Written by  :  Oleg Roschin (174088)
Written on  :  Dec 08, 2002
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Sometimes I love you, sometimes I hate you

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. I mean, there must be something there, right? A grown-up man who has played many games and whose preferences in RPGs are actually quite different from what this game represents cannot just keep coming back to it for no reason. I needed to find a tangible answer and solve that mystery once and for all. Here is what I came up with.

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.

By that, I don't mean that it simply slapped RPG elements over an action game. Despite the indignant hissing from some serious RPG fans, Diablo was decidedly more of an RPG than an action title. The action itself was repetitive and required next to no skill. The heart of the gameplay there was character-building and item-collecting, which are cornerstones of the RPG genre and no other. You played that title to gradually develop your character into an ultra-powerful son of a bitch, rejoicing at the sight of random power-ups, escaping in fear when suddenly surrounded by a bunch of seemingly invisible demonic archers in a tiny room, only to come back at a higher level and with a better weapon to kick their sorry asses.

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.

All that said, I think Diablo hasn't really aged well. The impossibly repetitive gameplay and the lack of any attachment to randomized locations severely hampers immersion, and boredom ensues inevitably once the initial addictiveness wears off. Now, you'd say that Diablo II is the exact same story, but I beg to differ. There are two major improvements that make the sequel superior, and both have something to do with what the first game so sorely lacked: variety. Diablo II is by far more diverse both in gameplay and in the setting.

Yes, at first sight the gameplay appears to be a variation on the same theme. But as I began to study the game I gradually realized that it was not the case. The first game offered three character classes, so there were three possible ways of playing it: as a melee fighter, as an archer, and as a mage. Now, the sequel has five character classes (seven if you count Lord of Destruction, which you should definitely get), but its main attraction is customization, not the initial choice. In Diablo, you chose a class and the rest of the game was pretty much on rails. In Diablo II, choosing the 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 very diverse as well and essentially provide an equivalent of additional classes.

To illustrate: the incomparably awesome 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. It doesn't end there, however: even within the confines of a summoning Necromancer you'll have a tough time deciding whether you want to focus on initial skeletons or experiment with different creatures, since each skill can be upgraded as well.

I used my favorite Necromancer as an example, but I had as much fun experimenting with the Assassin from the expansion. I assume that every class offers something different. Even the Barbarian with his seemingly primitive setup can be built up in a variety of ways: as a tank, as a reckless berserker, as a focused weapon specialist, as a madman wreaking havoc with his warcries, etc. This is what Diablo II is about, and it's called depth. It's easy to dismiss it as a mindless click fest, but the actual gameplay mechanics here are dedicated to developing your character in different ways, while the clicking serves as an easy, pleasant way to test your builds.

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.

Diablo II is lightning-fast. The first game seems agonizingly slow in comparison due to its main character's inability to run. Sprinting can be a life-saver in many situations in the sequel, and it adds another layer of gameplay depth since running depletes stamina. The game has an interesting save system I didn't like at first, but in the end I welcomed the fact you couldn't just save and reload all the time. That made dungeon trips more dangerous without frustrating the player by erasing the progress he has made. Retrieving your own body from a hellhole creeping with demons became part of the experience. Town portals and waypoints provided convenient means of transportation and also contributed to planning. Another improvement is the introduction of companions. The excellent expansion makes them behave like semi-controllable party members, allowing you to outfit them and stay with you for the entire game.

What really made me come back to Diablo II and neglect its predecessor is the variety of locations. Diablo was all randomized, with only four or so different designs of the same thing: a dungeon going deep underground. The sequel is so much more expansive that you can't call it a dungeon crawl anymore. There is great diversity not only between the four (five, if you have the add-on) acts, but also within them. Alone the first act offers such different scenery as grassy field, dark caves, a haunted monastery, a jail, and more. A zombie-infested graveyard; a desert surrounding a thriving Middle Eastern town with a harem; a mysterious ruined city; an atmospheric jungle populated by deranged creatures; catacombs, castles, fortresses, hellish rivers - there is a lot to see here. The structure of each location is random, but the design is still there, and they remain memorable each in their own way. There is also considerable freedom of exploration. Theoretically you only need to complete one final quest per each act in order to be able to move to the next one. Most locations are open to you right away and you can venture far ahead of your level if you so wish.

Almost every location is intensely atmospheric. Despite the dated graphics utilizing a perspective that was known for anything but its immersive qualities, Diablo II manages to pull you into its world right away. The graphics took some beating from the fans, but even their low technical level couldn't prevent the fact they were done with artistic inspiration, and that despite the randomizing. I could almost feel the scorching sun in Lut Gholein, and hell will definitely scare you. The game also has great sound effects and beautiful music. I would stay at the Rogue Encampment longer than necessary just to listen to the melancholic guitar tunes.

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 little skill involved in the process itself. The hyper-simplified combat 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 a certain 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 welcome 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 beautiful, 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.

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.

The above reasons made me want to quit the game many times, until I realized I didn't have to complete it right away in order to enjoy it. But the truth is that 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 generally almost nothing of what I usually appreciate in games. Diablo II is therefore probably the only game that I grudgingly accepted in spite of its being the anti-thesis of much of what I treasure in the medium. Diablo II did manage to make me keep playing it, as I tried to explain in the previous section. But it also never let me forget how it manipulated my "lower" gaming instincts to become addicted to it and abandon my "higher" ideals for a while.

The Bottom Line

We play games for many reasons, which can all be merged into one: because games are fun. Some time ago I decided to stop having ethical dilemmas caused by the fact that I enjoyed some games I was not "supposed" to enjoy because they contradicted my gaming ideals. Well, it looks like playing games is not about ideals any more for me: it's about fun. Did I have fun with Diablo II? A lot of it, actually. Do I love it? A part of me does, while another part still frowns and grimaces and hisses at me for liking something so opposed to what my taste in gaming stands for.

For the record, I still have little interest in the so-called "Diablo clones". I think that the design philosophy of Diablo II (and of its predecessor) is a dead end, so I probably just need one game of this kind. The first Diablo was too monotonous for me, while most post-Diablo II games just couldn't quite capture the speed, the simplicity, and the addictiveness of this game, needing to import other gameplay elements to hold their ground. So if you, like me, have that inexplicable urge to indulge yourself in mind-numbingly addictive character-building, look no further. You can hate Diablo II, but you can't get it our of your head.