Throughout the decade of videogames in the '90s, one thing was clear: Titles on the PC were different from the ones on home consoles like PlayStation and Nintendo 64. The PC platform became known for its many technical real-time/turn-based strategy and first-person shooter titles that often sported Internet playability while consoles remained popular for their more user-friendly anime-theme role-playing and arcade-style fighting games. There would be an occasional title that tried to crossover on to the other platform, but such a move was usually met with limited success due to the conceptual differences between the two platforms.
However, as we enter into the new millenium, the divide between PCs and consoles is starting to blur, and there are already tremendous signs of convergence. From the world of home consoles, the Sega Dreamcast system—which shipped Internet-ready right out of the box and even has a keyboard add-on—is a bold acknowledgement and concession that consoles can no longer do without some form of network gaming. On the PC end of the spectrum, concession comes in the form of Diablo II, a remarkable role-playing game (RPG) that manages to stay true to its PC roots while successfully blending console-like approachability and sensibility in order to capture a wider audience.
For the uninitiated, Diablo II is the sequel to the popular medieval RPG title that once again cast players in the role of an adventurer out to put an end to the newly resurrected Prince of Darkness, Diablo. Played from a diagonal three-quarter view perspective, the most surprising thing about Diablo II is its simple and console-like gameplay. There is a high-degree of streamlining to the interface where just about everything is visually intuitive. All major actions and abilities are essentially mapped and can be continually reconfigured to only two mouse buttons and a couple of keyboard hotkeys. Virtually all actions (movement, attacking, talking, opening, etc.) come down to a simple clicking-on-everything approach.
In terms of actual in-game play, Diablo II (like the original) is at its core a hack 'n slash dungeon crawl. A majority of the time gamers will roam different types of lands that range from woodlands, deserts, caves, jungles, alternative planes and castles. All the while, players must attack and fend off hordes and hordes of enemies that take shape of zombies, beasts, demons and a wide assortment of monsters. In another surprising console-like gesture, players aren't permitted to continually save on the fly as most PC games traditionally allow. Instead, saving a game forces a player to exit the game, and any progress during a mission is lost and must be restarted from scratch. Similarly, death of a character is also treated in a un-PC way in that players cannot simply restore a previously saved game (dead corpses must be either recovered immediately or a game must be restarted entirely).
Such penalties make Diablo II more challenging, but thankfully, throughout the game's four acts most quests remain relatively short. At the same time, don't expect much diversity in mission goals either. Players are usually charged with the task of either destroying a boss character or recovering a mystic item. The simple formula literally does not deviate from the beginning to the end of the entire game. In fact, I don't think I would be out of line in saying that Diablo II is nothing more then an elaborate and massive update to the arcade classic Gauntlet. Yet that isn't the game's failing. It's actually a large part of its genius.
Like most of the best console games, the simplicity in Diablo II is deceptive because it masks its depth right beneath its approachable exterior. By adhering to such a philosophy, Diablo II not only makes itself accessible to a more mainstream audience, but also manages to stay honest to its intended PC audience. The way Diablo II manages to keep it "real" to PC users can pretty much be summed up to two things—it's customizability and online playability.
In Diablo II, there is a strong, yet easily understood sense of customization and statistical attribute development in the characters that players portray. Like its predecessor, players are allowed to choose from a variety of character classes. For the sequel, there are five choices: the Amazon, Necromancer, Barbarian, Paladin or Sorceress. Each character class has their own unique abilities and skills which in turn affect the style of play depending on that particular character. On top of the different character classes, there is also what can be considered an endless variety of weapons, armor, amulets and rings that can be found, traded and equipped. All the fighting action may come down to a simply mouse click, but once the carnage is cleared, it's all the spoils that make Diablo II so engaging. The developers made sure there was a tremendous variety of upgrades to discover (including extra hard to find ones classified as rare, set or unique). There is in fact, so much gear that virtually no two characters ever look the same in appearance.
Still, what ultimately made Diablo II work for me was its online multiplayer modes. Without it, Diablo II is a largely one-dimensional, solitary experience. Once entered into the multiplayer universe known as Battle.net, the variety of playability is expanded many times over. Players can not only form group parties of up to eight to complete the same quests in the one-player mode, but they can also trade equipment with one another. In fact the trade and commerce element is such a significant part of the game that it pretty takes on a life to its own; a game within a game. Wheeling and dealing becomes just as important as hacking 'n slashing. The term "addiction" will take on a whole new meaning for players who become obsessed with continually trading and upgrading his or her character with new and improved gear while juggling all the items in the limited amount of storage space provided. Finally, rounding off the multiplayer features is also the option for players to duel with one another for bragging rights.
As for my list of complaints for Diablo II, there isn't many or even particularly damaging comments, but they are still worth mentioning. First and foremost are the graphics. I felt the game held up nicely with its sprite-based one-dimensional look, but I'm sure many will consider the visuals a little outdated or technically unappealing in this brave, new, high-resolution 3-D world. (Incidentally, I thought the music and sound was serviceable.)
I also took a little issue with background story that takes place largely between all the action. While the developers clearly took some time and effort to craft a believable world populated with interesting characters and even went to the trouble of producing technically impressive prerendered CGI-style movie cut-scenes to further flesh out details in-between acts, the plot still remains convoluted and primitive in its convention of moving players from one stage to the next. I felt especially uninvolved since the focal point of the narrative doesn't revolve around the player-controlled character, but instead around the antagonist. I understand that the story isn't the main draw of the game, but I feel nonetheless that it's a wasted effort. Had it been executed properly, I would be singing even higher praises.
One of more my more significant complaints was that in order to join official Battle.net games, players must create a new and separate character that is stored on Battle.net servers. This means that players who spent time developing their single-player mode character will not be able to use it online unless they play in an "open" game, which is essentially unsanctioned and unregulated by Blizzard. I understand it was a necessary step to prevent the hacking and cheating of characters, but it's still disappointing to have to abandon my single player character and start from scratch.
My final complaint is that Diablo II can be a whirlwind of emotions when playing because your experience is largely dependent on the kind of luck you have finding valuable items and the kind of people you interact with. Like any community, online or otherwise, there are many different types of people you'll encounter in Battle.net. While there are some high level players that will altruistically donate their gear to the less fortunate, there are also a bunch of aggravating tightwads who hold on to their belongs as if their "real" lives depended on it. Then there's always a bunch of annoying newbies who incestuously beg for free items. On a good day, I would be able to make a worthwhile trade with like-minded individuals who wanted to have fun. On a bad day, I would frustratingly waste my time roaming around different game rooms for hours without being able to close a deal and only encountering characters whom always seem to be carrying stuff that was way out of my league. Diablo II can be both depressing and invigorating at different times.
Like I said early though, none of the faults are overly damaging, and whatever kind of experience I was having on a particular day, I would always comeback the next day. There's no denying that the Diablo II is finely crafted, extremely fun and a dangerously addictive piece of software. The game isn't overly revolutionary with its simplistic approach to design, but it is remarkable in that it paves the way and sets an example for hybrid games of the future that successfully combine console and PC styles of gameplay.