Computer role-playing games are an endangered species, threatened with falling victim to natural selection due to dwindling numbers, an increasingly small audience, and the genre's seeming reluctance to evolve beyond Wizardry's hack'n'slash model. The few notable releases in recent history (such as Betrayal at Krondor and The Elder Scrolls: Arena) have seemed more like flukes than new hope, and most of the so-called RPGs released in the last 12 months have simply been Doom-style shooters with lighting bolts instead of chain guns.
But all of this will change this year. The computer RPG is entering a sort of renaissance, and numerous inventive games are currently in development. One of the most promising specimens of the new breed is Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo, a gorgeous, real-time dungeon crawler which utilizes the classic RPG structure but adds several elements which have long been missing - including almost unlimited replayability.
The story is classically simple: you assume the role of a young man who returns to his home village and discovers that all of the inhabitants, including his family, have been slain. The culprit, an evil entity named Diablo, has set up shop under a cathedral in a nearby town. You must venture into the dark catacombs, fight Diablo's minions, and finally destroy the evil one himself. And while this hardly sounds like a revolution in fantasy storytelling, Blizzard has a more than a few unusual plot devices up its sleeve.
Diablo will include a random story generator which will insure that every game will have a unique series of quests upon which characters may embark. As Bill Roper - Blizzard's Director of Third Party Development - explained: "There's an overall storyline, which is to find Diablo, and there will be other major quests which will be randomly generated. There are also mini-quests which will generally entail a character asking you to find an object and bring it to them." When asked about the specific numbers of quests in the game, Roper's answer revealed what an immense world Diablo will invoke: "There will be about 40 major quests, only around four of which a player will come across in a single game. As for mini-quests, well, that's however many we can get written between now and the game's release."
Other features add to Diablo's particular take on replayability in RPGs. Every time a player begins a new game of Diablo, the dungeon will be completely redesigned. And, in addition to the standard multi-player options, Diablo will mark the introduction of Blizzard's battle.net, an on-line server which will allow up to four players to team up against the forces of darkness over the Internet. For free.
The setting of Diablo is established through the rich SVGA graphics, using a three-quarters overhead perspective akin to Origin's Crusader: No Remorse. Through this gorgeous scenery, players will leave a wake of unparalleled carnage. Blizzard have made a conscience attempt to re-invoke the themes of classic pen-and-paper RPGs, the feeling that true evil is afoot. Diablo includes some truly frightening images, such as rooms filled with corpses and monsters being dismembered by your weapons. Roper explained Blizzard's decision to give Diablo such a dark tone: "The player is taking on the role of being a defender of this land. We wanted to show why no one else is really able, or willing, to go down into this labyrinth. We're definitely not pulling any punches; we really wanted a dark, gothic, evil setting. We're fully aware that the game will most likely get a mature rating."
Blizzard has already proven with Warcraft II that a seemingly niche-oriented game can become a huge hit, and Diablo has the potential to repeat WCII's success-without sacrificing the sophisticated elements that fantasy role-players demand. With a delicate balance of action and classic role-playing themes, combined with the limitless possibilities for unique adventures, Diablo will have players coming back to face the evil, time and time again.