To mark the launch of Diablo 2: Resurrected, we’re publishing our original review of Diablo 2. This review ran in PC Gamer UK issue 86 in September 2000. We’re working on a fresh review of Diablo 2: Resurrected now the game is live, and you can find Fraser’s impressions here (opens in new tab).
My arm hurts. And while there are some things I want to say about Diablo II which are by no means in its favour, my criticisms ultimately count for nothing when set against that pervasive muscular ache. Although I will call it repetitive and unoriginal, claim that it encourages inelegant play, and curse its fetishistic immaturity, the plain, painful fact is that Diablo II is the most brutally addictive game I’ve played since Half-Life. It devours time. You sit down for a quick play—just to find the next dungeon, you tell yourself; just to get your bearings in the next section—then you regain consciousness with the alarm clock ringing from the bedroom and an arm so tensed from all-night mouse-clicking that it barely feels part of you any more.
The game’s fundamental hypnotic appeal is obvious; a tried-and-tested formula. You create a puny and impoverished character, then run around a fantasy world fighting monsters. Your efforts are rewarded with increasingly powerful weapons, armour and magical items, and an alter-ego which grows in ability as he or she gains experience. As the game progresses, then, you get to tackle more powerful monsters… and are rewarded with even heftier power-ups… which enables you to defeat even more powerful monsters… which results in a still further enhanced player-character… and so on.
This is the paradigm for almost every computer role-playing game, from the ASCII-character dungeons of mainframe Hack to the party-based questings of Baldur’s Gate. The ongoing incentive is always the prospect of a slightly higher number just around the corner—the Axe of Craftsmanship (Damage 3-12) to supercede your existing Axe (Damage 3-11), or the Glorious Chain Gloves (Defence: 14) to replace the Superior Chain Gloves (Defence: 11). It tends to result in a lot of time spent jiggling inventories and gazing at stat screens, hoarding gold and wondering whether to buy that cool-looking magical weapon from the town merchant, or to wait until you stumble across something even better in some dungeon somewhere.
The genius of Diablo II is that it meets this RPG archetype head on, and does two very different things with it.
My arm hurts so very, very much.
Firstly, it embraces the stereotype, and offers the purest possible implementation of the primal dungeon-crawl experience. Stripped down to the bare essentials, Diablo II is a real-time all-action slaughter-fest with simple point-and-click controls, lots of monsters to kill, and thousands of subtly differentiated items for the player to accumulate and toy with. There’s no party to manage, no lengthy conversations to navigate, just your single all-conquering hero. Half a dozen non-player characters mooch about towns offering services on request, but none have any real personality—they’re just vending machines on legs. Once out of town, everything you’ll encounter is unequivocally ‘bad’ and must be swiftly dispatched to Hell; the quests which structure progression through the game are all, basically, “go to this place and slay everything you find there.” (The places tend to be called things like “The Den of Evil”—no, really.)
In classic fashion, you’ll trade items back at the town, and upgrade your character’s capabilities with every increase in level. As you start to care for their development, you’ll really begin to appreciate the enormous selection of items on offer in the game, and find yourself getting quite anxious as you choose whether or not to make room in your inventory for the Triumphant Claymore—which would mean ditching the Platinum Spetum of Bashing you’ve been carrying around (and I’m not making these up).
(Image credit: Future)
It sounds a bit complicated, but it works well. The main weakness, of course, is that a careful player will rarely lose much more than a few minutes’ bother over a death—but the main strength is a removal of that ‘just-saved’ safety-net from all game choices. You’re forced to think much more seriously about major choices than you would in a conventional save-anywhere game. And that can only be welcomed.
With doom lurking around every corner, then, Diablo II tends to foster conservative play. As you get obsessive about the size of your stash, you’ll find yourself repeatedly teleporting from dungeon to town to bank every last bit of treasure and ensure you’re always in tip-top shape for the next encounter. This can get a bit laborious.
And of course Diablo II compares unfavourably with a pure-bred fantasy-set RPG like Baldur’s Gate in terms of variety, plot and dialogue. But the model here is Gauntlet, not Black Isle’s recent forays into the genre. It’s designed to be an accessible action-RPG with mass-market appeal, a compelling multiplayer mode and long-lasting depth. And on those terms it succeeds magnificently.
The excellently differentiated character types, and the fantastic breadth of skills available within these classes, makes this a game which is genuinely worth playing several times over, trying different characters and tactics each time. In fact, I’d play it from the beginning again right now—as a Sorceress, this time—were it not for the fact that my arm hurts so very, very much…
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