It's impossible to talk about action role-playing games without mentioning Diablo II. The original release of Blizzard's sequel in 2000 was an inflection point for the nascent genre, defining the direction all games after it would take. It's one of those games whose DNA you can still trace in modern ARPGs such as Path of Exile, Lords of Wolcen, and the eventual Diablo III. But it's also a game that has been drastically improved upon in the two decades since its release, which makes its 2021 remaster a confusing re-release that does very little to address how the genre has evolved since, making it challenging to recommend over modern contemporaries outside of reasons of nostalgia or short-lived curiosity.
Like all of the games it would eventually inspire, Diablo II is a dungeon-crawler, albeit stripped down to the genre's fundamental basics. You progress through the campaign over a series of acts, each contained within their own map. These maps have distinct areas and enemy-ridden dungeons you'll need to explore, eliminating scores of enemies that drop all sorts of color-coded loot that help you get more powerful as you go. The more you progress, the stronger you become, allowing you to deal the damage required to take down incredibly dangerous bosses that provide a challenging climax to each act. The campaign is also not the end of your journey, with additional difficulties incentivizing you to restart and continue crunching enemy skulls for more powerful loot, and so on.
Where Diablo II differs strongly to its most recent entry, Diablo III, is in its role-playing. Here you're given three separate skill trees to invest points into, each of which will go a long way in defining what type of style your chosen class will take. My Necromancer, for example, focussed on summoning the dead over dealing out curses and magical damage, which led me to invest most of my skill points in only one of the three trees. You additionally need to manage staple role-playing attributes like strength, dexterity, vitality, and more, although these don't function as you might expect. Points in each mostly determine what gear you can equip, and not necessarily how much damage (physical, ranged, or magic) you deal. This can be initially counter-intuitive to how you imagine each point invested will play out, with established Diablo II players already knowing that the majority of these points need to go into vitality and little else if you can already equip all the items you need.
This is an early indicator as to what type of remaster Diablo II: Resurrected is. At its heart, it's a pure recreation of the original release, idiosyncrasies and all, with every bit of content that launched in the early 2000s. It includes the base game and its four acts, as well as the Lords of Destruction expansion as a bonus (and lengthy) fifth one. These blend seamlessly with each other in a way that may make you question how they were sold separately to begin with, given the events of the original game's finale and how the expansion acts as a satisfying epilogue to the entire journey. These acts are also incredibly meaty, with numerous quests, both mandatory and optional, to undertake, many of which require you to scour the expansive procedurally generated hubs that make up each act.
Having these layouts change whenever you log back into the game gives each one a small degree of replayability, but only if you're looking to shake things up as you grind towards your next level in order to make more meaningful progress. Diablo II's balancing hasn't been changed at all, which makes this a necessary routine. Especially as you progress to the harder difficulties, the gaps in its challenge become more apparent. Acts where you're tearing through regular enemies at a comfortable pace will come to a screeching halt when you encounter some bosses, who can wipe you out with just a handful of attacks. There's no warning beforehand that you're unprepared for the battle ahead, which only serves to make the penalty of death sting even more. You still drop gold and all your gear when you die, and having to daringly make your way back to your body to retrieve them remains as frustrating as it was originally.
There is, in fact, very little that has changed mechanically in Diablo II: Resurrected in a bid to retain as much of the classic feel as possible. There's so much about Diablo II's design that is hidden from you, whether it's the lack of damage numbers letting you gauge the effectiveness of a gear change, or the puzzling reason behind your numerous missed attacks. The stamina bar also hasn't been tweaked, meaning a lot of the early game will require you to stop running and stare at it as it slowly fills up (this is thankfully negated after the first two acts as you start building up more vitality points, but never truly goes away unless you dedicate time to popping stamina potions frequently).
Diablo II's character builds, with their respective strengths and weaknesses, have also not changed, which means the game remains as punishing as ever should you not commit wholeheartedly to a specific type of build. The freedom of choice when it comes to which skills to level up is stripped away when you realize how rigid the overall difficulty forces you to be, punishing wayward choices hours later with few options to rectify them. You do get one free skill respec per character per difficulty, and can gain others through a lot of grinding, but it's an unwelcoming system for newcomers to the game, and especially fans looking to enjoy an earlier entry after starting with Diablo III.
The control schemes sit in a weird middle ground, with neither one offering a satisfying interpretation that is up to modern standards, and making actual play feel clunky in one regard or another
On PC, you still don't have a dedicated hot bar for spells and abilities, and instead, have the slots for left and right-click actions. You can assign keys to specific abilities to rotate them into your right-click slot, but it's nowhere near as elegant as a traditional hot bar that more modern ARPGs use to organize your abilities. Curiously enough, you do get a dedicated hot bar when playing with a controller, letting you quickly cast abilities with up to 12 dedicated buttons (six on one bar, and another six when you pull the left trigger). Using a controller, then, would've surprisingly been the preferred way to play, despite the title's place in the annals of mouse-and-keyboard PC game history, had it not been for Diablo II's reliance on accuracy when casting abilities, which controllers just aren't up to the task for in most cases. A controller is, additionally, a really poor way to navigate the inventory, which you will be doing a lot of the time. The control schemes sit in a weird middle ground, with neither one offering a satisfying interpretation that is up to modern standards, and making actual play feel clunky in one regard or another.
It's understandable why mechanics like these haven't been changed beyond the need to adhere to the original design. Diablo II and its systems, like many other games of this ilk, are a house of cards, where small changes in one area can have unexpected consequences in a completely different one. It's easy to empathize with the notion that a classic like this shouldn't need to be altered, but it doesn't make the process of playing it any easier. Small creature comforts, like stackable potions or more inventory space over the paltry amount that you cannot upgrade, would do wonders for removing a lot of the tedious back and forth travel you're forced to do between your objective and your inventory stash, for example. But that's not how Diablo II played, and that's why Diablo II: Resurrected doesn't either, which will either delight or weigh on you depending on your established love for its design choices.
What has changed, and drastically so, is how Diablo II: Resurrected looks. It's a striking transformation, with all the details and flourishes that modern hardware affords. Lighting spells fill the screen with their destructive, arcing fury, while distinct details on the variety of nasty creatures you'll face come alive in a way the pixelated original just couldn't possibly manage. The extent of the work done to the game can be appreciated by toggling back to the original presentation, which you can do with a press of a button at any time. It's eye-opening to see how the game's tone and mood have hardly shifted, and just how powerful the dreary and hopeless feel of it all was beautifully communicated even with the visual limitations in mid-2000. Diablo II: Resurrected pulls off the delicate trick of looking like what your memories might think Diablo II looked like at launch, and it's consistently a treat for the eyes.
Some accessibility changes have also been made, such as aids for colorblindness and increases in the legibility of the game's text. Graciously, gold pickups are now automatic, which removes some of the strain associated with clicking all the little piles that appear once you've killed a large group of enemies. Smaller changes, like the ability to have text appear when an attack misses or changing some key bindings from presses to holds, shows a willingness to allow modern sensibilities to creep in and improve on the experience of playing Diablo II, and since they're all optional, they go a long way to welcoming new players while staying out of the way for returning ones.
It's what makes the overall package such a confusing one to recommend. On the one hand, Diablo II: Resurrected ticks all of the boxes that a modern remake should: It remains faithful to the original and doesn't mess with what came before, giving players familiar with Diablo II and its idiosyncrasies a new, strikingly gorgeous way to enjoy the adventure all over again. It's also a reminder, in some ways, of what was missing from Diablo III, with its darker look and well-defined tone sure to appease those who found Blizzard's eventual sequel too bright and full of color.
But on the other hand, it remains an unwelcoming experience for many players whose only reference to this series is its latest entry. Those who come from a background of being able to freely experiment with character builds while also reaping the rewards of a power fantasy associated with bombarding enemies with abilities at ease will struggle to appreciate the slower pace of Diablo II's combat, while also feeling shackled by its rigid builds that don't forgive careless skill point spending. Diablo II is such a different game from its sequel that it will undoubtedly be a shock for those who come into it expecting more of the same click-and-loot loop, but it's also one that does the bare minimum to make a case for itself in a bid to try and win you over. Resurrected feels squarely aimed at those who have already poured hundreds of hours into this genre-defining title, or those willing to do that additional homework of reading up on its quirks ahead of time to avoid falling into the trap of building a non-viable character.
It's why, unlike Diablo III, I don't foresee myself spending a lot more time with Diablo II: Resurrected. That's not to say the adventure was without merit, and it's certainly great to have a way to play one of Blizzard's classics with a coat of paint that does its visual aesthetic justice so many years later. But outside of players already well-versed with the game's aged design choices and imbalance, there's not a lot here outside of a history lesson for new players to enjoy. A lot of the time spent playing Diablo II: Resurrected, I just longed to return to Diablo III.