Diablo II: Resurrected (PC): It's a true-blue nostalgia trip but that depends on who's asking
The Gates of Hell have reopened
Note: This review was first published on 29 September 2021.
At long last, we've made it to the end of the waiting game. Diablo II: Resurrected is now available for pickup on PCs and consoles, and the demons of Hell are spilling out into Sanctuary by the dozen. Again.
Not that it's a bad thing, of course. I enjoyed playing Diablo III a great deal (and I still do), so it only makes sense that I'd be curious to give its remastered predecessor a go.
For the record, I've never had the chance to play the original Diablo II - the closest I got was watching my uncle play it on his computer all those years ago, and even then I was too young to appreciate anything more than the Sorceress shooting out fireballs and lightning bolts. Can't blame a kid for enjoying the flashy stuff, right?
Accordingly, D2:R is my first hands-on experience with what is arguably the most infamous dungeon crawler title in gaming history, albeit one with a new coat of paint. I will confess that I haven't gotten that far into the game, but from what I've played through so far, as well as my experiences with the Technical Alpha and Early Access phases, we should have enough to send the titular Lord of Hell packing.
Same place, different time
As a general rule of thumb, I think we need to establish right from the get-go that Diablo II, and by extension D2:R is fundamentally a completely different beast (or rather, demon) from its successor, so if you're coming in expecting the game to hold your hand, don't. While it's true that developer Activision Blizzard and Vicarious Visions have taken great pains to top up some modern quality of life features where they can, such as the auto-collect function for gold, the game is still pretty brutal, unforgiving and do-it-yourself compared to D3.
Needless to say, that may or may not be a bad thing. It all depends on who's asking, and that brings us to - the issue of perspective. Functionally, D2:R hasn't changed much from the original, and in general, what people liked about it then are probably what they might like about it now, at least in terms of concept. Its developers have previously declared that they intend to keep it that way as far as possible, and that means we can theoretically split the player demographics into two broad categories.
Namely, those who are here because they sank time into the original D2, and those who either like D3 or are curious about why people would play the original for more than two decades, like me.
The former shouldn't have much of an issue appreciating the "brutality" of the game in theory considering they've played through it before, but the same can't be said for the latter. For a generation of gamers who have largely gotten used to developers coddling us with beginner-friendly features like free re-speccing on demand, guaranteed loot drops and suchlike, D2:R can present quite the culture shock by simply not doing so, and as a matter of fact, it doesn't. In such a context, the game can feel dated and unrefined even if the player understands that it's essentially more than two decades old, not to mention that even veterans who have gotten used to D3's luxuries might feel a little out of place going back to D2 systems.
In short, it's as I said earlier - whether or not you end up liking or disliking D2:R really depends on how willing you are to embrace the difficulties and challenges of playing an older game. To be honest, needing players to shift their perspective in this manner is probably the largest hurdle of all, and if you can get past that, there's actually a whole lot to enjoy about the experience, some parts of which are even applicable to those who started their Diablo journey with D3.
The demons are back and (look) badder than ever
And so begins our grand adventure to vanquish Diablo. Our motley party of three - which includes me, you and my glum Necromancer Salazar - are all that stands between the Lord of Hell and the world of Sanctuary, so to speak,
Aesthetically, I've got no complaints to make, especially when it comes to the game's cinematic sequences. According to the Vicarious Visions, every single minute of D2's cinematics has been remade from the ground up, and they look utterly magnificent. The level of detail in these clips speak for themselves, really - from facial expressions to finger motions and even the odd pained grunt as Marius tries to sit up in his cell, it all feels quite surreal, like you're watching an animated movie straight out of Hollywood.
Of course, the same degree of "realism" doesn't carry over to the actual gameplay, though this aspect of D2:R has also received a new coat of paint. Naturally, you're welcome to play on the Legacy graphics if you'd like, but I prefer not to go full retro, in that sense.
However, that doesn't mean the game feels completely modern, and it certainly shouldn't. Although stuff like character portraits, in-game facial features and text are now quite close to what we have in D3, you can still feel this very distinct retro vibe emanating throughout the experience, from the mobs to the characters and of course the world of Sanctuary itself. Frankly, after going through so many top-shelf games recently, it's actually quite refreshing to look at these retro-esque graphics, and if you've dabbled in the original I'm sure that the nostalgia factor will hit like a truck.
Nevertheless, other bits like character movement and spell casting is as adorably blocky as ever, though I'm sure the D2 veterans wouldn't have it any other way - and I fully agree with them. Watching Salazar and his army of summons waddle all over the game's procedurally-generated levels beating up the similarly-waddling enemies has become quite an amusing sight, not to mention the occasional stint of aimless wandering looking for the right dungeon is a good excuse to take in the sights and sounds of the remastered Sanctuary.
Work hard, play harder
Yet, the game does know when to floor the gas pedal, and you shouldn't underestimate the adrenaline rushes and thrills that this twenty year old game can induce. After all, when Salazar found himself surrounded by a horde of enemies on all sides in a damp, dark cavern with a huge boss looming over him, I also found it surprisingly easy to ditch skill orderings and other mental gymnastics in favour of clicking anything and everything in a blind panic. That's just the way the dungeon crawler cookie crumbles, though, and for better or worse, you'll find these panic-driven instances in plentiful amount as you go further and further into the game, to say nothing of the higher difficulties where most of your resistances are rendered moot. It's arguably one of my favourite bits about dungeon crawlers, and I'm happy to report (at least for those who've never played D2) that the game is pretty good at pulling such moments off.
To add on to the panic, just in case you weren't aware, unlike its successor D2 doesn't actually have a hotbar per se, and it goes without saying that having to manually cycle through knowing which icon corresponds to a particular skill isn't the easiest thing to do when you're dodging a barrage of fireballs. So, trust me - you'll panic.
The same goes for the rest of it - as much as I would prefer otherwise, some fights can generally devolve into intense clicking competitions, and I think my index finger might have already developed a six-pack as a result. Indeed, just like its other core aspects, D2:R's gameplay is probably a solid 90% similar to the original, and most of the changes implemented by the developers merely offer small quality of life improvements like helping you to collect gold by walking over them. It's one of the ways that they're trying to help new players get acclimatised to the game without affecting the overall experience of the original game, and I daresay that even the veterans might want to keep settings like these turned on!
Since we're on the topic of gameplay experience, I think it's worth highlighting that the game offers you an impressive amount of different variations for what is effectively a twenty year old game.
Each of D2:R's seven available character classes each feature two or three different skill trees, with all of them presenting different pros and cons. Granted, they're not as dynamic, sprawling or modifiable as those in modern RPG titles, but they still manage to nail down the variety aspect very well, and assuming you channel all your skill points into a single one, even newbies should be able to enjoy and clear Normal difficulty without too much trouble. Naturally, it goes without saying that conventional RPG logic and rules of thumb factor in here too - keeping an eye on your gear and its durability, switching out for better stuff as you go and modifying your character to suit the situations - these are all well-worn concepts that you'll definitely need to keep in mind for a successful playthrough.
There's no free reverse gear
However, this is where the seas start to get a little rougher, because that bit I just mentioned about modifying your character comes with a caveat. In general, D2 doesn't approve of players doing "take-backsies", in the sense that once you make a decision to lock something in like a skill or stat point, said decision is often final, and you'll probably have to jump through loads of hoops just to reverse it.
For example, many of us might be accustomed to being able to re-spec whenever we want in games like Borderlands 3, but D2 actually makes you work for it. Case in point, you only get ONE free respec per difficulty you clear, meaning one each by default for Normal, Nightmare and Hell. Of course, you are also offered the chance to farm one out, but that involves clearing bosses on Hell difficulty, which is NOT easy even for experienced players, much less a newbie.
Still, re-speccing isn't even the most annoying bit, if you want to call it that. I personally believe that such caveats are understandable given the age of the game, and it does actually boost the replayability considering players will need to make the plunge and set up a new character to try out other builds they might fancy. As we discussed right at the start, it's one of those things that you'll certainly need to be prepared to do if you want to truly appreciate the game. On that note, I'm also going to highlight that you need to know what items are usually worth keeping from your dungeon clears and which aren't, and that's the other thing keeping the game from being the absolute game-changer it once was.
Specifically, since the game is so comparatively brutal and unforgiving to newbies who might not know what they should be paying attention to, their experiences are certainly going to to be...less than entertaining if they make a mistake, not to mention thinking about the effort you might need to re-grind out relevant equipment. Say you're a player who made the mistake of speccing into different skill trees to ensure versatility, only to find out that such an approach isn't going to be viable in later difficulties. I know I'd be downtrodden, not to mention annoyed that I can't even work towards a respec since it's gated behind a multitude of conditions. In such cases, modern gamers might just give up on the game entirely, and while I can't say that's going to happen for everyone, it's still worth pointing out as an innate flaw of any remaster, not just D2:R.
At the end of the day, the point the game is trying to drive is simple - if you want something, you're going to have to work for it 99% of the time, and (amusingly) the game doesn't quite care if you're okay with that or not. After all, the mentality, playing style and even the tastes of gamers today are vastly different from the generation of 20-plus years ago and once again, it all goes back to requiring players to manage their expectations in order to really enjoy D2:R. Unfortunately, that's not something that the game will be able to change from its end, so we will probably just have to accept that it is the way it is.
You'll need to put in the work
Even so, I don't think D2:R is a bad game in and of itself - the sheer longevity of the original says as much. While the game certainly fits flawlessly into the existing mental jigsaw that Diablo veterans already have established, it has to be said that the remaster is going to be a whole different ball game for D3 players to stomach, and quite simply, it might not be suitable for everyone's palate. While I personally enjoyed the game and the challenge it has to offer, the thought that it might, for lack of a better word have stayed too faithful to the original formula seems to be working against it rather than for it. After all, there were many instances along the way where I cursed the lack of a certain feature that I had in D3, such as not needing to assign potions manually.
Of course, the veterans don't have as much to worry about given the nostalgia factor has definitely been nailed down to a T, but the comparatively unforgiving nature of the game, much like a Soulslike, might frustrate and demoralise many new players trying it out because they appreciated D3's experience. Because of that, the sheer success and prominence of D2 as a title is functionally the biggest obstacle in the remaster's way, but naturally, it goes without saying that the reverse is also true if the player can accept that such challenges and hiccups are all part of the game's DNA.
All in all, D2:R is probably a niche game - veterans and fans of the original game should definitely pick it up for nostalgia reasons and the quality of life upgrades, but for newbies, it's probably best that you do your homework before taking on Diablo and his demonic peons. Accordingly, if you're ok with putting in the work and learning the ropes (the hard way), you'll definitely be able to see why this legendary dungeon crawler has lasted the test of time.
And if you're wondering, no - we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a secret cow level. *wink*