Anticipation can be a good thing. Letting the excitement build up until you just can’t stand to wait one…more…second. On the other hand, waiting so long that what was once eager anticipation slides down the scale towards anger and frustration is not a good thing. Not a good thing at all, and Diablo 2 was well on its way to the latter. What started as pleasant rumors of a spring release became terrified whispers of September or later. All the while, Blizzard stuck to their guns: It’ll be done when it’s done. So we waited…and waited. Some were lucky enough to play the beta, while others began to wonder if it would ever come out at all. But low and behold, the day finally came. It was not a cruel hoax, not a sick joke. Diablo 2 is real, and it is here! But is it all that it was hyped to be? Was all the waiting worth it? We shall see.
Diablo 2 picks up right where the original left off. Diablo, the Lord of Terror, has been defeated by the hero of Tristram and all that was wrong has now been put right, right? Wrong. One does not slay one of the three Prime Evils so easily, and the Lord of Terror has no intention of going out without a fight. Possessing the body of the warrior who defeated him, Diablo sets out to the east on a quest to free his brothers: Baal, the Lord of Destruction, and Mephisto, the Lord of Hatred. And just guess who’s job it is to stop him? Lucky you.
In the original Diablo, you had the choice of fighting the minions of evil as one of three characters: the Warrior, the Rogue, or the Sorcerer. But other than a difference in attack speeds, attribute maximums, and a single barely useable skill, there wasn’t much to set the different characters apart. The differences between members of the same class were even more under-whelming; the only thing that really set one Warrior apart from another was equipment (not that this made hacking goatmen and other such nasties into little pieces any less fun). But for Diablo 2, Blizzard upped the ante. This time around you get to choose from five brand new character classes (though players of Diablo will definitely see similarities): the Barbarian, the Paladin, the Necromancer, the Sorceress, and the Amazon. Each class possesses a set of unique skills, making each of the characters this time around very different to play.
Once you’ve picked your character, you’re ready to leap right into the action. Like the first game, much of your time is spent exploring areas and turning countless monsters into bloody kibbles by clicking frantically all over your screen. The game is still played using the mouse and keyboard hotkeys, and while a good amount of control customization is allowed this time there are a few puzzling restrictions; the left mouse button can only be configured to use direct attack skills, there is no way to cycle the left and right mouse button skills independently, and certain keys cannot be changed. Characters can now run, though running continuously will drain your stamina and you’ll have to walk for a while before you can run again. Another welcome improvement is the ability to continuously attack a target by holding down the mouse button, though you will likely find yourself in a berserker clicking frenzy in some of the more heated battles (or if you just like to). But perhaps the best improvement of all is the ability to see all objects on the ground with the push of a single button, a major improvement over the hunt and peck method made necessary in the original. Even with the restrictions, the controls are very good, and with a little customization and a little practice you’ll have no trouble mixing it up with the forces of evil.
And mix it up you will. While Diablo never strayed from the small town of Tristram and the one dungeon below the monastery, Diablo 2 takes you all across the world. The fighting travels through four Acts, each with its own town and landscape; from lush jungles to harsh deserts, into caves and ruins, and even into Hell itself. Much of the game now takes place outside, and while the variety of scenery is definitely an improvement, some of the great outdoors can be a little difficult to explore. All transitions within the Acts are smooth in Diablo 2. Gone are the days of waiting for the little bar to fill up before you can explore the next level (don’t be sad, though, you’ll get to see the little bar every time you start a new game and when moving between Acts). Diablo 2 features a load-as-you-go system which works very well on faster systems, but can cause some lag on slower systems with less RAM in certain situations. Blizzard has a set of performance fixes on their web page for people who have problems, featuring old favorites like allocating more virtual memory and playing in windowed mode.
Since much of the game takes place outside, a day/night cycle has been added and the forecast in the land of Diablo now calls for occasional rain. With so much territory to cover, it’s a good thing Blizzard added a system of waypoints with which to get around. Waypoints are scattered throughout the wilderness, as well as in major dungeons and in each town. Once activated by touching them they can be used to instantly teleport to any other active waypoint (unless you’re going from one Act to another, then you get a visit from our good friend the little bar). Not only did Blizzard give us a bigger world for Diablo 2, but they gave us mass transit as well. It sure beats walking.
Each of the four towns (really three and a little bit) has NPCs for you talk to, buy equipment and get quests from. Just like in the original, NPCs still talk to you about any of the quests you’re on, and have a few lines of gossip that they’ll share if you’re willing to ask. Each town has a blacksmith, a dealer in wands and staves, and a seller of potions. A new feature is the ability to gamble on unidentified magic objects from one person in each town. Most of the time you pay a lot for trash, but sometimes you can get very powerful objects if you’re willing to take the risk. One of the more disappointing changes from the first game is the disappearance of the random quests. Each game of Diablo 2 has exactly the same quests. But what Blizzard takes with one hand, it gives back with the other. The absence of randomness allows Blizzard to tell the kind of complete story that can only come from a linear plot. Told through the quests, dialogs, and a series of amazing cinemas shown between Acts, Diablo 2 really gives you the feeling that the world is yours to save…or lose.
As you walk the earth, slaying monsters and leaving a trail of carnage in your wake, you will gain experience, and you will go up levels. This is where Diablo 2 really comes into its own, because now, in addition to the customary five points to add to your attributes, you also get one point to add to your character’s skills. In the original Diablo, there was one set of spells that was learnable by all three classes, provided your magic attribute was high enough. But those days are gone, and only the Town Portal and Identify spells remain useable by all. In Diablo 2, each character class has an individual set of skills that are broken down into three separate categories (Combat Skills, Combat Masteries, and War Cries for the Barbarian; Curses, Bone and Poison Spells, and Summoning Spells for the Necromancer; etc.). Each of the three categories forms a tree of skills; most skills have prerequisite skills as well as minimum level requirements (they don’t become available until levels 6, 12, 18, 24, or 30). Every level you get but one point to spend so you’d best spend them wisely, although there are a few select quests that give you additional points. This system allows for a great deal of character customization, making your choices in selecting the skills in which to excel very important, and adding a lot of replayability. Not only are there five very diverse characters, but also with a new arrangement of skills each can be made to play very differently.
The key to success in Diablo 2 is in finding a combination of skills that work well together. What is even better than that is finding a combination of characters using their skills to compliment each other. That’s when you really start to rock and roll. Yes, shocking though it may be, Blizzard designed this game with multiplayer very much in mind, and it shows. There are a number of different ways that you can play together with other people; connecting over a LAN, Blizzard’s new battle.net set-up, and over the Internet using your ISP. Characters used in single player games (called Open Characters) can be used in either LAN or Internet games as well, or played in Open games on battle.net. The ability to play games with up to eight people over the Internet is a great feature, and is a major improvement over the old direct modem connection that allowed only two people per game.
The game is played in more or less the same way in multiplayer as in single player mode. Whenever another player enters a game all of the monsters get tougher, which means you’d better work together or expect to have a hard time. Players can join together to form parties, agreeing to share experience and gold. Quests previously completed by the hosting player are unavailable during that game, but quests completed by any members of an adventuring party count for all members. Players can fight each other as well by ‘going hostile’ while in town, but killing other players isn’t made easy and the only reward for doing so is the gold they are carrying and a trophy ear for bragging rights. The feature seems to be included mainly for dueling purposes (Oh yeah, well I bet my Amazon can beat up your Barbarian!), though you never know what you’re getting into when playing with strange people online.
While LAN and Internet play is well done, all is not sunny and good in the area of multiplayer. One of the big selling points of Diablo 2 was Blizzard’s new server-based battle.net system. Diablo’s battle.net play was plagued by cheaters who used hacks to modify their characters to ridiculous levels and abilities. They were able to do this because the character files were stored locally on their computers, which is true for Open characters in Diablo 2 as well. But Blizzard had a new plan for Diablo 2’s battle.net: servers operated by Blizzard, broken down into a number of regional Realms, would house all battle.net characters and games. Good idea, but poor execution. Since its release, Diablo 2’s battle.net service has been atrocious. Character hacks may be a thing of the past, but so is the ability to reasonably play a game with even a manageable amount of lag. It was so bad at times that going through a waypoint proved instantly fatal, as monsters on the other side would kill you before you even saw what was happening. When you could see enough to even get into a fight, the lag was so bad that you could still swing your weapon at a monster and then walk away with no apparent effect, only to see the monster die a few seconds later as your phantom blow finally took effect (what I like to call the “Fist of the North Star Syndrome”). Blizzard continues to work on the problems and hopefully they will eventually fix them. Until then, forget the battle.net Realms feature of Diablo 2 even exists; it’ll save you a lot of time and spare you the headache. The one saving grace of battle.net is the auto-patch feature. Battle.net checks your version when you log on and automatically initiates a download of the latest patch if you don’t have it and installs it for you. Thankfully you don’t have to play on the Realms when you’re done.
Moving on to more positive things, Diablo 2 both looks and sounds great. There have been many complaints over the fact that Diablo 2 only supports one video resolution. It may not be state-of-the-art graphically but it still more than holds its own. The wide varieties of textures are nicely blended and realistic, the character and monster animations are smooth and representative of type; the massive Thorned Hulks lumber, the goblin-like Fallen Ones scurry. While 3D acceleration is not required, it is supported, adding dynamic lighting effects for certain spells and other extras. The sounds are likewise a success. The music is eerie and hauntingly atmospheric. The sound effects are nicely done as well; lightning bolts crackle, bones rattle as skeletons are raised or destroyed. A zombie just wouldn’t be a zombie if it didn’t moan a little as it shambled towards you, and Diablo 2 has all those nice little touches. Sounds aren’t just ear candy though, as they play an important role in the game as well. Traps all have a telltale sound just before they go off, and a careful ear can pick out the sound of a Fallen One shaman just around the corner or a Hollow One breathing heavily in the next room. The in-game voice acting is a mixture of good and less-good; Charsi the blacksmith may be a cheery voice in a troubled land, but Deckard Cain sounds like a wanna-be Sean Connery. The cinematics between Acts are nothing short of phenomenal. From the prologue to the epilogue and everything in between I was totally blown away. Sound and graphics don’t necessarily make or break a game, but they sure help, and while Blizzard stuck mostly to
the formula of the original Diablo, it all comes together nicely for Diablo 2.
Diablo 2 has taken a lot of heat for a lot of different things. Some of them are well deserved, and some of them are not. The graphics have been knocked for not being new enough, for not utilizing higher resolution video modes, and for not really using 3D tech. Perhaps this is just another casualty of longer development periods, technology changing faster than developers can keep up, or perhaps it was just an attempt to save time and money. I’m not here to make excuses for Blizzard, but the bottom line is that the graphics are very acceptable and in no way detract from the playability of the game. There are a lot of sounds from the first game (I’m not going to say “recycled”), but there are also a lot of new sounds and most of them are good. The music is similar to the first game, but hey, it is a sequel, right? A lot of the criticisms of this game seem to stem from the long (oh, so long) wait before it actually came out. This was a game that seemed to be “Coming Soon” forever, and that just maybe (feel the sarcasm) it was just a tad over-hyped during that period. It is also very clear that, as scary as it sounds, the release was rushed in the end. Blizzard was clearly not prepared for the sheer volume of people who would be flooding battle.net and their service was woefully ill equipped to handle the onslaught. More could have been done with the item pictures (there are many “unique” and set items that have the same art as normal items) as well as with the characters themselves (some way to change the coloring or further personalize your characters other than with equipment would have been nice). And in its own way, perhaps the most shameless display was Blizzard’s release of the first patch, fixing some major game bugs, days before Diablo 2 even hit stores.
But before you burn your Diablo poster, hit your Starcraft CD with a hammer, and write a vicious flame e-mail to everyone who’s ever worked for Blizzard, there’s something you might want to hear first: Diablo 2 is a very good game. Despite all of its problems, Diablo 2 is as much fun as any action game I’ve ever played and twice as addictive. Play it by yourself, or better yet with a bunch of your friends (just not on a battle.net Realm), and you may find yourself forgetting to eat and sleep. You’ll forget what the sun looks like, and you’ll like it. Diablo 2 is not a RPG; it is not a game with a deep plot that will have you guessing until the end. Diablo 2 is an action packed game where you run around like a wild man (or wild woman) slaughtering any evildoer foolish enough to get in your way. It’s fun, it’s addictive, and you will play until your eyes hurt and you can’t feel your hand from the wrist down. Get over the hype; this is not the second coming. Diablo 2 won’t walk your dog, paint your house, cook, clean, or take out the trash. It’s just a game. It probably won’t change your life, but you will have a good time playing it.