Written by  :  Unicorn Lynx (181375)
Written on  :  Dec 08, 2002
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars

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Fight the addiction

The Good

Diablo II. The most schizophrenic relationship I've ever had with a video game. I played it when it was first released, got addicted, started hating it, removed it from my collection. Got it again later - same story. Waited some more time until I became a fan of action RPGs - and this time around I tried to understand what keeps beckoning me back after the inevitable "hate phase" kicks in.

For most purposes, Diablo II is an expanded variant of its dad, Diablo. Now, that game had a huge influence on the development of role-playing games in the West. For years I've been asking myself: why? With the varied and complex RPGs the West had been producing, how could this mindless hack-and-slash fest become so popular? The answer: precisely because it's neither varied nor complex. Before Diablo, brain-dead entertainment was firmly entrenched in the action culture. You turned to RPGs if you wanted deep, slow, meditative immersion. If you just wanted to have adrenaline-loaded fun, you turned to action games. The achievement of Diablo was that it transferred that kind of pleasure into the world of RPGs.

Diablo was a distillation of the most primeval RPG elements, and that was the secret of its success. It opened the doors to the more casual players, those who wanted to get into a game right away and immediately get sucked into a simplistic, yet devilishly addictive RPG system. Speed was the key: you were thrown right into action and didn't need to work on any skills of your own to vanquish enemies with a simple click. King's Field, released two years earlier, had a similar dungeon-crawling, purely action-based role-playing, and was much deeper, better designed, and more evolved than Diablo in every possible way - but it was slow. Guess which of the two games became more popular. In addition to the fact pace, the maniacal, obsessive collecting of random items would deprive people of essential daily routines. Ys, released almost a decade earlier, defined action role-playing with its ease of gameplay, but came nowhere close in satisfying our collector's instinct.

Diablo II is very similar to its predecessor in design philosophy, but overall it's a more varied game. Choosing a character class means little on its own: you'll have to build up your character, not just by gaining levels but by developing skills. Each class has three skill trees in three different disciplines. These disciplines are diverse as well and essentially provide an equivalent of additional classes.

To illustrate: the Necromancer class allows the player to summon monster minions to assist the naturally weak character. However, that's not the only way to develop a Necromancer, since another skill tree takes him into the direction of sabotaging enemies by inflicting status ailments of them, while the third one is more defensive, with treacherous bone skills that would provide the much-needed protection. Each of these Necromancers requires a very different approach not only when you have to decide which skill to invest points in, but also in the gameplay itself. Playing the summoning Necromancer, for example, feels more like controlling a commander in a real-time strategy game. A good, steady build will allow you to stand and watch how your skeletons viciously tear enemies apart.

In addition to this, Diablo II enhances and multiplies everything that made its predecessor addictive. There are many more types of monsters and an absolutely mind-boggling amount of items. The randomization of items works better than ever before since there are so many new kinds of equipment, leading to endless ways to outfit your character. Matching sets, gems that can be inserted into equipment for additional bonuses, runes, charms - you'll see no end to that when you emerge from your computer, pale from lack of sleep. No two builds will ever be alike, and you'll feel compelled to keep playing just to see what your character grows into. It's almost like raising a virtual pet, which is another trait Diablo games popularized (along with very low learning curve) that found its way into today's casual gaming.

No review of Diablo II would be complete without mentioning its cinematics. They are quite stunning, and I doubt there was a game at the time that could complete with them. The spectacular intro overwhelms you before you even begin playing the game. Those movies are impeccably directed and convey a captivating, almost haunting feeling. Somebody here should consider a film-making career.

The Bad

Now it's time to share the reasons which compelled me to get rid of this game more than once. I guess that would be easier, since those who don't like Diablo II would probably not hesitate to state the reason: repetitive gameplay.

Yes, experimenting with skills and building up a character can go in myriads of ways. But the other part of playing this game, what most people would consider the actual gameplay, consists of killing enemies and nothing else. Throughout the entire game you'll be slaying ridiculous amounts of monsters with next to no skill involved in the process itself. The game almost completely automatizes the action aspect, reducing it to an elementary point-and-click activity that requires no real effort or investment from the player. It's nearly on par with the old Ys games in its purely mechanical approach to combat.

The hyper-simplified battles would have been less of a problem if the game offered some other challenges. Unfortunately, while introducing several towns and open areas, the developers didn't find it necessary to populate them with anything but signpost NPCs and monsters. This creates an unpleasant dichotomy that was absent in the first game. Diablo was a dungeon crawler and didn't strive to be anything else. Diablo II, on the other hand, seems to promise more, but doesn't really deliver the promise.

This problem leads to lack of focus resulting in disenchantment. Once you realize that, despite the drastic change of scenery, you'll be treated to the same gameplay all the time, you begin to feel disillusioned and angry. The gameplay becomes tedious and tiresome, forcing you to stop a playing session simply because you've been doing too much of the same. Playing Diablo II is not unlike going to a buffet that offers just one kind of favorite food: you are exhilarated in the beginning but want to throw up in the end. Diablo II is irritating because it has absolutely no ambitions concerning the basic gameplay mechanics even though its size has been greatly increased. It may come across as an inflated, over-bloated variant of the first game.

Lack of imagination in gameplay design is probably a result of randomization. I never liked randomly generated environments, and, while I can see the logic behind the random items of Diablo II, I don't understand why it was necessary to randomize the playing area itself. It's true that the scenery is nice, but you can't shake off an uncomfortable sensation when exploring those plains and corridors that will have a different layout next time you start the game. Random locations means no attachment to them: you can't get attached to something that was designed by a soulless machine and won't be there during another playthrough. There can be no puzzles, because puzzles demand hand-made locations with actual design involved. Exploration loses its meaning, because you can't really explore an area that doesn't actually exist.

Absence of any life-like activity in friendly areas is depressing. Most dialogues are dry and humorless, and no NPC makes you care for him. There is something annoyingly calculating in the way Diablo II presents those characters, whose sole purpose appears to be feeding you boring, uninspired quests and selling you items. There is no feeling of cohesion in the game world, as those isolated towns are lost in the ocean of vast areas populated by nothing but hostile creatures. There aren't even any wandering salesmen or anything of the kind, making the world strangely artificial. There is really very little charm in Diablo II. It can impress and absorb you, but it cannot quite enchant you.

The gorgeous cinematics form a nice little story when viewed one after the other, but that story has next to nothing to do with what we accomplish in the game itself. The next movie simply continues where the first one left off. Without understanding the game's lore you'll even find it hard to connect between the events depicted in the intro and the entire first act, where you run around and kill monsters for money and meet none of those enigmatic characters introduced there. There is a rather jarring discrepancy in tone and presentation between the movies with their dramaticism and vivid characterization, and the game itself, which has none of that. The actual in-game story is close to non-existing and involves killing four or five big bosses in the most formulaic way possible.

Diablo II is bound to repel most people who value creativity and attention to detail, because it does its own thing only and mercilessly removes anything standing on its path. There are no memorable moments, no sweet little details, and very little human touch behind its cold, calculating facade.

The Bottom Line

While the constant stream of addictively simplified upgrading can - and will - suck you into the game, the sensation will only last until the sobering reality of soulless, randomized design and skill-less gameplay kicks in. Diablo II may entice you with its distilled RPG mechanics at first, but ultimately reveals itself as a shallow, highly superficial product.