I feel the immediate need to provide a disclaimer for my own title. I like Diablo more than I like Diablo 2. You’re welcome to disagree with me, and in fact I can’t stop you. I’ll also happily concede that Diablo 2 has less annoying features (walking only in town, anyone?) and that the higher number of classes and better multiplayer means it’s become a more enduring classic. I haven’t actually played Diablo 3 and I have no particular intention to, so I won’t be discussing that here. Feel free to roast me for not playing it because I don’t really care. What I want to do is provide a viewpoint for others to rebut or condone as they see fit.
But hear me out. If I had to pick either of them to play, had my memories of every playthrough I had done previously been magically erased, I’d pick Diablo, especially if I was playing alone. Diablo is a far superior single player story-driven experience, and that’s what I’m going to talk about here.
All the pictures in this are from Diablo 2 because I can’t get screenshots of Diablo working properly. You may choose to count this as a point in Diablo 2‘s favour, and I can’t stop you. That does mean you’ll have to assume I’m a vaguely competent player of Diablo.
Diablo ‘s plot is exceeding simple, but engaging. In fact, you can ignore almost every quest and piece of backstory the game attempts to feed you, and you can still feel the plot. You start out as a rookie, exploring a monastery overtaken by monsters. The dungeon under the monastery starts out unassuming enough, cellars full of barrels and libraries with simple monsters and things to pawn in town, and the further you go down, the more corrupted your surroundings get and the more demonic the monsters, until you fight Diablo himself and put his soulstone in your head in a foolish attempt to contain him forevermore. You can’t skip cutscenes in this game, so whether you like it or not you experience this when you defeat Diablo. You can ignore every single piece of optional lore provided in the game and still get that much, and the atmosphere of the game builds into it to make the later parts of the game genuinely tense.
Diablo 2 definitely has a plot. You don’t need to know it, though, and the game is not great at explaining it through environment. You can definitely read the manual and listen to all the gossip and watch the cinematics, and it might all make sense, but even so, it’s pretty easy to let some information slip through the cracks. If I had to explain the plot purely from gameplay, I would say: there are three evils, Tristram was destroyed, the giant scorpion lady is in the basement and has visible titties, snakes steal the sun, MC Escher, jungle bastards, cloud man, W͇̜͖̖͓͕E̷̘L̙̫̯̺̳̝͜C͙̺O͙̪̜M͚̣͔̬͇̠͞Eͅ ҉T̬̭͖̜̭͇̞O̞̟̯̤ ̡͎̻̦H͍̬͍͔͡E͓L̫̩͈̞͜L̢,, people keep fucking freezing me, there’s this necromancer guy in another basement, I fight some annoying bastards who let me go up a level, and then I beat Baal and his clone into pudding, and start all over again but now things are tougher. My main reason for being in town is to refill potions and repair and sell equipment, and I personally feel the locations and NPCs lack character, although I’ll understand if you disagree.
Really, the fact that Diablo 2 is longer and has multiple acts hamstrings it somewhat. It’s a lot of space to stretch a story across, and since each act escalates in difficulty before reaching the end, and then we go back to easy again at the start of the next act, it’s harder to hold onto a sense of narrative tension. Even harder when finishing the game results in starting the game again. The Groundhog Day of the soul.
Oddly, it’s a common complaint about the game that I think gives Diablo some of its character. The walk speed. I completely agree that walking all the way to Adria for more mana potions every time in Diablo is fucking tedious, because it is, but it does mean that aside from phasing or teleporting, your time in each dungeon is spend carefully walking around, looking for danger. Since when you die, you die, and since dangerous traps exist and monsters can be invisible and getting up to ranged monsters when they keep shooting you is hard, you have to treat each floor slowly and methodically, at least if you’re not a pro, which I’m not. I actually have to factor my walk speed and every step I make into how I do each level, and choosing to skip parts of the level is a conscious decision I might regret later.
Diablo 2 gives you the ability to run and items and skills that can make you run faster, and for longer. For a late-game barbarian, you could search an entire floor in a matter of seconds, blasting your way past everyone standing in your way. And that’s cool, I guess, although it can definitely lower the amount you mentally engage with each level. You spend more time thinking about tweaking your character to drive you further through the game than you do about the world you’re currently fighting in.
A great example of what I mean here is the Butcher in Diablo. He’s the first enemy you meet in the game who can move at your speed, and he deals a lot of damage and pursues you ruthlessly. If you fight him as soon as you reach the second floor, you’ll still probably need to clear the level around him to avoid getting attacked by other monsters, and even so the fight against him often results in my character limping backwards across the floor, trying to balance healing and attacking and moving since every blow he lands on me counts. There are fights like this in Diablo 2, like Duriel’s enclosed space, but to be honest that fight is hit or miss for me: either he beats me to death, or he doesn’t. The area he’s in is small enough and his Holy Freeze is annoying enough that there’s no desperate chase for my life.
Another feature of both games that leads to a huge difference in the way players engage with them is the monster respawns and item drops. In Diablo, there is a finite amount of EXP, items, and gold to be gained on each floor, and limited opportunities for spellbooks. This means that unless you repeatedly restart your game, your character progression and the items you wield are directly linked to what floor you’re on. You usually finish the game around the same level, so long as you explore the entirety of each floor, and since you can’t really prepare for what items and spells you’ll get, your run is highly dependent on your luck, especially if you’re playing the sorcerer. I usually get a little strapped for cash towards the end of the game when I splurge on elixers or nice equipment, but I’ve never been so broke I can’t afford potions and progress through the game.
Money in Diablo 2, though. It’s so easy to get that it’s meaningless, like Reichsmarks after World War I. Items are much the same, even if you can’t get the exceptionally specific item you want. Experience is harder to come by, but since everything respawns, you don’t have to keep moving to level up. If you feel the need, you can spend as much time as you like in Act I until you’re ready to breeze through the rest of the game. Diablo does let you do that, with game resets, but resetting your game feels like an actually important decision, and choosing to repeatedly run the same area in Diablo 2 just feels like it’s part of the process of running the game. Your mileage might vary on that one.
I’m not exactly a pro player, so some part of me really likes the fact that in Diablo, you can’t really plan your equipment out aside from quest items (which you might not even get!) since unless you want to restart the game you get what you get. Call me a noob, or don’t, but I do get frustrated with how builds in Diablo 2 tell you exactly what items you need to have, on top of what spells. I also like that I have to think about money and potions and item repair in Diablo. If your durability drops to zero, your item is gone forever, and repair is not cheap, so you actually have to budget for it instead of it being a formality like in Diablo 2. I don’t even know why they bothered with durability outside of ethereal items because it has almost no effect on your play.
I’ve just finished two different games of Diablo using the sorcerer. In the first game, I never found a book of mana shield and didn’t save-spam to get one from Adria, so I had to beat the last few levels using only fire wall and teleport, zipping around the level like a mad bastard. In the second game, I had mana shield early and used a shield and sword, stacking up my defence and hit% so that I could kill off enemies with lightning and firewall and then engage the last few in melee. They played totally differently and it wasn’t on purpose; the game just worked out like that. In Diablo 2, while it’s nice to be able to have specific builds and synergies, it does mean that your levels and attacks are independent of gameplay; you could have gotten frozen orb as a sorceress anywhere if you’d done enough grinding, and where it was and how you did it doesn’t really matter. I actually really like the magic system of Diablo, even though a lot of the spells are completely useless, and if I were to do Diablo 2 all over again I would keep the system but expand the range and utility of the spells you get, like in Hellfire. Of course, the spellbook system isn’t really compatible with monster respawns and infinite item drops, but as I’ve explained, I’m not really a fan of those either.
Another thing I’d like to talk about in Diablo is the fact it’s just not fair sometimes. You can spend money identifying items, only for those items to be worth less afterwards because they have penalties on them. Opening barrels and chests can backfire on you, and at lower levels the traps can do serious damage, making the opening of barrels and chests more risk-reward than an exercise in clicking like it is in Diablo 2. In Diablo 2 I always get four potions and a nice item from a unique monsters, so I can plan my attack accordingly, but in Diablo I never know where my next potion is coming from or whether the items I get will even be worth anything after identification. In Diablo 2, ‘invisible’ monsters like Gloams are still signaled to the player, but the invisible monsters in Diablo are genuinely invisible and can surround you without you noticing, forcing you to be very cautious opening doors on floors where these are found.
There are a shitload of different shrines in Diablo and half of them can inconvenience you or make your character significantly shittier. I like this more than the universally beneficial shrines of Diablo 2, because goddamnit, if I find a magical shrine in a location totally overrun by demons, I expect that praying at said shrine may actually hurt me in some way. If I drink out of a cauldron I find in literal Hell, it should be a risky move. It’s never mentioned by the game at any point that Black Death zombies in Diablo permanently remove a point from your maximum HP on hitting you, so you need to learn that the hard way.
In fact, Diablo barely gives you any information about monsters. In Diablo 2, the remaining HP of the monster is at the top of the screen when you hover over it, as well as their monster class and any special powers they have. In Diablo, you get the monster’s name. It’s only by killing more of the monsters that you learn their resistances and hitpoints, which are things you will have figured out for yourself through trial and error by the time the game gives them to you. You actually have to understand your enemy to progress through the game. Diablo 2 tells you that Fallen Shamans can revive their Fallen and are immune to fire; Diablo would have let you figure that out the hard way, after the little bastards keep coming back to life and your fire wall is having no effect.
The feeling of unfairness extends even to death. In Diablo, if you die, you have to return to your last save. This can range from mildly inconvenient to fucking awful, and it encourages you to studiously avoid dying and keep an eye on your save game. In Diablo 2, on normal difficulty, dying is honestly cheap. The worst part is running all the way back to where you died, and trying to get your body back from whatever killed you, but if you can’t be bothered, you can just save an exit. It gets more taxing on harder difficulties when experience penalties come in, but the incentives to avoid death are lower. It’s even at the point where I usually beat Duriel on normal difficulty with the sorceress or assassin by ‘corpse-bombing’ him; that is, I just go into his chamber, put up a town portal, cast some traps or fire wall, and wait to get bludgeoned to death, because it’s easier than using potions or returning to town. Death should not be an easy way out.
What I’m trying to say, at the end of all that, all comes back to two concepts – play conditioning, and gameplay-plot segregation. Play conditioning is the analysis of how a game teaches you to play it through its mechanics. Due to the low walk speed, the finite number of drops, the unfairness of the game, and the unknown properties of each monster you fight, Diablo encourages you stalk your way around each floor carefully, exploring the whole floor to get every cent and every piece of EXP you can out of it, so the entire game is encouraging you to stay aware and engaged in order to get the most out of it. In this way, the very simple plot of Diablo feels like it’s tied more closely to the gameplay. Every magical piece of equipment is a new surprise, and every spellbook gets you one step closer to being strong enough to fight a prime evil. Without restarting the game, you can’t grind easily, so you’re forced to keep moving forward. I feel it makes Diablo 2 easier if you don’t engage with the game, if you treat item drops and EXP gains as a transaction. This is good for a competitive game, and a multiplayer one, but I feel it detracts from the experience of the game.
I understand the majority of the things that I’m saying I like about Diablo are things that were changed to make the game better at encouraging players to play multiplayer, play the game for a long time, and play over and over again, which are all metrics of success in the gaming world. And it worked; the competitive scene for Diablo 2 is eighteen years old and still active. Blizzard is good at making this kind of game, as evidenced by Overwatch and WoW. But Diablo is older than all of that, and it’s still a delight to play by myself, from the start, for the first time, with any class I like. It never quite manages to be easy or predictable, like Diablo 2 is when I play it from scratch, and even when I’m trying to play it a certain way or super fast, I still end up getting drawn into the distinctive dark and broody atmosphere of the game, dragging me further down into Hell.
Also, the Tristram theme still slaps.