As I mentioned, for the 20th anniversary of the game last month I downloaded it and set up to play a bit, just to remind myself of what it was back in the day.
I did try to run down mods that were alleged to help with screen resolution. The problem with Diablo II is that the base game runs at 640×480, with the Lord of Destruction expansion boosting that to a big 800×600. However, I did not have much luck on that front. A lot of stuff I ran across was out of date. 20 years will do that. So I opted to just go with 800×600 and rough it.
Which, honestly, wasn’t all that bad. When you first get into the game things look blocky and distorted as the 4:3 aspect ration maps itself onto a 16:10 screen. Everything is a bit wider than one might like. But I found that I got used to it pretty quickly and only really noticed it when I was looking at screen shots, which show up as 800×600 4:3 images.
The main problem with getting 800×600 is that the expansion added some things that were not in the base game. While gems were always there, charms and jewels were expansion items, and I started getting those as drops pretty early on. So not a real run at the experience of 20 years ago, but close enough I guess.
I went with a Paladin, which is sort of my default class in the game. I like the aura and the tanky nature of the class.
You start out in the rogues camp and there is a quest waiting for you.
You can see how that quest marker might have evolved into the yellow exclamation point we know in WoW.
Diablo II drives the plot via quests, but it is not at all quest obsessed. The quest UI only has space for 6 quests per act, and if I recall right, a couple of them are optional and the final act doesn’t even have the full six.
Quests are more central to the game than in the original Diablo, but not as rampant as they are in Diablo III, and they seem almost rare relative to how most MMORPGs in the last 15 years have handled them.
Things start off slow… though the pacing is never frantic save for in a few boss fights… as you are sent forth from the camp to find some bads in a den. You need to slay them all, which starts you on what is my own obsession, exploring all corners of the map. Eventually you’ll find that last little demon in a side path you missed and then return to camp for a reward… and a new task.
You gain the esteem of the rogues and get one to follow you around and assist. I had forgotten about that, but quickly came up to speed. The rogue assistant, who is a ranged player, is the best in the game. I recall that in Act Two you get a melee helper who jumps in and gets themselves killed a lot, compare to the rogue who hangs back, pelts mobs with arrows, and lights them up with a target marking ability.
Lighting them up is important because the game is dark, and the play of light and dark and the shadows in between is still amazing 20 years down the road. I have said this before, but I don’t think any game I have played has done this better. I always use this video from Act Two as a sample.
But it is everywhere in the dark underground or indoor places in the game. I was wandering around places just to see how the shadows moved around my light source, how places remained dark until I got up close.
(Also, you can see I have the Act One rogue helper there in Act Two.)
Eventually though you have to go find the narrative voice of the series, Deckard Cain of “Stay awhile and listen…” quote fame. He is locked away on old Tristram, the setting of original Diablo, which has fallen to the forces of evil.
Once he is freed he portals back to the rogue camp… not sure how he knew where to go, but sure… and then he starts in on what he believes is really going on.
There is another quest along the way, but it takes you along the path to where you need to be.
That gets you into the final area and gives you another preliminary boss to fight.
This is where I want to point out how much I like the map system in the game. It is an overlay, which has its pros and cons. You can have it up while still seeing what is going on, which is a big plus.
I do find that it can be a distraction when up though. I find myself looking at the map and not the tactical situation if I leave it up. And, of course, it isn’t mapped to the M key by default. The Tab key isn’t a bad choice, but habit keeps me pressing M over and over.
Once you have fulfilled Charsi’s quest, which has an excellent reward, you’re on to Cain’s mission.
This is where the pacing of the game shows its patience.
One of the key features of the game is the waypoint system, little teleport pads that you find as you move further into each act. There is one in the starting base, then eight more through each of the first three acts, and they allow you to basically pick up where you left off rather than having to camp in place or walk all the way back to the start of the act to turn in quests and get updates.
My general play style is to play through to the next waypoint. They are good ways to dice up the content into more manageable pieces.
In Act One, Charsi’s quest gets you to the Outer Cloister. The barracks is just beyond that.
That done, the final battle, where you face Andariel, is a good three waypoints down the line. In between are levels to explore, loot to find, and mini-bosses to slay, but nothing to advance the final quest, save getting closer to it. I am not sure a more modern game would let you wander that far without a quest update cookie or, if it did, it would likely be accused of padding out the game needlessly.
Here, it is just a nice, extended dungeon crawl, part of the experience you’ve paid for. It isn’t in the way of the game, it is the game.
Loot is, of course, everywhere. Some named bosses along the way almost explode in a shower of loot.
But inventory space keeps you honest. You need to carry potions and keys and scrolls and those charms you may have picked up that need to be in your inventory to work. You cannot pick up everything, and anything good needs to be identified. Once Cain shows up he will do it for free, but you have to portal or waypoint back to town for that. Otherwise you have to keep identify scrolls on hand to asses the value of something.
And it often feels like feast or famine when you’re deep in a dungeon. I will go from walking past some healing potions because I have too many in my bag and on my belt already, then get in a tough fight and suddenly I am scrambling to grab every healing potion I spot because I am running dry.
I did reach Andariel and defeated her without dying myself. I made it through the whole of Act One without dying. But it was a tough fight and I had run in and out of the area a lot. I long ago learned to pull a fight like that back to the zone line so I could flee at need. I lost my rogue helper at one point, so had to portal back to town to revive her. But I always keep a town portal up for those fights as well. And, after a few retreats to heal up, Andariel exploded as nicely as an ship in New Eden.
Then there was the sorting through the drops. There was a set item, which I think were also expansion things. The problem is that once you get a piece of gold level gear, it is hard to find a replacement that scratches all the same itches. I got a gold scepter early on, have to level up into it, and then used it for the full first act as nothing else I found came close.
And so Act One was done. I moved on to Act II, arriving to the welcome in Lut Gholein.
Act Two is out in the desert, a bright and sunny landscape unlike that of Act One. But there are still many dark, underground places to explore. We shall see how far I get on that.