Diablo Immortal’s closed alpha has been running for more than six weeks now, and has given us an extensive look at what Blizzard and NetEase’s mobile interpretation of Diablo is all about. The good news is that Diablo has transitioned across to mobile seamlessly in many areas – the touch screen controls are intuitive to use, the combat feels meaty and the presentation is suitably moody. On the other hand, once I hit the closed alpha’s level cap and began working my way through the game’s Paragon system, some aspects of Immortal – as it currently stands – started to worry me.
These concerns are: whether the itemisation system has enough staying power, the role real money may play and how being free-to-play has impacted Immortal’s design, and how wide the appeal of the endgame content will be. It’s a work-in-progress, of course, and so many things will almost certainly change, but even so, this is a big chunk of the game so it’s worth analysing how things currently work.
Before we dig into the points above a bit more, a quick overview of what’s in the closed alpha. The classes represented are Barbarian, Wizard, Demon Hunter, Monk and – new for this hands-on – Crusader, which was my class of choice. Where the final game will have a level cap of 60, the alpha goes up to 55, but as mentioned also includes Immortal’s take on Diablo III’s Paragon system, which allows players to continue sculpting their character beyond the max level. The journey to hit that level cap saw me roam far and wide across Sanctuary, venturing into countless dungeons and otherworldly rifts, taking on bounties, partnering up with other players to fight bosses, and enjoying the ever-escalating power afforded by steadily improving my gear and skills.
As I said in my last hands-on impressions, the moment to moment action is excellent – Immortal already looks, sounds and feels like an authentic, modern Diablo game, even on touch screen. All the controls are within easy reach, monitoring cool-downs is simple and while I’m not a fan of virtual analogue sticks and buttons in general, there’s clear upside here. Immortal has something of a twin stick shooter vibe to it at times, as you’re moving your character with one hand and aiming skills with the other. It’s a clear point of differentiation from playing Diablo on PC and opens up options for every class.
Socket To ‘Em
My journey has largely been a lot of fun, but once I hit the point at which there was no new story content to work through and all the low level gear upgrades had been taken care of, the demands made by Immortal in order to make significant character progression really started to ratchet up. Grinding for loot has always been a big part of Diablo, of course, but here there are other factors that come into play when discussing itemisation, and in particular, socketing.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with those terms – itemisation just means the gear you equip, of which a character in Diablo Immortal has six primary slots (head, torso, shoulders, lower body, main hand and off-hand), six secondary slots (neck, waist, two rings, feet and hands) and one charm. Primary and secondary items can all be ranked up by blacksmiths, and these ranks can even be transferred to new items as you find and equip them.
Socketing, meanwhile, refers to the gems you place in each item. Primary items can only be socketed with Legendary Gems – a new gem category for Immortal: one per item. Legendary Gems can have powerful effects, such as boosting attack speed, gaining health with every kill or having the chance to call down chain lightning with every attack. Secondary items, meanwhile, are socketed with regular gems, and each item can have up to three slots. Regular gems aren’t as flashy, but can still confer some important bonuses – boosting your damage output, life total, armour total or armour penetration, to name a few. Like items, gems can also be ranked up.
We’ll talk more about gems (and charms) shortly, but first, let’s get stuck into Immortal’s gear more generally. As you’d expect, items drop in a range of rarities. Secondary items top out at rare, whereas primary items extend to legendary rarity. Unlike other Diablo games, there are no item sets – that is, gear that goes together and gives the player a bonus if they have it all equipped. Instead, items are designed to be mix and match, and legendary items in particular are intended to be build-around, as each has an “inscription” that alters a particular class skill.
Take the Crusader’s Draw & Quarter – activating this skill sees your character hop onto an ethereal horse and drag enemies behind it on chains. It’s a great way to corral mobs into one spot for a burst of AOE damage. Much like skill runes in Diablo III, however, this skill doesn’t have to stay this way. Unlike Diablo III’s system, skills are modified through legendary items. So in the case of Draw & Quarter, I wound up with three legendary pieces of gear that all modified this skill in different ways. When all were equipped I was able to leave a fiery trail behind my steed, instead of dragging enemies along. I also had a chance to trigger a series of bombardments down on nearby enemies. And finally, I had a modifier that extended how long I could actually ride around burning and bombarding enemies, meaning I could sweep back and forth across lines of enemies for longer.
The system means that every legendary item you pick up – at least for a while – changes your play style. It encourages you to equip skills that you weren’t using, and the inscriptions also change how each skill functions within your arsenal. There’s a massive difference between throwing your shield and having it explode on contact, for instance, and throwing your shield and having it bounce between enemies. Early on it was fun picking up my first few legendary items and reworking my equipped skills to take advantage of them, but by the time all my primary items were legendary it started to be more like a limitation, as I felt disincentivised to experiment with other skills.
Diablo III’s skill runes system was extremely flexible – likely too flexible for some – but I enjoyed steadily unlocking more and more skill modifications as I progressed, opening up wider and wider play styles and encouraging experimentation. Immortal takes the series in the opposite direction, and while I did shift up my approach to combat a number of times over the dozens of hours I spent playing the alpha… that’s still only a number of times across dozens of hours. I also came across the same drops with the same inscriptions a lot, which made them feel more like a commodity than something truly special. It also meant, well, I had no new gameplay choice to make. Hopefully we’ve only seen a small slice of the inscriptions that will be in the game on release.
Ranks, a Lot
Now, let’s come back to gems. Diablo II fans will be familiar with the gems that go on secondary gear, as they come in a variety of colours, each of which boosts a certain stat. Aquamarine, for instance, adds armour, whereas tourmaline boosts damage. Gems start out as rank 1 (think of this like “chipped” gems in Diablo II) and then by combining three rank 1 gems you can create a rank 2 (“flawed”) gem. Three of those then make a rank 3 (“regular”) and so on up to rank 5. Beyond that an Echo Crystal is required to further boost gems. Sockets for gems are colour-coded, so you can only put a “blue” type gem (aquamarine or sapphire) into a blue socket. This means that later on you’ll have to weigh up whether an item with better base stats is actually better if its socketing options don’t work as well for your play style as your current item.
One way or another, it’s a long grind to rank up your gems. This is just as much the case – only more so – for Legendary Gems, which are slotted to primary gear. The system is somewhat similar, as upgrading Legendary Gems requires additional copies of the Legendary Gem you want to upgrade, as well as other Legendary Gems that “provide power” and get used up in the process. The whole prospect of ranking up your Legendary Gems feels labyrinthine – there are so many paths to it with so many currencies to negotiate.
The best option for guaranteeing random Legendary Gem drops is spending Legendary Crests to run Elder Rifts (short, procedurally generated dungeon with random modifiers). Legendary Crests are earnt in-game (or purchased using Honor) but can also be bought with Eternal Orbs, which are purchased with real-world money.
Other options for obtaining Legendary Gems include buying them from the player-driven market, which trades in Platinum. This can be acquired in game, but is also obtained with real-world money via Eternal Orbs. The Fading Ember trader also sells Legendary Gems, but only accepts Fading Embers, which are harvested from Elder Rifts, so again – you’ll need Legendary Crests. Specific Legendary Gems also occasionally show up on the free Battle Pass track.
Attempting to craft specific Legendary Gems is an option, but each requires a different set of runes. You can roll for runes through Elder Rift drops, buy them from the market or craft them with Embers. The overall resource requirements for ranking up Legendary Gems is extensive, and the many overlapping elements really seem at odds with Immortal’s super accessible approach to combat and initial itemisation.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20overall%20resource%20requirements%20for%20ranking%20up%20Legendary%20Gems%20is%20extensive%2C%20and%20the%20many%20overlapping%20elements%20really%20seem%20at%20odds%20with%20Immortal%E2%80%99s%20super%20accessible%20approach%20to%20combat%20and%20initial%20itemisation.”]
It all feels a bit too much like a typical game in the mobile, free-to-play space. I’m not a fan of the school of design where you’re juggling multiple currencies and interlocking systems that make things needlessly convoluted… and kind of opaque from the perspective of judging value – especially with real money in the mix. Mind you, Diablo Immortal’s true value proposition is not something we can accurately judge yet, as closed alpha participants aren’t engaging with the rewards system and economy the way players will be on final release.
There are a couple of parts to that statement. Firstly, in the closed alpha players are given 500 Eternal Orbs every day. This is not the standard daily log-in reward (which is a separate, far more modest system) and instead seems to be a way to simulate having real-world money in the ecosystem, as there’s no option to spend actual cash in the closed alpha. So each player gets orbs that they can trade for Platinum, which can then be spent at the market on Legendary Gems, runes, Skill Stones and other non-item objects. Orbs or Platinum can also be used to purchase Legendary Crests. Both of these tie directly into character progression.
In the closed alpha I’ve been able to go and simply buy a bunch of Legendary Gems in order to rank up my socketed gems without too much thought beyond, “Boy, it sure does a take a lot of Legendary Gems to rank a single Legendary Gem up a bit.” But if I was paying for those Eternal Orbs I might balk at the prospect of needing, like, eight Legendary Gems to gain a single rank on one of my socketed gems. In part it will come down to how much Eternal Orbs cost, but to be honest, I don’t really like the rank up mechanics and the ever-escalating resources required in the first place. It’s not out of line with what other games do, and I assume is designed to give players something to aim towards over months, but it feels punishing to me, particularly in the face of a very obvious real money shortcut.
I like the charms system even less. These late game items drop at rank 1, which means they have one random “skill bonus” – which can be any skill from any class. Once you find one that has a skill you use, you can then rank the charm up by salvaging other charms. Each rank it gains adds another random skill from a random class. More often than not you’ll get to rank 5 – the max rank – and still only have one skill out of five that’s useful to your character. No matter, you can re-roll those useless skills using Skill Stones, which are created using rank 5 charms you don’t want to keep.
Each Skill Stone can re-roll one skill on your charm, but the process is random, so if you have one useful skill on your Skill Stone, there’s only a one in five chance it will be that skill that transfers to the charm. Four out of five times you just flush time and resources down the drain. The point of the system is to be something players work at over a long time, and the mechanic itself is not new to the Diablo series – Diablo III had low chance re-rolls too. It’s not uncommon in the MMO space, either, but it still feels extremely unsatisfying to me. And, of course, the elephant in the room is the fact that you could always buy Skill Stones from the market using actual money.
[widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”slug=diablo-immortal-closed-alpha-screenshots&captions=true”]
To Market To Market
As I said in the intro, Diablo Immortal is a work-in-progress and will definitely see changes – possibly significant ones – but at this stage I’m uneasy about having build-enhancing elements that are attainable with real-world money in a game that has an endgame that is all about teams of players vying for supremacy in a range of activities including direct PVP. (We’ll discuss the endgame shortly if you’re not familiar with it.)
The player-driven market, for instance, is based on supply and demand, so the best Legendary Gems, Skill Stones and so on, could wind up being insanely expensive compared to the most common or least in demand ones. That’s already the case for Legendary Gems in the closed alpha. There’s potentially no end to the amount of money someone could spend in Diablo Immortal to rank up their gems and charm and that doesn’t sit well with me. Ranking up items, by comparison, is almost completely gameplay driven – you go out, you get loot, you salvage the items you don’t want and you spend those materials (plus gold) to rank up your items. Everyone is on the same footing with that system.
I’d like to see sweeping changes made to how real money factors into Diablo Immortal. A good middle ground solution would be to reduce the ways in which players can spend actual money in Diablo Immortal to minimise the impact it has on character development and power. Keeping the paid track on the Battle Pass is probably fine, for instance, as that would be a flat cost and everyone would wind up with very similar rewards. Other than that real money should be used to purchase cosmetics only. Surely if that stuff is cool enough the most engaged players will still buy it?
Another – perhaps complementary – solution would be to make Diablo Immortal free-to-start, then charge for additional zones or the like. I’d happily pay to unlock more content in this game if that was the model, and the team could then strip out some of the interlocking systems and currencies, and integrate gems and the ranking process into the game in a different way. As it currently stands, I reached a point of drastically diminishing returns, where the work required to make character progress didn’t feel at all worthwhile. I’d love to be able to stay engaged at that point… instead of either leaving the game or starting afresh with a new class.
I mentioned earlier there are a couple of things about this closed alpha that makes it hard to judge what kind of value the final game may offer. Free Eternal Orbs was the first one, but the second is that the paid Battle Pass track is locked off. Perhaps if the rewards on that track are generous enough, the resources required to upgrade gems or run Elder Rifts wouldn’t feel so bad. Immortal would still have the issue of being able to pay to augment your character for PVP, however.
The Protectors of Sanctuary… and Everyone Else
The endgame PVP element was actually one of the main things the development team wanted to get data on from this closed alpha. More broadly, they wanted to see how the recently revealed Immortals vs Shadows dynamic plays out. In this system, a group of players attain the status of Immortals and must then defend that title against, well, anyone else on the server who wants to try and work to take them down.
In Diablo Immortal you start out as an adventurer, but you can then choose to join the Shadows during certain windows of time. This gives you access to a literally underground organisation complete with escalating challenges to take on, quests that are a bit more involved than the usual bounties, and the promise of stealing from the Immortals and perhaps facing off against them. As you rank up as a Shadow you boost your character’s power, which is a pretty good incentive to take part, and you can also create or join a Dark House. These are essentially sub-guilds, and all compete with one another to be at the top of the Dark Houses leaderboard. Eventually, the top Dark Houses can send their strongest players to try and defeat the current Immortals. If they do so, the leading Dark House then becomes the new Immortals and everyone else is reset to the rank of adventurer.
This “Cycle of Strife,” as it’s known, can turn quite quickly, as the reign of the current Immortals only lasts as long as they can defend themselves. And while it may be frustrating to lose progress as a Shadow, the consolation prize is a server-wide celebration with daily rewards and several visible acknowledgements that there’s a new group of Immortals in power.
The Immortals vs Shadows system will probably be great for the most dedicated players on a server, but my interactions with it weren’t particularly meaningful. I became a Shadow twice, but it didn’t change much. I just added in Shadow events and activities alongside my usual bounties, rifts and the like. They brought more variety, certainly, but I felt quite disconnected from the intended purpose of the Immortals versus Shadows set-up, as I’m not someone who is ever going to have the time to be in contention as a top player in a top Dark House. That’s fine, but I’m just not sure what endgame content will keep me engaged. Here’s hoping there’s more in the works for “casually hardcore” players like myself.
So where does all this leave Diablo Immortal? Well, despite my concerns, it still shows an enormous amount of promise, and I enjoyed the majority of my time with it, so I’m hopeful that the team can make some key changes and ensure that this is another classic entry in a classic series.
Cam Shea is an IGN veteran based in Sydney, Australia. He’s happiest when he’s making content about Breath of the Wild.