The release of a Diablo title is always big news for PC gaming. You see, even though it's now spread across all popular platforms, it's probably the best-selling franchise in PC history with a 25-year run and a presence across four decades calendar-wise. Diablo 2 in particular is a pure fan favorite and the pinnacle of the series in terms of critical acclaim. Diablo 2 Resurrected, which we are discussing here, is a remaster of the 2000 title but in a format that includes the admittedly necessary Lord of Destruction expansion from 2001. What does all this mean in terms of gameplay? What is Diablo 2 Resurrected?
For those familiar with the old title, we'll say it's the game as they remember it but with minor but successful quality of life tweaks. For those who have no idea what it's about, I'll say that it's an isometric ARPG, in the style of titles like Torchlight, Path of Exile, Grim Dawn and of course Diablo 3. To be precise, it is the forefather of all of them, the grandfather they have hanging on every mantelpiece and are trying to overcome (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much). One necessary clarification: unlike these titles, D2R has a much more idiosyncratic character, a byproduct of its age and its position as the forefather of the category, which will be discussed below.
My first reaction when I heard a few years ago that Blizzard was preparing a Diablo 2 remaster was one of skepticism and doubt . You see, D2 doesn't lend itself to the easy recipe for freshening up old titles (improving compatibility with modern systems, increasing resolution, post processing etc). And this is not because I see it as some sacred cow of gaming but for very specific and relatively complex technical reasons. And I explain.
Diablo 2 as we said is a very old title and its 2D engine in PC gaming terms is prehistoric, since it has its roots in the first game of the series, released at the dawn of 1997 a few months after the release of the 3D patriarch Quake and after 3dfx brought to market its first revolutionary 3D accelerator, moves that caused a paradigm shift in graphics. D2 doesn't behave like a modern title where time flows regardless of what's happening on screen. Here it is split into 25fps. This is the number of times per second that the game engine reacts to the underlying logic and the user's input. If for whatever reason the framerate drops from these 25, D2 doesn't experience non-smooth, choppy character movement and high input lag like modern games do. In single-player conditions characters, enemies and the entire game world go into slow motion while in multiplayer everything freezes and returns to fast motion only when the framerate is restored.
And so you say? Couldn't all of this be bypassed and use an improved version of the Diablo 3 engine? The answer is "not if we want to talk about a remaster". You see, this 25fps temperament is what all of the game's systems such as Increased Attack Speed, Faster Cast Rate, Faster Block Rate or Faster Hit Recovery in the form of breakpoints have been built on. Players in D2 design their characters around specific talents which, in order to work, want items that offer attributes that allow you to hit certain breakpoints. You see 10% IAS doesn't mean your character will attack 10% faster. Instead this is a simple number in terms of the end goal (e.g. attack that takes 4 frames to register) which to achieve requires say 80% IAS overall. All gameplay, character fantasy and itemization revolves around these characteristics. For example, a Whirlwind Barbarian in PvP conditions can, if attacked in the right way (all around triangularly) on a necromancer, put the necromancer into a permanent knockback ("Blocklock"), achieving continuous hits before the necromancer can recover from the block animation leading to victory. The same method won't work against a Paladin with Holyshield because simply blocking in this case only lasts one frame. The system is complex and interconnected as all of these aforementioned elements work in parallel, interact and ultimately form a huge part of the game's identity. Without them the game would still be one of the dozens of modern ARPGs.
The second point that made Diablo 2 unsuitable for a remake was how AI treated the player. Very briefly, through the mouth of David Brevik (one of the game's masterminds), D2 ran a lean and unadorned code that made the most of the size of the screens at the time. In its vanilla version the game ran at a resolution of 640×480 while with the Lord of Destruction expansion, this resolution was increased to the "unthinkable" size of 800×600 pixels. This "translated" very differently to the eye as there was suddenly a huge perspective, unlike zoomed-in gameplay, let alone on CRT screens. Any other increase in resolution was impossible though, and that's because D2 had code written that gave the illusion of responsive AI to the player. Whenever the player approached a group of monsters the AI would activate and react against the player. In larger analyses this illusion would be broken, because we could see stationary scattered groups of monsters waiting for the player to approach them, instead of charging at them. Just this gameplay element alone is hugely interesting in itself and how different representatives of the genre solve it, but it's beyond the scope of our topic.
Point three that defines the whole game is that Diablo 2 still had the DNA of XCOM at its core. Yes, you read that right: just like Diablo 1, which by genius providence ended up being real-time, in D2 all characters move on an invisible grid. Aside from the restriction of character sprites to move exclusively in 8 directions (something quite obvious and unappealing in the modern era), this fundamental element also had an impact on how attacks with different weapons that have a long reach are calculated even at melee distances which led to quite small "exploits" depending on the character's positioning relative to the monsters. Considering the three very important obstacles, the question arises: "So how do you update the title without altering it to the point of making the update meaningless?".
So this is where the game engineers of the game gave their best. Of course, being fully aware of the mechanisms discussed above and what they mean, they kept them intact. How? Having the original game running in the background (at the classic 25fps) just dressed in a modern cloak i.e. a normal renderer. While everything about the game's logic works identically to the original title, the visuals are modern and smooth. And the rendering of the old aesthetic in high-definition graphics is simply perfect. Perfect in every sense of the word. As a veteran of the original Diablo 2, upon seeing Resurrected for the first time, I felt intense disbelief. "What are they saying remaster, this is the game, it always looked like this" my brain was telling me. Of course I knew that everything had been remastered, the old look of the game is only a keystroke away. This strong "mandela effect" is only broken when the modern light-shading tactics used in the effects (e.g. spells) or low-light areas are seen. The combination of faithfulness to the vision of the original and application of modern techniques truly enables a new generation of players to experience the game in a way similar to that of the early players two decades ago. The grotesque, gothic atmosphere has been carried over unchanged to the point where we, the entire editorial team, beg for Diablo 4 to be exactly the same. And that's an impressive achievement.
How it is played today
The raw material Activision-Blizzard got to set up D2R is Patch 1.14d of the original D2 from 2016. Of course, the last time D2 saw substantial changes that affected its core was in early 2010, so players who have even a superficial exposure to D2 as it has been for the last decade (three respecs per character, blessed hammer nerf, etc.) will immediately adapt to the new reality. D2R is generally very faithful to this framework but at the same time aside from some bug fixes, the main changes it brings are two.
First change, the new expanded item storage system that, in addition to its size, allows for direct and safe transfer of equipment between characters. Not only is there no longer a need to create mule games, you can now share your expensive runewords between your characters without throwing them on the ground (risking loss in case of disconnection) or the interference of another player. Warning, while mule games are no longer necessary, at some point the need for mule characters is imperative, let alone for important goodies (high/low runes) especially for players who have a long term plan to create multiple characters. If anything though, life is clearly easier with the expansion of stash space.
Secondly. We are no longer limited to only three respecs per character, because after adding new objects that can be combined to create a respec token, they are now unlimited. A wise choice which finally erases once and for all the Achilles heel of the old title, the so-called permabuilds. And these were so problematic precisely because of the design philosophy of the game. You see, Diablo 2, in its Resurrected or not form is a huge design anachronism. And that is both its blessing and its curse. Extensive and detailed tutorials, communication of key combat features or abilities of heroes or enemies, explanation of what the various item stats mean (talk about a looter) shine through their absence within the game, and the booklet that originally came with the package or even the strategy guides that were released alongside didn't offer much detail. Relevant help sites and communities were formed well after its release.
D2R dives in by the hand and throws you in the deep end with a good morning and asks you to chart your course by tracking through the jungle. And when you've done well and completed the story, it forces you to go through the same bottleneck twice more, and only then does the endgame actually unfold for you. In fact, if you made the mistake of choosing a build that requires specific items to work satisfactorily (the chance of finding complete endgame gear in the first solo playthrough is practically nil) there's a visible risk of just quitting the game altogether. The three difficulty mechanic is a relic of the first game from 1997, and while it initially survived until the release of Diablo 3, it was quickly abandoned. Here, however, it remains in all its gritty glory. At least the player is no longer punished with a mandatory restart if the talents they chose on their character simply don't provide enough power or survivability to complete the game.
Because the magic of the game unfolds after the end of the storyline in Hell Difficulty. Where the horizons of the richness of the offered builds open up, where all the playing options per region unfold like a fan, where Ithaca is finally hidden. Diablo 2 Resurrected has inherited the masterful endgame world of the original game in its entirety. Where every opponent can drop a magic, rare or unique item that will improve one or more of your characters. Where every stone can hide a high rune that will lead you to the nirvana of a powerful runeword. Where every chest can throw up the perfect base item for the aforementioned runeword.
And if all this is not exactly what you are looking for, you may be able to exchange it or build your wealth on the market. And you can do all this by playing the character you want in the spec that suits you. Do you have cold sorceress and can't do magic find in the Pit? No problem, Ancient Tunnels drop similar loot and don't have cold immune mobs. Are Souls (probably the most dangerous monsters in the game) zapping your glass cannon strafer amazon and you can't poison Worldstone Keep? No problem, chaos sanctuary awaits you. Because make no mistake: Diablo 2 remains at its core the absolute gambler's game. The game's extremely complex, intricate yet balanced itemization contributes to this. Granted, there will always be items that contribute to the top 1% most efficient builds, but until we get there there isn't a huge gap as found in other games of the genre.
The game has something for everyone. For those who don't have hours to spend in front of the screen because they have to be ready to go at any moment, there are the magic find runs of 1-2 minutes. For those who want a leisurely adventure with coffee and a podcast on the speakers, a new character with already medicated gear from before is just the ticket. For those who want more dice there's the untwinked method of playing with whatever you find along the way (self-found). For those who want sadistic difficulty and permadeath can play that way in hardcore mode. For those who like grind there are the Baal runs. Endgame rich and even if it's not as structured as the looter ones from the appearance of Destiny and onwards. This structure is, after all, the bane of the modern looter, be it Shooter, ARPG, or brawler. The perpetual tail-chasing caused by the constant power-creeping that comes as a consequence of shifting endgame with each new season. In Diablo 2, long term objectives (elite gear that allows for specific gameplay) remain static at the end of a long scale.
But Diablo 2 didn't get to that point of completion in a day, that was the product of a process that took years. One of the complaints of the game's community in the early days was the lack of a satisfying endgame. It took the game over a year, the release first of the LoD expansion and shortly afterwards of patch 1.09, for the game to find its stride. We had to wait until late 2003 (almost 3,5 years from release) and the arrival of patch 1.10 (synergies,new runewords, Uber Diablo) to start the golden age. We had to wait until the summer of 2005 for the final endgame addition (Pandemonium Event) to arrive. We are talking about five years after the original release, an insanely long time by today's standards. Arguably speaking by 2021 standards, endgame lags behind complex systems that give incentive to chase the endgame (Path of Exile in this area is exemplary PvM endgame). To be perhaps a bit harsh, endgame grind is up to each individual's criteria as to whether or not they like it or not, since Diablo 2 is governed by all the principles of RNG.
Totally different times. Not just in gaming, the world and information as a whole moved at slower speeds back then. The first Diablo was released in 1997 and although it caused a stir, it never faced a direct competitor in the market. Even its successor played on its own for years and had the luxury of maturing without the risk of losing its community since the first real rival (Sacred) came in 2004. Unlike today where any game with even nuggets of originality will find imitators within a few weeks (usually China first) on three platforms, probably F2P and after a year it will be trivial. In this light, Diablo 2 Resurrected is not only a game, but also a living fossil of an era that has irrevocably passed. Better or worse doesn't matter. And the fact that even though many of its systems are antiquated it manages to compete with and outperform modern competition in many ways is cause for reflection on the direction the games industry in general has taken. But that's a different discussion that takes nothing away from its status as a necessary purchase for fans of the looter genre.
It is now obvious that Activision-Blizzard is going through storms that will test it particularly with the prospect of either becoming the new EA for this decade or some form of serious consolidation (okay, let's say a joke). Regardless of the frat culture that seems to govern the company (and apparently as it seems the fish stinks from the head) the perception was that we should judge Vicarious Visions, who was incorporated into the company and edited this remake, on the final product - give the team a chance for their effort. First impressions, once people were able to connect, were those described earlier. But slowly the problems started to pile up more and more: drop-outs, inability to log anyone into the game at convenient times, poor character loading even when managing to log in with items missing, etc.
After an undue period of silence, where the servers were literally soft reset every day after a long downtime during peak hours, Blizzard in a official statement attributed the situation to code remnants. In short, there were (and still are) inconsistencies in how legacy code handles the new server architecture when creating games. The problem is multifactorial, but it lies in how "simple" things were 20 years ago compared to now. In other words, the servers cannot handle the "requests" made by the client to create an online session. The middle-ground solution to all this is the introduction of Waiting Queues (for a 2000's game...) which were prohibitive to say the least during peak hours. Additionally there was always the possibility of your game "crashing" and losing progress.
The tragic irony in all of this is that D2R lets the player play offline single-player. The gameplay in a sense is limited (trade weakness, so progress is more painful, but also more satisfying) as it shows the choice we had as gamers decades ago to adjust our hobby according to our own mood and time and not when the servers of any DRM service or "solo multiplayer session" are in the mood to work. We would say that such a setback points the way forward.
Apart from the problems that we hope to correct as soon as possible and which will determine the viability of the title, our impressions were and are very positive. Blizzard has taken one of the Totems of PC gaming, masterfully removed all the rust of time, left only the patina and delivered us in 2021 the new benchmark against which all the next remasters of classic titles and the best looter on the market will be compared. Her own child is still the main competitor for supremacy when it comes to itemisation and the ultimate looter. Even new fans who never saw Diablo 2 when it was in its heyday and lack the necessary doses of nostalgia have a prime opportunity to experience the gothic rot that filled our teenage eyes back then. The future is looking bright with the announcement of balancing changes to both skill trees and the addition of new hardware after 12 years. All that remains is to see if the infrastructure and bugs have been resolved to support the new ladder seasons.