The 90s, ahhhh what a time it was. Pirated games abound, single player games ruled, and nobody gave 2 shits about what you said on the internet because you weren’t using your real name anyways. The 90s also had games like Myst, Age of Empires, Spiderman, Doom and the game in focus today, Diablo 2 (yeah I know technically it came out in 2000, but I am 30 years old, so I am allowed to fudge timelines a bit you google millennial).
At the time of writing this article, the Diablo 2 WIKI was updated in Jan 2018. Yup, the game is such a big deal that people are still finding and sharing more about it almost 2 decades later. Diablo 2 pioneered the RNG (Random Number Generator) loot drops and level generation, yeah that famous loot mode in Hearthstone and Overwatch had its root in Diablo 2 (Well actually Diablo, but like I said 30-year-old gamer here). Diablo 2, was at its time the fastest selling PC game ever, its still in top 20 most sold video game ever, and is partially supported by Blizzard to this day. It gave birth to the term, ‘dungeon crawler’ a staple of many RPGs and solidified the loot loop forever. For all this and more Diablo 2 is quoted by many (including Wikipedia) as one of the most influential RPG ever made and is one of the 400 RPGs included in the recently released The CRPG BOOK.
But that is not the reason, Diablo 2 is one of my most favourite games. Its just vindication that the game that I connect with so deeply is appreciated by a majority of my contemporaries. Diablo 2 is one of my most favourite games ever because… Well because… because…OK, I am gonna need more than a paragraph to say this.
Diablo 2 is a macabre tale of fallen warriors who have either submitted to or have been corrupted by Evil. Consider the first boss, The Blood Raven, she is one of the warriors that had fought Diablo in the first game, only to be corrupted and become one of her minions later. When you kill her, The Blood Raven is almost relieved with her death. There is Tal Rasha, the honourable magi who sacrificed himself to eternal torture when he captured Baal inside of him. Then there is the tale of Izual, thought by Tyrael to be a fallen angel because he was captured and tortured, but it turns out that he had been conspiring with the Prime Evils all along. The game also tells the tale of The Countess who succumbed to Evil slowly giving into her greed of much simpler things such as vanity and fortune. Even the main antagonist of Diablo 2 is the hero who had felled Diablo in the first game and had been slowly corrupted from within until he was the HERO no longer but had become Diablo himself. Finally the game talks of Marius, a poor soul who had nothing to do with this epic clash between good and evil, but was caught in it nevertheless, and was driven to insanity before he was finally slain. Even when you beat the game, you are asked to get back to the battle, only this time at a higher difficulty, asked to slay down the monsters in an infinite loop until one of them slays you instead.
For a teenager, growing up in a well structured and protected environment, with a strict and clear understanding of right and wrong to go out finally facing the world and all its ugly realities so to speak, Diablo 2 resonated somewhere deep. It taught me how fighting the system was ultimately futile, how people knew they were doing the wrong thing but they couldn’t help themselves, or how some people could turn the narrative any way they wanted, or how sometimes you are just a part of collateral damage. Grayish, unforgiving and merciless is how I made the world out to be. Diablo 2, Watchmen and Linkin Park is how I prepared myself for it.
That Feeling Of Dread
If you ask anyone who has played Diablo 2, what is the first thing that comes to their mind, their reply would revolve around the first Act of the game, called ‘The Sightless Eye’. It not just because its the first thing you play when you start the game, but that Act, its setting, its sound, its campaigns is the most representative of what Diablo 2 is. In hindsight that’s maybe because Act I is the part which the team worked on the most, as this was the level which was play-tested and demoed the most. But Diablo 2 Act 1 does Marilyn Manson better than Marilyn Manson did Marilyn Manson.
You start off in a small camp held together by a group of brave but clearly outnumbered warriors. Its dark all the time, and rains most of the time. You can’t see what’s 5 feet ahead of you and are equipped with leather and enthusiasm with a Gothic soundtrack, that sometimes gives way to utter silence and the crickets. There have been multiple times in the game, when I have just stood there in the game, listening to the rainfall around me, standing alone in the marsh in a lonely little circle of light surrounded by darkness, knowing full well that a step in either direction would attract the wrath of a monster nearby.
And then it gets better, you enter a mausoleum, with defiled graves and unburied corpses. You explore a broken tower which was once occupied by a countess who bathed in the blood of virgins. You move into an abandoned cathedral, which is dotted by evil constructs and tortured spirits mocking the very purpose of the building. You descend into dungeons, which are full of torture traps with half torn bodies hanging from the walls, and then you finally reach Andariel, her chamber vast but bloodied her throne made of bones, and her minions feasting on piles of bodies. It’s like a crescendo of Danse Macabre, rising up and up until that fateful moment when you finally open the door to Andariel’s chamber.
Everything after that is just escalation. Don’t get me wrong, the desert of Lut Gholein, the forests of Kurast, the plains of Hell, and the mountains of Arreat are impressive and challenging. But they are like Freeza after Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z, admittedly stronger but it just doesn’t hold the same tension as the first underdog story did. No other act in the game makes you feel so under-powered and your opponent so unbeatable. By the time you reach the Pandemonium Fortress, you have built a reputation, the angels expect you to kill Diablo. But in the first act, nobody even gives you a chance, they expect you to die 5 minutes after you step out, and are genuinely surprised when you come back alive every-time.
The Challenge and The Reward
All of that would not have amounted to much if Diablo didn’t have some of the most robust game mechanics I have ever seen in a Role-Playing Game. The game offers you 5 characters to choose from (with 2 others added later through expansions and DLC) and each one had 3 clear routes of a skill tree. Your necromancer could be a bone necro, or a general necro, your sorceress could be a fire sorceress or an ice sorceress, you paladin could be defence focused or attack focused, your barbarian could be shout focused or damage focused. The number of options to try out and get good at was so varied and played so differently meant that you could effectively play the game in 15 different ways, and no play-through would be the same, thanks to the randomly generated enemies, loot and level. With games few and far between, and games having release cycles of decades instead of years, Diablo 2 felt like a comfortable place to sink your time in. I felt rewarded for my efforts with a stronger weapon, a better armour, a new skill. And it never became too easy, Diablo and Duriel are notorious for being too hard to beat, even at higher levels, and trying out new ways to beat him, before resorting to open a portal, equip the strongest stick you have, hit him, die and repeat felt therapeutic most days. I have been sporadically replayed the game over the past 18 years each time with a new build and I still haven’t gone through all of them, but I don’t intend to go out just yet.
And it was not just the monsters that made the challenge. The freaking stash and your inventory were a challenge in itself. The character inventory was this 4×10 grid, where a single potion would take up one 1×1 slot, and the damn things don’t stack. So each item took its own space, so if you had 10 potions they would need 10 slots in your inventory. Daggers and Wands would take up a 1×2 patch of space; a low-level melee weapon is 1×3, which eventually become 2×3, then 2×4; a shield starts off as being 2×2, then 2×3, then 2×4; any spear/polearm is 2×4, all armour is 2×3, helmets are 2×2. And the stash. is only a 6×8 patch of space, so in total, you get like 88 spaces (if you include the Horadric Cube then 96 spaces) for EVERYTHING. Running out of space is not just a constant problem, it’s almost a game mechanic that you need to understand. Like it wasn’t enough for you to micromanage how to manage your skills and attributes, but you also had to manage your loot.
And finally the death mechanic. Upon death, you drop all the gold you’re carrying, and you respawn back in town with all your equipment on your body dropped, at the spot where you just died, probably surrounded by the same monsters that had just killed you while you were NOT naked. So you could either sprint over, grab your body and pray that you’re not half dead so as to kill the monsters, and you can also pick up all the gold you’ve dropped. Or you could have an alternate build ready which is not as strong as your main build but would probably help you clear out the crowd and maybe give you a chance to pick up all your stuff once again. Or you could chicken out, exit the game, re-enter it, and your body will be back in town with the last equipment build that you had been using, but you will lose your gold. The Hell difficulty would even penalize you with experience on dying, and Hardcore mode would mean that your first death is your last death.
If this article has spurred you on to try out Diablo 2 for yourself, be advised that the game was last patched in 2016 for Windows 7 and 8 and 10, albeit not in native widescreen, and given that we have seen a resurgence of isometric and cell shaded graphics in recent times, I am pretty sure, Diablo 2 wouldn’t look out of place if you played it on your PC today. You can still find a key for the game on Amazon, or buy one online. Its mechanics may looks hard but they are fair (the same can’t be said of Diablo though, that is one mean son of a bitch), and the game itself is way more rewarding when you go all in, in spite of playing safe (to be clear, building a defensive build is not playing it safe).
Finally, the Secret Cow Level. An Easter egg that has become a part of the video game pop culture, along with Up Up Down Down and Leroy Jenkins. ‘There is no Cow level’ gets thrown around in lobbies with 10 years old who know nothing of the 5-year history behind it. After 17 years, I think the secret is finally out, and I can confirm, that there is indeed a Cow Level. There is also a perfect Chat Gem which does nothing but says Perfect Chat Gem activated/deactivated on its toggle. Andariel looks like Kerrigan from Starcraft, and the Amazon is featured in Heroes Of The Storm. Overwatch has a map where you can find balloons which have the face of Diablo printed on them. That’s how big of a part Diablo 2 plays in our popular culture.
Diablo 2 is a dark Gothic epic tale, and 17 years down the line, I find Diablo 2 to be an inspiration for my writing even today. Retrospectively, I find it fortunate that I had Diablo 2 growing up, I just hope that other gamers growing up today have a game as close to their personality as I had Diablo 2.