Inexplicable endings. The law of sequels. Squelching demons. Again? Preview

Inexplicable endings. The law of sequels. Squelching demons. Again?

Alright, so you kill Diablo. You pig-stick the oversized pot roast and discover that he is actually some little kid with a big, curved, sharp gem implanted in his forehead. Being the brilliant, burly adventurer that you are, you rip out the gem and dispose of it.

But how? Do you bury it? Burn it? Crack it up into a thousand, evil-charged pieces? Nah. You take the friggin' thing and smash it directly into your forehead. Yep, you just played an entire game, supposedly to remove this bloody thing from someone's forehead, only to jam it right into yours.

Of course, this doesn't kill you, displace any brain matter, or cause uncomfortable itching. You believe your ordeal will give you the power to contain if whacking 10,000 bleeding he-mutants and at least 5,000 half naked succubae is somehow going to give you enough prowess to help you contain unlimited your forehead.

Naturally, you fail. You turn into the next evening's under-cooked pot roast and set off on a path through the world, leaving evil things in your wake. Gosh. I suppose someone else is going to have to whack those things and come after you. Fun?

Folks, this isn't speculation, celluloid, or a press release. This is the Diablo II Beta... or rather, a preview of Diablo II based on it.

Funny story. 138,000 people signed up for a drawing, the prize being one of a few choice spots in the Diablo II beta test. One day, a copy showed up at the Game Revolution compound and it was awarded to my care. I didn't have to sign up for anything. I love this job. Suckers!

The first Diablo was successful thanks to an extremely sleek, addictive blend of action and role-playing that safely classified it in neither camp. It was seamless, low maintenance fun that never taxed your brain or your twitch skills too much, but rather drew you in with a terrific sense of brooding, gothic atmosphere.

That was back in 1996. Since then, Blizzard North has been hard at work on a sequel. Diablo II, just now in beta, is a much larger game than its predecessor. The beta, which only includes the first (and smallest) of the planned four acts, is easily as large as the entire original. Given its extraordinary length, Diablo II features a great deal more of everything than before.

For instance, the press materials claim that the beta lacks three acts, many skills, and "hundreds of thousands of weapons." While such a statement would seem to be hyperbole, after a few days with the game, it seems that Blizzard might have been conservative with that estimate.

There are also more character classes: the Paladin (knight), Sorceress (wizard), Amazon (Rogue from Diablo), Necromancer (like the Conjurer from NOX), and Barbarian (Arnold Schwartzenegger in CONAN). Each class is distinctive and yet supremely balanced. A great deal of this comes from the new skill system, which links magical abilities to levels rather than whether or not you happened upon a book somewhere.

Gameplay is still viewed from the familiar isometric perspective and takes place not only in dungeons, but in vast landscapes as well. Typically, reaching a quest objective might involve crossing over a few marshes, fields, and such. Fortunately, there is an included waypoint/teleporter system that nicely avoids the problem of having to re-cross completed terrain.

A key deficiency in Diablo was the easily 'hackable' characters. This led to widespread cheating across This time around, play (which is essentially a cooperative multi-player version of the single player game, but without saved games) is secure thanks to all gameplay data (including your avatar) being stored on Blizzard's servers, much like Ultima Online or Everquest.

Graphically, Blizzard decided to play an interesting mix. Through the use of 3D acceleration in a 2D game, Diablo II comes to life in semi-3D. Paralaxing effects provide an illusion of objects changing visual relationships to one another based upon angle of sight. Move 'up' and see what was under the backside of that rock, or what was next to that fence. Advanced lighting and bilinear filtering effects are also included. Art is consistently top-rate throughout, with spell and death animations being especially impressive.

One potential caveat, however, is the extremely limited resolution (locked at 640 x 480) which makes the game look more blocky than it should. Hopefully, Blizzard will see it in their wisdom (they do have a proven track record) to include the option of higher resolutions, even if that only means using the same artwork and shrinking everything down. After all, it worked fine in NOX...

It is difficult to tell exactly how good the final Diablo II will be from the limited beta. But based on what we've seen thus far, this should be yet another winner for Blizzard. The first act, which seems to be the least exotic of the four, is engrossing and extremely entertaining. The gamplay is still chock full of that old Diablo excitement and most of the new changes to the gameplay dynamic balance things out. While the graphics might not demonstrate it, this looks to be a very polished product and obsession material all over again.

Barbarians rejoice! Diablo II is due out sometime before the next Ice Age for the PC.

Click on the following screenshots to enlarge!