Playing Time: too many hundreds if not thousands of hours
Bias upfront: Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction (henceforth D2) is one of my top five favorite video games. It’s probably one of my top three. While I’ll try to be fair in pointing out its shortcomings, I’m an unabashed fan.
One of the funny things about that is I didn’t jump into playing it early on. I was a big fan of Diablo already when Diablo 2 came out, but my computer couldn’t handle running the sequel, so I contented myself with spending countless hours plumbing the depths of the dungeons sprawling below the little hamlet of Tristram. My first experience with playing online involved someone dropping duplicates of some ridiculous equipment for me, and so that was my last experience with playing online (with others; I still played in local IP games by myself because I preferred the online gameplay of not being able to load a save file to erase a mistake). I played variants like amazons, goths, ninjas, and dragons when I wanted something different from the basic characters. I had an absolute blast.
Every now and then, I also saw tidbits about Diablo 2 online. I saw ads of people selling in-game items for actual money or videos of characters clearing whole screens of enemies with a single attack and thought, "Ah, I’m glad I’ve stuck with Diablo 1, where my progress is based on my own skills and patience." I read about the resistance penalties in higher difficulties and adding random modifiers to unique monsters and thought, "Those sounds like annoying gimmicks to add challenge." I heard about skill trees and thought, "Why would I want to be forced into restrictions like that?"
And then, sometime around 2008-2010 (because I recall patch 1.12 being current at the time), having upgraded to a better computer somewhere along the way, I got D2 and actually played it.
I couldn’t believe how fun it was.
Once I actually gave it a try, I saw that the "items/characters-for-money" stuff was a clear scam that didn’t reflect what it took to play the game for real. I saw that the "one-button screen-clearing" stuff was highly tuned to take a major investment that still wouldn’t necessarily make things easy. I saw that the things I’d written off as gimmicks were both a sensible offset to the characters’ increased power from having more equipment options and a fun way to throw extra complications at the player to stave off complacency. While the skill trees were objectively more restrictive than allowing any character to learn any spell, they also helped to not only make each character class wholly distinct from the others but also to make different versions of the same class feel different in play(*).
(*): I mentioned the timing/patch above to make it clear to D2 veterans that I started playing after skill synergies and the patch 1.10 monster boosts were a core part of the game. I’ve heard that it was a more homogenous feel in the past for many classes, but I didn’t have that experience for myself.
Even to this day, having played Spiritual Successors like Sacred and less similar but still comparable games like Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup or Dragon’s Dogma, D2 remains my favorite.
In case you don’t know what it’s like, allow me to summarize how D2 plays. You start out by picking one of seven classes for your character:
Amazon: amazing damage output for both single targets and mobs, the best defensive summon in the game, great passive abilities, relatively slow animations, vulnerable to immunities
Assassin: several specialized attacks for dealing with different situations, many timed buffs/debuffs, the most controllable summons in the game, has to pick between versatility and top-end performance
Necromancer: great crowd control and debuffs, has the fewest issues with immunities, extremely safe if played cautiously, weakest chassis, generally slowest progression, reliant on corpses (to finish mobs and/or summon skeletons)
Barbarian: best durability, best magic finder, very weak offense without good equipment
Paladin: several passive and cost-free (mutually exclusive) buff options, best defensive character, simplest class, probably the strongest class overall
Sorceress: teleport, has the only percentage-damage skill that doesn’t require a corpse, great damage potential if specialized or general abilities if hybridized, fragile
Druid: can play as either a spellcaster or melee-focused werewolf/werebear, great variety, weakest chassis, arguably the most complicated technically
Your character ventures forth into Act 1 Normal as a level 1 nobody on the trail of some eastward-heading douche called the Dark Wanderer. Along the way, you fight all sorts of savage wildlife, horrible undead, corrupted beastfolk, and twisted demons, with each Act culminating in a showdown with a major boss, all the way up until defeating Baal, the Lord of Destruction, in Act 5. Then you get to do it twice more (Nightmare and Hell difficulties), each with monsters having bigger numbers, more density, and more randomly generated unique leaders and champions. Finish Hell difficulty to earn the title of patriarch/matriarch for that character, or do it in hardcore (i.e. death is final) mode to earn the title of guardian.
Aiding you in your journey is tons of randomly generated loot (plus a handful of townsfolk in each Act and opportunities to hire mercenaries). Kill stuff to get loot, which makes you better at killing stuff. The core mechanic is basically a self-energizing slot machine, and it’s pretty damn addictive.
The game does have a decent plot and lots of neat or humorous side moments, but it’s far more about gameplay than story.
One of the key things that D2 got right (and which notable D2 streamer/speedrunner MrLlamaSC mentions in his thoughts on Diablo 4’s endgame content) is the gradual progression of equipment. Early on, equipment tends to improve in leaps and bounds, facilitating getting used to a fairly swift pace of play. As you get further in the game, however, you start to come across more equipment where there isn’t an option that is strictly better than what you have already, so you start having to make choices. Do you want a little more fire resistance or a little more magic find? Do you want more health or faster hit recovery? Is gaining a bonus to skills worth giving up cannot be frozen? How do you juggle everything that you want across nine or ten equipment slots, and what do you do with your weapon/shield swap slots?
For whatever reasons, other games often fall into a situation where the late-game items are so much better than what you find early on that you don’t really care about what you’re getting except as a stop-gap measure on the way to something better. While that can also happen in D2, because of the incomparability of certain attributes and most equipment only having about one-to-four attributes that really matter, it’s not unheard of to use certain equipment from the first minutes of the game all the way through to the end (particularly charms and jewels).
Similarly, while there is certainly a progression in the character’s power from the start to the end, even the most powerful character builds (like the hammerdin) never reach a point of being untouchable. Due to a mix of both design features and bugs, the right combinations of unique monster random modifiers can always kill you, as can certain monsters.
As well, while every class as its "one-point wonder"-type skills, actual builds tend to play quite differently. I’ve beaten the game with at least ten different characters (never with an assassin, curiously, though I’m trying to change that now), and no two experiences were alike. I’m tempted to do a series of D2 character build posts, though we’ll see if I follow through on that. The patch 1.13 addition of being able to reassign stat/skill points for completing the Den of Evil quest is something that I was skeptical about at first, but I’ve grown to like it. At worst, it eases the early struggles for characters planned to specialize in high level skills and reduces pressure to leave some stat points unspent to meet requirements for potential future equipment; at best, it lets you experiment with different skills before finally choosing how to build your character. In any case, I didn’t feel like it led to the sort of play experience homogenization that I had worried about initially.
While the graphics for the game are clearly dated, I think they still look good today because the game had coherent art direction and stylization rather than just trying to look realistic or edgy. Obviously, it’d look better if it was made to take advantage of current technology, but aside from a lack of satisfying weight in the animations for werewolf/werebear attacks, I don’t find myself feeling like the graphics impede my enjoyment. I see people complain about the font or the 25 frames/second, but I never found stuff like to be an actual hindrance in play.
The sound direction is fantastic. The ambient music is among the best I’ve come across (I still make frequent use of it when setting up background music for TTRPG sessions), the sound effects are wonderful across the board, and while the voice acting isn’t anything phenomenal, it tends to do the job it needs to (which does make it a shame that there’s so much sprawl in the town in Act 3 and so little dialogue in Act 4, admittedly). Even little bits like the few enemy taunts (the Countess’s "Care for a bloodbath?" and Diablo’s "Not even death can save you from me" are my favorites) are great at injecting that touch of flavor without going overboard. The volume balance isn’t great (I would’ve liked the music to be louder), but all in all, it’s top shelf work.
What would be my main gripes with D2?
Online-only content. I still use Dii.net SPF’s RWM for the ladder-only runewords. I haven’t gone so far as using PlugY because I dislike the idea of making changes to core elements of the game (things like limited stash space and limited respecs are good, in my opinion), but all power to you if that’s what you want, and that one does unlock the online-only clone/"uber" bosses.
Killing the Cow King denies a character the ability to make more portals to the secret cow level. The moo-moo farm is a fun little Easter egg that presents a unique challenge compared to the rest of D2, so it’s a shame that clearing it out prevents you from seeing it again on the same character/difficulty.
The paladin’s blessed hammer skill ignoring resistances for undead/demon enemies is bad design. The paladin in general seems to have a number of skills made to ignore certain mechanics (smite and fist of the heavens always hit, vengeance essentially affects any monster, redemption is a cheesy way to deal with resurrection/corpse explosion, etc.), but having a powerful ranged spell for which there is only a single, rarely-encountered enemy in the entire game with immunity flies in the face of using damage immunities to punish overspecialization in the first place.
(Edit: Apparently, this was removed in patch 1.13. Good!)
And really, that’s about it. I could complain about certain other design choices or known bugs that were never fixed, but those are matters of choice that I can accept as being part of the game. The three points mentioned above are the only gripes that stick out to me as being unjustifiable and bad, and even they can’t tone down how much I love this game.
Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction remains one of the best games ever made, a giant that rose above its genre-establishing predecessor to stand as one of the iconic titles of the entire medium. Highly recommended for all gamers, and while the amount of hidden information can be a hindrance, I’d say it’s even a solid choice for someone who hasn’t played video games before.
Playing Time: too many hundreds if not thousands of hours