
It’s still Diablo Immortal, but with some of the refinement you’d expect a Diablo game to have.
The main kicker I have is that Diablo Immortal doesn’t quite seem to have an identity of its own yet. I’m all for a Diablo style game on a phone if the value proposition adds up. Blizzard doesn’t quite seem to know how it wants to market it yet, and this year’s build didn’t offer any insight into the systems that will differentiate Immortal from the mainline Diablo games beyond the platform you play it on.
The timed demo didn’t have any shared dungeons or instances, and the two legendary items I came across (both while playing as the Barbarian) added modifiers to my abilities or basic attacks, similar to how legendaries function in Diablo 3.
All of this is totally fine. If Blizzard decides that an echo of Diablo 3 is the best route forward for Immortal, then I’m all for it. Having that casual dungeon bashing experience with the smoothness and scope on a mobile works. The abilities were fun across all three characters — although I would have liked a little more visual pop on the Demon Hunter’s abilities — and I could absolutely see myself knocking out a dungeon or three mindlessly before passing out at night.
And while a bit more its own identity wouldn’t hurt, that’s probably irrelevant as far as Immortal‘s commercial success is considered. Bringing the spirit of Diablo 3 to a phone would be a surefire winner for a ton of Diablo fans, especially those who bounced so hard off the game when it was revealed last year. It was solid enough for me to play it three times on the show floor, so there’s something there. I just hope Blizzard’s long-term plans are a little more ambitious than just remodelling Immortal in Diablo 3‘s image.
The author travelled to Blizzcon 2019 as a guest of Blizzard.