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Diablo 2: Resurrected has arrived, and I’ve had a couple of days’ head start. I’ve been smashing demons aside for enough hours that I’m now breaking into Act 3 and I am absolutely not bored – I’m honestly delighted. I probably played hundreds (but I’d wager less than a thousand) hours of Diablo 2 between 2000 and 2007, and Resurrected absolutely scratches an itch for a style of game that’s not really made anymore – not just aesthetically, but mechanically. It’s all coming back.
I mean, the mood of this game is just superb. The updated graphics do so much more than a simple homage to the original game, adding environment details that were just out of the question in 2000. Locations like the Monastery Gates in Act 1, an outdoor area that was always a bit weird from an isometric point of view, now have visible roofs on the buildings instead of just a black sea beyond the walls. There’s a wealth of detail in every scene, and in the character models, that really makes me appreciate the ability to dynamically switch between the old and new graphics to see the contrast.
Beautifully, when you switch to the classic graphics you switch to the original sound as well, though the difference is nowhere near as stark here because it didn’t need any significant updating. Aside from a bit of remastering it is identical to the original, and it’s still phenomenal. The ping when a gem hits the floor, the whirl of weapons, and the guttural demon voices (“Rakanishu!”) are iconic sound design. This is not to mention the remasters of the classic soundtrack, or the new remixes, which are beautiful work. (The voice acting, well… let’s just say it was a different time.)
For two decades, I’ve maintained a personal grudge against the dung beetle soldiers in Act 2.
I’ve chosen Paladin as my first character. This is because, for two decades, I’ve maintained a personal grudge against the dung beetle soldiers in Act 2 – you know, the ones that poop lightning when you hit them. The Paladin’s lightning resistance aura allows me to laugh in their faces and kill them in humiliating ways, and it’s been everything I thought it could be.
Some of the mechanical ideas feel old-school relative to how things are done in action RPGs these days. For instance, you only get two active skills at once. It seems harsh, and it is, but what was a technical and game design constraint at the time is pretty fun when you get into it. You have to choose skills carefully, as having too many might just give you a huge toolkit you’re not fast enough to use. I like to smash my Paladin into the enemy packs with a Charge before switching to Zeal for a series of rapid blows, or Vengeance for elementally-infused strikes that take down monsters resistant to physical attacks. For tough elite groups, I’ll switch weapons and throw gas grenades to weaken them before I head in. I’ve even got a cool, polearm-wielding desert mercenary. Don’t worry: He’s still stupid as a sack of bricks and gets stuck on walls constantly.
I’ve always wanted to try and make a Necromancer tank.
There’s no shortage of options, and part of the delight of Diablo 2 is that it has a weird skill system you can use to build some truly strange characters. It’s flexible enough that you can make ranged builds for the melee characters, like a crossbow Paladin that shoots explosive bolts. How about a Barbarian focused on the War Cry skill, who just runs around shouting until everything dies? How about a Sorceress who enchants weapons rather than nukes enemies from a distance? I’ve always wanted to try and make a Necromancer tank, personally – maybe I’ll finally get around to it.
There’s a ton of freedom… that is, if you’re willing to discard 20 years of accumulated Diablo 2 wisdom. In many ways this game is “solved,” in that the best builds and their precise itemization have been thoroughly sussed out over the years. You’re welcome to play like it’s 2000 and not search up optimal builds, of course.
Some of Diablo 2’s design hasn’t aged well.
However, while I’d normally encourage you to go in blind and experiment for yourself, I won’t in this case because some of Diablo 2’s design hasn’t aged well. For example, there are copious skill traps for new players, meaning that some abilities you might choose don’t scale well past the early game, or aren’t useful unless you understand their synergies with other skills you won’t unlock until much later. Some things, like the infamous Next Hit Always Misses bug, have been retained in the name of keeping the flavor of Diablo 2 the same, but that’s something few people know about unless they do their homework. Hopefully this faithfulness to the original’s bugs have limits: I haven’t been able to check whether the Amazon’s Fend or Druid’s Fury skills are still bugged, but it would be a major missed opportunity if Blizzard didn’t fix them, as that’d open up character builds that have been ignored for 20 years because of a simple technical problem.
It’s worth saying that I’ve encountered barely any new bugs specific to Resurrected, and those I have seen have been minor graphical glitches that don’t affect gameplay – things like doors that don’t change visually when opened but can still be passed through, or an object overlaying a texture strangely.
I’m a little sad to see that Resurrected has retained Diablo 2’s arcane skill-reset system: You get just one respec per difficulty level, and the only way to get more is by farming the big bosses for rare items and then shoving them in your Horadric Cube. Unlimited respecs would’ve been a prime candidate for overhaul to make Resurrected more accessible to a new generation and mitigate the skill trap issue, and it’s something that could have been easily disabled for ladder play.
It’s a bit galling things like that weren’t addressed because the other big update in Diablo 2: Resurrected is a similar quality-of-life change. Rather than picking up gold stack by stack, you instead automatically grab it when you pass by. There’s a difference between preserving the experience and a lack of respect for the player’s time, and this change shows that a small tweak can go a long way towards removing tedium from the original game without ruining anything.
The moment-to-moment gameplay that made Diablo 2 legendary in its time is completely unchanged.
The moment-to-moment gameplay that made Diablo 2 legendary in its time, though, is completely unchanged. Exploration and combat still feel deeply familiar; it’s a festival of clicking (or, now, thumbsticking) where you want to go and hammering out hits on your enemies. It’s as wild and chaotic as an isometric action RPG ever is, but in the long view, over 20 years of game design innovation later, it’s also kind of… slow. Characters don’t move quickly, and running is limited by your stamina bar. Copious and consistent use of town portal scrolls generally avoids having to backtrack, but when you have to it’s annoying at best. Running also makes your character worse at blocking, if they have a shield – though Diablo 2 will never tell you this.
I didn’t make it out of Act 1 without looking up the combination of slotted runes that produces armor with a bonus to Run/Walk speed, if only for – again – my own quality of life. I’m still not sure if having to fight against the basic game mechanics like this is fun in 2021, or if it’ll be fun for new Diablo 2 players who don’t know there are solutions to their problems.
I’ve got other problems, myself: How can you justify dropping LAN play? Why can’t I clone a multiplayer character into single-player? The latter is especially concerning, seeing as the launch day servers aren’t behaving themselves. The wait to start an online world is long for everyone, and others are reporting that when disconnected their characters have disappeared. Fortunately, unlike Diablo 3’s memorably terrible launch, we can still play offline while we wait for Blizzard to sort it out.
But none of those devils in the details has overcome the fact that I’m definitely having fun. Diablo 2’s design has aged remarkably well as an example of a relatively uncomplicated isometric action RPG. Everyone has skills, yes, but they all interact with the same systems: Health, Mana, Stats. There’s no unique currency or meter to learn for every class, just a skill tree, a billion demons, and an infinite fountain of equipment. It is, as ever, a satisfying game.
Watch this space. I’ll keep you updated in the coming days as I dive into Act 3 and beyond. For now, please excuse me: I have to go show Mephisto the door.