Diablo Immortal hands-on: Fun as hell on Android and iPhone
I might be a bit late publishing this. Sorry about that. It's not that I didn't want it to go up with everyone else's embargoed content — really, I did. It's just that, well... I lost track of time.
See, when you task a Diablo addict, someone who's played every Diablo title since the 1997 original and collectively put in thousands of hours between then and now, with playing an unreleased mobile-first version of the game — one that's been two years in the making — it's easy to see why this might be late.
When Diablo Immortal was announced as a free-to-play title back in 2018, it wasn't clear how Blizzard would navigate the choppy waters of monetization, which has ruined many a mobile game while bolstering the appeal of others. While the company built Hearthstone, its deck-building game set in the Warcraft universe, into one of the best Android games, Diablo is a much more valuable brand. If the core mechanics were to be sacrificed in an effort to eke as much revenue per player as possible, the entire legacy of the series itself could be at risk.
Thankfully, at least in its early stages, that doesn't seem to be the case.
Introducing the Diablo Immortal Technical Alpha
Earlier this month, Blizzard convened a group of press to talk about dipping its first Immortal toe in the water. Starting Dec. 18, the game will be available as a Technical Alpha to users in Australia, allowing the company to see how it scales and to receive feedback on performance, story, mechanics, and monetization. Along with that, the company has issued five blog posts outlining many of those elements and addressing how it intends to roll out the game over the next few months and years. It's not clear whether the Technical Alpha will be expanded to other countries over the next few months, either.
As part of that press pool, I got to play the game as an early access release on Android, which limits you to four of the game's six announced classes — Barbarian, Monk, Wizard, and Demon Hunter — with Necromancer and Crusader being saved for a later time. Blizzard is also limiting players to level 45, focusing on its Paragon system introduced in Diablo 3 that allows maxed-out players to keep leveling.
Blizzard says the alpha period will only be a couple of weeks, after which time the team will go back to developing the game in hopes of releasing a wider beta next year.
Diablo Immortal Gameplay
Diablo Immortal takes place in between the second and third game, where players must scour Sanctuary to find remnants of the Worldstone that was destroyed and scattered throughout the map at the end of Diablo 2. At its core, this is very much a Diablo game. You travel from region to region killing enemies from the lightly possessed to the completely demonic, with tasks ranging from leading an injured NPC out of an overrun village to killing an evil sorcerer set on unleashing literal hell on earth. As with other Diablo titles, you travel between areas on foot until you hit a waypoint, after which you can jump between rest stops and increasingly dangerous areas of Sanctuary.
While you start in Wortham instead of Tristram, the gameplay mechanics are going to be immediately familiar to anyone who's played the titles on PC or console — the main difference is that you have to get used to touch controls.
This is the part of the game I was dreading. While Diablo had a fairly smooth transition from PC to console with Diablo 3, some sacrifices still had to be made, and the lower precision of the thumb pads meant players had fewer ways to customize the game to their liking. Still, it worked well, and I've spent years happily playing Diablo 3 on my Xbox. However, touchscreen controls are a completely different challenge. Luckily, Blizzard has done a pretty good job making it easy to move around the isometric map with a virtual thumbstick on the left side and mash skills on the right.
Players have access to five skills, radially separated on the right side of the screen. It's still too easy to press the wrong one and hear, "I'm not ready yet" when you meant to tap your primary button but accidentally pressed the skill above it that's recharging, but after a while, it becomes second nature. In fact, while the Technical Alpha feels a bit limited in some respects, the core gameplay, from moving around the map to fighting hoards of enemies to picking up gold and loot, feel mature. It's incredibly satisfying to build a Massacre streak while strafing through the map without really thinking about what you're doing. It takes a while, but I built up muscle memory after a few hours of playing.
As I said, there is a story here, but it's not important. Like in other Diablo games, you're not going to remember any of the characters (except for your friend Deckard Cain), and all of the NPCs look and sound very much the same, with a vaguely British accent that makes everyone sound a bit constipated. Then again, you're not playing Diablo for its engrossing narrative. Move from one area to the next, kill a bunch of monsters, pick up loot, and repeat. As long as all of those work together, you get a good Diablo game.
Diablo Immortal Graphics
While Diablo's graphics have never really been a part of the conversation of each release (though Diablo 3 is beautiful in many areas), I'm happy to report that Immortal looks pretty damn good, especially for a mobile game, although performance varies depending on your phone.
I played it on two of the best Android devices, a Galaxy S20+ and a Pixel 4a 5G, and the differences in detail and performance is pretty stark. Blizzard reportedly spent time with Qualcomm optimizing Diablo Immortal for high-end Android devices; while the minimum requirements are a Snapdragon 710 and 2GB of RAM, the game has an Ultra detail mode and a performance mode that aims to hit 60 FPS on devices running the Snapdragon 865. The Snapdragon 765G inside the Pixel 4a 5G only managed to hit 30 FPS on Medium detail.
Aside from the occasional slowdown when a ton of elementals were on the screen at once, playing Diablo Immortal on a phone appears to be a higher-quality experience than diving into Diablo 3 on the Switch — especially when you're not limited to 720p.
Diablo Immortal Loot
Of course, this being a Diablo game, your goal is to pick up as much great loot as possible, and the inventory system works pretty much as you'd expect. Blizzard has explained that you cannot trade equipment with other players, nor can you buy it with real money, so the only way to build a powerful character is to kill monsters and find ever-enhancing stuff. That's not to say you can't spend real money to improve your character, but it's in the form of secondary charms and runes, along with access to cosmetic items.
As of writing, I've played around six hours and have a level 28 Demon Hunter with a pretty good stash of rare gear, and I feel like there's still plenty for me to do. Much of the best stuff is hidden in dungeons that stand alone from the main story and take between 10 and 15 minutes to complete, either solo or with a party. Blizzard has enabled some social elements in the alpha, including guilds and friending of individual players, but I didn't get a chance to test those co-op elements yet.
Extra-special loot can also be obtained through Rifts, which return from previous Diablo titles. However, since I haven't reached the alpha-max level 45 yet, I haven't been able to play those. I'll update this article once I do.
Suffice it to say, loot drops are just as addictive in Immortal as they are in the mainline Diablo games, though I suspect the situation will change a bit once the public version has been released. At higher levels, loot drops will likely be more valuable but also less common, since Blizzard wants you to augment existing equipment with charms, runes, and reforge stones.
Even at my lowish player level, there are some ways the monetization system has shown itself. You can salvage items you collect for materials that are used for upgrades at various blacksmiths within Sanctuary, but you can also spend real money to buy those raw materials, too, skipping the grinding process. It hasn't been an issue yet, but I can see it becoming one when I hit higher levels later on in the game.
Diablo Immortal Free-to-play mechanics
There are other ways to spend money in Diablo Immortal, though they're only theoretical right now since the systems aren't enabled in the Technical Alpha. Blizzard goes through many of them in a blog post explaining its intentions for the game, but the primary ones involve enhancements to secondary game mechanics, like being able to buy Crests that would occasionally drop in Elder Runes later in the game.
Blizzard also debuted a two-tier Battle Pass system that will be a bit more generous to subscribers than those on the free tier, but again it's hard to tell how much that will impact the world until it's fully populated.
Based on the admittedly small section of Diablo Immortal I've played so far, I'm not too worried about monetization. While it's clear that as players progress in the game it will be harder to grind out success without spending a bit of cash, most gamers probably won't need to spend a dime as they hack and slack their way through Sanctuary on their phone. It may not be quite as rewarding as those who cough up a few bucks a month on a Battle Pass subscription, or spend some dollars on Platinum (one of the three in-game currencies) to augment their loot progression, but Blizzard seems to have found a nice balance between accessibility and depth.
Diablo Immortal Fun as hell
I'm sorry you're not able to play Diablo Immortal right now. Unless you're in Australia, you're probably pretty upset reading how fun this game is, even in its early alpha state. I agree, I wish you could play it, too.
But until it's widely available, or you can spoof an Australian IP address (Blizzard assured us VPNs won't work, but good luck trying anyway), rest easy knowing that Blizzard didn't mess this up. Diablo Immortal is a mobile-first Diablo game, one that will likely be a bit more grindy than the PC and console versions, but this ain't no light companion game as we wait for the "real" Diablo 4.
Diablo Immortal is the best we could have hoped for, and it's fun as hell.
Diablo Immortal is available right now in Technical Alpha for Android (opens in new tab) and iOS users in Australia.
Diablo Immortal is a fully realized entry to the Diablo series. With the added benefit of an MMO experience, Immortal looks set to be amazing.
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Daniel Bader was a former Android Central Editor-in-Chief and Executive Editor for iMore and Windows Central.