100% Series Retrospective: Diablo

Carter’s Quest

Things have been crazy at Destructoid since I became the Reviews Director. On my first week, I had to tackle a new Ratchet & Clank, Super Mario 3D World, and three other games. It hasn’t let up after that, and as a result, I haven’t had as much time to focus on my Carter’s Quest series.

Thankfully though I am often able to incorporate assignments into other works, and since playing a ton of Reaper of Souls on PS4 last month I decided to tackle its predecessors yet again. The Diablo series is among my most-played franchises, so it was an easy adventure to take.

Why Diablo?

Diablo has a special place in my heart for numerous reasons. It was one of the first co-op games I ever played with my pal Joey, who would end up being one of my go-to friends for gaming to this day, nearly two decades later. It was the first game I played over a [dial-up] internet connection. It was also one of the first games I really started theorycrafting for — or for those who aren’t aware of the term, basically obsessing over item values and statlines.

Diablo II came at a specific time in my life when I was going through some major family troubles. It also “clicked” with my group like wildfire. Slowly but surely Joey and I recruited tons of people into a massive collective, where we’d share secrets and tips, as well as loot farm together. I saw people go from “I don’t know what Diablo even is” to playing it for entire weekends.

You know that feeling when you’re playing a cool game none of your friends are in on? This was the antithesis of that. I’ll never forget a hilarious quote from a newlywed couple that was twice our age and started gaming with us when they said “dying in Hardcore Mode (where your character is deleted instantly after death) is like dying in real life.” Diablo II was one of the biggest group experiences I’ve ever had outside of the original StarCraft and the first Halo. I’ll never forget it.

Diablo III wasn’t nearly as life-changing as the first two, but it allowed my wife to get into the series, and we’ve enjoyed many hours of co-op together. However you slice it, Diablo has gotten me through a lot of tough times and created lasting memories.

Diablo – Mac, PC [owned], PlayStation [owned]

Although I had played a lot of dungeon crawlers as a kid, there was nothing quite like Diablo. I still remember the day I unassumingly booted it up for the first time, in the early afternoon, asking my parents to play it late into the night. My first character was a Rogue, the agility-inspired female character that was playable alongside the male Warrior and Sorcerer.

I recall the first time I became hooked, very early into the game. The town of Tristram was sprawling, with a decent amount of secrets and a lot of character. The really cool thing about Diablo is that it takes place in one zone, with one giant dungeon at your disposal that you slowly progress through. The first major quest deals with killing The Butcher, who was an immensely satisfying kill after hearing those level-up sounds and seeing all the rewards that came with it. This was essentially Positive Reinforcement: The Game.

Diablo was an open-ended dungeon crawler in that it didn’t prescribe to a heavy-duty build limitation system. Although it was “best” to min-max, you could freely distribute your stats upon leveling up, and everyone could earn from generally the same pool of spells and abilities.

If you played online outside of a circle of friends, mods, trainers, and hacks were rampant, unfortunately. I avoided them wholesale, but one day my friend showed me a hacked item called “The Hair of Coolio,” an elaborate mace-like weapon, and I tolerated them after that just due to the sheer comedic value of the items. Plus it extended my playtime for a few months.

Since the PC version is so difficult to run on modern hardware I opted for the PlayStation version of the game for this Quest, which runs just fine, even if it’s quite dated. I know you’re probably wondering about Hellfire, the official-but-kind-of-not-official expansion, which was only available on PC. I wasn’t able to play it here, but I distinctly remember it.

It was a strange game that wasn’t quite up to par with most other PC expansions at the time. Hellfire was actually developed by a company called Synergistic Software, and published by Sierra On-Line. It was authorized by Blizzard but wasn’t playable on Battle.net or offered in the physical Battle Chest package. It featured a new class, the Monk, as well as a few new floors of the game’s dungeon, and a few extras like traps.

While it was an odd duck, it augmented the game in a modest way. I still found it enjoyable.

Diablo II – Mac, PC [owned]

If Diablo was elementary, Diablo II was university. Here’s a small picture of how hardcore some people treated the game. I had a friend who created a Paladin, and wanted to invest into a selection of skills that crafted a “Hammerdin” build. In Diablo II, you couldn’t re-invest points at launch (re-spec), and he was off by just a few points, having made a mistake after reaching max level. He deleted the character and re-rolled a new one a few days later. It’s sounds crazy, but he loved every second of it. This is DII.

It was insane how many elements of the Diablo series were expanded. People created PVP characters, maxed out with specific skillsets and gear just to participate in unofficial PVP matches and ganking online. I had friends who had “chatroom garb,” which showed off particularly cool cosmetic gear when you were in Battle.net’s chatrooms. It garnered a crazy level of dedication, and there are few games like it today — even in the MMO space.

Speaking of Battle.net, the service was completely overhauled into the powerhouse we know and play on currently. Blizzard cracked down on (but didn’t completely solve) hacks, and “closed” Battle.net was generally a safe place where you could play with friends or strangers. I spent endless nights at LAN parties with friends on Battle.net, staying over at their houses sometimes for the entire weekend. It’s one of my most-played games of all time — no other Diablo game even comes close.

Personally, I stuck with the Necromancer through and through — I was known for it within my group of friends, and luckily I had the class on lockdown. As for how it plays today, Diablo II absolutely holds up. The visuals are a bit dated of course, but the updates Blizzard provided over the years streamlined a few aspects while keeping the hardcore spirit intact. If you’ve never played it, get a few friends together and take the plunge. You can even use a number of popular mods to change the game to your liking — I know people who still play Diablo II, and every few years or so I still get that itch.

Diablo II: Lord of Destruction – Mac, PC [owned]

Lords of Destruction was everything an expansion should be and more. The major additions to the base game included an entirely new act to farm, new mechanics like runes, and two incredibly deep classes — the Assassin and Druid.

Like all of the other classes in the game, the aforementioned two newcomers had a multitude of build options available. At this point in the game’s lifespan almost no two creations were the same. Some people preferred an elemental Druid, some preferred a Bear build or a wolf build, and others did a mix.

This level of customization is nearly impossible today with the amount of streamlining in games. All too often you’ll see people resorting to “cookie-cutter builds” or specific types of gear so that everyone looks the same, but in Diablo II, I don’t think I ever saw two characters that were exactly alike.

Now that Act V was in the picture, our group had a brand new act to farm, new bosses to fight, and new items to look for. It expanded the game’s lifespan for a number of years, and Blizzard had a long-term plan that it hasn’t replicated outside of World of Warcraft.

Diablo II is a near-perfect example of how to build and support a game.

Diablo III – Mac, PC [owned], PS3 [owned], Xbox 360

Ah, Diablo III. A sore spot for many, a source of rekindled addiction for me for a number of months after its launch. Look, Diablo III had problems — the auction house in general, the always-on DRM, the lack of loot, the limited builds. They were all very real issues.

But that didn’t stop me from leveling up every class in the game to 30 in the first few weeks. It was fun on a different level, because let’s face it, I don’t think Blizzard will ever make a game like Diablo II again. Diablo III was streamlined, easy to pick up, and still thoroughly addicting if you view it as more of an action romp than an in-depth RPG.

I remember getting to Act III in Inferno Mode before it was nerfed, and it was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve ever had with the franchise. Some people thought it was too punishing, but before all the fixes and updates, Diablo III was one of the most difficult games in that space.

Diablo III didn’t have the longevity of Diablo II at launch, but Blizzard eventually got wise and started supporting the game with what fans wanted, not what it thought they wanted. The result was the Loot 2.0 patch and Reaper of Souls, which was almost universally liked.

Playing Diablo III again recently was still enjoyable, even if I found myself wanting to play Reaper of Souls right after one playthrough. I used the PS3 version of the game for this writeup, since it wasn’t fully updated with the newest patch and could be played offline.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls – Mac, PC [owned], PS3, PS4 [owned], Xbox 360, Xbox One

Reaper of Souls was the fix that Diablo III sorely needed. It brought disenfranchised fans back into the fold, and ushered in an entirely new audience. The level cap was raised, a new character was added (which was a great mix of old and new Diablo sensibilities), portals added a newly minted random element to the game, and quality-of-life updates like the item-modifying Mystic were all good design choices.

You also don’t have to beat the game three times to get to the “good stuff,” as players can instantly switch on harder difficulties from the start. Even better, the console versions had no always-on DRM and could be played by four people offline. It also takes place in an era without the taint of an auction house.

While it wasn’t nearly as groundbreaking as Lords of Destruction, which offered the depth of nearly three Reaper of Souls expansions, it demonstrated that Blizzard isn’t entirely reliant on Activision’s business practices, and still has a heart of its own. I hope that the free updates continue to flow, and the next expansion makes things even better.

Final thoughts:

Playing through the Diablo franchise was bittersweet, because I mostly did it alone outside of the local co-op offered in the original Diablo and Diablo III‘s console versions. It reminded me of all the great times I had with friends, and also made me realize that said times will likely never happen again in the same way.

The videogame market has changed immensely, and you can see that shift through the history of Diablo. From humble beginnings marred by technical limitations, to the extremely deep and hardcore number crunching, to the streamlining we know today, this journey was an interesting way to see how the ideologies of both gamers and developers change over time.

I’m mostly just glad that Blizzard was able to salvage Diablo III. I grew up with the franchise and want as many people as possible to feel the same things I did, even if they’re in different ways.

Chris Carter
EIC, Reviews Director - Chris has been enjoying Destructoid avidly since 2008. He finally decided to take the next step in January of 2009 blogging on the site. Now, he's staff!