Diablo 2: Resurrected Review in Progress

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Nothing more than a coat of fresh paint over the old masterpiece, Diablo 2: Resurrected is a curious piece of video game restoration. After a hundred hours smashing demons, I've kicked Diablo to the curb a couple times and I'm thoroughly reacquainted with the good and the bad that the most revered game in Blizzard’s action RPG series has to offer. As someone who played more than my fair share of Diablo 2 between 2000 and 2007, Resurrected absolutely scratches an itch for the golden age of this genre. At the same time, it's blatantly a game from an era where the demands on our time were very different than what we’ve seen in the past decade. In the face of concessions that modern games have made towards fun, Diablo 2's insistence on grind and unforgiving systems and 20-year-old bugs can just make me feel… tired. Satisfied, but tired.

What doesn't age? The mood. The completely redone graphics of Resurrected do so much more than a simple homage to the original game, adding a whole third dimension as well as 4K-friendly environment details that were just out of the question in the 800×600 2D graphics of 2000. Locations like the Monastery Gates in Act 1, an outdoor area that was always a bit weird from an isometric point of view, now have visible roofs on the buildings instead of just a black sea beyond the walls. There’s a wealth of detail in every scene, in the monsters, and in character models, that really makes me appreciate the ability to dynamically switch between the old and new graphics to see the contrast.

Beautifully, when you switch to the classic graphics you switch to the original sound as well, though the difference is nowhere near as stark here because it didn’t need any significant updating. Aside from a bit of remastering it is identical to the original, and it’s still phenomenal. The ping when a gem hits the floor, the whirl of weapons, and the guttural demon voices ("Rakanishu!") are iconic sound design. This is not to mention the remasters of the classic soundtrack, or the new remixes, which are beautiful work. (The voice acting, well… let's just say it was a different time. At least Deckard Cain and Tyrael are great – oh, and Baal in the expansion. That awful laugh still creeps right up under my skin.)

That awful laugh still creeps right up under my skin.

In the “aged, but mostly gracefully” column we have the arc of Diablo 2's story, which is good, but it's not as good as I fondly remembered. The first two acts are really fun, and each quest is a dark, gothic fantasy vignette, while Act 3 is a great sprawling jungle crawl with lots of little dungeons sprinkled around. Act 4, however, is boring as dirt. The NPCs don't have any flavor dialogue, let alone personality, while the quests and the areas are entirely linear. I have no idea how a story about invading Hell itself could be boring, but Diablo 2 somehow did it. Thankfully, things pick up again with the Lord of Destruction expansion's Act 5. It's a bit rushed, but it's a good time.

I chose a Paladin from the seven available classes as my first character for my grand return to Diablo 2. This is because for two decades I’ve maintained a personal grudge against the dung beetle soldiers in Act 2 – you know, the ones that poop lightning when you hit them. The Paladin's lightning resistance aura allows me to laugh in their faces and kill them in humiliating ways, and it’s been everything I thought it could be.

That's part of the charm of Diablo 2, and it's still great design today.

That's part of the charm of Diablo 2, and it's still great design today. Some enemies are just immune to certain damage types, forcing you to diversify your build (or your co-op party). Others will burn out your mana in seconds, meaning spellcasters have to keep their distance while melee has to figure out how to win without active abilities. There's masochistic joy in overcoming the escalating challenges, especially when the escalation goes exponential as you break into Nightmare and Hell difficulties for character levels 30 to 99 or so. There’s no shame if you’ve had your fill before then and tap out, or start a new character for a fresh run, but Diablo 2 keeps on giving if you do.

The heart of Diablo 2 is still the multiplayer. Singleplayer is a fun dungeon crawl, but the difficulty and action feels best when you've got others along. Cooperative PvE runs to defeat bosses and farm good loot are where Resurrected shines most. The loot system is unreliable and random, assuming that players will trade items across games and characters to get what they need. The new, larger shared stash helps you do that, a small update that supports the original game rather than changing it. Building synergetic characters with a regular group is really rewarding, and classes like Paladin and Assassin only truly shine in a crew.

There's also PvP, a niche and extremely hardcore Diablo 2 scene that's already starting to reestablish itself with its winner-take-all brawls. Personally, I fear these people, but I've already seen some impressive collections of ear trophies and unique weapons on social media.

Some of the mechanical ideas feel old-school.

Some of the mechanical ideas feel old-school relative to how things are done in action RPGs these days, but that doesn’t make them bad. For instance, you only get two active skills at once. It seems archaic – and it is – but what was a technical and game design constraint at the time is pretty fun when you get past the clunkiness. You have to choose skills carefully, as having too many might just give you a huge toolkit you're not fast enough to use. There's a lot of juggling between powers. I like to smash my Paladin into the enemy packs with a Charge before switching to Zeal for a series of rapid blows, or Vengeance for elementally infused strikes that take down monsters resistant to physical attacks. For tough elite groups, I'll switch weapons and throw gas grenades to weaken them before I head in. All the while I'm swapping auras from attack speed to elemental resistances as I need them and keeping my holy shield buff up every 30 seconds.

I also picked up a cool polearm-wielding desert mercenary sidekick. If you need any indication that it's very much still Diablo 2 under all of these fancy graphics, don't worry: He's still stupid as a sack of bricks and gets stuck on walls constantly. That’s one of those date technical issues that might have been addressed.

Part of the delight of Diablo 2 is that it has a skill tree system you can use to build some truly strange characters.

There’s no shortage of options for skills and abilities, and part of the delight of Diablo 2 is that it has a skill tree system you can use to build some truly strange characters. It's flexible enough that you can make ranged builds for the melee characters, like a crossbow Paladin that shoots explosive bolts. How about a Barbarian focused on the War Cry skill, who just runs around shouting until everything dies? How about a Sorceress who enchants weapons rather than nukes enemies from a distance? I've always wanted to try and make a Necromancer tank, personally – maybe I’ll finally get around to it.

There’s a ton of freedom… that is, if you're willing to discard 20 years of accumulated Diablo 2 wisdom and take your chances. In many ways this game is “solved,” in that the best builds and their precise itemization have been thoroughly sussed out over the years. In other words, there are right and wrong decisions, but you won’t know that unless you look it up or spend a lot of time failing.

You're welcome to play like it's 2000 and not search out optimal builds, especially when playing on Normal. You can clear the campaign with pretty much anything if you're dedicated enough, though once you're in Hardcore or Hell difficulty melee characters are very dependent on getting good items to progress at any pace other than a snail's.

However, while I'd normally encourage you to go in blind and experiment for yourself, I won't in this case because some of Diablo 2's design falls squarely into the “hasn't aged well” category. For example, there are copious skill traps for new players, meaning that some abilities you might be tempted to choose don't scale well past the early game, or aren't useful unless you understand their synergies with other skills you won’t unlock until much later.

Straight-up broken things have been retained in the name of keeping the flavor of Diablo 2 the same as it’s always been.

Additionally, some straight-up broken things, like the infamous Next Hit Always Misses bug, have been retained in the name of keeping the flavor of Diablo 2 the same as it’s always been – but that’s something few people know about unless they do their homework. Unfortunately, this faithfulness to the original’s bugs seems to be without limits: Skills like the Amazon's Fend and Druid's Fury are still bugged, breaking when interacting with other common mechanics. These are known, documented bugs that have locked off entire character skills for 20 years. Why are they still in this game? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful and fresh to let us explore that still-undiscovered country?

To its credit, it's worth saying that I've encountered barely any new bugs specific to Resurrected, and those I have seen have been minor graphical glitches that don't affect gameplay – things like doors that don't change visually when opened but can still be passed through, or an object overlaying a texture strangely. Nothing out of the ordinary for a modern game.

I’m a little sad to see that Resurrected has retained Diablo 2’s arcane skill-reset system: You get just one respec per difficulty level, and the only way to get more is by farming the big bosses for rare items and then shoving them in your Horadric Cube. Unlimited respecs would've been a prime candidate for overhaul to make Resurrected more accessible to a new generation and mitigate the skill trap issue, and it’s something that could have been easily disabled for ladder play.

It's a bit galling things like that weren’t addressed because the other big update in Resurrected is a similar quality-of-life change. Rather than picking up gold stack by stack, you instead automatically grab it when you pass by. There's a difference between preserving the experience and maintaining a lack of respect for our time, and this change shows that a small tweak can go a long way towards removing tedium from the original game without ruining anything.

The moment-to-moment gameplay that made Diablo 2 legendary in its time is completely unchanged.

The moment-to-moment gameplay that made Diablo 2 legendary in its time, though, is completely unchanged. Exploration and combat still feel deeply familiar; it’s a festival of clicking (or, now, thumbsticking – great on both PC and console) where you want to go and hammering out hits on your enemies. It's as wild and chaotic as an isometric action RPG ever is, but in the long view, over 20 years of game design innovation later, it's also kind of… slow. Characters don't move quickly, and running is limited by your stamina bar. Copious and consistent use of town portal scrolls (which both warp you back to base and let you return) generally avoids having to backtrack, but when you have to it's annoying at best. Running also makes your character worse at blocking, if they have a shield.

Because of that, I didn't make it out of Act 1 without looking up the combination of slotted runes that produces armor with a bonus to Run/Walk speed, if only for – again – my own quality of life. At times, Diablo 2 feels like fighting against bad game design from the late ‘90s, which could also be described as “the forces of Hell.” For example, loot in online multiplayer is shared so anybody in your party can pick it up if they get there first – which I've got nothing against – but the careful etiquette of who gets what isn't reinforced by anything in the rules. I’ve already seen a lot of ninja-looting, and it sucks – and it's exacerbated by controllers, which can ironically loot faster than mouse and keyboard setups.

Having to fight against the basic game mechanics like this isn't fun in 2021, and it'll be worse for new Diablo 2 players who expect this kind of thing to be dealt with by game designers instead of all of us deciding on unenforceable rules of etiquette.

I've got other problems, myself: How can Blizzard justify dropping support for LAN play? Why can't I clone a multiplayer character into single-player? The latter is especially concerning, seeing as the servers have been temperamental at times and I’d rather not have to start from scratch when I want to play but the cloud doesn’t.

But none of those devils in the details has overcome the fact that it's definitely fun. Diablo 2's design has aged remarkably well as an example of a relatively uncomplicated isometric action RPG. Everyone has skills, yes, but they all interact with the same systems: Health, Mana, Stats. There's no unique currency or meter to learn for every class, and combos are things you build rather than things you get from chains of esoteric item abilities and arcane end-game progression mechanics. It's just a skill tree, a billion demons, and an infinite fountain of equipment. It is, as ever, a satisfying game.

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