Diablo II, a Twenty Year Reunion
Everyone has a game that defines the medium for them. Something that represents everything they love about the hobby. Not just a favorite game, but the favorite game. For me, Diablo II is that game. I’d played a bunch of games before and even quite a bit of the first Diablo. But right from the start, something about this game pulled me in and never let go. Now twenty years after its release, it remains just as enthralling and can easily go toe to toe with modern ARPGs. From the genre-defining itemization and character customization, the haunting atmosphere and story, not to mention those masterclass cinematics, everything about this game is the genre done perfectly.
For those who don’t know, Diablo is an isometric action RPG franchise. It revolves around the dual gameplay loops of slaughtering monsters and collecting mountains of loot. You do this in order to increase your monster slaughtering capabilities which then increases your loot gathering efficiency. It’s a pure combat and numbers game, which is a huge part of the genre’s allure. Diablo II brought even more to the table though. Unlike most of the genre it also featured a great cast of characters, a fascinating dark fantasy world, and an intriguing story.
Diablo II takes place right after the end of the first game. Diablo was defeated in the depths of Tristram cathedral, but it was all according to plan. Surviving within the soul of the very hero who slew him, he travels east seeking to free his brothers. It’s within the destruction left in his wake that the game begins. As either a Barbarian, Sorceress, Paladin, Amazon, or Necromancer (with Druid and Assassin added via the Lord of Destruction expansion), you take up pursuit of The Dark Wanderer. Set across multiple acts stretching from arid deserts to the depths of hell itself, it’s an epic quest in every sense of the word.
The best part about Diablo II’s story and world in my opinion, was always how optional it is. Base quest dialogue and cinematics are all minimal exposition-wise and easily skippable. Expanded world-building and story are all available but requires you to choose to talk to the NPCs. It’s not thrown in your face like in Diablo III and is more replayable because of that. It’s also extremely well written and voice-acted, which makes you actually want to experience more of the story. Again, unlike Diablo III where the questionable writing across the first few acts is still painful at times.
Still as great as the story and world is, it’s the classes and itemization that made this game. The class selection is absolutely iconic, the Necromancer especially. From the Druid’s Werebear form to the Paladin’s Blessed Hammer, these classes and skills would go on to influence countless games. Not least of all was Blizzard’s own World of WarCraft. Still it was the very design of the game’s skill trees that was it’s biggest contribution to the genre. Nowadays, everything has these kinds of skill trees and this was the game that popularized them. Further concepts of skill synergies, cooldowns, and active vs passive skills also found their mainstream debut here. Some of these concepts existed before now, but Diablo II refined and clarified their purpose in an RPG.
Choice and variety is the core of Diablo II’s itemization. Random item generation, the flagship feature of the original game, is massively expanded upon. Loads of new weapon and armor types, new affixes, class sets, class specific item types, new types of consumables like bombs; there’s so much here to play with. One of the most interesting new additions was item customization through gems and runes. There’s a reason one of the biggest announcements from Diablo IV was the return of runewords. They allowed for a whole other level of item customization, plus the feeling when you finally hunted down all the runes you needed for that high-level word was pure victory.
Still, great character customization is nothing without enemies that make the fight worth it. Games like Warhammer: Chaosbane, suffers from having great customization, but underwhelming bosses and enemies. Diablo II does not have that issue in the slightest. The monster variety is insane, with not just many enemy types, but plenty of variants too. Variants aren’t just color swaps either, but come with a variety of different weaponry and skills. Fighting a Carver is different from fighting a Fallen, despite both belonging to the same enemy type. Then there are the bosses: from the DPS check that was Andariel, to the collection of nightmare abilities that’s Diablo himself. Each one was a genuine challenge that made for a fun and occasionally frustrating fight. Mini bosses were no different. The Countess is one of the most famous fights in the game, and she’s an Act 1 optional quest boss fight.
Diablo II is a legendary game that for me still lives up to the legend. On top of everything else, there’s the gritty aesthetic, the fantastic soundtrack, the Battle.Net servers that still run today, the Ladder System that did multiplayer seasons well before Battle Passes, and still so much more. It’s just a gigantic game that you could play for twenty years and still find new things. New builds to try out, new items you’ve never seen, maybe even that rare Zod rune that you can’t use, but want anyway. While I doubt we’ll ever see a remaster due to technical issues, I feel the game plays well enough as it is anyway. And with Diablo IV on the horizon, now’s as good a time as any to experience one of the greatest games ever made. You won’t regret it.