The Essence of Diablo II

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.

Diablo II 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 Diablo II Quest Log

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.

I always miss that one waypoint in act II

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 What?

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?

14 thoughts on “The Essence of Diablo II

  1. Warsyde

    I think atmosphere is a big part of what made Diablo 2 work, and so far my experience with Diablo 3 is that it’s a little bit hit, and a little bit miss.

    The music and sounds are a solid hit. Many of them are the same (or at least very similar) to Diablo 2, so it’s nostalgia and good atmosphere all in one. Lighting and shadows on the other hand . . . the game seems very well lit. I haven’t noticed any sort of “torch” mechanic, the light is pervasive and even deep underground nothing seems dark. That bothers me far more than the color palette, which really isn’t that bright — it’s just all the light makes it seem like it is.

    To me, Diablo 3 feels much more like Torchlight than it does Diablo 2. I think it’ll be an enjoyable game, but I’m not sure you’ll have the sort of lasting memories Diablo 2 gave you.


  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Warsyde – Hrmm… that is mildly disappointing. The light and dark thing really works so well in Diablo 2. I took a dozen videos in the tomb and ended up posting the shortest one just because the shadows and light moved so well.

    The pervasive light was one of the things that disappointed me a bit with Torchlight. A solid game, but lacking a couple of the Diablo 2 elements.

    And mentioning sounds, one of the things I had on my list and forgot was the sound effects. I love that, years after launch, I can still “hear” a gem or a ring or a potion or a piece of armor drop off a creature. Those sounds are ingrained in my brain.


  3. CunningB

    Just wanted to chip in quickly to say that i’ve seen a quote from blizzard on diablo fans back when blizzcon was on saying don’t judge the games atmosphere on the first half of act 1 – as that’s all that’s in the beta atm. They apparently wanted a greater range in atmosphere than just dark cave – dark dungeon, and apparently the game gets much darker as it progresses.

    Ofc whether that’s actually the case won’t be seen until the full games out ^^


  4. SynCaine

    My biggest personal fear is that gaming has evolved past “click click click” being fun for hours on end. I liked D1 and D2 (not as much as those with multiple lvl 99s, but I still beat both games multiple times), but never could finish either Torchlight or TQ.

    Hopefully it is because Torch and TQ are missing the secret sauce that made Diablo so great. I’m just not all that convinced that’s the case for me.


  5. bhagpuss

    Never played Diablo or Diablo 2. I had only very vaguely even heard of them. Mrs Bhagpuss played D2 once at someone’s house. I can’t remember exactly what she said about it but I do remember she wasn’t impressed.

    I think by that time we’d have said we’d moved on from that isometric 3d perspective and I guess that’s still the case. I find it just about impossible to pay any attention to any game using that style of graphics for more than a few minutes before my mind wanders.

    Don’t imagine I’ll play Diablo 3 but you never know. At least this time I’ll know what it is that I’m ignoring.


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @SynCaine – Every time I think about playing Diablo 2 again, I wonder if the whole clicky-clicky aspect is something I am done with, but the game inevitably grabs me and I play at least through the first two acts.

    TQ just failed to engage me, though I cannot remember specifically why, and while Torchlight was good, I have to admit there was a certain level of “I want to like it” going on there.

    @Bhagpuss – In 1997 Diablo was amazing. It looked damn good, played like nothing else, and had online, co-op play. I remember staying up way late online with Xyd (sometime reader/commenter here and former co-worker) and another friend to kill Diablo.

    It was the sort of game, at that time, that invited emergent game-play as we tried to create new ways to experience it. I remember the Ironman method, where you started with a fresh character and went into the dungeon and stayed in until Diablo was dead. You couldn’t go to the vendor for items or to repair, you had to use only what dropped as you fought your way down into the dungeon. If you died, game over.

    But if you haven’t ever touched the series before, I am not sure how well you will respond to it. Of course, I am not sure how the game will even feel. It has been, as I said, over a decade since Blizzard released anything new for the franchise.

    In a way, it has an EverQuest charm to it. It looks dated, but it reminds you, in its way, of what it was like to play it back in the day.


  7. Carson

    So while the Diablo 3 beta servers were down for prolonged maintenance last weekend, I fired up the ol’ Diablo 2, which I hadn’t played for some years.

    Personally, I think it’s still got it. It certainly feels old but it doesn’t feel any less fun that it was when I first played it. Indeed I’ve spent more time playing this week even with all my other more modern gaming options!

    From my D3 beta experience, I’m confident that D3 will deliver almost everything I loved about D2, with one notable exception – replayability. While I’m hesitent to describe D2’s “no respecs” model as good game design (and I note that since I last played it, limited respecs have been patched in), the fact is, it gave you a reason to play it again and again. As did playing online ladder games, with periodic ladder resets. I’m concerned that levelling all 5 classes to 60 in D3 won’t take that long, and that at that point, there’ll be nothing left except endgame farming.

    Particularly, I’m worried about the effect this will have on low-level loot: there are a lot of low-level unique and set items in the D3 game guide, but what’s the point of them, If you quickly outlevel them, and there’s no need to keep them in stash for twinking new characters?

    (insert comment about hardcore here: of course, hardcore gives you replayability; but I only ever played single-player hardcore in D2, and am VERY reluctant to run the risk of a permadeath caused by my internets dropping out, so I’m not sure I’ll touch it in D3)

    Regardless, I have zero doubts that D3 will provide more than enough entertainment to justify the purchase. But I have quite a few doubts as to whether it will be much played in a year’s time, let alone a decade.


  8. Skiter

    @Carson: This is something that worries me. D2 was awesome – I started playing late, but I actually never got a lvl 99 char after 1.10, with the xp penalty. And I didn’t feel like we must be lvl 99. It was not like most of games today where “the real game starts at max level”.
    In this post, Gevlon has a quote from a transcript interview that made me sad – to the point that I think D3 might not be nice for me.
    “We’re not really concerned about making 1-60 some ridiculously long grind. We’re not douchebags”. Really? Was not being able to get to 99 in D2 making the designers “douchebags”? This just sounds so awful to me, like the fact that they have a difficulty that is only for max-level-guys-with-lots-of-gear. Why not just have the gear requirements, and have most gear be accessible let’s say 38+ or something? I haven’t played D3 yet but this is just something that bugs me. I do NOT feel like any rpg game should be easy to get me to max level and design stuff only taking max level in account after some time. Yes, I am casual, and I don’t care not achieving max level. There, I said it.


  9. Solf

    I think you might be giving Diablo II too much credit in some areas (e.g. talents system that had/has very limited number of really useful skills and a lot of ‘junk’ and made you save up your points to make a great character, so you’d just almost auto-attack through the first X levels).

    At the same time you might be giving it too little (none?) credit in other areas that might be extremely important — e.g. maybe responsiveness — where all the time you feel like you’re in control of your character rather than fighting the UI to position your character / do exactly what you want (which is often a problem with many new games that try for ‘realistic’ movement for example, DCUO comes to mind of the things I’ve tried recently).

    With that said — I completely agree — Diablo 1/2 has had some real secret sauce in it. I cannot put my finger on it, but these two just work. Unlike Torchlight / TQ / other examples (at least in my case).

    Oh, and could you see about putting ‘subscribe to comments on this post’ button on your blog? I know many WordPress blogs have it (Syncaine, Killtenrats), so I hope it’s possible? I mean it’s doubtful I’d come back to check manually, but I’d be interested to know if someone responds on this topic :)


  10. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Solf – Well, I am going to claim that simplicity of controls also kinda, sorta implies their quality and responsiveness. Simple can be construed as something that doesn’t get in the way and just works. Are you buying that?

    On the talent points, my basis for comparison was with talent trees in current MMOs like WoW or EQII (AA point hell at this point) where I have to go off and read about them to know what in the hell I should pick. At least in Diablo I could see useless up front. But I always play one of the same three classes (paladin, barbarian, or amazon, though I just started a druid) so maybe I am working with the classes with the better talent options.

    As for subscribing to comments… I think I just turned that feature off the other day to reduce clutter. I figured nobody every used it. Shows what I know.


  11. Solf

    No, I don’t think I’m buying that :) I mean, if you stretch stuff enough you can get anything to cover almost everything :)

    Anyway, I came here to thank you for adding that button / checkbox. Had to google this post when I noticed you’ve added it :)


  12. Wizardling

    I played Diablo II (with an offline bnet-only runeword mod and item muling app) again for a good couple months last year in-between EQ1 (after going off SOE a while). It’s still fun, and still sucks me back in for a while with it’s simple, fun and addictive gameplay. But I’m too hooked on MMOs nowadays to play D2 more than once a year. Likewise Diablo I which is still the most atmospheric and creepy of any isometric action-RPG IMO.

    Thus I doubt I’ll be buying Diablo III or any new game of that type, as my modest needs are already fulfilled. It might be cool to have a Diablo with more side quests and fewer bugs, but not cool enough to get me to spend the equivalent of eight months of MMO subs when at my current rate it would take four years to equal that game time in Diablo.


Comments are closed.