Every year Blizzard fans around the world gather around their screens (or in person at the Anaheim Convention Center) to see what will be announced for their favourite games, and this year we got a surprise as the studio revealed a new Diablo game. Diablo 4 it is not, but instead it's a mobile game developed in conjunction with NetEase Inc. called Diablo Immortal, one that's set in between the events of 2 and 3, and we got to try it for ourselves on a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 at the event.
If you were watching the opening ceremony for the yearly event you'll no doubt have seen the cinematic trailer above as well as the gameplay video below, both of which give us an insight into what to expect. Basically, it's the same deal as always, since evil has invaded the land five years after the shattering of the Worldstone, and you have to hack and/or slash your way through evil beings to save humanity once more.
As the narrator in the trailer is quick to point out though, you'll need a bit of help to fight back against evil, and this points to the social side of the game. It's a shared world experience - as explained to us by Blizzard when we spoke to them in Anaheim - which means players just wander in and out of your adventure on the fly. We got a taste of this during our session where the linked devices meant we were lent a helping hand on more than one occasion when crushing our foes.
"This game has definitely been designed with social features in mind from the get-go," Blizzard's Helen Cheng told us. "So it is a public, shared experience, a lot of the zones are shared, so you will be able to see other players running around the world with you. In addition to that, there's loads of multiplayer content, so dungeons - you can team up with up to four people and go and slay evil demons and monsters." It also utilises a lot of the Battle.net platform features as well, including social elements like friends, which you can access in this game.
That's not to say that the lone wolves will always have to run with the pack because upon entering these dungeons an option flashes up on the screen which lets you choose between playing them solo or grouping up with a party. We chose the latter, at which point we got a matchmaking screen where players were recruited and we headed off to face danger together, so don't worry about players always getting in your business.
So far so good, but the burning question for many fans will be whether it feels like a Diablo game even on mobile. The answer to that is "yes" because we felt it played quite like Diablo 3. In other words, it felt like a modern Diablo game but just on a smaller screen, and this is mostly because it looks the part in terms of visuals. The camera, movement style, format, and colours all scream Diablo, and even sitting on the menu screen we felt like we were entering into a Diablo experience.
The controls are similar to what we've seen in a lot of other mobile games in the sense that a movable on-screen stick controls movement on the left side of the screen, and various button prompts are linked to your attacks. There's one main button for your basic attack, with five smaller buttons for abilities around it, and the beauty of this system is that when you hold these ability buttons you can then drag and aim your abilities, maximising their potency. Then there are some other smaller button prompts like health, inventory, and pop-ups to quickly equip items once you've picked them up. It's all very intuitive and it all clicked right from the offset.
"It is unique, touch mechanics that you have to put into it," developer Dan Elggren explained. "It's something that we iterate constantly on, and it's something we'll continue to iterate on, but those different mechanics and how they sort of play out - I think it's starting to be more and more proven with a lot of different mobile games [...] I think it's those new, unique mechanics that I think are gonna make this game really play well on a mobile device."
Blizzard hasn't slacked on the details here either, which we can see even now (a far way off from release, we assume, since a launch window hasn't been given). For example, when the Monk performs a flying kick ability and hits a wall, he bounces off it to deliver a flying blow to a nearby enemy, and Cheng was even telling us about how you can combine abilities, like a whirlwind after a meteor strike to spread fire around the battlefield.
In the demo we got to play we saw three classes, and played as the Monk and the Barbarian, both of which had five abilities at their disposal. It's unclear if we'll get more abilities, but what was there was fun to use and devastating if deployed at the right time. The Monk, for example, could pull enemies close to him and then devastate them with an area-of-effect attack, while the Barbarian's mighty hammer attack was great for brute-forcing your way through crowds.
When it comes to the full game we'll see six classes - Barbarian, Monk, Necromancer, Wizard, Crusader, and Demon Hunter - but Cheng said that the team are exploring options to bring "other heroes" to the game too. We can also expect eight outdoor zones and seven dungeons at launch (we hope there will be more added afterwards) including familiar locations like Dark Wood from Diablo II, as well as new zones and a hub area of Westmarch, where players can interact with one another.
We couldn't leave our interview without asking about monetisation, a word that's relevant not only in AAA games but also in the mobile space in particular, and Elggren said: "We're actually not ready to sort of talk about the monetisation strategy. We're still early and we want to focus first on the gameplay, that's one of our core values at Blizzard, to make sure that we create a strong game that we love playing, and then those other elements will come along later."
If you happened to even take a cursory glance at discussions in the Diablo community since Immortal was announced you'll have noticed that it hasn't gone down well with everyone, and while we can't comment on the similarities pointed out between Immortal and other mobile RPGs (regarding control schemes and UI specifically), what we can say is that it feels like Diablo with minimal compromise. Sure, there's likely to be fewer abilities and less gore, but at its core, it still feels like the experience we expected.