Ah, the time is close upon us, brethren. The falling star has descended on Tristram, and the Burning Hells stir once more at the fringes of the world. The Prime Evils have been destroyed, but there are others. So many, many others, creeping again into the world of Sanctuary. And there is nothing we can do, nothing to save us from their malevolence. The heroes who saved us before are gone and we shall not see their like again.
But there must always be hope, hope that good can once more rise in a time of darkness. So stay awhile, and listen, as I tell you of those who came before. Perhaps their story will inspire you to greatness. Or perhaps it will be one last forlorn tale in the dusk, before the candles flicker and die for all time.
What do you mean, you’ve no idea what the hell I’m on about? Diablo 3 is out next month. Are you not really a PC gamer at all? Is the internet merely what you call the gaps between the rope in your fishing gear? Or were you too busy actually achieving at the turn of the millenium to notice this gigantic slice of gaming wonder?
Blizzard are one of the modern kings of gaming, ruling the roost with titles like Starcraft and World of Warcraft (and if you haven’t heard of them, please please please write to me and explain what you’re doing on this website). Their games are legendarily long and slow in development, and then absurdly exquisite to play – bright, shiny, near-bugless testaments to detail and playability that really do raise the bar every time they get released.
With the launch website now firmly promoting the latest addition to this classic series (http://eu.battle.net/d3/en/?-), I thought it might be worth revisiting the last one out of a nostalgic desire to dispose of any remaining free time I might have.
The original Diablo tells the story of a nameless hero who descends into a labyrinth of evil and madness under a cathedral near the sleepy hollow of Tristram. The undead have recently awoken in the catacombs, and there are demons popping out of the woodwork to wreak havoc on the realm. In these dusty crypts, the hero discovers the mighty demon lord Diablo has possessed the king’s son, and is poised to open a gate to hell to allow his minions to destroy the world. Until he gets ganked for phat loots, anyway.
Diablo 2 takes up the tale a few years on – that nameless hero wasn’t quite as successful as he’d hoped. He’s taken Diablo’s soulstone, hoping to destroy it forever, but instead gets corrupted and tainted by the trapped demon within. Diablo takes control of him, and forces him on a quest to release his fallen brothers Mephisto and Baal, the other two Prime Evils. And once that done, they can take over the world of Sanctuary and make gnarly demon madness the ruling order of the day.
So it’s up to you now to follow in the footsteps of the fallen hero and undo his misguided actions by slaying all three of the Prime Evils. Mephisto and Diablo are the big bosses in the original game, then the Lord of Destruction added their brother Baal in a final set of levels, and it’s that expansion, the fullest version of the game, that I’ve been replaying here.
It’s all about ten or more years old now, and although I’ve got incredibly fond memories of it, I’ve got incredibly fond memories of Gauntlet from the early 80s. Time, my tastes and the general expectation of games have all moved on a great deal since then. I wouldn’t spend money to be told that the Warrior Needs Food Badly any more. Does D2:LOD stand the test of time?
By all your darkened gods, yes. Okay, graphically it’s rusty. 800X600 is a little blocky for most modern monitors. But in terms of the art depicted, those lovingly rendered pixels still hurl you into a brilliantly realised world. Ravaged by the demon minions of hell, the once verdant wastes are full of destruction, terror and hatred (see what I did there, fans?) made flesh in a once beautiful land.
Everything is tainted – the corpses of guards rot on spikes and totems, cottages and wagon trains lie ruined and in flames. The ancient ruins of the world are haunted with monsters and daubed with monstrous icons, and from even the most remote corners and highest peaks, the depredations of Diablo’s creations can be seen. This is a world on the brink of damnation, as the packs of twisted horrors that descend on you from every crevice will testify.
And nothing is just art for art’s sake – much of this detail can be interacted with. Hollow logs hide treasure. Barrels and pots can be smashed and searched. Ancient tomes tell of old legends – follow the clues and complete hidden quests. And best of all, each of the five main levels (moorlands, desert, jungle, hell, mountainous plateau) are very much their locations with their own individual looks, so you rarely get bored with the scenery. The scenery even affects gameplay convincingly – the same tactics for a wide-open desert plain won’t help in the cramped corners of a ruined dungeon. Plus every time you start a new game, the levels are randomly generated.
Although broadly the same in terms of what and where you go, the sidequests and cellars of the world are always different. You’re always exploring, and always finding something new. The sound and soundtrack both fit perfectly with this – the haunting shrieks and moans of the monsters are accompanied by eerie and evocative music that really brings the world to life. The bubbling of a health potion as you desperately slug it back is iconic, as is the cry of ‘Rakanishu!’ from the early demons.
This is a hack’n'slash rpg, an arcadey joy that’s not entirely removed from my childhood sweetheart, Gauntlet. It’s a top-down view of your hero, and you point and click on what you want to interact with – opening doors, exploding crates, collecting loot. And of course slaughtering the legions of opponents, a cavalcade of demonic freaks who are as incredible in their variety as they are challenging to fight.
You start out easy, with shambling zombies and cowardly imps. And it’s always a pleasure to bash them down and watch the detailed animations of them bursting, falling apart in showers of hilarious gore or tumbling to burnt ashes. Your attacks can be upgraded with a wealth of elemental effects, all of which are depicted in loving detail – frost can freeze and then shatter a foe into lumps of melting ice, for example, or lightning send them twitching and crackling to the floor.
And however wild and crazy the action gets, with later levels full of teleporting, fire-hurling monsters whose masters resurrect them or turn them into suicide bombers, you always have a handle on what’s happening.
Whatever you kill drops cash, new weapons and gear. Some is magical, some is better than magical, some even form complete sets with added bonuses. You can collect and upgrade gems that can then further enhance your chosen armour or swords. Fitting yourself out is easy, with a very straightforward drag-and-drop paper doll portrait of your hero that has since become instantly familiar to most RPG inventories.
But choosing what to keep and what to sell, and which bonuses stack best with your abilities, is a constant struggle. You can’t carry much before you need to nip home and sell off your newest haul. You’re always torn between exploring just a little further and running to the nearest town to get your latest finds identified, fixed up by the blacksmith and then put into action.
A choice of five different heroes in the original was expanded to seven in Lord of Destruction. This also added new item variants, new class-specific weapons and armour and a host of new monsters, levels and upgradable odds and ends, like the runestones that can spell words of power on your gear or the magical charms that give you new boosts just by sitting in your inventory. The endless replayability of the game is a legend, I think – every hero you create will have their own unique levels. And finishing a game once opens a new, harder playthrough featuring tougher monsters and better loot.
I’ve never finished a run-through of Hell difficulty, the hardest – my necromancer just couldn’t hack losing experience every time he died. And by then, it was pretty much every time someone hit him. You really need to carefully balance your gear to survive, and patient stat balancing isn’t my strong suit. But I still loved trying to work out tactics that would let me proceed. Even being hammered by the game is fun, and that’s a mark of genius.
Those heroes all play very differently, too. Barbarians are close combat monsters, dishing out frenetic melee damage with dual-wielding blades or huge two-handers. Amazons use bows and spears to nimbly bring death from afar. Sorceresses hurl massive AOE ranged elemental damage in fire, lightning and frost flavour. The valiant Paladin is a good all-rounder, with auras to boost a team or devastate the undead. And the necromancer curses foes, hurls poison bolts and walls of bone, then raises the dead to serve him with his own ranks of minions.
The later additions were just as fun – the druid is an elemental mix of summoner and DOT, or can focus on turning into a werecreature and dealing horrible physical damage, the assassin can be a close-up physical dual wielder or a sewer of traps and tricks to harass and slay monsters – but both felt like mixes of existing classes, albeit interesting ones that allowed for unexpected mixes of ability. And all of these have three distinct classes of skills. You can generalise in all three, but you won’t be as powerful as a character that picks just one focus. It’s great to play around with this and try new combinations to get that perfect killing machine, and believe me, you need one for the top difficulty settings.
Multiplayer, handled by the formidable Battlenet lobby system to prevent cheats and pirates, allows either co-op play with tougher monsters and better gear, or PvP settings where you can take your hero up against other players to see who’s got the best skill sets. Bragging rights abound – kill another player to take a copy of their ear, for example, proving you killed them. It’s fast-paced action with compulsive gameplay.
Every time you think you’ve worked out a good set of weapons and attacks, a new monster or a new player will challenge this, forcing you to adapt or die. There’s even a hardcore more where you get one life and one life only – how far through the game can you get before your inevitable demise?
There are a few complaints – the quests aren’t the most varied or intelligent, mostly being a set of ‘go here and kill that’ types. They’re handed out by rather static NPCs, nicely voiced (especially worldly-wise Deckard Cain) but not terribly interestingly presented. After your first playthrough, you’ll almost certainly be clicking past them. The cinematics at the end of each chapter are still great and well-written, telling the story with aplomb, but haven’t aged well graphically. And there is a danger of monotony – so much random generation can get dull, as items and champion monsters start feeling like you’ve seen them before.
The economy is a bit lame. You end up with zillions of gold and not much to bother spending it on, apart from resurrecting your henchman (oh yes, there are henchman, and you can equip them and upgrade them and hug them and squeeze them) and fixing broken stuff. But the shops in the towns don’t give you loot worth buying, it’s much more fun and rewarding to pull your new blades randomly out of some recently-eviscerated goatman or a chattering demon headhunter.
The age of the game also means you have to expect a few graphical glitches if you’re playing on a modern operating system like Windows Vista or 7, which is annoying but not unbearable.
Overall, if you missed this, you missed a classic that’s still well-worth playing. There are good imitators out there, like Torchlight or Titan Quest, that may have a modern edge on graphics. But this beats them on sheer variety, replayability and setting. It beats them into a Brilliant Cocked Hat of the Moon, using a Toxic Cudgel of the Leech. You can pick the original and the expansion up from Blizzard for a total of £20, which is a very fair price for a huge and wonderful game.
You’ve still got a month, which this will amply fill, before the sequel arrives. I can’t imagine anything they’re releasing will not be up to scratch, Blizzard’s reputation is pretty impeccable in that regard, although almost £50 is a lot even for a new game. If you can bear waiting, you might want to hold off. I couldn’t, thousands won’t, and I doubt any of us will be disappointed.
The most pressing question I have is this – Diablo and his brothers were destroyed in the last game, and the trailers for part three suggest that a new demon is trying to take over the throne of the Burning Hells. But given the name of the game, and that Big Burning Red was the end of game boss the last two times, it’s surely a given he’s found a way back from death somehow. Hasn’t he?