It’s been several years since the original Diablo was released in late 1996. Capitalizing on the weak PC RPG market at the time, the game sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and has been a fan favorite ever since then. Featuring random dungeons, three character classes to choose from, and addictively simple gameplay, Diablo created a rabid fan-base. Nearly three years in development, Diablo II was released last month, and has been purchased by over a million gamers since then.
Diablo II proves to be just as addictive as the original, while offering gamers more of what they wanted. However, there are some nagging technical problems that hurt the game, and while they will eventually be resolved, they can’t be overlooked.
Diablo and Mephisto and Baal, oh my!
Diablo II takes place not long after the original. The Wanderer, who defeated Diablo in the bowels of Hell, returned to a hero’s welcome in the small town of Tristram. Gradually, however, his demeanor changed – he became withdrawn, isolated, and angry. Soon after, the Wanderer left Tristram, speaking of reuniting with his two brothers in the East – despite the fact that the Wanderer had been thought to be without a family.
Soon after, Tristram was savagely set upon by hordes of demons, and the trail of destruction followed the Dark Wanderer. The game begins in an encampment of the rogues known as the Sisters of the Sightless Eye, as you are charged with the task of finding the source of the evil plaguing the land – and to stop it at all costs.
The original Diablo was notable for its limited plot, which was best described as “Kill Diablo”. Diablo II improves somewhat on this, as there is a decent plot that develops as you quest. While not particularly interesting or complex, it does give some character development, a reason to journey, and something to focus on besides the action. The story is largely told via video sequences between the Acts, which tell the tale of Marius, a man chosen to accompany the Dark Wanderer in his travels. You can also discuss quests with the various people in the towns, which help provide a bit more information that can be useful.
Still, the point should be made that anyone who plays RPGs for complex plots would be best served by not playing Diablo II. The plot’s certainly workable, but nothing special, and can ultimately be summarized just as well as the original’s.
If you were to simply look at the game, there would be no doubt in your mind that this is a game that came into development several years ago. For the first few minutes of play, you’ll probably be taken aback by the graphics. The only resolution available is 640×480, and on larger monitors, the pixelation will be quite bad – it’s readily apparent regardless of your monitor size.
However, when you get over the fact that yes, there is pixelation, the graphics are actually pretty good. Animation is fluid and well done – watching a character cast a spell or swing an axe is very nice to watch. Characters and monsters alike are highly detailed. The landscape is somewhat repetitive, but there are lots of little things in the backgrounds, like insects walking on the ground, shadows thrown by objects, and so forth. The amount of detail in general is quite nice, and makes up for the low resolution.
The night and day cycles are interesting, with light radius being a major factor at night, where you can barely see beyond a certain point. Enemies that are frozen turn a bright blue shade, and poisoned enemies (and characters) turn green, reflecting their status. Your appearance is dependent on what you’re wearing – a skull helm looks much different than a crown, and field plate makes you look different than simple leather armor. Playing online proves interesting as you see the wide variety of ways people can be equipped – and what they look like as a result of it. Overall, there are a lot of little details that aren’t immediately evident, but add up to a rather cohesive whole.
Video sequences are present before each act and during the epilogue, and are extremely well done – some of the highest quality video sequences around, actually. There is incredible detail present in the videos, and even though they can be skipped, they’re worth viewing at least once, if not more.
Music is much as it was in the original Diablo – ambient and forgettable. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, and the tunes are very well done – it’s just that they’re not something you’ll want to be listening to outside of the game. They add to the spooky atmosphere, and that’s pretty much it. You’re not going to be missing much if you turn the music off, but if you like them, they help immerse you that much more.
Sound effects are good, though, and high quality. Enemies have distinctive sounds, from the Fallen yelling the names of their heroes, to spiders clicking as they walk, and clouds of insects buzzing. You’ll hear arrows being launched and spells being cast, which can be a great aid when you’re not sure what’s coming. While some sounds are heard quite often (such as your footsteps as you run and the sound of a spell being cast), it’s never a case of them becoming annoying. EAX support is available, which helps pinpoint where things may be happening.
Point, click, click, F2, click, point…
If you never played Diablo, it should be established right now that Diablo II is as much action as RPG, if not more so. Gameplay can get downright frantic, and you’ll be doing a lot of clicking with the mouse – a LOT. Fundamentally, the play is the same as the original Diablo, with a few minor differences.
This time around, there are 5 classes to choose from. The Warrior, Rogue and Sorcerer of the original all show up during the game, but they’re mercenaries – you can pay a bit of money and get one to help you out until they die. As such, we’ve got 5 all-new classes to choose from. The Barbarian wins the Big Mean Guy award, being a hulking brute who simply picks up a weapon (or two – the Barbarian is the only class that can dual wield) and chops through any and all monsters in his path. His abilities include Warcries, passive abilities (such as increased power, stamina, and speed), and combat abilities.
The Paladin is the holy warrior, mixing attacks with magical auras. He has combat abilities, and both offensive and defensive auras – which affect all party members in range, making the Paladin a great guy to have around in multiplayer.
Next is the Amazon, the descendant of the rogue. She’s as good with the bow as the Rogue in the original, except she’s also deadly with spears and javelins, and has some passive and magical skills on the side.
The Sorceress is also similar to the Sorcerer of the original, and she’s a master of the elements – fire, cold, and lightning.
Last, but certainly not least is the Necromancer, who can curse his enemies, cast various nasty spells, and raise an army of skeletons and golems to do his bidding.
To develop these characters, there is a new skill system in place. Each character class has 30 skills and abilities unique to their class. These are divided into three trees (such as the Sorceress’s Cold tree, Fire tree, and Lightning tree). Skills can’t be used until they’ve got at least one point put into them, and most skills have prerequisites and level requirements – you can’t get your ultimate skills until you hit level 30. Each level up yields one skill point that can be used, and several more can be gained by doing quests, but there’s always a question of where to put your points. Is it better to concentrate on one particular tree of a character, or to get a little bit of everything? Build up one or two skills to their maximum limits, or go with a variety? Replay value is heightened, as the number of ways to play a character is quite numerous.
The stats are similar to those in the original Diablo. There’s Strength, which determines how much melee damage you do, how heavy a weapon you can use, and how bulky your armor can be. Dexterity impacts your Attack Rating (chance to hit an enemy), defense, and which weapons you can use. Vitality affects the number of HP you have and how much stamina you have (which depletes as you run and recharges when you’re walking or standing still). Energy is simply a measure of how much Mana you have, which is crucial for all classes now, since many skills use Mana.
Unlike the original, there are no elixirs to boost stats – the points you get for leveling up (and completing one quest) are all you have, so you have to choose wisely how you want to use them. There are no stat limits now, though, so it’s possible to put points wherever you see fit without having to worry about there being a class cap – if you want to have your Sorceress get 170 strength to use the strongest armor, you can – but at the expense of your other stats.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the original Diablo was finding treasure and figuring out if you could use it or not. Diablo II has taken this aspect and expanded it greatly. There are now additional inventory slots – you can now equip gloves, boots, and a belt (with some belts having more room to store potions in). While many of the prefixes and suffixes of the original return (Silver items have better chances to hit, items of the Bat drain mana when you hit an enemy, and so forth), there are many new ones (items of Fortune increase the chance of finding magical items, Triumphant items give you additional mana as you kill enemies, Fletcher items raise all Amazon skills, etc.)
There are also entirely new categories of items. Unique items return – they’ve got fixed statistics, have multiple magical abilities, and are generally quite powerful. Rares make their debut – they’re like a combination of Uniques and magical items, as they’ve got entirely random stats and abilities – but have more abilities than conventional Rares. One example I found was the “Carrion Knuckle” gloves, with a bonus to my light radius, fire resistance, stamina, life, dexterity, and attack speed. To round out the list are the powerful Set items – pieces of equipment formerly belonging to a legendary adventurer. Each of these pieces of equipment is unique and generally nice. Each set has between 3 and 6 pieces – and when an entire set is completed and equipped, new abilities and bonuses appear on top of the bonuses given by the individual items.
Last, but not least, come gems and socketed weapons. There are 6 types of gems, as well as skulls, and each is of varying quality. Taken by themselves, gems are useless, but when you find socketed items, they become useful. Socketed items are regular helms, shields, or weapons, with spaces for 1-3 gems. When gems or skulls are placed into the sockets, the equipment gains new, useful abilities. Skulls in a helmet give bonuses to mana and life regeneration. Diamonds in a shield boost all your resistances, and sapphires in a weapon give the weapon cold damage. By acquiring and using gems, characters can make equipment for themselves that fit their particular needs.
Control is rock solid, and just as nice as in the original. You move using the mouse, and can set abilities to both the left and right mouse buttons. The number of hotkeys has been expanded from 4 to 8, so it’s easy to set up a control scheme that works for you – you can switch spells or abilities at the touch of a button, making it extremely easy to adapt to the flow of battle. Being able to run makes a huge difference to the speed of the game, as it’s easy to do hit and run strikes, move between areas, and so forth. You can highlight all treasure on the ground by pressing a single key, which makes finding and getting items a breeze. Overall, the control has taken all the great aspects from the original Diablo and refined them.
The game is huge – there are 4 acts, and with the exception of the 4th act (which is slightly smaller), each of them covers as much territory as the original Diablo, if not more. There’s a lot to explore, and the variety in locations helps prevent boredom. Waypoints have been added, so once you’ve reached a location, you can go back there anytime simply by visiting waypoints – allowing quick travel between locations, or even the different acts.
There are 21 quests in the game, and they’re the same each time you create a game. Unlike Diablo, the quests in Diablo II are all available in both single player and multiplayer games, so it’s largely a matter of preference as to which you prefer to play. Most of the quests involve killing creatures to get items, or simply killing creatures for the sake of killing them, but there’s enough variety involved that it doesn’t really get old. Quest rewards range from additional skill points, to stat increases, to rare items. You don’t have to do all the quests, but it’s generally a good idea to do them all anyway.
Finally, like the original Diablo, there are three difficulty levels – Normal, Nightmare, and Hell. To trigger Nightmare and Hell now, you must defeat the game on the prior setting, so you can’t jump into Nightmare games to get more loot and then go back to Normal to finish the game. Nightmare and Hell also provide much of the difficulty of the game – whereas the extra difficulty settings in the original didn’t add that much challenge, Diablo II’s Nightmare and Hell modes are exceptionally difficult – monsters have huge numbers of hit points, stronger attacks, better resistances, and generally make your life difficult. There are even penalties to your character’s base resistances and experience penalties upon death in the higher difficulty levels, to make it even harder to survive. Naturally, there are suitable rewards for the risk, but advancing in Nightmare and Hell is nowhere near as simple as it was in the original.
Failed to Join Game
It’s a shame that the biggest flaw of Diablo II is currently the online play – through Blizzard’s free service, Battle.net.
Veterans of Diablo remember the problems with the original – after a few months, people had hacked the game to give them god-like characters, incredible items, and generally served to ruin the game for other people. To circumvent these issues, Blizzard has created the Realms – closed-server characters. Realm characters are stored on Blizzard’s servers, and the servers continually check the game data during the games to make sure that cheating isn’t happening. The Realms were a dream come true for many gamers, who saw a lot of the enjoyment of the original disappear when cheating became prevalent.
The success of Diablo II has been a problem for Blizzard. Despite several betas and a stress test, Battle.net was simply not prepared for the number of gamers attempting to play online, particularly in the Realms. The numbers of games have been limited, making it a pain to create or even join games in existence. Lag is a problem, with many character deaths being caused by lag spikes or general slow play.
Realm play isn’t the only option, of course. Single player is an option, and fun. Single player characters can actually be taken online, as “Open” characters – people can play Battle.net games with characters they store on their own computers, as was done with the original. These characters are subject to the same problems with cheating as in Diablo – within a few weeks of the game being released, various cheat utilities have surfaced. For purists, it can be an issue.
I’m confident that Blizzard will get Battle.net up to speed – there have been server updates, additional bandwidth added, and patches are forthcoming to help with some of the various online performance issues. As it stands, though, it’s a definite strike against Diablo II, and it’s rather unfortunate.
More of the Same
In the end, however, the technical problems are simply that – problems. They’ll be resolved. In the meantime, there’s single player, there’s Open characters, and if you’ve got the patience, you can use the Realms. Despite the bugs, there’s one simple conclusion – Diablo II is a hell of a lot of fun.
It’s essentially the perfect sequel – it’s more of the same. If you loved Diablo, you’ll love Diablo II – there are more characters, more areas, more skills, more treasures, and a lot more challenge. If you never played Diablo, give Diablo II a shot – it’s got simple, yet amazingly addictive gameplay, and there’s a whole lot to like.
Its got a solid single player game, terrific multi-player aspects, and is a blast to play. What else can you ask for?
Note: In the end, I’m forced to dock Diablo II’s score about 5 points simply because of all the bugs and technical issues. When they’re resolved, the score shall be adjusted. Regardless, my score shouldn’t matter – pick the game up and enjoy it!