Diablo II - PC - Review - PC - Review
--Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
Legend has it that after many long, deadly battles, the life forces of three demonic brothers, Baal, Mephisto, and Diablo--the manifestations of evil--were finally imprisoned within three separate soulstones. The soulstones were then implanted into the bodies of the heroes who captured the demons, and the heroes were buried deep in the earth to spend eternity wrestling with the demonic life forces, keeping them from escaping back into the world.
Until: as we find out at the end of Blizzard's original, the soulstone containing Diablo, the Lord of Terror, has found a new home in the forehead of an adventurer who, seeking to aid the town of Tristram, has had to sacrifice himself in order to delay Diablo's return.
Diablo II takes up where Diablo left off, with the Lord of Terror possessing the new hero and heading east from Tristram in search of his buried brothers. His ultimate goal is to unite with his brothers and then wreak chaos, horror, and destruction on the mortal world, thereby swaying the odds in the eternal battle between good and evil irreversibly in evil's favor. Playing as either an Amazon, a Barbarian, a Paladin, a Necromancer, or a Sorceress, you must trail Diablo through four distinct areas and prevent him from completing his quest.
The new character classes in Diablo II represent a refreshing break from the traditional RPG fare. Each of the characters feels unique to play; this is based mostly on the character attributes and abilities, and on Diablo II's innovative skill-building system. For instance, Barbarians can wield two weapons, Necromancers can raise the skeletons of fallen enemies to aid in battle, and Amazons can master both ranged and hand-to-hand melee weapons. And after leveling up, characters gain one skill point, which can be applied to picking up a magical, weapon-based, or passive skill (such as defensive tactics or special abilities, like being able to find a potion when searching the body of a fallen opponent). The skill system is Diablo II's marquee offering, as it amplifies the otherwise action game's role-playing elements and sets Diablo II apart from any other computer role-playing game I've played.
Some of the other components completely new to the game are the different towns, wilderness-exploration aspects, the ability to run, and purchasing system. The towns in Diablo II are all noticeably different from one another, and each plays a central part in the unfolding story of your hero's pursuit of the demon. You start out in a camp that's holed up because of some demonic disturbances in the area. In order for you to move onward, you must clear the surrounding wilderness, as well as separate caves and dungeons, of the assorted creepy-crawlies and the like that are now freely roaming around due to Diablo's recent release. As in the first game, the layout of every area is randomized, although they all contain the same features. The monsters are mostly new, whether in name or appearance and there seems to be more of them per area than in the original game. Because you have so much more area to cover than in the original game, Blizzard has included the ability of your characters to run. Each character has a stamina bar that decreases as you run and replenishes as you walk or stand still. I found this feature quite useful, and, combined with the teleporting waypoint system, I had no problem making my way throughout each area's (called Acts) massive landscape. The purchasing system, on the other hand, presented some difficulty for me. Instead of listing what's available for sale when you visit the few different merchants in each town, you instead get an inventory screen that displays all the different weapons and items (magical or otherwise). When you move your cursor overtop each item, information about that item pops up. Because these item screens are generally crowded with items, you get an information-overload effect that makes many of the similar-looking weapons, for instance, seem superfluous and not worth spending the time to investigate.
This also speaks to the game's poor play-balancing. Regardless of the character-type I played, I found the game to be too easy for most of the entire first act. I felt somewhat of an inflation effect--that is, the devaluation of experience points--because so many different monsters come at you in the beginning, and they're all very easy to dispatch (most requiring few more than 2 hits each). Also adding to the over-easiness was the linearity of the story. Those familiar with the original Diablo might not mind so much, as this game is billed as equal parts action and role-playing, but as with the first title I still found myself disappointed with the limited NPC selection. Combined with the overuse of unique and weak enemies and magic items, Diablo II even lacked some of the charm of its predecessor.
Which is to say that despite some of the innovations and improvements, Diablo II suffers a bit from overkill (a quantity versus quality effect). As groundbreaking as the original Diablo may have been, this style of role-playing game has been easily outdone by the likes of Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment, which concentrate more on integrating the character(s) with the story. Although I appreciated that Diablo II acknowledges that there was "a hero" who battled Diablo recently (as there were many of us, all across the world) and incorporates that information in the story and cutscenes, this story ultimately ends up feeling secondary to the game's arcade action (albeit, FUN arcade action).
Despite my few though legitimate gripes, Diablo II is definitely one of the must-have games this year. Blizzard's production values are far and away the most stringent and smart, as demonstrated by this massive and relatively bug-free (be sure to download the latest drivers for your video card) title from them. I say smart, because they carried over a lot of what was good from the original game, such as the point-and-click combat interface, and they even added more support for both mouse buttons (such as left-click to swing your javelin, right-click to throw it!) and more hotkeys. I highly recommend Diablo II to everyone, young or old, male or female, as it represents a true continuation of what made the original Diablo so original.
Installation: Medium. Three discs, and, to do a full install, about a gig and a half of hard-drive space. Where's the 1-disc DVD version? Also, downloading and installing new drivers for your video card (and probably sound card, too) will likely be a requirement more so than an option for most gamers.
Gameplay: 10. Seamless. The mouse-driven interface has been refined to perfection. Movement around the gameworld is fluid, load times have been minimized, combat is extremely easy to carry out, and the new skill system makes the game that much better. While there were some minor hiccups, such as with the occasional (though easily remedied) crash bug, and with what I felt was a less-than-adequate purchasing interface, I thought that such shortcomings were generally balanced out with innovations and improvements. For instance, while the game offers up too many magic items to mention and over-limits your character's personal inventory space, you now get a stash chest in each town, which allows you to hold onto more than enough (like, say, that backup bow, crossbow, and two-handed sword you can't bring yourself to sell). The run feature is also very helpful, but, in keeping with the game's sense of overkill, the waypoint teleportation system makes covering a lot of ground in short amount of time even easier. Also, the hire-a-mercenary feature (another innovation) was helpful in terms of fighting off the more massive pygmy onslaughts, and I liked that it gave me another person to worry about the livelihood of, so to speak. Maybe Diablo III (or whatever it'll be called) can include single-player parties, where you can actually control more than one character.
Graphics: 8.5. If games were judged on cutscenes alone, Diablo II would get a 10+ across the board. These were easily the best cutscenes I've ever seen; I could've watched an entire 2-hour movie of the game's cinematics. Unfortunately, as Blizzard's production costs require it to reach the widest possible audience, the in-game graphics have been limited to 640 x 480 resolution. There are still some stunning visuals, such as the weather effects, and some of the landscape, and you do get to see every piece of armor and every weapon on the actual character, so despite the slightly blurred characters (can't see their faces too well), there's still not much to complain about. I would've liked some more variety in how the monsters were drawn (many different monsters, most notably the zombies and skeletons, were duplicates of each other in different colors), but some of the new monster types, such as the Fetishes (little tikki-looking creatures who sometimes stack one on top of the other and who shoot at you with blowguns), were highly original. The game's lighting effects were also impressive: trapped chests bursting into flames after being opened, realistic shadows, characters turning blue when blasted with a frost weapon, and of course the many spectacular spell effects. Some slowdown did occur when the battles got to be too big, with too many things being drawn on the screen at once, however.
Sound: 8. It says a lot about a game if it's almost as much fun to watch and listen to as it is to play. Even though it would be easy to say that the voice-acting in the game is better than most, because a lot of the voice-acting in games is very bad, I should point out that Diablo II's voice-acting is really superbly done. Few actors provided the voices for more than one or two characters, and all the characters sound distinctive and authentic, whether gruff, nasally, British, or exhausted. The music is not quite on par with the voice-acting and sound effects, however. Whereas the last game had a consistent, medieval-strummed-instrument sound to it that did a very good job of setting the mood and atmosphere, Diablo II's music reflects a bit too much of a rock influence. The percussive, quick-tempoed music seems more geared to get you into jamming or "rocking out" while slaying, and doing so in a quick-paced multiplayer-type of way, than to taking your time and applying thought to the game's challenges (and relatively non-existent puzzles). The sound effects were as good as in the original, with crisp, identifying sounds for each of the monsters, weapons, spells, and characters (voice-overs), although I would've liked to have seen (heard) better use being made of environmental audio features.
Difficulty: 6. Here's where an otherwise perfect game fell apart for me. Probably in keeping with Diablo's huge multiplayer appeal, Blizzard made the game a little too easy and little too much of an overly-magic, "monster bum rush" gore fest. I can imagine a conference room whiteboard somewhere at Blizzard HQ that has a meter shaded heavily green for glitz and sheer quantity and dead red for meaningful dialogue and character interaction. It goes without saying that the Baldur's Gate games leave the Diablo games in the dust when it comes to dialogue and story. I do have to keep in mind that Blizzard is really creating the product that they want to create, aimed at that in-between arcade and RPG audience, but that they bother to spend so much time on moving the story along, and especially on the character skill development features, indicates to me that they could just as well have done their dialogues and story lines better. Many of the game's NPCs have very little back story to them, even when they're relatively important characters, such as Jerhyn, the prince of Lut Gholein, who has a one-room palace on which he stands idly about on the front steps of until his dialogue sequence has been activated. As for the free Battle.net service, I consider it to be one of the easiest to use, best (and free!) services available for matching players up, and the improvements to it, such as with the actual players' characters being graphically displayed like little figurines at the bottom of the screen are exceptional and worthy of commendation, but unfortunately there are still a number of kinks to be worked out in terms of the servers being able to support the number of people currently trying to play online.
One last drawback (and yes, this does deserve a separate paragraph) is actually the game's most significant one: the save feature. You cannot save your game in any other way than to let the computer save for you. This might not be so terrible, except that your position does not get saved, so, starting again in town, you have to go back to wherever you were when you quit the former session in order to continue. Also, this system is flawed in that it doesn't always save the fact that you eliminated every monster on a particular dungeon level, so you sometimes have to go through and kill everything again. This makes completing some quests redundantly challenging. Also, because the manual Save and Exit feature also starts you back in town when you begin again, you no longer have the opportunity to save before a big battle and then retry from that save-point should your character die. Similarly, the game makes it difficult to save before choosing a particular skill advancement (should you decide it's not what you wanted after all), or before making a particular purchase (say from one of the "Gamble" merchants, who sell unidentified magic items at extreme prices) that you might not have wanted to make after all. I have my fingers crossed that Blizzard will adjust the save feature with an upcoming patch.
Concept: 10. Diablo II remains true to the original's "groundbreaking-ness." It might seem as simple as giving an arcade game some deeper role-playing elements, or vice versa, but the people at Blizzard somehow manage to pull it off like no other. A perfect balance is achieved with Diablo II; one moment it'll remind me of the arcade classic Gauntlet, the next it'll bring my favorite computer role-playing game of all time, Pool of Radiance for the Commodore-64, to mind. While I may have done so recklessly with some of my comments in this review, I'd generally hesitate to make suggestions for improvements to a game that gets so much so right.
Overall: 8.5. Just as the original was much imitated, I suspect many developers will try to imitate what Diablo II has to offer in terms of character skill development, graphics, and playability. Sure, even more improvements could be made to the game (see especially my comments under the Difficulty category, which represent why I took off points Overall), and it could have been differentiated from the original in even more ways, but not once did I get the impression that Blizzard was just trying to capitalize on a new franchise. There's some real, sincere effort demonstrated by this game; you get the sense that the developers really wanted to create something new, fun to play, and important to the gaming world. As gaming continues to rival the movies in revenues and entertainment value, many of Blizzard's titles, Diablo II definitely included, would stand as good representatives of what this medium has to offer.