The original Diablo practically defined its own genre and turned out to be a smash hit, not to mention a blast to play. What the original did right, Diablo II (D2) does even better, particularly with the Lord of Destruction expansion. If the original game was addicting, then D2 practically ought to be regulated by the FDA. On balance, I think the game is a must-buy, though it's not without its faults. Read on for all the gory details!
One of my complaints with the original game was that it was limited to 640 x 480 resolution. D2 isn't much better, frankly, limiting the user to a maximum of 800 x 600. While the graphics in the original game were very good for their time, D2 was in development for so long that, again to be blunt, the graphics just aren't that hot compared to other recent titles.
Should any of this prevent one from picking up a copy of the game? Heck no. The graphics do improve throughout the acts of the original game, particularly as one gets into act three and four. And more to the point, they're good enough to get the job done. Some of the spell effects, in fact, are positively wonderful to observe. In short, the animation and cut-scenes are fabulous, the textures could be more detailed, the characters show enough detail to be useful, and it all comes together relatively well. Don't let complaints about the visuals prevent you from enjoying the game.
The audio in D2 is superlative. Many of the basic sounds seem to have been taken from the original game—why fix what ain't broke?—but regardless of their origin, they're all just perfect. Everything from the clinking of coins to Diablo's roar is just perfect. The sound effects are great, providing a wealth of aural feedback while simultaneously being very entertaining.
The music deserves still more praise. The composer, Matt Uelmen, has truly done a wonderful job of creating a diverse and truly compelling series of background tracks. I'm pretty fussy, having been a musician for decades, and, as such, the music in just about any game eventually bores me. Yet despite the hundreds of hours I've spent with D2, I'm still not bored with the music. In fact, I've long since ripped all of the tracks to MP3 format, and I listen to them often. Truly, D2 shines in the audio department like few games do.
What could be simpler? Seriously, just about everything in D2 is accomplished with a left or right click of the mouse. It's possible to change the various key-bindings for in-game play, but the game's interface was one of its great successes in the original, and Blizzard has left it largely intact in the sequel. The menus are all very simple and easily navigated. Key customizations are easily made. The entire interface is as simple as it is functional.
The game mechanics of the entire series are its greatest strength and its only serious flaw. The game mechanics are pretty simple, really: (1) kill everything that moves, (2) try to break anything that doesn't, and (3) pick up anything that looks even remotely like loot. That's such a simplistic formula that it's genuinely surprising to me how engrossing the game really is. This is a flaw, however, insofar as people who simply can't play a game unless it's ridiculously complex (e.g., some war-gamers come to mind) won't be interested.
The mechanics also deserves great praise for the absolutely wonderful degree to which the various character classes, skill trees, etc. work together. It's a near miracle, in my estimation, that all of the different character classes manage to be so well differentiated, so well designed that they are a blast to play individually, and even more so when part of a good group. Though it might seem trivial to congratulate a game for being the best in the genre it effectively invents, it surely isn't in the case of D2.
My only real complaint with the game mechanics, which is what finally drove me away from it incidentally, is that the game allows certain entirely ridiculous situations in the Nightmare and Hell modes of play. For example, while playing through the third act in Nightmare, my character walked down the steps of one of the ruined temples. Literally before the area even finished loading so that it could be displayed on my screen, my character was dead. I hadn't a clue what had happened, but I was very curious.
After poking around for a while, I discovered that it was essentially the fault of the game code that generates monsters. You see, at the very base of the stairs were roughly twenty serpents of some awful kind. And because my character is officially down there when the server, not the client, is ready to go, my character was dying before my computer had even loaded the area. I only know what was down there because I managed to get another player to help me out, a player that had enough hit points not to die when getting hit about a dozen times before the area finished loading.
Another couple of examples would surely include Duriel and the Ancients in Hell. Duriel was tough enough in the past. But when he's essentially impossible to freeze, immune to virtually everything, and tough as nails to boot, as well as being able to kill my sorceress with a single blow, he's graduated from a challenge to the literally impossible. The Ancients are just as bad. Facing off against them as a sorceress strikes me as impossible, unless perhaps there's some goofy trick that can be leveraged. In my experience, however, my sorceress died in a single volley of blows, and at least one of those chaps moves quickly enough that teleporting doesn't help.
The better way of stating this complaint, perhaps, is that some character pathways simply don't seem viable. Playing solo as a sorceress seems to be one of the more problematic routes. I never faced a situation that was all that tough with my necromancers, for example, though I'm told that playing as a poison-focused necromancer is similarly useless. Given the overall complexity of the game, I'm not surprised that this is the case, but it's kind of disappointing after spending so much time to boost a character up into the 70's that the character is simply hosed.
The story of the original game practically begged for a sequel. The final movie shows the hero of Tristram drive the stone into his forehead, risking his very soul in order to contain the demon, Diablo. The opening of D2 picks up with the former hero in a positively awful state, struggling to contain the demon within. As always, Blizzard's cinematics set the standard for the industry. Watching that tortured fellow slowly lose his mind, and seeing him fail ultimately, is positively heart-jerking.
The story for both D2, as well as the expansion pack, are quite gripping. Blizzard has again managed to leverage a strong back-story to provide a detailed and very engaging world in which to play. It was more than a bit predictable in several ways, but so are many of the classics. What really matters is whether the plot motion is interesting, the characters are compelling, and so forth. Of D2, it's safe to say that all of these qualifications are met by the story.
D2 also shines brightly in this aspect, and is positively brilliant with the expansion. The diversity of types of weapons, armor, rings, amulets, gems, etc. is wonderful in the first place. With the expansion pack, which I recommend highly, the diversity is increased by at least an order of magnitude. The expansion pack adds a larger stash, jewels, runes, two new great player classes, a fifth act, and a host of other stuff. The original four acts of the game are packed full of quests, baddies to slay, and so forth. The new, fifth act is arguably not as inspired as some of the others, but it's still pretty darned good.
D2 is simply a game that has a wonderful diversity of environments, items, characters, quests, and everything else under the sun. This isn't a game you're going to finish in only a few hours of play. It's a game that's going to take some effort and some thought, particularly if you wish to develop robust characters, choosing intelligently amongst the various skill trees. Oh, and that's not even mentioning that...
...the multi-player aspect of D2 is even better than the single-player game! I've played through all of the single-player game four times to date, and played smaller chunks of it still more while exploring various characters. Despite the fun I've had with the single-player game, the multi-player game is better still. The various character classes are quite distinct, and are obviously designed to complement each other. Playing through the single-player game as a paladin is a lot of fun, but playing as a highly-buffed tank with auras from which the whole party can benefit is even better. Similarly, playing through the single-player game as a sorceress is a lot of fun, but playing as a rear-rank spellcaster in a larger party is far more engrossing.
The degree to which Battle.net is populated should tell you something about what a blast the multi-player game really is. There is a fair population of wankers who will jump into games and make jerks of themselves, of course, but overall it's not too difficult to find a good game. The multi-player aspect could really benefit, I think, from a better matching system, but it is one of the very best multi-player games I've ever enjoyed. Even the PvP and cheating woes of the original game have been addressed completely in D2. Nice going, Blizzard!
Though D2 isn't the prettiest game on the shelves right now, it's surely one of the most fun. The variety of character classes, spells, abilities, equipment, and so forth is simply phenomenal. If you're a hard-core complexity nut who won't go near the game because its mechanics are too simple, or if you're a hard-core RPG'er who won't go near anything that deviates from pure D&D, well, then you probably won't like D2. For everybody else, however, who surely comprise the vast majority, I suggest buying both the game and its expansion. I doubt seriously that you'll regret it.
Reviewed by Phileosophos