Diablo Immortal
Blizzard Entertainment

‘Diablo Immortal’ Is Finally Here

Blizzard's latest outing, 'Diablo: Immortal,' is finally here. Is it a worthy successor to the legendary franchise, or is it too bogged down by microtransactions to be a worthwhile experience?
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Four years ago, during Blizzard’s 2018 BlizzCon convention, the storied developer announced Diablo: Immortal. Fans who had gathered to see the latest news from the long-running development studio were initially ecstatic. The beloved Diablo series was getting another entry!

However, something felt different about the Immortal trailer. When Blizzard’s presenters confirmed that the upcoming title was a mobile game, the audience let out an audible groan. Wyatt Cheng, a principal game designer for Blizzard, then uttered the now-infamous phrase: “Do you guys not have phones?”

Cheng’s off-the-cuff snarky remark earned him a bitter round of jeers from the audience, with players clearly feeling antagonized by the cash-grab wearing Diablo’s clothes and Cheng’s apparent disdain for their apathy. Immortal went dormant for four years after this disastrous reveal, and now it’s finally out on smartphones. So, the question remains… Do you guys not have phones?

What Is Diablo?

Diablo
Blizzard Entertainment

If you’re not sure what all this furor is about, that’s okay. It’s been a very long time since Blizzard released a Diablo game–in fact, Diablo 3 came out a decade ago, in May 2012. Before that, Diablo 2 hit the scene in 2000, and its predecessor, the original Diablo, arrived on PCs in 1997. That’s not exactly a swift turnaround for a modern gaming franchise, but this is Blizzard we’re talking about.

For the uninitiated, Diablo is a top-down, isometric dungeon-crawler RPG with a strong emphasis on collecting loot that upgrades your character. The color-coded loot system made famous by World of Warcraft originated with Diablo, an easy-to-understand system that allows you to tell how rare a given sword or piece of armor is at a glance. 

Players choose from a variety of classes, such as wizard or monk, and embark on a quest to slay demons and defend the innocent. The games are largely light on story, focusing instead on the crunchy mechanics of dungeon crawling and battling bad guys. While the series hasn’t been as prolific as RPG franchises like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, it has had a massive impact on the video game industry. For instance, games like Borderlands have often been described as “Diablo with guns,” and numerous mobile games have employed the series’ trademark loot system.

Immortal’s Botched Announcement

Blizzard announced Immortal in a disastrous press conference during their annual BlizzCon event in 2018. The mobile title was primarily created by Chinese development studio NetEase, a company best known for its microtransaction-based mobile titles. This struck many fans as a betrayal of Diablo’s old-school ethos, where players would pay for the game up-front and then earn any extra content through in-game efforts.

Immortal, by contrast, was announced as a free-to-play title for mobile phones that would be supported by in-game purchases. Many gamers feel that titles that rely on this business model are predatory, as they use psychological techniques akin to gambling to convince players to drop more money than they would on a traditional gaming experience. 

Many governments feel the same way; several European countries have explicit bans on games that use “loot box” mechanics. Their reasoning is that video games are played by children, and children don’t have the same judgment skills as adults. As such, games like Diablo Immortal are often banned from operating in such countries. Indeed, when Immortal launched in early June, it was conspicuously absent from the Netherlands and Belgium. 

Is it Any Good?

Reviewers are largely in agreement that the latest Diablo title is a serviceable entry in the long-running RPG franchise. It sports the high production value players have come to expect from Blizzard, and the same addictive gameplay the series received critical acclaim for in its earlier entries.

Some reviewers have noted that the touchscreen controls, while functional, are a bit awkward. If you’re used to playing Diablo with a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad, you might be a bit thrown off by the mobile game’s screen-based controls. Thankfully, the game supports controller inputs on iPhones and Android devices, though most mobile players don’t tend to play their games with a controller.

Barring the awkwardness of playing a phone game with a controller, the new entry also feels a bit too big for a mobile device. In a literal sense, the game file is so large that it might take up the majority of storage space on your phone! In a more metaphorical sense, Immortal has lavish production values that can be masked by a small phone screen.

The Gameplay

At the end of the day, a game is only as good as its moment-to-moment gameplay. Immortal excels in this regard, playing like a modernized version of Diablo 3. Players can choose from one of six classes: Monk, Barbarian, Necromancer, Wizard, Crusader, or Demon Hunter. Each class comes with its own unique set of abilities and game-changing ultimate powers.

Learning to master each class is a fun core concept that will keep longtime players engaged. The Monk offers a slew of crowd-control powers, while the Necromancer can summon an army of undead minions to defend themselves from enemies. Learning how to chain your class’s abilities together and tackle powerful boss enemies is highly engaging.

And, as you’d expect, the loot system is back and as addictive as ever. Blizzard knows how to pull all the little levers in your brain that make you feel a dopamine rush when a new sword pops out of a tough enemy’s defeated corpse. However, that’s where we get to the sticky part of the game.

The Microtransactions

It’s also impossible to talk about a free-to-play mobile game without mentioning all the microtransactions. While gamers who play a lot of phone-exclusive titles are accustomed to being inundated with ads for special offers, Diablo’s core audience is likely to bristle at the constant requests for payment.

Yes, in theory, someone could play through Immortal without spending a dime on the experience. However, Blizzard will ensure that anyone playing the free-to-play title knows all the ways they could spend a few bucks here and there to enhance their playthrough. Do you want extra loot from this dungeon? How about a fancy new skin for that sword you just got? It’s all a few small purchases away!

This leaves a palpable sense of commercialism hanging over the game that makes it an odd fit for the otherwise old-school gameplay. Diablo has never been a free-to-play title, so players have quickly leveled accusations that the new entry encourages users to “pay to win.” In short, if you’re playing for free, you’re going to be behind others who choose to fork over cold, hard cash.

An Incongruous Experience

In a different era, Blizzard was known as a premium developer that took existing gameplay concepts and added its unique spin to the equation. World of Warcraft was Blizzard’s interpretation of Everquest, while Hearthstone was the company’s take on Magic the Gathering. Its latest release before Immortal, the critically acclaimed Overwatch, is Blizzard’s iteration of Team Fortress 2. However, Immortal is the first time a mainline Blizzard title has gone the other direction. This is NetEase’s interpretation of Diablo, the mobile version of a beloved classic.

It doesn’t help that this is the first new Diablo game in a decade–and Blizzard’s first new game in six years. To make matters worse, this mobile title is coming out after Blizzard has faced a reckoning from current and former employers who have accused the company of discriminatory practices and fostering a hostile work environment.

Many longtime fans of the company’s games have spoken out about these accusations, saying they can’t support the studio in good conscience in light of the controversy. When you add that up with Immortal’s own PR nightmare during its announcement and the general gaming public’s antipathy toward mobile games, it’s not surprising that fans are openly hostile toward the game’s launch.

PC Port 

Blizzard announced the PC port of Immortal shortly before the mobile version launched in some regions. The beta version of this client went live on June 2, 2022, to mixed reviews from critics and players alike. As with the mobile version, reviewers noted that the game is fun to play, but reeks of ill-fitting monetization techniques. A common refrain among players is that they’d rather simply pay for the full game up front and not have to sift through all the pop-up advertisements for special bundles and limited-time offers.

In a sense, Immortal exists as a microcosm of modern-day Blizzard. If you can stomach all the crass commercialism and the negative PR firestorm surrounding it, there’s a good time to be had under the surface. However, the amount of ickiness, for lack of a better word, that players can stomach will vary from person to person. 

Players like to spend time with video games as a way to forget about the real world for a while and enjoy a fantasy world. In Diablo Immortal, your playable avatar can battle demons and save the world–but they could do it just a bit faster if you’d please give Blizzard two dollars for the Welcome Bundle.