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Diablo Immortal, the controversial mobile spin-off, is actually a lot of fun

A Diablo Immortal image.
(Image credit: Blizzard)

Diablo Immortal is waiting for an apology. Yes, I know this is PC Gamer and not Mobile Gamer. You don't come to this site for the latest Apple news, nor do you possess precise insight on the processing power of the Samsung S20. But the  backlash Blizzard received when it announced Diablo Immortal at Blizzcon 2018 did not come from lifelong iPhone sticklers. No, this was the rancor of a PC gaming audience that felt betrayed that the most beloved action RPG franchise of all time was making its way to mobile platforms before there was any word of Diablo 4, which hadn't yet been announced at the time. The narrative that Blizzard was losing touch with its roots was given the perfect example with this Diablo phone game, but I'm also here to tell you that when you get your hands on Immortal, you might not be able to put it back down. 

I've been messing around with Immortal's technical alpha for the past week, maining a monk named Bob and once again punching my way through the waves of undead who stalk the charred ruins of Sanctuary (does anything good ever happen there?). Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, I think Blizzard has accomplished a sublime migration to the app stores.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Diablo's desktop days have been perfectly retrofitted for the touchscreen. My left thumb rests on a modular digital joystick—I tug in any direction, and Bob will follow. My auto-attack hovers below my other hand, and with a tap Bob will ping-pong around the battlefield serving up five fingers of fury to any decomposing onlookers. 

There is no action bar. Instead, there are four bubbles corresponding to each of my equipped abilities in the bottom right corner of my screen. With a flick of the digit I tumble through the air with my Flying Kick, humbling all in my path. From there I might activate Seven-Sided Strike, obliterating everyone around me with massive payloads of white damage numbers. Or maybe I tap on Wave Strike, sending a blue beam of energy to that angry-looking demon on the margins. 

Diablo Immortal feels good enough that I suspect that anyone who gives it a try will see their old BlizzCon angsts atrophy away. This is not a watered-down alternative or a poor facsimile, it's just Diablo in a different format. You won't be concerned for the long term health of the franchise or the publisher after you begin playing. You'll be too busy marveling at the lifestyle-altering potential of carrying around a fully-formed Diablo game in your pocket.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Immortal will be MMO, and even in my early experiences with the game, I saw dozens of other players hacking and slashing through the newbie zones, partying up with each other for various elites. In a way, this is a small taste of what we might expect from Diablo 4, which is controversially shipping without an offline mode. However, unlike Diablo 4 (as far as we know), Immortal will be free-to-play, which should prick up your ears if you're a veteran of, say, the current monetization melancholia grasping the Hearthstone coterie. That leads us to some of the biggest questions and concerns about any game these days: how it will be monetized.

Gear, classes, and story content will not be purchasable, Blizzard confirmed in a recent preview event. You will need to dungeoneer for all your gleaming armor sets. There will be some sort of player-to-player marketplace, but developers assured the press that it won't resemble Diablo 3's mutiny-inducing auction house. Gear won't be purchasable on that index, but materials, augmenting gems, and other items will be.

Instead, the company intends to make its bones back on items called Crests, which will juice the drop rates in certain encounters, as well as reagents that fine tune the stat distribution on the items you pick up during your adventures. That original fear at BlizzCon—that the spectre of predatory, death-by-a-thousand-cuts microtransactions has finally come for our beloved Diablo—remains in the ether. I've only played a handful of baby dungeons and haven't even begun to consider late-game builds, so both of those monetization options are completely meaningless to me at this point. But paying to increase drop rates instinctively feels like delicate terrain. Hopefully, Blizzard has learned to tread carefully, and hasn't, for instance, tuned the game to be miserly toward non-payers.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

How many great games have we watched be sunk by an overreaching monetization model? A cannonade of nickel-and-diming that dampened the joy and turned even the most marginal tasks into a soul-sucking grind? Hearthstone is in the midst of one of its best expansions ever, and the conversation has been thoroughly sunk by the burdensome cost of the game. The Taken King was a great iteration on the first Destiny, but most players spent the early days of the cycle vengeful about its high price point. That is the risk every service game runs, and it will be impossible to know exactly how successfully Immortal threads the needle until we get a good sense of how those Crests and reforging options interact with the experience. 

In the meantime, I can confirm that Immortal looks great, plays great, and is packed with vintage Diablo thrills. You will take quests from a fully-voiced Deckard Cain and venture out into the gristly wilds on his behalf, only this time you might be on the bus as you beat down The Butcher or whatever. Blizzard, with its preternatural instinct for polish, has nailed the hard part. Now, it just needs to make sure that the business wing doesn't screw up all the fun.

Diablo Immortal doesn't have a release date right now, but it's "coming soon" for Android and iOS devices. Diablo 4, meanwhile, is further out.