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Diablo 2 Twenty Years Later: A Retrospective

 14 December 2020

I’ve been playing a lot of retro and more modern hack and slash games lately: from the more near-perfect D2 clone Torchlight, the more unique Sacred and charming Nox to the boring Dungeon Siege and too easy Diablo 3. And then I found someone (my brother-in-law, also a hardcore D2 fan) to replay Diablo II and Lord of Destruction with, providing the perfect opportunity for a retrospective to see if Blizard North’s smash hit still holds up compared to more recent hack & slash revisions. The entire genre would not exist if it were not for this early 2000s game!

1. World Design

The intro cinematics set the tone: you see someone accidentally stealing a soul stone and thereby freeing friends of the unknown ‘wanderer’, that later on transforms into Diablo himself. Things look grim from the start, and your first minutes of acquainting yourself with the NPCs in the Rogue Encampment accentuate the tone. Depending on your class, you’ll have another admirer with a few unique sentences, but it is nothing like Sacred or Nox where your character starts in a different area.

After searching for and cleansing the Den of Evil, you start to grasp the basic concepts: pick up an axe, and whack a zombie or two. Pick up loot, and equip yourself. Rinse, repeat. This is executed extremely well: animations are fluent and satisfying, some monsters look menacing, sound effects hit the right notes, dungeons are very dark and death is constantly lurking around the corner (that is, until you hit level 24 and start gaining proper skills). Activated waypoints lets you teleport between locations, and everything is procedurally generated, meaning the Den of Evil will be located somewhere else each time you boot up the game. This is good (variation) and bad (frustrating, sometimes boring) and perhaps something you will never get used to.

Graphics

The Crystalline Passage, a typical dark and grim dungeon.
The Crystalline Passage, a typical dark and grim dungeon.

Still, the build quality of the game is so high that these occasional ‘shit, dead end, again’ curses are bearable. The UI is slick and the look and feel of the 2D art feels just right. It’s an old game, and a resolution of 800x600 without mods is everything you’re going to get, but that’s all right: Diablo II has aged exceptionally well. Sure, these screenshots look grainy and sometimes it’s hard to see what’s going on (too dark, too many corpse explosions, …). But after hurting my eyes on Torchlight‘s cartoony graphics and Sacred‘s out of place hybrid engine, pumping up skills with my Druid feels great again.

The rain of Act I looks a bit silly but is part of the retro charm, and of course, Sacred’s towns are much more detailed (and vast). However, compared to Diablo 2, I feel that little games ever matched the brilliance of the grim looking world, simple UI, and hotkey-able skill tree. Admittedly, after breezing though the normal difficulty to start over again in nightmare and hell, repetition does set in. I seem to have more trouble with this than I used to as a 16-year old, but that might not be the fault of the game.

Tal Rasha's chamber - be ready to face Duriel! Note the thick fog of war.
Tal Rasha's chamber - be ready to face Duriel! Note the thick fog of war.

Enemies and Mobs

The five Acts of Diablo II (including the expansion) provide ample variation, both on monster and on world design. The valkyries that come rushing at you in Act I are replaced by annoying lightning-enhanced beetles in Act II and even more annoying little killers in the Flayer Jungle. The concept stays the same: mobs of meat shields accompanied with a few big hitters or healers. And then there are elite and unique enemies, which you’ll encounter more often in higher difficulties - with increased resistances.

Most Diablo clones, except maybe Diablo III, fail to throw that many enemies at you within a cramped and dimly lit space. The respawn rate is fortunately not as ridiculous as Sacred, but if you like to farm, be it for gear or for experience points, this is definitely the game for you. Just make sure to socket that three-slotted helmet with flawless topazes to boost your magic find! Diablo 2 isn’t as forgiving as its successor, both on difficulty as on drops, and I actually prefer that: here, it actually excites me to see a yellow item drop (rare). When my brother-in-law and I encounter multiple uniques, we go nuts. And love it. Of course, it always turns out to be junk, but we love it nonetheless. No Stone of Jordans were found during this review…

Killing mobs in Act IV and hoping for something good.
Killing mobs in Act IV and hoping for something good.

Enemy AI is non-existing: it goes as far as the rule ‘approach and kill’. And that is a good thing, as I hated the sneaky little goblin bastards from Sacred that fire off a few arrows and then make a run for it. As soon as I was able to cast Hurricane, things got considerably easier, especially in Act VI, where teleporting minions can be a headache. Now, they simply teleport within the reach of Hurricane and die.

Quests

Each Act (except the fourth) has six main quests that are all tied into the storyline of the prime evils. Towns are only a few foot large, except perhaps Lut Golein, but these meaningless open spaces provide little to do except for running through them to get to the armorer or healer. That said, the concept of sub-quests does not exist here. That is one of the aspects that is done much better in more recent installments of hack and slash games: end-game content and loot events (Torchlight II, Diablo III) or many optional sub-quests (Sacred).

So, to be fair, Diablo II loses a few points here. There is player vs player after reaching level 90, or of course Mephisto or Baal runs and trade stuff through Battle.net, but compared to newer H&S games, the options are limited. And yet, Europebattle.net, the server we played on, is still surprisingly active, for a game that is twenty years old! Hardcore runs and Diablo II clans are still a thing. Color me impressed.

The Main Quest: kill All Evil. I'm about to hand it to Baal for the first time.
The Main Quest: kill All Evil. I'm about to hand it to Baal for the first time.

2. Loot

Speaking of Mephisto runs: let’s talk about loot. Diablo invented the normal/socketed (gray)/magical (blue)/rare (yellow)/unique (orange)/set (green) gear, and it’s still a thrill to look for them in monster drops or locked chests. Again, the quality of life improvements such as a shared stash to easily transfer items are absent. For that, one used to require a trustworthy second player and a network connection to swap items across character builds. I hope the guy doesn’t have hacks installed or you’re screwed…

Chests are still interesting enough to open, while in Sacred, I felt these were completely meaningless. Too much money can be solved by visiting the gambler, something faithfully restored by Torchlight and of course Diablo III. Item durability is a thing, but it’s not that pricey, and items are never completely broken and suddenly gone as in Nox. Patches added a lot of unique items, and especially runes and runewords: combine the right rune in a piece of equipment to create your own unique and very potent weapon indeed. Screw up and well, off to yet another search for the amn rune!

Wow, my topaz-socketed 72% magic find helmet pays off in Nightmare!
Wow, my topaz-socketed 72% magic find helmet pays off in Nightmare!

There are no hidden dungeons within dungeons, no treasure goblins, no timed battle chests, and no seasonal goodies. This game only contains the (superiorly executed) bare bones of what we know as hack & slash: loot, monsters, skills. And that is not a bad thing, but if you’re spoiled and got used to new trinkets, expect to be disappointed.

3. Character Progression

Attributes

Every time you level up, there are 5 stat points to distribute: strength (barbarian/paladin), dexterity (amazon/assassin), vitality and energy. If you carefully inspect build guides, you’ll notice they all share the same strategy involving the distribution of these points: dump everything you can in vitality (more life, thus more survival), and crank up the rest only to be able to equip your end gear. Many pieces of armor have strength or dexterity requirements. So, as complex as this might look, it all boils down to doing the same thing for every class - a bit of a letdown.

The Druid skill tree and my stats. Hurricane gets damage bonuses from other skills.
The Druid skill tree and my stats. Hurricane gets damage bonuses from other skills.

Skills

The skill tree, on the other hand, is where most of the tweaking takes place. Each class has access to three tiers. For instance, my druid build focuses on the ‘elemental’ tab, but could also be a shape shifter or summoner. My buddy plays as an assassin and focuses on traps, but could also invest in close combat martial arts. This makes not only classes unique and interesting, but also “subclasses” within classes: wind druids, wherebears, fireclaw bears, poisonous fang wherewolves, and so forth.

Skills receive passive bonuses from early invested points, so not everything is wasted, although it is generally a very good idea to hold off assigning most points until you’re either level 24 or 30. That brings us to the biggest downside of the system: under level 24, if you’re in need of a skill out of reach, you will struggle to survive and to properly enjoy the game. I was a close combat imposter until Tornado and leaned a lot on the fire traps of my party member. However, suddenly, at level 30, the druid quickly became much more potent, to the point that it was laughably easy - at least in normal. This signifies a bit of an imbalance in the tree, and I can see why games like Torchlight just have level pre-requirements, or why Diablo III does not have a skill tree at all. Still, to me, planning and the early pain is part of the fun.

Look ma, unique stuff!
Look ma, unique stuff!

4. Ambience

Sound and Music

Matt Uelmen is a genius, and his moody guitar strings perfectly accompany the grim atmosphere when first entering the red portal to Tristram in order to save Deckard Cain. I don’t know how else to describe it, and there is a reason why I - and many others - rejoiced when we heard he was doing the music again for the Torchlight games.

The few NPCs you’ll meet will be significant to a certain quest, and be appropriately fully voiced. Everything is done well. Diablo II oozes quality, and in sound and music design, this is no different.

Cinematic

There is no need to waste words on the discussion of whether any more recent game came close to matching Diablo II’s dramatic cinematics. The answer is of course none - except maybe Diablo III. The CGI cut-scenes are great and help in understanding the relationships between the prime evils. Simply excellent.

Scouring for chests in the remains of Lower Kurast.
Scouring for chests in the remains of Lower Kurast.

To Conclude

Twenty years later, breezing through the game together with a friend feels as invigorating as it felt back in 2000. I might have become a bit less immune to the repetitive nature of the game, but in multiplayer mode, it hardly mattered. Is there any game that matches the greatness of the grandfather of H&S dungeon crawling? I doubt it, unless you are looking for comfort (Diablo III), color (Torchlight), charm (Nox), or a more unique take on the class and skill system (Sacred). However, if what you are looking for is the thrill of the hunt without any complications and with a low entry threshold (playing on the Europebattle.net servers is free, see “how to join"), this is still the game for you.

Just be prepared to face a few blown up pixels on your 27" 4K monitor.

Played on: Windows XP - Core2Duo 2006 build.

Me!

I'm Wouter, a level 35 Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about me here.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via e-mail: say hello. Thanks!