September 28, 2021
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Diablo II Resurrected impressions: Unholy cow, man

Diablo II Resurrected impressions: Unholy cow, man
Blizzard / Sam Machkovech

Diablo II: Resurrected is slated to launch on PC and consoles “later this year,” but in the meantime, the remaster is far enough along that its handlers launched an early “technical alpha” demo over this weekend. (There’s a teensy, tiny chance you can still get in if you sign up right now.) I was invited for the single-player test’s first wave—and took the opportunity to stream my initial gameplay via Twitch.

Should you watch that three-hour session, you’ll see my largely positive reaction at first blush. (Once some initial online-check stupidity cleared up, at least.) Afterwards, I took a moment to breathe, have a snack, and install the game on other systems in order to do some more fully fledged testing.

Even outside that first-look afterglow, of seeing D2:R running beautifully on a modern PC, the results thus far—of an admittedly unfinished preview version—have charmed me even further than my first session might have led you to believe. The “Blizzard Classic” team is currently walking on a long road into hell, and that road just might be paved with redemption.

2D to 3D: Can Blizzard do it?

A quick summary: In terms of content, D2:R is a gussied-up Diablo II, paired with its Lord of Destruction expansion and updated to run on modern platforms. Every original class, quest, biome, monster, AI routine, dungeon-generation algorithm, song, and more returns here with both single- and multiplayer options. Your muscle memory of the original game should translate perfectly to this remaster.

The D2:R sales pitch begins with a pledge to bolt all of its new features and polish on top of the 2000 game’s original source code. Thanks to some uneven Blizzard Classic history, I didn’t know how that would work out. StarCraft Remastered pulled the trick off beautifully, since the remastered content was all higher-res 2D sprites, while WarCraft III: Reforged’s fumbles included trying to do the same with brand-new 3D content—in unbecoming ways that most players immediately disabled.

Diablo II is an entirely 2D game, but this update includes a ton of 3D assets. Is that a recipe for disaster? In D2:R‘s case, not at all.

I became optimistic earlier this year when I learned that Vicarious Visions took over lead development duties on D2:R. That studio has established a hot streak with game remasters, especially in terms of preserving original artistic intent while adding modern graphical flourishes as appropriate. The same can be said for D2:R.

Your inner glow doesn’t ruin D2:R‘s outer shine

At any time, players can tap a keyboard shortcut (by default, bound to “G”) to switch between the game’s original presentation (800×600 resolution, 4:3 ratio) and modern displays (including arbitrary, ultrawide options). It’s a fun party trick, and it guarantees that at any time in the game, if you think Vicarious Visions got the game’s HD vision wrong, you can take graphical matters into your own hands. What I love thus far with D2:R‘s technical alpha is its clear demonstration that Vicarious Visions deeply cares for accuracy.

Every biome’s color tone-mapping, in particular, matches almost 1:1 with the original source material—and the devs have somehow nailed this while also including a much more reactive, modern take on dynamic lighting. At any time, regions both above- and underground can be bathed in additional light, whether from your “inner glow” or from weather effects. D2:R is generally careful to have those color touches appear as mild highlights. Thus, when you compare old graphics to new, you’ll sometimes see a redder or bluer tint on a world element, but not in a way that denies those assets their original tone-neutral treatment.

If Vicarious Visions had gotten this wrong, I might’ve switched to the old graphics and never looked back. Diablo II was a legendarily good game at establishing a “dark fantasy” aesthetic without stripping its world of organic and vibrant color. It hit the sweet spot between the gray-and-brown default of Diablo and the too-saturated extremes of Diablo III—and in previews of Diablo IV, you can already see that Blizzard art team reverting to what Diablo II got so very right in 2000. Vicarious Visions clearly got the same art-direction memo, and thank goodness. Higher-tech visual touches like puddle reflections and rapidly dancing shadows look gorgeous, but they’re also grounded in the game’s core color palette philosophy, and that means they don’t wear out their splashy welcome.

Also, it’s interesting to see Vicarious Visions pick and choose how dramatically to change game’s most dramatic moments. Maybe an original, massive puddle of blood is now a more understated, red-soaked slab of concrete. Maybe a burning house has been entirely remodeled to make room for more flames. Or maybe a cinematic burst of electricity looks remarkably similar to the 2000 original, in terms of wacky zig-zag lines filling the screen. When a scene has been redone with modern rendering techniques, it’s usually for the better; walls of flame were originally broken up into separate graphic blocks, but they now combine seamlessly, and I’m fine with that artistic license. But for the most part, they recreate original scenes as much as possible, like when light shafts fill a “purified” cave or when enemies explode.

Monsters, super-zooms, and semi-transparent roofs

Diablo II‘s original artists saw Blizzard deliver its finest 2D sprite design—and that’s saying something for a previously renowned 2D studio. Every creature looked like it had been modeled from clay or plastic figures to be as gruesome and vibrant as possible as flat sprites. Battling the game’s waves of enemies in 2000 felt more like a recreation of Star Wars: Episode IV‘s holochess than any low-polygon 3D game of the same era. The art direction, pixelated as it is these days, still holds up.

It’s unclear at this point what source material Vicarious Visions is working with, but mashing the “G” button to compare 2D sprites and new 3D versions makes clear that the developers have used those original 3D models, which Blizzard eventually converted to 2D sprites, as a sacred bible. Every explosion of monster skin, bones, blood, and guts isn’t just spot-on; they’re also cleverly animated so that these ultraviolent moments face the player in the same manner as the original game. For the most part, the character and monster designs hold up tremendously when using the “zoom” command (default binding: “F”) to examine their details, although some characters, particularly the humans, suffer from an overly plasticky look at this zoomed level. Thankfully, everything I said earlier about color balance applies, and between that and otherwise faithful 3D reconstructions, I am generally a big fan of how the default zoomed-out perspective captures each monster’s animation cycles and ferocity.

The trickiest thing about the retouched graphics comes when dealing with cramped interiors. Many of the game’s underground environments include both a fog-of-war effect and semi-transparent ceilings, all seen from a fixed isometric perspective. This is identical to the original game, and sticking to that archetype is arguably crucial to preserving the creeping claustrophobic effect that Diablo II nailed when players moved from wide-open plains to terror-around-every-corner dungeons. That being said, I think D2:R might want to explore some creative license on how its 3D assets can obfuscate these interior scenes, since they move and shift in less of a fixed manner than the original 2D assets did. Your mileage on this may vary.

I personally love the new weather effects, which emerge just as randomly as in the original game and add more layers of precipitation and dust (which newly affect nearby trees, shrubs, and grasses, as well). You may not be as big a fan as I am of that thin layer of atmospheric effects, but at least they’re quite thin and don’t get in the way of monster and item visibility on wide-open plains. The trouble with them at this point is their absolutely pounding effect on graphics cards—though I’m not ready to call this a failure by Vicarious Visions. “Technical alpha” applies hugely to unoptimized effects. The same goes for abrupt color/brightness effects turning on and off in this demo, instead of naturally fading in and out, and the 3D mode’s hitching and stuttering on weaker hardware.

QoL preview: More for gamepads

Vicarious Visions has opted for a pretty light touch on base gameplay, especially if you choose the original keyboard-and-mouse control scheme. Your left mouse button still guides your hero’s running path and doubles as a “primary” attack button, when you click directly on a monster. Your right mouse button still toggles secondary attacks. You’ll still manage your inventory, and gobs of loot on the ground, with a mix of clicks and keyboard shortcuts.

One quality-of-life (QoL) exception, which you can disable if you want, is that your hero will automatically pick up gold if they run over a pile of the stuff. The automatic pickup radius is pretty tight, as opposed to making gold constantly warp into your pockets, and I see it as a sensible, limited tweak to split the difference between classic and modern loot-adventuring.

Playing with a gamepad, on the other hand, sees the remaster explode with QoL touches—and honestly, they’re not necessarily due to a controller’s limitations. The biggest difference is attack functionality. Standard Diablo II battling limits players to two active attack buttons at any time, which you normally have to assign to your keyboard’s F# function keys so that you can juggle, say, 6-8 commands in hairier battles. Meaning: You have to tap a button just to make an ability or attack available, then press another button to use it. Switch to gamepad mode, on the other hand, and your full suite of abilities appears on your ABXY array, plus two of your triggers—and you can hold one button as a “shift” modifier to double the number of commands at any moment.

So far, D2:R doesn’t include an equivalent button-mapping option on keyboard-and-mouse for attacks and abilities. In a PC gaming universe where your average mouse has no less than three bonus buttons, it’s hard to see gamepad users get quicker, nimbler access to this game’s suite of abilities. I’m hopeful this tweak gets added to D2:R‘s keyboard-mode binding menu, and in the meantime, I’ve switched to gamepad mode on PC. This also unlocks a handy “automatically sort loot” shortcut, making it easier to make space when you want to pick up one more piece of loot before shlepping back to a settlement to sell it.

Unfortunately, by default, gamepad mode also drowns the screen in tooltip text, whether to clarify exactly what you’re aiming at (which is useful) or to tell you what loot is on the ground (not always as useful). Normally, loot-preview text is hidden until you hold down the “alt” key, and I’d appreciate a gamepad shortcut to turn this on or off in the final game.

Sounds great, looks great. But how’s the online?

In arguably the best news of all, Vicarious Visions hasn’t touched the sound effects, dialogue, or music in the slightest. Diablo II‘s score is still some of the best ever in a PC adventure game, and its mild electronic flourishes on top of otherwise organic instrumentation holds up quite well over 20 years later.

Honestly, the sheer ability to get Diablo II working on my modern display, and take advantage of a full 16:9 ratio (or wider), could’ve been enough to get me on board even if the resulting remaster was otherwise uneven. Mid-game menus for inventory and abilities no longer crowd the live battlefield—so you can pick through loot and see triple the range of possible nearby threats. It feels so very modern.

There’s no getting around certain dated aspects of Diablo II. It doesn’t lead you directly to objectives with systems like exclamation points on maps. Its inventory interface is terribly cramped, so accumulating and selling loot requires a lot of back-and-forth to town. And mouse-aiming some attacks and abilities can feel clunky compared to modern followers to Diablo‘s top-down adventuring throne. Many of those are a matter of taste, and Vicarious Visions seems content to stick to the older rules and limits—so if you want an adventuring game to baby you, maybe give Diablo III a look, instead.

Me, I’m thrilled to see D2:R feel like the Diablo ma used to make—and I’m already impatient for its promised follow-up multiplayer alpha tests, as the game’s old-school clunkiness is that much more satisfying when played with a crowd of like-minded friends (and/or utter #$@&ing enemies, should PvP be turned on). Once we can go hands-on with the game’s rebuilt multiplayer options, we’ll be back to scrutinize the hell out of them—and figure out exactly how faithful this beta’s blacked-out “TCP/IP” button is to letting us play online Diablo II the way we prefer to.

Until then, my message to Vicarious Visions thus far: “I knew there was great potential in you, my friends. You’ve done a fantastic job.”