Diablo Immortal has no right to be as good as it is, and even still, I can't imagine a world where I'll still be playing it after Diablo 4 launches in 2023.
For the past couple of weeks, I've played Diablo Immortal in short bursts, enough to reach level 43 as a Necromancer – and I don't regret a single undead minute of it. There's a lot that can (and should) be said about the aggressive microtransaction model that supports the game financially, but somehow I've been able to resist the urge to spend a single real-world penny.
Perhaps it's because I know I'm not here for the long-haul, playing it as an aside rather than trying to maximize my character – a central component in a typical Diablo experience, but one that feels off-balance here. I'm not all that excited by the endgame, which is where I hear the real "pay-to-win" elements take over, or the PvP system, which is brutally tamed down from the days of collecting ears and selling them for bounties. Those are the main reasons I couldn't care less about Legendary Gems and would rather just focus on getting through the core campaign and then wiping my hands of it.
Speaking of that core experience, it does have all the things that matter to me in a free-to-play mobile game: great presentation, intuitive combat, seamless co-op, solid performance, and a half decent story. Diablo Immortal checks the main boxes just fine, it's just a shame that it also has the common pitfall of many a F2P mobile game: progression systems so inherently intertwined with the act of opening up a virtual wallet that it diminishes the entire experience.
With Diablo 4 still a little ways away, I've been having a good enough time playing Diablo Immortal in bite-sized time increments, when I'm bored with nothing to do and not around a home console – after all, slaying demons with my index finger sure as hell beats scrolling Twitter by a country mile. Still, I can't see myself sticking with Immortal once Diablo 4 arrives.
This isn't your dad's Diablo
It's worth reflecting on where my journey Diablo started, before we get into where it's going today. Perhaps you can relate to this: I've been playing Diablo since before I lived in a home with the internet. A close friend, who was lucky enough to have a portal into that wondrous digital expanse in 1998, would let me come over and log into the original Diablo for a few hours every weekend while he did chores. Between that and Ultima Online, I'd found a new way to make friends – one without the crippling social anxiety that came with real-world interaction – and I hold onto a few of those relationships dearly to this day.
Diablo 2 was even better. There was a gritter, more detailed, and more open world to explore; a more nuanced combat system to master; more people to play with, and thereby get to know, at once. The original game laid the foundation for an action-RPG that was as much about messing around and making friends as it was about slaying demons, and Diablo 2 came along and set a new standard for the genre.
It was the Wild West back then. PvP was open and unrestricted, mobs of powerful monsters spawned out of nowhere and seemingly without pattern, there were hackers running around with shiny white gear a thousands of times more powerful than anything you could find without cheats, and crucially, you lost everything in your inventory when you died. You could retrieve it by finding your corpse, but it was just as likely you'd die again trying. Oh, have you forgotten about the secret cow level? That would never fly today! Diablo 2 in 2001 was a lawless nightmare in the most memorable way.
Jump to 2022 and I'm sat on my couch playing Diablo Immortal on my phone, following a clearly laid out trail of footprints between talkative NPCs and meticulously timed waves of enemies. It's a lot more polished, organized, and money-hungry than I remember Diablo being, but to my surprise, I'm having a fun time with it. Sure, it's a little less satisfying bagging rare loot when the enemies don't stand a chance against the relentless button mashing of my right thumb, but there's still plenty of dopamine to be siphoned out of the classic Diablo grind – especially when the familiar sound of an item dropping tickles my nostalgia bone.
The devil's in the details
That Diablo is still able to capture my attention in mobile form is good news, because Diablo 4 will almost certainly be a far deeper, more innovative, more rewarding experience. I'd argue we've seen enough evidence of that in the quarterly updates alone, but it's also a pretty reliable rule when it comes to premium console/PC games compared to free mobile games generally. More to the point, Blizzard also says it won't have any of Diablo Immortal's pay-to-win components, which I do think we can trust to some degree after Diablo 3's maligned real-money auction houses were removed shortly after the game launched in 2012.
If Blizzard is able to follow through here and can come up with a sustainable endgame that doesn't rely on egregious microtransactions, Diablo 4 has the potential for some real longevity. And not just with newer fans who entered with Diablo 3, but with older folks like myself who were turned off by the most recent mainline entry's relative "cuteness".
Don't get me wrong, I'm not expecting Diablo 4 to embrace open PvP the way legacy MMOs did, and I don't think I'd want it to. But, along with a game free of microtransactions, one of the things I want most from the 2023 sequel is a return to the first two games' comparatively gritty worlds, which injected a sense of realism into the dark fantasy. And from everything that's been shown, Diablo 4 hits it out of the park. I mean, have you seen the new Necromancer trailer? It's downright gothic. Better still, the five regions of the map shown off recently all look interesting and distinct while somehow vaguely familiar to my eyes.
The way it's testing everything from core tenets like skill trees and itemization to more minute details like sound design and visual effects with the community, and then going back and making transparent changes based on feedback, is also highly encouraging. Again, if you're a fan of the series and haven't been following the dev updates, I'd highly recommend checking those out. I really do get the sense that Blizzard is putting a lot of care into making sure Diablo 4 is well-received, and with some really talented creatives at the wheel, I'm cautiously optimistic at this point.
A devilishly passable appetizer
Essentially, while Diablo Immortal is a serviceable back scratcher, Diablo 4 looks like it could be the real deal; a deep tissue massage, if you'll entertain my weird analogy. Everything I've seen of the next mainline Diablo has me excited for the series' future, whereas Immortal is like a shallow, but entertaining stopgap.
If you, like me, are eager for something to scratch that same itch until Diablo 4 comes out, I'd recommend downloading Diablo Immortal for free, swatting away the odd claw reaching for your credit card, and mess around with it during bathroom breaks, commutes, and pre-bedtime routines. As long as you go in knowing what to expect – a free-to-play mobile Diablo game in literally every sense – then you'll likely find some good, mindless fun waiting for you. At least until the pressure to spend money becomes too great; that's a threshold which shifts for every one of us, but it's a good indication nonetheless that the time has come to delete it from your hard drive and move on.
With the promise of a microtransaction-laden endgame, limited PvP options, and the ever-intriguing promise of Diablo 4 on next year's calendar, I don't imagine myself playing, or even remembering much of Diablo Immortal in a year's time. For now though, I'm appreciating it for the overly safe, formulaic, but ultimately well-made Diablo game that my 12-year-old self would have absolutely hated. It's given me something to do during my lunch breaks and when I'm too tired to commit to a console game, and although it's a greedy little bugger, I have to admit I'm enjoying my free – and likely short – stay in Sanctuary.
Looking for something else to play while we wait for Diablo 4? Why not play one of the best RPGs, or any of these excellent games like Diablo.