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Way back in 1997, the small but dedicated Blizzard North team released Diablo - a gothic action-RPG about exploring vast, procedurally-generated tunnels underneath the town of Tristram and slaying the demonic Lord of Terror lurking within.
These days, Diablo could be considered a shining example of a roguelite - a game that takes some inspirations from Rogue but doesn’t follow the traditional roguelike formula too closely, or at all.
Back then, though, Diablo’s success spawned an entire new genre of action-RPGs known predominantly as Diablo clones. That success resulted in an even more successful sequel that took Diablo’s ideas and elevated them to an entirely new level, while admittedly losing some of the original’s gothic charm along the way.
And seeing how Diablo II launched way back in 2000, but the genre of Diablo clones is still going strong, we figured we might as well take a closer look at this seminal classic of loot-driven hack ‘n’ slash dungeon crawlers to see how it compares to some of its modern counterparts.
An Obligatory Stay Awhile and Listen Joke Goes Here
At its core, Diablo II is a game about clicking on monsters and getting showered in loot as a reward. This simple formula is surprisingly easy to get wrong, but when executed properly, it becomes highly addictive.
What Diablo II offers in this area is variety. We get items of varying rarity enhanced by numerous randomized prefixes and suffixes. We also get unique and set items that eschew randomness in favor of strong predetermined bonuses. And then on top of that, we also get socketed items that we can manually customize by using special gems and jewels. And if we go even further, we can find runes that essentially act as jewels, but if you use them in the right order, transform your item into a mighty artifact.
The game’s bestiary is also quite diverse, with pretty much every monster possessing some unique feature, be it the lowly Fallen that run away when their comrades fall in battle, the Fallen Shamans that resurrect their less magically-inclined brethren, or the nightmare-inducing Scarabs that respond to you hitting them by producing deadly lightning sparks.
And as opposed to the original Diablo where you explored the caverns and catacombs of a single town, Diablo II offers five expansive acts full of content, quests, and dungeons. And while the general progression through these acts is set in stone, the game’s maps are randomized and feature plenty of optional side areas.
Combine it all together with seven playable classes, each with numerous viable builds, and a strong multiplayer component, and you get a game that can be played for a very long time without getting stale.
When Diablo II launched, it managed to drop at just the right time to resonate with pretty much the entirety of my social circle. Back then, the question wasn’t if you played Diablo II. It was whether you played a Barbarian or a Necromancer.
And coming back to the game after all these years, I was immediately hit with a wave of nostalgia and was able to recite the introductory lines of every first act NPC from memory. The game’s atmosphere is just that strong.
Now, I still maintain that the atmosphere in the original Diablo is stronger, but the second game isn’t nearly as far behind as I remembered. In fact, for years, I was convinced that Diablo II was too fast and lacked the tension of the original. And while that’s still true to some extent, compared to the big action-RPGs of today, its pace is positively glacial.
I mean this in the best way possible. After playing a lot of Path of Exile where a single spell can clear a couple of screens worth of enemies, playing a game where even the common monsters can surround you and pose a threat is refreshing.
And while this overall sense of danger, paired with the game’s stylized visuals that honestly look pretty nice even today, is a big part of what makes Diablo II’s atmosphere work, its audio is perhaps an even bigger contributor to what makes it stand out.
Composed by Matt Uelmen, the game’s soundtrack is simply phenomenal. The voice acting is also way ahead of its time. But even the game’s miscellaneous sound effects that play while you’re tinkering with the menus and engaging in some inventory Tetris are exceedingly crisp and memorable.
Even more impressive here is the fact that Blizzard North wasn’t working with some established blueprint. They were pretty much creating this genre from the ground up, and it’s a real testament to their skills that a lot of Diablo II’s systems remain the gold standard even to this day.
On the flip side, this absence of an established template means that the game can feel a bit wild and disjointed, especially when we look at it through the lens of our modern sensibilities.
Take character progression for example. I think at this point, pretty much everyone knows that David Brevik came up with Diablo II’s skill trees in the shower. And while that game wasn’t the first to ever have skill (or rather tech) trees, it was the one to popularize them as an RPG thing. In fact, these days, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a video game that doesn’t have at least some “RPG elements,” which more often than not just means skill trees.
However, Diablo II’s attributes weren’t nearly as impactful. And truth be told, they serve very little purpose, since pretty much every build in existence advises you to pump Strength and Dexterity until you can wear your desired gear, then put everything else in Vitality while ignoring Energy altogether.
The rest of the game follows the same formula, where some of its features are mighty handy while others are completely superfluous. As a result, we have a button that highlights loot and the ability to remap keys (something certain games don’t let you do even today), but then, there’s also stuff like Stamina that has no real reason to exist.
Then, there’s also some stuff that can only be seen as a quaint remnant of a long-lost age where game development was much less of an exact science. I’m talking about things like the day-night cycle. If you think about it, Diablo II doesn’t need a day-night cycle. It’s a complete waste of resources. But I firmly believe it exists solely because some developer thought it would be cool to have it. And I wholeheartedly agree. It is cool to have it.
Another thing that doesn’t get nearly enough credit in my opinion, is the game’s narrative side. It’s very easy to ignore the story in an action-RPG, but if you follow Deckard Cain’s advice and spend some time listening, you’ll be treated to plenty of engaging lore painting a grand picture of this battle between Heaven and Hell with humans caught in-between.
Playing through Diablo II for the purposes of this retrospective, it struck me how similar its narrative style is to something like Dark Souls, where you’re thrown into a dying fantasy world barely holding on for dear life. Should you decide to learn more about it, you'll need to chat up a bunch of NPCs who never have the full picture and just feed you a few dialogue lines at a time. Or, you can just ignore all of that and go bash some skeletons. It’s your choice. And seeing how both series share some other surface-level similarities, like strong but brittle crystal weapons, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Diablo was among the inspirations for Dark Souls. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to confirm this theory and it’ll have to remain just that.
Beyond even that, it’s also quite fun to examine Diablo II within the context of other Blizzard titles. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it endlessly amusing how the game’s Druid and Paladin skills, for example, have so very clearly influenced World of Warcraft’s class design.
In fact, if you were to look at the projects developed by the members of the Blizzard North team after their take on Diablo III was scrapped and the studio got absorbed into Blizzard Entertainment, you’d see that they had a hand in many a notable project.
After leaving Blizzard North, Bill Roper, David Brevik, Erich Schaefer and Max Schaefer founded Flagship Studios alongside some other Blizzard North people and created Hellgate: London, a cult-classic first/third-person action-RPG that was ahead of its time and can be seen as a precursor to the massive these days Destiny-style looter-shooter games.
Following that, the Schaefer brothers founded Runic Games, the studio behind the Torchlight series, the third entry in which was recently released by Echtra Games. That one was founded by Max Schaefer, while Erich, together with Runic’s co-founder Travis Baldree, went on to work on the Rebel Galaxy series as Double Damage Games.
In the meantime, David Brevik worked with Turbine to create Dungeons & Dragons Online, then became a one-man team in Graybeard Games, and is now running Skystone Games, an indie-facing publishing house. And Bill Roper joined Cryptic Studios to work on Champions Online and Star Trek Online, and then followed that up as the VP/GM of Disney Interactive Studios.
This list can honestly go way deeper and include numerous other team members, studios, and projects. But even the above few paragraphs should be enough to drive the point across - even though they didn’t create a lot of games, Blizzard North is a studio with a vast and lasting legacy.
And this brings us to Diablo III. In its early days, the game was notorious for unnecessary online connectivity issues, simplified systems, and the real money auction house. And while it’s only natural to blame the game’s less than ideal launch on the absence of those Blizzard North veterans, it’s not like the game was developed by unpaid interns. It was helmed by Jay Wilson who you may know as the lead designer on Relic’s Dawn of War series, while the game’s story was shaped by none other than Leonard Boyarsky of Interplay and Troika fame.
So even though its initial launch left a lot to be desired, most of the issues mentioned above have been fixed by now, and Diablo III remains a popular choice for action-RPG enthusiasts to this day.
Other than Diablo III, if you’re looking to play something in the vein of the second Diablo, you have plenty of options now, with two other major players being Grim Dawn and Path of Exile.
They all offer a unique take on the formula and attempt to fix some of Diablo II’s perceived issues. And while for the most part, it’s an admirable undertaking, occasionally those attempts lead to disastrous results, like how Path of Exile’s solution to Diablo II’s over-reliance on potions led to these rechargeable flasks that somehow ended up in a position where you’re encouraged to mindlessly press 1 through 5 on your keyboard every 5 seconds.
At the same time, those three titles do a pretty good job of improving Diablo II’s rather monotonous approach to difficulty levels. There, you have to essentially beat the game’s campaign three times to get to the end. And if you want to then try a different character, you’ll need to repeat this journey from the very beginning.
In order to save you the trouble, Grim Dawn offers these so-called Merit tokens that allow you to beat the game once, and then instantly unlock the higher difficulties for your new characters. Diablo III, instead, now has a campaign-lite adventure mode and scalable difficulty settings. And starting with The Fall of Oriath expansion, Path of Exile has one big continuous campaign.
Even so, Diablo II can still definitely hold its own against its modern counterparts. That is with the exception of one major issue. Endgame. Diablo II essentially has none. You go through the game’s three difficulties, maybe hunt an Uber boss or two, and that’s that.
In that regard, Diablo III offers an essentially endless progression with Paragon levels, the increasingly difficult Greater Rifts, and seasonal challenges. Grim Dawn throws you into the endless depths of the Shattered Realm. And Path of Exile invites you to explore its Atlas of Worlds that essentially acts as an endgame campaign, and shakes things up once every few months with a new Challenge League.
Those approaches are infinitely better than whatever Diablo II has, but if you’re not looking for a continuous experience and just want a good campaign, then Diablo II is still a very much viable option.
Getting It to Work
So, how do you actually play the game today? After all, it was originally released over two decades ago. Well, for starters, you can buy a digital copy directly from Blizzard, although be aware that it won’t be added to your Battle.net client. You’ll need to manually install the game by using a couple of ancient-looking .exe files and then maybe run the game in compatibility mode before it updates itself to the latest version.
Other than that, the game runs just fine on a modern system, and its low resolution isn’t really a problem due to the relatively timeless art style.
If you’re looking to play alone, you can either go singleplayer or create a Battle.net character, which will give you access to some special events and an expanded library of Runewords. However, from what I gather, Diablo II’s Battle.net exists with little to no supervision, and as a result, is plagued by bots and cheaters.
If you’d like to avoid those, you can use the popular PlugY mod to get access to the Battle.net features in a singleplayer game, some quality of life features on top of that, and an expanded stash, which is absolutely crucial.
And if you’re looking for some online action, you can once again take the Battle.net route, or just connect directly to your friends. The latter approach will require you to do some port forwarding, but it’s not that big a deal, and it will allow you to utilize mods in multiplayer.
When all is said and done, Diablo II isn’t exactly a Jagged Alliance 2-type situation where a twenty-year-old game can still be considered the undisputed champion of its genre, but it’s not that far off from its modern counterparts. It does some things better, others worse, and in the end, it’s still a mighty enjoyable experience capable of entertaining you for hours upon hours.
You add a healthy dose of nostalgia, the game’s overall significance, and the relative ease of playing it today, and you get a title that pretty much everyone should have in their library.
And with Diablo IV already in development, and looking pretty good based on some early previews, we may still get a chance to listen to a new rendition of the Tristram theme and Whirlwind across the vast plains of Sanctuary.