By now, you would have read all the negative reviews about the latest iteration of the Diablo franchise. Diablo Immortal, the first mobile version of the hit hack-and-slash RPG (role-playing game) series, has been emasculated by many fans and critics who lambast it for failing players because of its unfair “pay to win” (P2W) game design. Hogwash, I said to myself, as I started downloading the game while holidaying Down Under (Australia, not Hell).
It’s been 10 years since the launch of Diablo 3. Diablo has always been a PC game, where the idea is that you buy the game for a fair amount of moolah and you play the game to the death at no extra cost.
Over the last decade, mobile gaming has taken over the world by storm and mobile gaming’s “free-to-play” (F2P) model means it needs to offer the game for free but make money from getting people to pay for extra stuff. So why are these PC gamers complaining about the very raison d’etre of the mobile gaming business?
Sadly for us forgotten souls in the “Rest of Asia” (Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macao, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam) Diablo Immortal launches in our region on 7 or 8 July – over a month after it has hit all other major markets including North & South America, Europe, Korea and ANZ (Australia and New Zealand).
To add insult to injury, we will only get the PC beta version of the game, while globally it has been available for cross-play for both mobile and PC. You probably noticed China is missing from the list – the game was mainly designed to gourmandise on the fat wallets of the Chinese population (the home of the free-to-play whales – whales are players who spend tons of money paying for extras in these free-to-play mobile games). The game should have launched in mid-June for China (the studio making the game after all is China gaming giant NetEase) but some political sensitivity has delayed the game launch. For now, nobody knows if it will even launch in China tomorrow or perhaps it has already met its doom in the motherland. In any event, us folks in the Rest of Asia Pacific are clearly the least important demographic.
That said, I managed to get early access to the game while holidaying in Sydney last month (Australia had the game a whole month earlier) and have spent over 50 hours playing the game.
In the beginning
Let’s get some perspective first. The original Diablo was launched in 1997. That was the year I got married, and I was still in my 20s. Diablo was a game-changer. Role-playing games (RPGs) before that were complex affairs for those who love Dungeons & Dragons (and therefore are also fans of Metallica’s Master of Puppets and Netflix’s Stranger Things). RPGs were all about levelling up your hero and gaining more and more powers. Gamers would spend hours travelling virtual worlds to battle monsters to level up their heroes and left no stone unturned to customise their avatars into axe-slaying warriors, holy paladins or magic-blasting wizards. It was complex – you had to figure out whether you should focus on Strength or Intelligence or Dexterity or all of them; you had to choose talents to complement your skillsets; you had to find the right equipment for your adventures. No point trying to arm a smart wizard with a heavy greatsword when he lacks the strength to even hold it up.
Diablo changed all that. It created the world’s first hack-and-slash RPG. You didn’t really need to bother with stats and equipment crap until much later in the game. Just choose either a warrior, rogue or sorcerer (the holy triumvirate of RPG games where you specialise either in muscles, agility or brains), launch the game and just click on the enemy with your mouse to kill. Kill and kill and kill to level up, gain better gear and basically become more powerful to kill even bigger baddies. Early mini-boss The Butcher was a nightmare to kill, until you discover the secret of running into the room, unleashing the Fire Wall spell and then running out to leave the demon to literally burn to death. Even my video-gaming hater wife played Diablo. In fact, until today, she only likes three games – Diablo, Street Fighter and Leisure Suit Larry (yeah, all action and visual games that you don’t need to overthink).
Diablo III – the first slippery slope to Hell
Diablo just got bigger and better with every release. In 2012, Diablo 3 launched, and I was then the editor of Digital Life. I remember Diablo 3 vividly because in my first issue as the newly-minted editor of the now-defunct weekly tech supplement to The Straits Times – I did the unthinkable. I ran the cover of Digital Life across the front and back with this unforgettable image.
For a Diablo fan, this was the ultimate victory; one giant tick off my bucket list. Diablo III was just simply, an amazing game. Barbarian, Wizard, Monk, Demon Hunter, Witch Doctor – I played them all. The one problem though – Blizzard (the peeps who made the game) was greedy for money and introduced an auction house for players to buy and sell virtual weapons and gear for real moolah. Blizzard would take a cut off every transaction in the auction house. In PC gaming, P2W is the epitome of all evil, making Vecna (the baddie in Stranger Things) look like a cockroach when measuring its level of malevolence.
Many gamers were up in arms, but many still paid real moolah for a leg up anyway. In the end, Blizzard had to kill the auction house – not because it decided to changed alignment from Chaotic Evil to Lawful Good – but because the virtual economy was broken when hackers managed to break the system and clone items for free.
The El Dorado money train did not materialise but Blizzard continued to find ways to engage Diablo 3 fans by launching many end-game contents for an entire decade. In fact, people are still playing Diablo 3.
I really wanted to love Diablo Immortal
I have only ever had one major relationship in my life because I ended up marrying my first serious girlfriend. I never understood what it was like to be in love again. But Diablo was different. Every new Diablo release was like a new romance all over again for me. So, believe me when I said I really wanted to silence the critics and to endear myself to Diablo Immortal.
It started well enough. Choose one of the six familiar character classes – Barbarian, Wizard, Necromancer, Monk, Crusader or Demon Hunter. I went with the raging Barbarian and the game kicked off with my hero being transported by boat to a remote village called Wortham. Upon landing, you must start killing bad, bad things.
But instead of clicking, I was tapping since I was playing on the giant iPad Pro! My left thumb controlled the movement of my hero while my right thumb controlled the attacks I wanted to unleash on my enemies. At first, I could only use a basic slash attack called Lacerate but soon I was able to do cool stuff like Chained Spear (where I would hurl three chained spears to drag impaled enemies to me so that I could then Lacerate them to death), Cleave (where I could tap three times to unleash a powerful trio of attacks in a semi-circle arc in front of me) and the landmark Whirlwind (where I spin around and continually strike all enemies around me until I ran out of breath). Soon, I had more skills than skill slots and I had to start figuring out the combination of skills I wanted to keep to unleash my undying barbaric rage (there are only five skill slots but you have 14 skills to choose from after you unlock all of them).
It was like falling in love all over again. Hack, slash, level up, equip better gear, kill bigger baddies – the familiar rhythm of pure gaming bliss. Along the way, I was introduced to a “compelling” storyline which I conveniently skipped every time they attempted to play me some low-grade video cutscenes. It’s like trying to get to the bedroom part of a new relationship but the phone keeps ringing to distract you from your main goal.
Along the way, the game forces you to figure out some complex crafting mechanics (all of which are plans to encourage you to spend money for instant gratification). It’s all very complicated and not really worth mentioning in detail. Know that you will have to deal with various crafting resources including crests, aspirant keys, reforge stones, scrap, enchanted dust, glowing shards, enigmatic crystals, runes, hilts and more – in addition to managing three virtual currencies called gold, platinum and eternal orbs.
It’s so complicated that the game asks that you take a survey for feedback on how you feel about these mindless crafting complications. Do you like elder rifts (where you can insert a legendary crest to increase your chance of getting a legendary drop)? Was it easy for you to understand the crafting mechanics behind legendary gems? The list of inane questions goes on and on.
Finding the rarest legendary weapons and armour is not enough, you also got to get legendary gems to socket into them for extra powers. The biggest complaint from the critics – it is almost impossible the get the most legendary of the legendary gems (yes, they come in common 1-star to impossibly rare 5-star variety). You probably have read by now about some video game streamer who claims he spent $15,000 bucks to unlock his first 5-star legendary gem, only to delete his account right after in extreme protest.
Frankly, these complaints are not warranted. Diablo Immortal is a free-to-play game (which means they spend millions to make the game and don’t charge you a cent for downloading and playing it). These people who make these video games must make money, right? This is not a charity project. The truth is, you don’t need to spend money to kill the biggest baddies and to beat the dungeons. I spent about $6 in total for my entire 50 hours of game time. Yes, the game is designed to encourage you to spend real moolah, but it’s your choice whether you want to or not. Yes, you probably will need to wait till the afterlife to get all those impossibly rare drops, but you don’t need these rare drops to finish the game – just as you don’t need to own every character in Genshin Impact to beat the game. If you must be decked out in full gear to feel omnipotent, then there is literally a price to pay.
The first 40 hours of the game were just simply amazing. My barbarian was taking out everything. I didn’t need to group with anyone to complete the story campaign. Just my skills and experience and some lucky drops were all I needed. I even tried out the Wizard and Crusader to experience different play styles. It was pure gaming bliss and more than worth the $6 I had invested into this grand romance. I was pissed with the critics.
With five different classes to choose from, players can relive the adventure through a different play style. Close combat for the Barbarian, strafing attacks from a distance for the Demon Hunter, summoning minions to fight alongside the Necromancer for group combat. The familiar hack-and-slash mechanic is back and it’s great.
As is the tradition of the Diablo franchise, your weapon and armour drops become more powerful the higher your level. Your level 50 standard magic axe is going to out-perform your hard-to-find level 10 legendary axe. But that legendary axe you discovered 20 hours ago has some really cool traits such as Virulent Fist which pumps up your Cleave skill with the additional trait that “enemies killed by Cleave will explode. Inflicting a ton of damage on all nearby enemies.” The base damage of my level 10 legendary weapon had become obsolete and I had to give up on Virulent Fist?
That’s where the mechanic of “Essence Transfer” comes into play. You can visit a vendor in the game and “Extract” the special traits or essence found in your legendary weapons and gear. Once extracted, the weapon is destroyed, but you can now swap the trait in your new legendary weapons with the old essence that you had extracted. This is a really good mechanic as it lets you gain something meaningful from your obsolete but rare gear.
Controlling by touch tapping with my fingers was also a lot more intuitive than using the mouse and keyboard. In typical PC gaming control, the mouse hand controls movement and attack by clicking while the left hand needs to hit various keys to unleash different attacks. Touch controls were a lot simpler to execute.
Blizzard has always been known for its top-notch opening video cutscenes in all of its games. The Diablo franchise has always been the hallmark of that tradition, delivering expectations of a grand adventure before you even kill your first beast. The opening and subsequent cutscenes in Diablo Immortal are simply lacklustre. There is no excitement in it. The characters look bland and lack a realism that bears the hallmark of a great Blizzard game. I skipped almost all of them.
In an effort to make players spend money, many mechanics and side quests are introduced into the game so that you have to do a heap of side quests to get gazillion crafting resources. The link between these different resources is in shambles. They want you to grind, and encourage you to spend money to grind more efficiently. I understand the need for monetisation but after a while, I just got terribly bored of it all.
Blizzard could have taken this opportunity to redefine the mobile gaming genre with new gameplay innovations, but it relied on milking the cow of familiarity with old character classes and old character skills. Barbarian’s Whirlwind, Wizard’s Teleport, Demon Hunter’s Multishot – it’s all the same skills from the past. The game keeps sending you special offers for you to spend your real moolah. It’s not great, but it’s not unexpected.
There is an attempt to introduce player-vs-player mayhem by creating two different factions in the game – Immortals and Shadows – but the PvP mechanic is underdeveloped and just plain boring.
I hate mindless, endless grinding in a bid to unlock more and more powerful gear. I accept that a free-to-game must have elements to persuade players to spend money, but the way it was implemented was just weak.
But the pay-to-win mechanic is not what breaks the game. That’s because you don’t need the best gear to finish the campaign or to succeed in various mini-quests and dungeons.
All Diablo games work the same way. You spend 50 hours before you kill the final boss in the first playthrough. Then you increase the game difficulty and start the story campaign all over again, unlocking even more powerful gear, to take on more powerful versions of the creatures and bosses you have to kill. Most players will rinse and repeat this story run many many times. It offers replayability.
Diablo Immortal overhauls that tradition by giving you only one run to complete the story campaign. When you kill the final boss, quite effortlessly, there is no option to start a new campaign at a higher difficulty. After that, you can increase the difficulty level but only to engage in short dungeons and challenges, all of which is an endless, mindless grind to get more and more powerful gear. Just complete the same dungeon 10 times to get the drop that you want.
There is no satisfaction in gearing up to beat the final boss after another 50-hour campaign run. One replayable quest called The Assembly even has you entering a giant hall with your friends to receive periodic blessings; you gain four blessings by just hanging around to gain some virtual currencies.
The game tries to keep you busy by letting you do a lot of other stuff after you kill the final boss – rifts, dungeons, bounties, contracts, lotteries, PvP battlegrounds and wars among clans. There’s so much to do to increase your power, except you can’t kill the final boss again.
The game sends you on an exhilarating non-stop roller-coaster ride for the first 40 hours. But right after you kill the final boss and realise that can’t start on another campaign to kill it again at a higher difficulty level, you realise that the game has lost the main reason for its replayability. I tried very much to fall in love with Diablo Immortal but like a failed relationship, there was just no turning back.