Briefing for a descent into Hell...
This review doesn't matter. There were 1.5 million pre-orders for Diablo 2 even before it went gold. In its first day in the stores, it sold about 250,000 copies off the shelf. It's already a smash hit and it doesn't need any good reviews for that. Mostly, all this review can do is either validate or rebuke the decision of the millions who have bought the game. Chances are if you are reading this you're wondering if GR thinks that you made the right choice in buying Diablo 2...and most likely sinking hundreds of hours into it in the two weeks it has been out.
To familiarize all three people who never played the original Diablo, Diablo 2 is a hybrid arcade RPG. Played from a 2D isometric perspective, Diablo 2 boils down to a lot of clicking to whack or cast spells, a lot of killing things by aforementioned whacking and casting, and collecting lots and lots of weapons, armor, and other assorted stuff while leveling up and developing your character. It's uncomplicated, straightforward, visceral fun that is much more entertaining in practice than description. It's one of those games that you sit down and play for six hours, thinking you're only taking a 30-minute break.
The original Diablo followed the exploits of a hero who returned to his hometown of Tristram to find it ravaged by the forces of hell. At the heart of this was Diablo, the Lord of Terror, who was holed up in a massive labyrinth beneath the town cathedral. As it turned out, Diablo was contained in a spike-shaped 'Soulstone" that was thrust into the forehead of a small boy, allowing Diablo to possess him and take corporeal form. After killing the scaly critter, our hero thrust the Soulstone into his own forehead, assuming that the ordeal was enough preparation to contain Diablo. He was wrong.
In Diablo 2 you play as a new warrior, either as an Amazon, Barbarian, Necromancer, Paladin, or Sorceress. You must stop "the wanderer," the former warrior with a Soulstone stuck in his head, from loosing hell on earth. Conveniently, his path covers mountain, desert, jungle, something resembling outer space, and hell itself. All manner of hellspawn is left in the Wanderer's wake for you to deal with, thereby making a game of it.
Diablo 2 is a much larger game than the original. It's broken down into four acts, each one taking place in a new locale. Act 1 takes place near Tristram, in the mountain country. Act 2 takes place in the desert near a port called Lut Gholien. Act 3 takes place in the jungles surrounding the ancient city of Kurast, and Act 4 takes place in Hell itself. Each act (aside from the last one) is easily the size of the original Diabloand contains about twice as many items and monsters.
Blizzard made claims of there being hundreds of thousands of weapons and items in Diablo 2 and they weren't kidding. Between regular, magical, rare, unique, and set items (varying levels of rarity and exoticness), there are enough things to preoccupy any in-game collector for years. Much of the draw of Diablo 2 lies in finding new items and their uses. In many ways it's a very capitalistic game of accumulation, trading and power. Very American... err... very good.
To show off all of this combat and collection, Blizzard created a new engine. Although bearing a strong resemblance to the original, there is no loading between levels, world size is greatly increased, graphics are no longer tile-based and there is optional use of 3D accelerators. With a 3D card, lighting effects are added and great use is made of a technique called "Paralaxing," which moves 2D bitmaps in relation to each other to create the illusion of perspective. You can "see around" rocks if you move from side to side or up and down - a 3D feel in 2 dimensions.
The artwork behind all of this is first rate. Backgrounds, monsters, spells, deaths - everything is lusciously rendered in high detail and with great imagination. Blizzard has created a vibrant set of locales for Diablo 2 to call its home.
However, the graphics are somewhat hobbled by the biggest problem with the game. Basically, Diablo 2was designed first and foresmost with the online Battle.net component in mind. On Battle.net (Blizzard's free internet gaming service) you can play cooperatively with others. The single player and multiplayer are so similar that if you were to sign on to Battle.net, create a "1 player server" and play, you would practically be playing the exact same game as single player.
In order to make everything fair, Blizzard locked the resolution at 640x480 so that everyone would have the same viewing distance on screen. It also means that the save system in multiplayer (you save when you exit the game; if you die you have to go back and get your corpse, which can be expensive and frustrating) is there in single player as well.
While this makes perfect sense for multiplayer, there is no good reason they couldn't have altered it for single player in which inter-player fairness is a non-issue. Blizzard forgot, I suppose, that you can make a game that has it both ways, great single player and multi player in which neither mode has to dominate. For a game that was in development for 4 years, such an omission is befuddling.
Still, there are more improvements than problems with the game system. Spells are slaved to each level instead of finding a spell book. Enemy behavior is more creative than before. Generally, things actually feel a lot more streamlined than Diablo. Also, the rest of the production values are top flight. Sound and voice is great, and the cinematics are the best in gaming so far.
So, did you do good in buying the game? Sure, it's a fun game. It's engrossing, large, and extremely entertaining. Even if the single player has problems and there are a few bugs, the multiplayer (excluding poor Battle.net performance due to the deluge of players) is great stuff. But you can't help shake the fact that it's so similar to Diablo. It's really not that different and it doesn't show us anything new like its forbearer did. Beyond that, there's a feeling that sinks in after awhile that Diablo was more direct, more enveloping, more focused than Diablo 2.
While this sequel proceeds from the mantra of bigger being better, you can't help but sense that something was lost by the wayside and that Blizzard, being the stellar developer that they are, should try harder for innovative games. We already know they can do solid games as well or better than the rest, but how about something that shakes up the industry instead of something so dependable that it's a Top Ten hit before it's even finished? That's the GR briefing, at least. You can get back to perpetrating the genocide of evil now.