Why Diablo Immortal’s Alpha Was a Hell of a Good Time

By | January 14, 2021

Ah, Sanctuary. It’s good to be back. Adventuring through Diablo’s bleak, harrowing and evil-infested world in the recent alpha was just the respite I needed from our own bleak, harrowing and evil-infested world. Anyway, after spending a dozen or so hours with it, I can report that Diablo Immortal is absolutely a game to be hyped about. It’s great – a proper new entry in the series, and not – as some feared – a watered down mobile lookalike.Not only that, but while Diablo Immortal may be a free-to-play game, there are no gameplay roadblocks tied into that; you can play every class, take on every mission, find every piece of loot and max out all your characters without spending a cent. I felt no impetus to spend at any point during my time with it.

Diablo Immortal is a proper new entry in the series, and not a watered down mobile lookalike.

With that out of the way, here are some of the reasons the alpha was such a good time. (If you’d like a broad overview of the game first, check out this piece on what Diablo Immortal is all about.)

Meaty Combat

Diablo Immortal’s moment to moment combat feels great. Diablo III was already best in class when it came to punchy combat; there was nothing quite like hitting an enemy so hard its skeleton was ejected from its body. Immortal has similarly potent animations and meaty sound effects.And crucially, the actual mechanics of controlling your character with a touch screen are fine. I’ve never liked virtual analogue sticks or virtual buttons, but it really didn’t take long to adapt to Diablo Immortal’s controls. The positioning of all the skills (plus the Ultimate and health potions) feels intuitive, and being able to aim many of your skills separately to movement is incredibly useful.The shift away from bespoke resources like Fury in favour of skills that are essentially on cooldown likely won’t appeal to everyone, but I personally like the rhythm of combat – it’s fast-paced and streamlined, but still with the kind of overall depth you’d expect from an action RPG. In lieu of generating something like Fury, your attacks instead fill your Ultimate meter, which lets you unleash a supercharged version of your primary attack for a short time.

While the controls feel good, controller support would be a valuable option in future. I did all my playing at home on a tablet, so propping the device up and using a controller would definitely have been my preferred way to play.

While the controls feel good, controller support would be a valuable option in future.

Gear That Ranks Up

The foundation of character progression in Diablo Immortal is very much what you’d expect – as you level your character it grows in power, and each new level attained either unlocks a new skill or upgrades one or more existing skills. Items you’re using can grow in power too, however, thanks to the rank up system. This lets you spend the materials you gain from salvaging unwanted gear to rank up rare and legendary items.

It’s a great system because it means if you find a sweet legendary weapon you can use it for longer – it gets stronger alongside you. Rare items have a max rank of five, whereas legendary items can go all the way to 20, and along the way will get bonus random properties at levels 5, 10 and 20.

The best part, however, is that these ranks are basically gear independent – you never lose the resources you’ve sunk into ranking up an item. Find a devastating axe to replace your hammer? When you go to equip it, you can transfer the ranks from your old hammer across. This system means that you’re basically always making progress even if you haven’t found superior loot in a while.

Oh, and speaking of loot, I don’t think I’ve ever spent less time in my inventory in a Diablo game. Immortal uses a power rating system, and it’s really useful – particularly in the early game – as you can quickly equip anything with an up arrow and leap back into the fray.

In the early game, an up arrow equals equip without a second thought.

In the early game, an up arrow equals “equip without a second thought.”

Build-Around Drops & Character Customisation

Skills in Diablo Immortal can’t be modified with runes the way they are in Diablo III, but they can be impacted via legendary items. The Barbarian weapon Obin’s Many Fingers, for instance, gives the Chained Spear skill two additional spears, making it significantly more effective. It’s a clever way to let the loot drops encourage players to mix up the skills they use, and I enjoyed adapting my playstyle to the legendary items I came across.

There’s a lot of scope for customisation across the 13 item slots too. These are divided into six primary items (head, legs, torso, weapon, shoulder, off-hand/secondary weapon), six secondary items (neck, waist, two rings, feet and hands) and one charm. Primary items can only be socketed with Legendary Gems, and many of these have build-altering abilities, such as giving attacks the chance to call down chain lightning or splitting a percentage of damage across nearby party members. Secondary items, meanwhile, are slotted with regular gems, which offer statistical boosts to things like damage and life total. And like previous games, all gems can be upgraded for extra punch.

The last piece of the puzzle is the Paragon system, which kicks in when you reach max level, and has multiple skill trees to unlock and switch between depending on your build’s focus – or what your party needs. I can’t wait to see a character all the way through to this.

The current Paragon system... with more skill trees to come.

The Paragon system in the technical alpha. There are more skill trees to come.

Superb Art Direction

Diablo Immortal’s game world is detailed, moody and immersive. Small touches abound, whether it’s people working the bellows at the Smithy in Westmarch, or subtle environmental details like the shadow of a slowly turning windmill cast across the parched ground of Shassar Sea. It all helps make the world feel more real and lived in.

More than that, though, I’m enjoying seeing the choices the team has made in setting this game apart from previous titles. I love the realism of the character art, for instance – the portraits during conversations are just so serious and often kind of severe. It really seems to speak to the hardships these people have endured.

I also love how bad-ass the gear looks. Even early on, my character was a sight to behold on the inventory screen. Each class has an impressively distinct style, and it doesn’t seem to matter what items you equip – they all seem to work. The level of detail here is striking, as is the use of colour. These characters look really vibrant. It’s been a long while since Diablo III came out, of course, but the evolutionary leap is massive.

Diablo Immortal – Screenshots

Just the Right Level of Nostalgia

Set between the events of Diablo II: Lord of Destruction and Diablo III, Immortal has a lot to offer long-term Diablo fans. The overall story is driven by the quest to find still-powerful shards of the shattered Worldstone, which have caused ancient evils to stir, and which a demon named Skarn – the Herald of Terror – wants to use to resurrect Diablo.

For me though, it’s the return of iconic characters like series staple Deckard Cain or Diablo II’s Charsi that’s most appealing, or the cameos by memorable bosses such as The Skeleton King, who appeared in both the original Diablo and Diablo III and The Countess, who debuted in Diablo II. It’s also cool seeing how familiar locations like The Dark Wood have been reinterpreted.

Diablo Immortal – Artwork

Diablo Immortal cleverly re-uses a number of iconic sound effects too. If you’ve ever heard loot flipping through the air in Diablo II, or you’ve hoovered up a health globe in Diablo III, you’ll be right at home in Diablo Immortal.

More Than One Way to Skin a (Monstrous, Undead) Cat

Diablo Immortal very much has a main questline to follow, but there’s an awful lot to do beyond just beelining for that next objective. And importantly, many of the activities and events in the game are designed to be bite-sized, so they’re ideal if you’re out and about or just have a few minutes to spare. Most of these are located in Diablo Immortal’s main city hub, Westmarch.

Elder Rifts, for instance, are a race against the clock through short, randomised dungeons. They can be run over and over again, but what keeps them interesting is the fact that you can spend up to three Crests to add random modifiers. These can be both good and bad, so your attack speed might increase, for instance, while at the same time, monsters might occasionally resurrect. Running Elder Rifts without Crests will still net you gear, experience points and gold, but adding Crests bumps up the rewards. If you use a Legendary Crest, for instance, you’re guaranteed a Legendary Gem drop. Crests can be earnt through play, but they can also be purchased, and all players in a party share the benefits of any Crests used too.

Legendary Crests = Legendary Gems.

Legendary Crests = Legendary Gems.

Challenge Rifts are another bite-sized activity and have a similar sense of timer-based forward momentum to Elder Rifts. The difference, however, is that you start out at difficulty level one, and work your way through a seemingly never-ending set of higher difficulty tiers. Each new difficulty level has a reward attached, and there’s a leaderboard to fight for a place on as well.

If you’d prefer to stay out in the world, you can always head to the Bounty Board. Each day you can complete up to 12 bounties (with four active at a time) and these are all short challenges, such as killing a number of specific enemies or collecting certain MacGuffins. Importantly, not only are they quick to beat, they’re quick to reach as well, thanks to Diablo Immortal’s sweet auto-navigation functionality. Just set an objective – whether that’s heading to the Blacksmith around the corner or taking on a bounty out in the wild – and let your character get there on their own. This feature is great because it lets you get straight to the thing you want to be doing.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty to distract you on the way to an objective. Emergent events crop up regularly in the form of short challenges with treasure chest rewards. You may also come across a lair to explore or spot a legendary monster that you can hunt.

Each zone has a recommended level, so all these activities help make make the need to grind out levels fun as opposed to frustrating. Different activities can also potentially be used to target specific things players want beyond EXP too. If you need Honor, for instance, which can buy Crests, Reforge Stones and gems, then Challenge Rifts will be your go-to activity.

The Monetisation Model Seems Reasonable

One of the player base’s biggest concerns about Diablo Immortal is the fact that it’s free-to-play. Will it be pay-to-win? Will it have an energy system? Paid EXP boosts? The good news is the answer is no to all of that. As I mentioned, there are no gameplay roadblocks associated with the game’s free-to-play model, and beyond that, the team’s policy is that all gear has to be earnt, so you can’t pay or trade for items – they can only be attained through gameplay.

That said, Diablo Immortal will of course have numerous ways to spend money for those so inclined. The monthly Battle Pass, for instance, unlocks a second reward track that will help boost the number of Crests, gems, Honor and other resources that you have to play with. The drops on the free path are already pretty good, and even include legendary weapons.

A legendary weapon? Don't mind if I do.

A legendary weapon? Don’t mind if I do.

The team is also planning on adding full body cosmetic items to the paid track (the game will have no transmog system), and these will also be available to purchase separately. Each Battle Pass will run for a calendar month, and even if you have multiple characters, you only need to pay for it once, then it’s unlocked for all your characters. No word on how much the Battle Pass might cost yet, however.

Other paid options include Crests, which we already touched on. Specialized Reforge Stones can also be purchased and are used to not only re-roll bonus random properties on items but to narrow down the outcomes so you’re more likely to get something that synergises with your build. Both Crests and standard Reforge Stones are also earnt through regular play.

The real-money options seem like they won’t be necessary to enjoy Diablo Immortal, but instead will be a nice bonus for those that are already in deep.

I wasn’t able to spend real money during the alpha, but I felt no compunction to do so, nor did I feel like I was missing out on anything by purely playing Immortal free-to-play. This game has an awful lot of compelling gameplay and content for free, and all future content will also remain free, whether it’s new gear, areas, features or even classes. The proof will be in the playing, of course, but at this point the real-money options seem like they won’t be necessary to enjoy Diablo Immortal, but instead will be a nice bonus for those that are already in deep.

Personally, I can’t wait for my next chance to play, so here’s hoping for a beta soon. Diablo Immortal is shaping up to be the perfect way to take this iconic series on the road, and that’s something to be excited about.

Cam Shea is IGN’s AU Studio Lead and has a serious soft spot for rave era breakbeat . He also played more Breath of the Wild than any other game last year. Catch him on Twitter. Maybe.Source