The Essence of Diablo II December 14, 2011Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Diablo II, Diablo III, entertainment.
Hey, a post about neither Star Wars: The Old Republic nor Lord British! (He hasn’t done another interview today, has he?)
Anyway, as I mentioned in my November month in review, I hauled out Diablo II again to get back to why I loved the game in the first place. One of those Paul Barnett quotes (I think it was him) that I really liked was about nostalgia for great old games from people who cannot be bothered to play those games any more being BS. Citation needed and all that, but I think it is telling when somebody goes on about how great a game was that they don’t actually play any more, something I know I have been guilty of myself.
And having tooled around in the game for over a month now, I thought it was time to make a list of the key things that really made the Diablo games good in the past, things which I hope those working on Diablo III haven’t lost sight of.
I did not actually load up the original Diablo… I couldn’t find the disk… to do this post. So this is more Diablo II focused with some memories of Diablo thrown in.
I have gone back and forth on what those are, and have narrowed it down to two things, atmosphere and simplicity. Ironically, simplicity is a bit complicated, but I will get to that.
This is a huge part of the game, and one thing that gets veterans of the game all worked up when they see a lot of color in screen shots from Diablo III in progress.
And certainly, a lot of the dungeons were dark places with little color. But there were also deserts that were bright and full of color.
But beyond that, what made the past Diablo games so good went far beyond a color palette choice.
The music helps set the tone in the game. The Diablo games are one of the few games that I have to play with the sound on at all times. The music is often quite simple, but it always transmits a mood
The lighting is also great. It isn’t just that you are in a dark dungeon, but that you are often just in a small circle of light unless you are near a torch or other fire.
Atmosphere is so important, to my mind, and yet is hard to describe. All I have is this quick video clip of one of my characters walking through the Tomb of Tal Rasha. The way the light and shadows work, the darkness at the edge of the circle of light, the pools of light left by the torches, the music, the architecture… well, watch the video. It is only 14 seconds long.
It just works, and does so throughout the game, through a variety of different environments. And that is a 10+ year old game. Looks darn good… at least in tiny YouTube vision. Running it at its maximum 800×600 resolution on a 1600×1200 monitor spoils it a bit.
Atmosphere is direct and all pervasive, but hard to quantify. You know it when it is working. When it is not, you might not notice except for a feeling that things just are not drawing you into the game.
Simplicity also pervades the game, but is more easily divided up into categories.
Simplicity of Controls
In the vein of the whole, “Easy to learn, difficult to master” idea, there is not much you need to tell people about the mechanics of playing Diablo after they have done it for five minutes. This not much in the way of controls.
The game, if you haven’t played it, is click to move, click to attack. You can map an ability to either mouse button, but these are usually just your basic attack and then a special attack, depending on your class.
Simplicity of Story
When you get down to it, there really isn’t a lot to the Diablo story. In the original a bad guy, Diablo, was causing problems and, in the end, you had to kill him. It just took a while to get to him.
In Diablo II, Diablo is back with his brothers Mephisto and Baal and are up to unholy hijinks yet again. The story unfolds a little more slowly that in Diablo, and it occurs across four acts in four different locations, and you get a little more exposition from NPCs.
But the story remains simple, there are some bad guys doing bad things and they have to be stopped. There is progression, you level up, you learn new skills, you find new gear, but this is not a voyage of personal discovery. This is a chance to fight some bad guys.
Simplicity of Quests
This is one of those things you might wonder about in the context of MMORPGs. The first three acts in Diablo II have only six quests each, and act IV only has three if I recall right. (I’m only on act III) The quest log literally only has places for six quests total.
The quests are driven by the story and are not a source of experience or equipment. You are given a task, usually either to find something or kill someone, though once in a while it is to investigate some place, though that usually turns into killing someone. The adventure, and any experience and loot, come from getting to the appointed place and acquiring the item or slaying the boss in question.
After having gotten, for example, the achievement for having done 130 quests in Dragonblight in World of Warcraft, I have to wonder if there isn’t something from this that current games could learn.
Okay, the environments are different. In Diablo II it is just you and, if you are doing multi-player, your party alone in the world while in WoW you may have to share any given area with other people on the same task. So unless you have a Guild Wars type of world, where all adventures are instanced, that is tough to pull off. Still, I envy the simplicity.
Simplicity of Just About Everything Else
Really, the simplicity theme could just keep going. There are those nice little checkpoints in the story so you can digest it in short play sessions.
Vendors are simple. The overlay map is a wonder of elegance and simplicity. Equipment is simple, if overly plentiful at times. There is practically a mini-game in comparing drops with what you are wearing to see if it is an upgrade or not. The talent points are simple, relative to WoW for example, and are all pretty clear on what you get if you invest. And I have usually been able to balance out focus in one area, like offensive auras on my paladin, with equipment to cover poison or frost resistance.
The game feels like they spent a lot of time honing and polishing simple features until they worked smoothly rather than going for more depth or complexity.
So these are the two thing I hope the team developing Diablo III has not lost sight of. I get anxious when I see quotes from the Diablo III dev team about not wanting to make “Diablo 2.5,” (forgot where I read that, citation needed again) because it implies they want to leave their own stamp on the franchise. That isn’t a bad thing, but it is any easy thing to mess up. Being different is not the same as being better.
And frankly, if it meant keeping the simplicity and atmosphere intact, I would happily take Diablo 2.5. I mean I still cannot fathom how they have let the Diablo franchise sit for a decade. Back until Xfire stopped doing monthly summaries a couple years back, Diablo II was always on the top 10 list in the “other” category. Usually behind Solitaire, which had huge numbers. Lots of people would have bought another expansion with a new story, especially if it upped the graphics resolution or put in some better support for mods.
And other pretenders to the Diablo throne, games like Titan Quest and Torchlight, never stuck with me the way Diablo II did. Not that they were not good games. Torchlight was especially a lot of fun, but its atmosphere never gripped me the way Diablo II does even today. I enjoyed Torchlight while I played it, but I have no urge to go back to it again the way I do with Diablo II.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on what made Diablo II.
What do you think? What did I miss?
And what will make or break Diablo III?