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Believe it or not, Diablo Immortal is better than Diablo

It’s impossible to talk about Diablo Immortal without mentioning the moment that’s defined it for years. When the game, which launches this week, was announced at Blizzcon in 2018, it was met with a hostile reaction from attendees. During a Q&A, one fan asked if the game would be available to play on PC. When principal game designer Wyatt Cheng confirmed it would be a mobile exclusive, the crowd booed prompting Cheng to drop a confused response that now has its own Know Your Meme page.

“Do you guys not have phones?” he infamously quipped.

[Blizzcon 2018 Highlights] Diablo Immortal Q&A - Do you guys not have phones?!

I don’t bring up that moment to mock Cheng. In fact, he might get the last laugh after all because Diablo Immortal is an excellent mobile game — and that’s because of the very thing fans booed it for. By creating a mobile-first experience from the ground up, Diablo Immortal avoids the traps that so many small-scale adaptations of big games tend to fall into — though its excessive microtransactions are sure to leave some feeling justified about their long-standing skepticism.

Diablo, but better

Diablo Immortal’s most impressive accomplishment is that it doesn’t feel like a spinoff. It’s a full-fledged Diablo experience with a lengthy campaign, full voice-acting, several activities, and a deep endgame. If you don’t play a lot of mobile games and still think of them as match-three puzzlers where you have to pay money to get more lives, you’re in for a major shock. This is a PC or quality console release on a small screen.

A player fights a boss in Diablo Immortal.

In fact, I might prefer Diablo Immortal to the mainline series. That’s largely thanks to the game’s pace and intuitive control scheme, both of which make excellent use of its mobile framework. Since the game is made to be played on the go rather than during long PC sittings, quests and activities are more bite-sized. I can get through a dungeon or complete a major story beat in 10 minutes, making it easy to make a lot of progress in a short time. Those shorter chunks help keep the experience from ever feeling too repetitive, which can become an issue in dungeon crawlers with long, sprawling levels.

The core gameplay in Diablo Immortal isn’t much different from that of the core PC games. Players choose a class, walk around maps from a top-down perspective, slay mobs of enemies with a host of special skills, and collect a whole lot of loot. Much of its gameplay resembles Diablo 3, though there are some key tweaks. For instance, skills don’t require any resources to use. They all operate on brief cooldowns, which makes combat feel much faster-paced. It almost feels closer to a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in that sense.

A menu showing Wizard skills in Diablo Immortal.

What’s especially impressive is the depth of the game’s combat. For my testing session (I’d only have a few days to play before I’d have my progress wiped), I chose a wizard. My primary attack was a magic missile that I could spam with ease thanks to a short cooldown. As I leveled up, I unlocked new skills and could equip three extra moves alongside my primary attack. I quickly discovered that those attacks all interacted with one another, widening my toolset far beyond four basic attacks.

For instance, wizards can drop a crystal that pulses over time to deal damage in a small radius. At first, I treated it like a turret that I would just set and forget. What I soon learned is that I could bounce certain skills off of it. Wizards have a Ray of Frost spell that allows them to shoot a blue beam at enemies that slows their foes down while causing damage. If I aim that at the crystal, the beam refracts off of it, bouncing to every nearby enemy. That level of strategy and skill synergy goes above and beyond what I’ve come to expect from the series or even the genre at large.

Mobile-first

While fans might have booed at the idea of the game not being on PC in 2018, I understand exactly why Blizzard made that decision initially. The mobile-first approach to design makes the final product much stronger. Take its controls, for instance. Diablo Immortal sports some of the best touch controls I’ve ever used in a game of this scale. I move with my left thumb, while my right one manages my skills. Being able to quickly flick out spells with some thumb presses feels more tactile and faster than mapping everything to various number keys.

Diablo Immortal addresses all of the complaints that I recently voiced over Apex Legends Mobile. While the latter is undoubtedly a tight shooter, it doesn’t do enough to rework the PC and console game for a small screen. Its control scheme is too complex for a touch interface, its UI is a mess, and you’ll need to squint to see what’s going on most of the time.

The only way to create a legible Diablo mobile game was to start from the ground up.

By comparison, Diablo Immortal is an elegantly designed game. In addition to being easy to control, it’s also a particularly legible experience. UI doesn’t take up too much space and menus are easy to navigate once you know where everything lives. That wouldn’t have been the case if Blizzard had simply ported Diablo 3 to a phone and called it a day. That game was designed with a bigger monitor and a keyboard full of buttons in mind. The only way to create a legible Diablo mobile game was to start from the ground up.

That takes us back to the infamous BlizzCon 2018 incident. Players booed the idea that the game wouldn’t be on PC, but it was the right decision. Had Blizzard built the game with both in mind, it would likely have had to settle somewhere in the middle, diluting both experiences. And while the developer did recently give in and create a PC version, it’s clear that it doesn’t see that as the intended experience.

Players work together to fight enemies in Diablo Immortal.

“On one hand, we felt that we wouldn’t be doing the title justice by releasing a game originally designed for mobile on PC,” Blizzard wrote in a blog post announcing the port. “The deciding factor was that we knew many of you would attempt to play this game through an emulator, thus leading us towards building a better experience.”

While you can play Diablo Immortal on PC as a result, I wouldn’t recommend it. The ultimate strength of the experience comes from its tactile controls and pick-up-and-play pace. It’s the Apex Legends Mobile problem, but in reverse.

Pony up, or don’t

Fans’ initial anger may have been partially shortsighted, but one criticism remains legitimate. Many mobile games heavily rely on intrusive microtransactions to nickel-and-dime players. Despite being free, Diablo Immortal has a full shop full of items to buy with real cash.

Certain aspects of the game’s microtransactions do seem potentially problematic. For instance, there are loot box-like items that give players random resources — an aspect that’s led some countries with strict laws on the practice to preemptively ban it. Buying the $10 monthly boon of plenty gives players more inventory space and remote market access, which are both nice quality of life perks.

A menu screen in Diablo Immortal.

Most troubling is the game’s pay-to-win potential. While you can’t necessarily buy better gear or experience points outright, real money will give you a chance at better rewards. Legendary crests are items that can be used during the game’s Elder Rift activity to increase the rarity of end rewards. Theoretically, anyone who buys enough orbs could stock up on crests and farm better items. Considering the game has a player-versus-player component, that could stand to create some unfair advantages. It’s also unclear what certain paid items do and whether or not you can earn them through regular play, which makes the shop aspect even blurrier. (Note that since publication of this piece, we’ve gotten to see more of the endgame, which has backed up our concerns. We recommend reading about the game’s microtransaction structure before diving into it.)

Because Digital Trends couldn’t buy items during our test session and see how they affect the Diablo Immortal long-term, we’ve opted not to formally score the game.

That said, approaching it as a purely single-player experience, I’ve found that I never feel pressured to buy anything. The shop is hidden away and the game doesn’t barrage me with shop pop-ups like other games do. I’m confident you could play through its entire campaign without realizing the shop exists at all. The game won’t ask you to buy lives to continue playing or entice you with flashy “gacha” pulls. Frankly, it doesn’t feel much worse than a lot of PC and console games in that regard.

Diablo Immortal is a truly exceptional video game.

While the fan response to the Blizzcon 2018 reveal has always made me roll my eyes, I do understand the skepticism. Mobile games can feel like quick cash grabs. and Blizzard hasn’t exactly earned players’ trust (especially in the wake of its ongoing workplace scandal). But Diablo Immortal is a truly exceptional video game — one that could usher in a mobile gaming revolution. Fantastic gameplay that one-ups its PC counterpart might just win over the skeptics and start to change the West’s dated perceptions of mobile games.

Though more importantly, its thoughtful design should teach its peers the power of a committed, mobile-first philosophy. If it results in a smash hit, we might be witnessing a revelatory moment for the video game industry that finally locks down how mobile experiences can live in harmony with PC and console games.

Diablo Immortal launches on June 2 for iOS, Android, and PC. It is free to download.

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