Diablo II is one of those games that people seem to adore with a fierce passion or just not get at all. Indeed after roughly twenty-five hours of playing it obsessively I suddenly stopped and said to myself “what AM I doing? After all this time, WHAT have I achieved?” and for many people that will be the point they exit, uninstall the game and never bother with it again. But for many more people like myself the sheer enjoyment of building a character and seeing one’s hard work payoff later down the line is what keeps us playing, and the reason why, even so many years after its initial 2000 release so many people are still playing Diablo II.
Diablo II is a PC role-playing game which as a genre differ slightly from the console based roleplayers in that there are no defined characters and the plot is a loose storyline around which you build up a character by killing lots and lots of enemies. It has an online element but doesn’t quite fit the profile of a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG such as Ultima or Everquest as in essence it’s a lot more basic, offering little over constant fighting and some trading online. You are given a choice of five character types who you will then take through the game levelling up and building skills.
You can choose between Barbarian, Paladin, Sorceress, Amazon and Necromancer, each of which has their own particular strengths and weaknesses. The Barbarian can equip hugely powerful weapons, the Paladin can wear strong defensive gear, the Amazon has excellent ranged attacks, the Sorceress is mistress of offensive magic and the Necromancer can command hordes of undead to go into battle for him. Once you have chosen a character you then battle your way through four “Acts” each taking place in a different environment. You are loosely following a plot which sees you taking on the forces of darkness which survived the first game and have corrupted the world further. Each Act ends with a fierce Boss fight and the game culminates with you taking on Diablo himself at the end of Act 4.
Your lowly level one character begins in the rainy, muddy plains around the Rogue’s encampment. Various NPC’s offer small quests and you start to gradually uncover the various areas and grow through battle. Combat is very basic. Clicking the left mouse button initiates a physical attack, the right a special or magical attack. Hot keys can be set to cycle through your special attacks and a lot of the skill of the game is in not panicking while firing off the best attacks for the situation. The field of play is viewed from a top down “isometric” perspective and movement is initiated by clicking on the ground where you wish your character to run to.
Each character can equip armour, weapons, magic amulets and rings, but only if they have the requisite level or stat requirements. It is here that the true meat of Diablo II lies. Each character has three “skill trees” and as you level up new skills become available, but crucially you can only activate them with the skill points you acquire on each level up. As you only get one point per level up you soon have to decide in which direction you are going to take your character. They need to be spent wisely to, it’s not enough to spend a point activating a skill and moving on, you need to increase the power of the skill with more points to make them more effective.
Too many points spent on low-level skills leave you short of points to beef up the really powerful ones later on. Spreading points evenly can also result in an almost useless character later in the game. This means that although there are only five basic character templates, different people will develop the same ones very differently. When a character levels up five points are also awarded to be spent on building stats allowing further customisation. Choosing what to build up and what to ignore drastically alters how your character may fight and what you choose to equip them with so again much thought is required.
As an example, I mostly play the Necromancer character. I decided early on to make him, a Necromancer that specialises in summoning undead creatures to battle for him and protect him. The necromancer’s three skill trees are summoning, poison and bone spells and curses. My skill points are mostly poured into the summoning tree with a few spent on some Offensive and Defensive Bone Skills to help him protect himself as a last resort. This means he always has a pack of skeletons, a golem and a few revived enemies circling around him and so if things don’t go horrible wrong, he rarely gets into physical danger. Because I chose a method that keeps him away from melee combat, building his strength is a waste of time, so all skill points go to increasing his spellcasting power and defence. This also caries over to equipment, heavy armour and weapons are less useful to him than lighter armour that offers more protection from status affecting magic.
This has worked well for me and I have built a great Necromancer character, yet I have also come across Necromancers who function without minions, using Poison and Bone Skills to wipe out enemies with a maelstrom of corpse exploding and bone projectiles. I have even seen Melee orientated Necromancers who use powerful curses and rare armours to survive in the midst of physical combat. Each of the different characters have the same kind of flexibility result in a wonderfully diverse set of approaches to the game. It also gives the game good replay value as once having finished it as one character type you can have a hugely different experience playing as another character.
The game itself is soaked in a fabulously dark atmosphere, although the backgrounds and monsters are rendered fairly simply, the overall gothic quality of your adventure is superbly put across. The music, sounds and speech are of extremely high quality, with none of the campiness that can creep into Sword and Sorcery epics created by less loving people than those at Blizzard Entertainment. As you progress to the hot desert of Lut Gohlein, through the muddy swamps of Kurast to the final hellish pit of the Chaos Sanctuary, you really feel you’ve made an epic journey and as the monsters become cleverer, stronger and more numerous you are constantly having to refine your tactics even just finishing the game on Normal difficulty.
Defeating Diablo isn’t the end of the story either. By that time you will have begun to access the really cool skills and have amassed some really great armour and weapons and you can now choose to take the game on again in Nightmare difficulty, and if you manage to finish that, the ultimate challenge is Diablo 2 in Hell difficulty mode which can give even hardened gamers a long lasting and extremely tough challenge. There is also Blizzards free online service Battle.net which is still full of Diablo 2 players both newbie and veteran. There is also an expansion pack called “Lord of Destruction” which adds a whole new Act, two new characters and many new items and gameplay tweaks.
Many people might be tempted to purchase and install the expansion pack when they first decide to try the game out. However I would just sound a word of caution, although Diablo 2 is in my opinion a fabulous, deep and addictive experience, for many others it will be a pointless chore of a game. If you are in any doubt, don’t pay out as much again on the expansion pack until you are certain Diablo 2 is a game you intend to spend a lot of time with. In fact I actually recommend not installing the expansion pack until you have played it for a while as “Lord of Destruction” adds so many extra layers of complexity it might actually be off-putting to a new player.
Diablo 2 is a monster of a game. Deep and absorbing it’s one you can keep coming back to time and again. The fact that four years after it’s initial release it still commands such a huge following is a testament to it’s enduring gameplay qualities over and above more flashy looking titles. Diablo 2 is truly a classic.