Demons, cows, and set pieces oh my !

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

For this entry I’m going to go into detail about one of the greatest mysteries that has plagued mankind for ages and many a philosopher has spent years trying to solve… why hasn’t anyone been able to successfully copy Diablo 2!? Oh sure we’ve seen games that have emulated it (Divine Divinity, Fate, Sacred) and some that came close to it (Titan Quest) but we have never heard a game get the title “Diablo 2 killer”. Last year, developers of Diablo 2 tried to create a spiritual successor with Hell Gate London and not only did it not live up to the hype, but were also blasted by critics and fans alike. (A pattern I’m seeing with spiritual successors). As a fan and self admitted Diablo 2 addict I feel it is my duty to break down Diablo 2 to see what makes it tick, and provide lessons for developers attempting to strike gold again.

Diablo 2 is made up of several carefully balanced systems that scratch that itch for action RPG fans. First is randomization which permeates the world of Diablo 2. Every section (minus boss and quest related chambers) is randomized in terms of overall space, treasure to be found, and chances of seeing unique monsters roaming the area. This keeps exploring the world from being too stale on repeat visits which are required to collect all that awesome loot (which will be talked about next). Playing Titan Quest which is my favorite Diablo clone, the one thing it lacked was randomization of that degree. Yes the background and settings were pretty but in action rpgs where you will be building numerous characters, it’s better to have a fresh experience that doesn’t look as detailed over going past the same waterfall every time you play the game. This leads into the reason why you’re going to be going through those locales again and again.

The old carrot on a stick imagery is used perfectly for Diablo 2. While the game will have you believe that your quest is to kill Diablo and save the world, the real reason your playing is to collect bigger and shinier pieces of equipment to put on your character. Diablo 2 features an extensive amount of equipment for your characters to use. Playing on higher difficulty levels means scoring better items to deal with the stronger enemies. Gems and words of power were added to allow customization to your items further improving them, one of my friends who were basically a Diablo 2 god showed me some of his gear which had bonuses that went from the top of the screen all the way to the bottom. Set pieces customized to each character type provided a focused method of improving your characters opposed to the customization

I will give the nod to Titan Quest for providing powerful loot to be found, including artifacts that can add new skills to your character. My problem was that they were made so rare and hard to obtain that chances are you won’t be able to find them and it downplays their importance. In TQ rare loot became so hard to find that it was possible to go an entire act without finding something better. Then there is the fact that bosses are not always guaranteed to drop rare items on death which is just horribly unlucky when it occurs. In Diablo 2 most often you would change your equipment up several times in a single act depending on your luck. With all these items your characters had the proper tools for dealing with monsters of the land.

Diablo 2 featured a wide variety of beast, demon, and vermin for the player to go up against. Enemies had their own unique talents and were not afraid to use them from reviving dead pals to using your own skills against you. Elite versions of enemies add to the danger with resistances and special modifiers, who can forget getting killed by the electroshock ability of elites. Boss fights in Diablo 2 were epic featuring enemies that towered over the player. The rewards for killing them were great with rare and powerful items to be fought over. My favorite (or least favorite) enemy were the swarms of insects in act 2 which brought back painful memories of being attacked by bees when I was younger(funny story that I should share at some point). Moving on it’s time to talk about how your spreading the death and destruction to these beasties.

The character classes in Diablo 2 really showcase Blizzard’s ability to create back stories and add depth to their worlds. Each class comes with their own unique background and abilities. What I love about the D2 classes is that they get away from the standard Warrior/Wizard/Archer archetype seen in most fantasy titles. Classes range from an Amazon skilled with both bow and spear, to my personal favorite the Necromancer which coincidentally started my love of using pet classes in RPGS. With the expansion we’re given the druid and assassin classes that add even more variety to the game and guarantees repeat playthroughs. Now in most action RPGS that would be it in terms of diversity, but D2 goes a step further by providing 3 unique skill trees for each class. Each one is self contained to turn your character into a demon killing bad ass, but it also allows you to try generalizing by going up 2 or all 3 trees evenly. A few years ago I believe Blizzard released a patch that added in synergy bonuses that each skill would give you for putting points in them further allowing you to develop unique characters. TQ is the second best with giving the player unique classes by allowing you to create a class out of two different skill trees, but I still give the nod to Diablo 2 for allowing diverse characters.

Lastly is multi player, I’ve been saying this for years now but I believe Blizzard owes a huge debt to the people behind Battle.Net, Blizzard’s online service. Every game in Blizzards lineup has benefited from this service and offers features that I rarely see other companies use. Such as cross game chat, and a variety of ways of finding people to play. Diablo 2 was set up so well that I never played a single player character as it was so easy to create characters for online play. Action rpgs thrive on the chaos of multi player and Diablo 2 is no exception, combine that with the diverse ways of creating characters and you have a formula for a game that can be played for a long time.

So after that long praise of a game that is about 7 years old what lessons should be taken from this? Customization, randomization, unique classes, and lastly easy to use multi player are the foundations of a great action RPG. As of this writing I feel the itch to reinstall D2 to see if I can put that bastard and his annoying brothers in their place once again.


  • mwc

    That’s an interesting question. I think part of the reason that nobody tries to go directly at Diablo is that everyone already has Diablo. What I mean is that the characteristics that make Diablo itself so addictive also make a clone more or less superfluous. At the same time, different games have taken up different aspects of Diablo‘s success. For instance, some MMORPGs have clearly taken lessons from the game when it comes to loot and lucky drops. In these games, the roguelike randomization is replaced by a vast gameworld and stronger social aspects. While the size of the world and the social constructs would not seem to be the same sort of thing as randomization, they all represent a form of continued stimulation that helps keep the gameworld interesting.

  • I think it could be possible to develop an action rpg in the Diablo 2 vein without out right copying it. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sci fi or steampunk attempt at an action rpg (not counting acranium of course). One thing Diablo 2 has done that I haven’t seen in other action rpgs done as well are the unique classes.

    Hell Gate from what I’ve seen did have unique classes, but that could also be from the modern (or is it in the future?) setting. I’m keeping an eye on Mythos(free ware Diablo clone from the makers of Hell Gate), as a possible attempt at Diablo 2’s crown.

    Then there are some basic quality of life issues, automatic rearranging of your loot to save space, a personal locker to hold extra loot for examples that some action rpgs miss. I know for a fact that Titan quest did not have the rearranging of loot option until the expansion came.

    I agree that if someone were to make an action rpg set in a medieval setting where you can control an Necromancer that it would be copying Diablo 2, but my main point still stands somewhat. I’ve yet to see any action rpg game come out after Diablo 2 that we could say beats it in terms of gameplay and replayability .