[This review is based on a retail build of the free-to-play game downloaded by the author.]
No, he’s actually quite mortal
The last time we checked in with Diablo Immortal, things were going decent enough. Immortal shows pretty well on mobile, but with the pre-release review period ending, I shifted gears a bit into the PC edition to see how that one held up.
I wasn’t ready for the dark underbelly of microtransactions, which reared up in the live version.
Diablo Immortal (Android, iOS, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Blizzard, NetEase
Released: June 2, 2022
MSRP: Free-to-play (with microtransactions)
So we already talked about the core fundamentals in the review in progress: suffice to say everything still holds up. The game runs well on my iPhone 11, and the ability to swap between traditional pads and touch controls is a great compromise. In theory, the gameplay really showcases how far mobile games have come in 2022 from say, 2009’s Flight Control (what a magical time for mobile gaming before freemium completely took over). The PC experience is considerably less impressive, but still upholds the core tenets of gameplay. We’ll get to the monetization elements soon enough.
Digging more into the story, I was vibing with the give and take nature of what is essentially a gaiden taking place between Diablo 2 and 3. A lot of familiar faces come back to help you on your quest, including Deckard Cain, Charsi, and even Xul from Heroes of the Storm. It has a silly “all your friends are here!” feel to it that I actually embraced very quickly, as everyone attempts to rid the world of Diablo’s essence and influence once again. Not a lot happens, and there’s a lot of expository dialogue that mainly deals with the next immediate task at hand. But the constant go-go nature does work for a game like this.
It’s very much a streamlined deal, which can be a boon or a burden in some cases. Some bosses, especially early on, lack tactical nuance. Some player choice is pared down, especially when it comes to skills and player builds (a criticism also levied at Diablo 3 proper). While I hope that Diablo 4 brings a lot of the core principles of Diablo 2 back into the fray, Immortal goes in a different direction that could bring in more newcomers. Putting a more action-centric system into what is essentially a “spinoff” isn’t a bad idea, and offers a way for people to potentially pivot into quicker dungeon diving.
Progression involves leveling up to 60 to get to the final area (Realm of Damnation). To work to that goal you’ll fight through level-suggested zones (much like World of Warcraft) that you can travel to via a world map, or walk to. Most of that progression is story-driven, so you just head from zone to zone blowing stuff up. It’s considerably more interesting with the multiplayer wrinkle that Immortal adds.
As soon as I finished the “tutorial,” things opened up even more and showed off the potential of what Immortal was trying to do. Think Runescape. Immediately, a ton of player characters populated the town, a party finder for groups and small guilds flashed on-screen, and after running out of the town gates, I joined an ad-hoc party and took down monsters on the way to my next instanced map.
It was actually pretty cool! While I’m sure this always-on nature will turn off a lot of long time fans (and many more in general), it was neat to just randomly jog from area to area and see people and hang out, even briefly. Matchmaking for major dungeons is also a breeze, and often times it would only take 30 seconds or less to pop in with a full group to take down a boss. “Solo only” story sections are peppered throughout to break things up, and the party finder lets you join up for runs of pretty much anything you want.
On PC, like mobile, you have multiple control options: mouse and keyboard, or an array of controllers. It’s nice, but I actually think the mobile version is more stable based on my time with it. The PC edition has its own woes, mostly from a visual/UI and stability perspective. I had at least one soft crash, where I could interact with anything in-game with a controller or keyboard: forcing a restart. From a UI point of view, the verbiage on the menus is sloppy on PC and clearly ported directly over on mobile in an unfinished state. It also could stand to be zoomed out a lot more (especially text notifications), and provide additional UI customization options: which are standard in a game like this in 2022. Most of this can be chalked up to lack of polish, and isn’t a dealbreaker.
But there’s a bigger problem afoot, and it infects the entire game.
The microtransactions are overwhelming, and in some cases, egregious. Currencies involve crests (which add extra loot to Elder Rifts, the randomized dungeon system that returns from D3), and eternal orbs (which are like the premium gems/crystal currency). You can use the latter to buy cosmetics (one outfit is generally $15), as well as in-game materials. It’s a lot like Genshin Impact and its ilk, especially when you add in daily login bonuses, “boons of plenty” (stackable buffs for daily login gifts), and a battle pass. But it’s even more exploitative because rewards are hidden behind a fog of war. Plus, don’t forget carefully constructed amounts of currency, so that you need to buy certain increments to purchase certain combinations of stuff.
The more I interacted with the microtransaction and loot system, the more I was disappointed by the game overall. “Not being able to buy gear” was supposedly a sticking point for the development team, but that thesis fell apart once folks really tested the waters of outright buying crests, which provide an insane loot advantage over fully free-to-play players: not to mention the whole legendary gem debacle, which evidently is not considered “gear.” Adding a dungeon run stick to the end of a loot box carrot to obfuscate that you’re still gambling for loot is an insidious move. With Diablo 4 in active development and Path of Exile and many other competitors out there, it’s a more bitter pill to swallow.
I had the same sour taste in my mouth that I’ve had with so many other freemium games when I clicked on a daily bonus and unlocked materials and currency I hadn’t even interacted with yet: almost like it was a siren’s song telling me “this is what you’ll be grinding for in 20 hours, be grateful we’re giving you some now.” Building on all this (season passes, likely with new content patches) seems to be the path going forward, along with the paragon (extra level-up system) that unlocks at level 60. It’s the path of least resistance for many live service games.
I want to make this clear: without microtransactions in play at all, Diablo Immortal is actually a fun little multiplayer-centric take on the formula, especially on its native mobile home. At the end of the day, it’s free. Boot it up, finish the critical path, get to 60, and see how it grabs you. I don’t think it’s going to win over anyone who is disenfranchised by the series, but for folks looking for a dungeon crawling diversion, it definitely serves its purpose: and has room to grow. Hopefully that growth involves less microtransactions.
The team has a lot to be proud of from a technical and aesthetic standpoint, but the Lord of Live Service ultimately won the war.