After more than three years in the making, Diablo II has finally arrived. The belated sequel is easily one of the most anticipated computer games of all time, so it's not surprising that Blizzard North has managed to produce another highly entertaining and accessible game. But while its hack-and-slash gameplay will seem instantly familiar to those who played its predecessor, Diablo II is a more complex and much larger game, which helps explain its extended production. However, in exchange for the additional complexity and size, you'll have to tolerate low-resolution graphics and a few more gameplay problems than you might have come to expect from Blizzard games.
Although it was hugely successful both commercially and critically, the original Diablo was criticized for its relatively short single-player game and solitary dungeon setting. Diablo II is set in a much larger gaming world, and its action isn't isolated to a single locale. Divided into four distinct acts, each with its own setting, Diablo II now permits outdoor exploration in addition to a predictable series of dungeon crawls, although the outdoor areas aren't terribly interesting in and of themselves. The overall goal of Diablo II is exactly the same as it was in the first game, namely to hack through hordes of monsters to gain items and enhance your abilities so you can confront and speedily dispatch the resident Lord of Terror, Diablo. This time around there's a better story to serve as the framework for the slaughter, as each of the game's acts is linked together with impressively produced and lengthy cinematic cutscenes. The quests you receive are no longer random, as they were in the single-player version of the original game, and collectively the tasks in each act are loosely linked together to make the overall story more cohesive. Diablo II's primary focus is still on action-oriented gameplay, but the more sophisticated presentation of the cutscenes and the additional plot depth give the action context and more relevance than in the original game.
The actual gameplay still consists almost exclusively of killing monsters to gain treasure and experience points. Since your character constantly gains more and more formidable abilities and weaponry, that relatively simple style of play proves to be just as addictive as it was in the original Diablo and in other games that have since exploited the same formula. It's difficult to extract yourself from a game that always keeps you on the verge of being rewarded for another achievement.
Early in the game, that otherwise effective blueprint is overused, since swarms of weak creatures are hurled at you. The game is so easy until the end of act one that it gets tiresome wading through crowds of pathetic beasts, several of which are less fearsome versions of counterparts from the original game. The lack of resulting tension is noticeable, especially since the first Diablo increased its difficulty very quickly by requiring relatively inexperienced characters to battle behemoths such as the Butcher and the Skeleton King. There isn't a similarly difficult showdown in Diablo II until the very end of the first act, although there are plenty of challenging confrontations after that point in the game. Blizzard has always seemed intent on producing games that are extremely intuitive for new players; with Diablo II, the developers may have been concerned that neophytes would find all of the new character skill choices intimidating and accordingly structured the game so that the early stages would give you a less stressful opportunity to get accustomed to the new character development system. In addition, since the graphics for the creatures and areas at the beginning of game were also created quite early in the game's development, they are substantially worse than those that appear further into the game. The first act of the game is generally not representative of the quality and challenge of its remainder.
More experienced players may be bored early in the game because of the lack of difficulty, but they'll certainly appreciate the additional character development options. In addition to there now being five player-character classes instead of just three, the differences between the new classes are more significant than they were in the original game. In Diablo, while each of the classes had different strengths and inherently performed some actions better than the other classes, there were only a couple of unique class skills. In Diablo II the character development system has been overhauled, and almost all skills are unique to a particular class. In addition, you get to select which skills your character acquires or improves, so even characters of the same class can develop completely differently. Similarly, whereas the original game's mana attribute simply determined a character's spell points, it's been redefined into a more broadly useful attribute that all character classes need to keep track of. The increased differentiation between classes and the more expansive selection of skills appreciably enhance the game's replay value, especially since Blizzard did a good job of making each class interesting. While the additional complexity may make Diablo II a little less accessible to casual gamers, it's definitely the game's most significant improvement over Diablo.
On the other hand, the graphics in Diablo II are disappointing, especially when compared with those in the original game. When Diablo was released at the end of 1996, its SVGA graphics were amazing. More than three years later, those low-resolution graphics no longer look impressive and barely look adequate, and yet that's all Diablo II offers. There are some notable graphical improvements, such as the game's lighting and translucency effects and the new parallax scrolling that gives a 3D gloss to otherwise flat objects, but the game's 2D graphics are generally disappointing and look pixelated and lack sharpness on larger monitors.
The graphics are also almost constantly obscured by the game's automap function. You can turn the map off or dim its brightness, but the game's outdoor environments make the map even more necessary for navigation than it was previously, so most of the time it'll be blocking your view of the game world. There should have at least been an option to display a smaller version of the automap in a corner of the screen where it wouldn't intrude as noticeably. Fortunately, the developers made some tweaks to the game's design and interface, and the resulting improvements are noticeable, even though they may not go far enough. For one thing, the game has no discernible loading-time transitions between areas - only between acts. In addition, instead of having to constantly mouse-click to initiate attacks, you can now just hold the mouse button down to continuously attack a creature, which limits the amount of tedious mouse-clicking that was required in the original. There are also additional hotkeys available for skills or spells, but there still aren't enough available to give quick access to all of a character's useful abilities. Surprisingly, Westwood's Nox did a better job of granting you quick access to an area map and your character's abilities, spells, and items, even though accessibility was a key strength of the original Diablo.
While Diablo's cooperative multiplayer mode was undeniably addictive and included a variety of difficulty levels unavailable in the single-player game, players still complained about the fact that most of the game's quests were only accessible in the game's single-player mode. In Diablo II, the single-player and multiplayer modes are almost identical, and all of the quests and difficulty levels are available in both versions of the game. Multiplayer Diablo didn't permit you to save the game whenever you wanted, and a character's death resulted in a hazardous and ill-equipped trip back to the same dangerous area to retrieve the character's valuables. The designers of Diablo II apparently believed the resulting tension generated by the multiplayer mode of the original game was worth porting to the single-player mode, because that's the only way to save your game in the sequel. You can no longer save the game whenever you want, and when a game is saved (either automatically or when you exit a session), new monsters are generated to populate the gaming world. There are waypoints that can be activated so you can get back relatively close to where your character was last exploring, but creatures will have respawned in that area, even if it was previously cleared out. Leaving a game without using the "save and exit" option in the main menu could result in the loss of recently acquired booty. While the new system does prevent you from constantly reverting to saved games and robbing yourself of the thrill of danger while exploring a new area, it's a design decision that's bound to frustrate some players.
The most significant problem with multiplayer Diablo was that it was too easy for hackers to create powerful magic items and alter character attributes and other data files, since all of the game data was stored locally, on players' hard drives. Within a couple of weeks of Diablo's release, it was virtually impossible to play a non-password-protected game on Blizzard's free Internet Battle.net server without being harassed by players solely intent on ruining other players' games with their unnaturally overpowered characters. Battle.net now has an optional archive to store character data, which should finally cure the hacking problems that plagued the original game, since would-be cheaters won't be able to alter that data anymore.
Blizzard's Battle.net Internet servers, which were initially launched concurrently with the release of the original Diablo, have proven to be unable to cope with the number of players currently trying to play Diablo II online. Gameplay has so far proven to be laggy, which is surprising considering Diablo II played well during beta testing and the original game played smoothly online. Once additional capacity is added, Battle.net should be a more accessible and enjoyable option, which is particularly relevant since features such as worldwide rankings and the game's hard-core mode are only available online. Blizzard does deserve credit for adding the hard-core version of the game, which prevents you from resurrecting slain characters no matter how many hours have been devoted to developing them. This feature makes for a truly tense and exciting gaming experience - it's an option that many won't dare try, but death for a character in Diablo's spiritual predecessors, Nethack and Rogue, could have similarly brutal consequences, and those games proved to have enduring appeal.
The development team for Diablo II clearly made it a priority to respond to all of the perceived problems with the original game, and players will likely appreciate most, if not all, of the resulting design changes. Diablo II offers a larger gaming world, the opportunity to play an open multiplayer game without being intruded upon by cheating players, and a more complex and interesting character development system. While its graphics appear somewhat dated, Diablo II has incredible replay value, and most importantly, it offers a lot of addictive gameplay in either the single-player or the multiplayer mode.