Diablo - A Retrospective Review
It's pretty much impossible these days to ignore the hype surrounding Diablo 3. Diablo 1 and 2 were certainly immensely popular games in their day, and have had a huge influence on subsequent games, so it's not surprising to see how much interest and excitement has grown up around the latest installment, a sequel that comes a full 12 years after the last one. All of this buzz contributed greatly to my own renewed interest in one of my favorite genres: the action role-playing game, or ARPG.
I haven't played one of these games in years, but my decision to play Titan Quest was a direct response to this hype (and a clever sales promotion on Steam). As I played it, I couldn't help but think about the other ARPGs I've played over the years and how indebted they are to the Diablo formula. Although Diablo itself owes much to its predecessors (especially roguelikes and Gauntlet), and each of these 'clones' has attempted to innovate or improve on the recipe in some way, there's no denying how influential Blizzard's sophisticated use of intuitive, addictive, and challenging gameplay has been.
ARPGs are typically described using terms like 'hack and slash', 'click-fest' and 'dungeon crawler' and Diablo exemplifies these elements to a high degree. It also uses random dungeons, fabricated items, creature sampling, and selective quests with a good deal of finesse, which contributes significantly to the replayability of the game.
While Diablo's formula may not have been copied as broadly as the mechanics of FPSs, it has certainly been emulated with much fidelity and admiration within the genre; even now, 15 years after Diablo's release, the moniker 'Diablo-clone' is still used to describe games that employ it's tried and tested formula. If any game deserves the label of popcorn gameplay, it's Diablo, which has all the compulsive and addicting power of buttered popcorn.
In light of its tremendous influence, and the paucity of reviews that can still be found online, I decided to dedicate an article to taking a fresh look at this hoary classic.
Diablo is set in the world of Sanctuary and the narrative is pretty straightforward: your character has journeyed to the village of Tristram to close a portal to Hell that has opened beneath the nearby Cathedral. As you progress through the 16 levels of the dungeon beneath the Cathedral, you come across large tomes that reveal more of the story. Midway through your exploration, you unearth the cause of the demonic invasion: a demon known as Diablo, one of the Three Prime Evils of Hell and the Lord of Terror has been imprisoned in a Soulstone and hidden in the caverns below Tristram, put there by the Horadrim, an ancient order of Magi, at the behest of the Archangel Tyrael.
In your frequent return trips to the village to clear junk from your inventory and restock your supplies, you can talk to the townspeople to learn more about the history of Tristram. You may hear about the story of King Leoric, who went mad battling Diablo, and the story of the Archbishop Lazarus, who led the villagers in a futile and desperate attack on the dungeon. You may also hear about additional side-quests that arise during your exploration as you encounter non-hostile denizens of the dungeon or come across musty tomes.
I say 'may' because Diablo uses a random sampling method for its quests so that not every quest will appear every time you play, making each playthrough just a little different. This is a very clever mechanic with a lot of potential, but, unfortunately, there aren't very many quests to discover, so I found the mechanic to be less successful than it could have been.
Character Creation and Design
At the beginning of the game you name your character and choose from one of three classes: the Warrior, who is stronger and better equipped to use heavy weapons and armor and who sustain more damage in combat; the Rogue, who is good at using her bow and has fair combat and magic skills; and the Sorcerer, who is best equipped to cast spells and draws from a larger pool of magic.
Each of the classes has a special ability as well: the warrior can repair his own weapons and armor for free but at a cost to the durability of the item every time it is repaired; the rogue can spot and disarm traps; and the sorcerer can recharge his staves at a cost to the number of charges it can hold. (Weapons and armor may be repaired, and staves recharged, in town without adversely affecting the item but you must pay for the services.)
There are four main attributes and a number of derived attributes in Diablo. The four main attributes are Strength, Magic, Dexterity, and Vitality. Strength affects the amount of damage you do in melee combat and is used to pass requirement checks on weapons and armor. Magic determines your starting mana pool, your chance to hit with a spell, and is used to pass requirement checks on scrolls, spellbooks, and staves. Dexterity determines your chance to hit and avoid being hit in combat, the amount of damage that rogues do with ranged attacks, and is used to pass requirement checks on bows. Vitality determines your starting health and determines how much damage an enemy needs to do to stun you. Being stunned in combat can be extremely dangerous so it's not something that any character should ignore entirely. (My warrior, on the lower levels of the dungeon was sometimes stunned repeatedly by certain Hell knights even with a high Vitality score.)
The next two most important attributes are Life and Mana which work exactly the way you expect them to and are depicted by the large red and blue orbs on the HUD at the bottom of the screen. The rest of the attributes are derived from attributes and equipped magical items and govern things like damage resistances, attack damage, armor class, and chance to hit.
Diablo uses a traditional leveling mechanic: when you kill monsters, you gain experience, and when you gain enough experience, you go up a level. When you level up (you will know by a small red + sign in the bottom left of the screen), you gain 5 points to spend on your attributes. As your attributes increase, your derived attributes are also adjusted upwards, and your character unlocks new weapons, armor, and magic items. Unlike most RPGs, all of the classes advance through their levels at the same rate.
Also in contrast to other RPGs, Diablo does not enforce restrictions on how you play your character. The classes are better suited to certain types of activities and have different starting scores and maximums in the four main attributes but there is nothing preventing your warrior from casting spells or your mage from hacking and slashing his way through combat. Depending on the items you find, you may even find yourself developing a sort of multi-class, as I did for several levels when I became a sort of battle mage after finding a number of items that enhanced my Magic and Mana. Although the game doesn't strictly enforce specific behaviors, the innate advantages and disadvantages of the different classes will almost certainly force you to adopt a more or less traditional role and strategies in order to survive the brutal and unforgiving dungeons.
Compared to most games in the ARPG genre, the world of Diablo is tiny: the 'outside' is really only one small village, Tristram, and the burial grounds around the Cathedral and is completely devoid of enemies. The dungeon levels, while challenging (they can take an hour or two to finish) are not terribly large, consisting of 16 randomly generated levels divided into four different architectural styles and color palettes.
The gameplay is basically split between the village of Tristram, a safe zone where you can buy and sell items, receive healing and other services, and pick up quests, and the dungeon. The dungeon levels look fairly good for randomly assembled tiles considering the age of the game (particularly the upper levels) but there isn't much of interest in them; they're essentially just there to give enemies and loot something to sit on. (I was struck by just how much the lowest levels looked like the Oblivion planes in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Clearly one of Bethesda's artists was heavily influenced by Diablo.)
The auto-mapper (which only works in the dungeon) can be accessed using the Tab key and is very easy to use: it pops up as a transparent overlay on the screen (everything is in real time so don't use it while enemies are around) and can be scrolled to the left or right or up and down by using the arrow keys. The map will show you the outline of the rooms and halls, doors, and the location of stairs but nothing else.
The game only takes as long as it does to beat (20+ hours) because of the massive number of enemies that must be killed and the difficulty of killing them without dying yourself. Because of this difficulty, it is probably a good thing that the world is as small as it is because you will spend a lot of time going back to Tristram for supplies. Up and down stairs are usually conveniently located next to each other, and a number of additional exits to the surface can be found spread through the dungeon so it's fairly easy to get back to Tristram in a pinch, but you will probably want to invest in some Scrolls of Town Portal anyway. The scrolls allow you to fast travel to the surface of Tristram and are fairly common in loot drops and can usually be found at Adria's for a couple hundred gold.
Diablo uses a manual 'save anywhere' system, so you have to remember to save your game periodically or you could lose a lot of your progress. This type of save system is sometimes criticized for making games too easy. In this case, I think it's the best mechanic, because combat in Diablo is hard and you are likely to die a lot. This game would have been very frustrating to play if it only saved after completing levels, for example. As it is, the frustration can be kept to an absolute minimum. I rarely felt frustrated or bored playing this game, which is a testament to how well balanced the challenge is.
One of the Most Influential Series of All Time
Combat and AI
There is no denying that Diablo has pretty solid, if repetitive, gameplay. It's not complicated (left click to move or attack or interact with an object or NPC, right click to cast a spell or use an ability) but the different enemies are nuanced enough to keep combat from becoming entirely mindless.
Combat in Diablo is much more dangerous than in many other ARPGs (eg. Titan Quest, Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance 1 and 2, Champions of Norrath and Champions: Return to Arms, etc.). In Diablo, I found I had to be much more careful about how I approached enemies; walking up to a group of enemies, even as a well-armed and armored warrior is a recipe for a quick and brutal death. (To provide some context, after 60 hours of Titan Quest, my character had died a total of 25 times. That's less than once for every two hours of play, and at least half of those deaths were during boss fights. By contrast, although I don't have any stats available, I would say that I put about 20 hours into beating the main quest in Diablo and died probably well over a hundred times.)
Even as a warrior, many enemies, like the various Hell knights, can kill you in a few hits, so being surrounded by three or four of them is almost certainly a death sentence. Considering the fact that most rooms contain anywhere from six to twenty enemies and similar groups of enemies are never far off, you are forced to adopt a much more cautious approach to dungeon exploration. I found that I spent a great deal of my time creeping along walls and gradually widening my circle of discovery, trying to be discovered by as few enemies as possible and trying to separate the outliers from the herd to whittle groups down to manageable sizes. I also spent a lot of time running away so that I would have time to quaff a potion, change weapons, or equip a new spell. As everything in Diablo happens in real time, it's very easy to get yourself killed by fumbling over a new weapon or spell, even with convenient hot keys and short-cuts, so it's a good idea to have a strategy before tackling large groups of enemies.
Diablo also has very restricted visibility, which I like because it feels appropriate for the environments that you're exploring. Most enemies are only visible once they enter your light radius (which uses dynamic lighting), and can't be seen through walls or doors meaning many encounters are quite sudden. You can find various objects to increase your light radius, but that also makes it easier for enemies to spot you, so you are better off using Infravision scrolls if you can find them.
Most of the levels on my play-through contained two main types of enemies: typically, a close-quarters combatant and an enemy with a ranged attack. This variety works well to make combat more challenging and was well employed in Titan Quest and other ARPGs. Although ranged attacks do not typically do much damage, they can certainly whittle you down to size while you're dealing with the melee fighters. (By contrast, archers in Skyrim can be among the deadliest foes.)
The AI was another important reason for the challenge: although you couldn't call their strategies anything but crudely effective, they were always responsive and never behaved as if lobotomized, which is a common problem with AI in many games. In general, close-quarters fighters will always try to circle you, and enemies with ranged attacks will always try to keep their distance, running deeper into the dungeon as you approach them. The result is that you spend much of your time looking for a defensible position to fight from, sticking close to walls, hiding around corners, and lodging yourself in doorways to reduce the number of attackers that can get at you. Because the levels in Diablo are practically overflowing with enemies, pursuing a ranged enemy will almost always lead you into a new batch of enemies, making pursuit a dangerous prospect. I found that, even as a warrior, I was often better off using ranged attacks like bows, staves and spells in certain situations (though having a low Dexterity meant that I was rubbish at hitting things). I am also pleased to say that I never once saw a pathing issue with AI: enemies never got themselves stuck on geometry or failed to react when aware of my presence.
The biggest problem I found with combat was the dual purpose use of the left-mouse button for movement and attack. This often meant that, if my opponent moved, my click would miss them and move my character instead of attacking, which frequently threw me off balance. I lost many battles trying to click on a moving enemy and missing which resulted in my character walking around in circles not attacking while the enemy pummeled me mercilessly. You can mitigate this problem somewhat by holding down the Shift key while you fight, which keeps you from moving while swinging your weapon. Unfortunately, you don't automatically turn to face enemies either, so if you hold down Shift and swing your sword, you will often find yourself swinging in the wrong direction as old enemies die and new enemies arrive. Using the Shift key works very well when fighting in doorways where enemies are forced to come at you from one direction, but it works much less well when you are surrounded. All in all, I would have preferred standard WASD movements with the mouse restricted to targeting enemies, but there's no denying that the dual purpose mouse attack/movement is intuitive and easy to pick up.
Loot and Inventory Management
Diablo uses a grid-based inventory management system with additional slots for equipping weapons and armor and a utility belt for fast access to single-use items like potions and scrolls, a format that has become very popular in this genre.
While equipment slots and the utility belt extend inventory significantly, your carrying capacity in Diablo is fairly restricted: you have just forty storage slots in your 'backpack', and while some items, like potions, only take up a single square on the grid, others, like a suit of armor or a staff, can take up to six. If you're kitting up to tackle a new round of dungeon dwellers, it doesn't take long for that space to fill up with potions and scrolls.
Although your carrying capacity is much larger in Titan Quest than in Diablo, I found it to be less of a problem in Diablo. Titan Quest throws dozens of objects at you on every screen, and while your carrying capacity is much larger, it's very easy to accumulate potions and relics for upgrading your weapons and armor which gradually but consistently eats up your inventory. By contrast, Diablo does not have much ready loot. Enemies will drop the occasional junk loot (I was still finding common items like skullcaps on level 16) but for the most part, there is much less loot lying around in Diablo. (In Titan Quest, about every 5th enemy drops a health potion. In Diablo, I was lucky to find a single health potion in an entire level.)
What did turn out to be a problem in Diablo, strangely enough, was gold, which takes up inventory slots. Each inventory slot only holds 5000 gold pieces, and at one point I easily had up to 25% of my inventory tied up in gold. Because items in loot lists are randomly determined, it's not unusual to go several levels without finding anything worth spending your money on at the merchants. (I never found anything worth buying from Wirt; the items were either of lower quality than the items I already had, or were well out of my price range.) Gold could also be a problem when selling loot: selling items might clear them out of your inventory, but the gold itself would take up some of the inventory that you cleared. By mid-way through the game I was just dumping items in Tristram's town square because I didn't need the gold, and didn't want the extra gold I would have made from selling the items to fill up my inventory.
Diablo does give you a couple of things to spend money on. The first is item repairs: weapons and armor degrade from use, so it's possible for them to be destroyed in combat if you go for too long without repairing them. Griswold, the smith in Tristram, can repair items for a modest fee scaled to the quality of your weapon, and warriors can repair their own items any time they want for free, but doing so reduces the item's durability, which means the more you repair an item, the more often it will need repairs until it eventually breaks. Item degradation is slow enough that it never really affected my gameplay, so it was reduced to an interesting but inconsequential mechanic for me; I only ever had one item break on me and it was a low quality item early in my adventure. Repairing items essentially boiled down to a way for me to clear gold from my inventory.
A second way to spend money is by recharging staves, which don't typically have a lot of charges to begin with. Like the warrior, sorcerers can recharge their own staves but doing so reduces the number of charges it can hold. Although I played a warrior, there isn't a strong differentiation between the classes and I found that the wall of fire staff was a fairly handy way of doing 'ranged' damage on groups of enemies so recharging my staff was a regular errand when I returned to Tristram.
Magic items in Diablo must also be identified before they can be used. While Identify scrolls are fairly common, they are not nearly as common as magic items, so paying Cain, the village elder, was another common way to spend money. Items in Diablo come in tiers: normal items are displayed with white text, magic items with blue text, and unique items with gold text. Because the name of the item appears when you hold your mouse cursor over it, text color was an easy and convenient way to distinguish junk items from potentially useful items during dungeon crawls. (This mechanic is now common in many other games as well.) Not all items have purely beneficial effects, and many of the best items I found provided a good advantage only at the cost of a modest penalty in another area. The attributes of magic items are also randomly determined, so the items you discover in chests and barrels or at merchants will vary every time you play the game. While this is a solid mechanic that enhances the game's replayability, it can also have an impact on how you play the game. For several levels, almost all of the magic items I found enhanced my character's magical abilities in some way, which led to me using a lot more magic than I would have otherwise.
I also liked the way they used spell books to distribute spells and increase their potency. Assuming you had the required Magic to use a spell, every time you found a spell book, reading it would increase the potency of the spell it contained. It was an interesting and somewhat logical mechanic, though it did tend to leave spell acquisition somewhat to chance.
NPCs and Quest Design
Tristram boasts a total of eight regular NPCs, which surely makes it's population count among the lowest of any RPG ever created. Most of these NPCs offer a service of some sort: Cain is the village elder and supplies much of the narrative along with a useful service for identifying magic items (which can't be used until identified). Griswold is the blacksmith who buys, sells and repairs weapons and armor. Pepin is the healer who sells life potions and offers free healing. Adria is a witch who buys and sells scrolls, spellbooks, staves and potions and recharges staves. Wirt the Peg-Legged Boy sells 'black market' (powerful magical) items but will only let you look at them if you pay him and only ever has one at a time.
The rest of the NPCs exist purely to supply color and provide additional dialogue to help characterize the other NPCs and flesh-out narrative details. One of the nice things about Diablo is that all of the characters have something to say about every quest and the voice acting is decent so your interactions with them, while not extensive, are always satisfying. I was a little disappointed by the small number of quests that were available, and by how short and linear they were, but they are arguably not the main draw of the game in any case.
Although my playthrough went without a hitch the first time, after installing the 1.09 patch, I encountered a problem with the graphics rendering incorrectly. The HUD and character models had messed up colors, which is apparently a very common problem for people playing the game on Windows Vista and 7.
I did some surfing and found out that the easiest way to solve the problem is by temporarily diabling Windows Explorer while playing the game.
To do this, start Diablo, then use Alt-Tab to minimize it. Hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete and start the Windows Task Manager, then switch to Processes, select explorer.exe and click on End Process. This will disable the icons and task bar at the bottom of your desktop, so to get Diablo running again, you'll need to switch to the Applications tab in the Task Manager and then Switch back to the game. When you're done playing, just open the Task Manager again, select File and then Run and type 'explorer.exe' in the drop down box. You might want to write down these instructions before trying it so you don't forget what you're doing.
Graphics and Audio
Although Diablo's SVGA graphics were considered to be quite good in 1997, there's no denying that they haven't aged gracefully. Everything is dark and muddy. This isn't entirely a bad thing, since the game relies on a heavy Gothic atmosphere to supply a feeling of menace and terror, but the absence of bright, clear colors anywhere in the game can make playing for several hours feel a little depressing. The village of Tristram, the one area of the game that could have benefited from a little color, and where it would not have been out of place, feels perpetually shrouded in midnight. (Which, in fact, might be the case.)
All of the character models are full 3D models but compared to what you are used to seeing in games these days you might not notice a marked improvement over character sprites.
The engine uses transparency to fade out architecture as you walk behind it, but the opacity is still fairly significant so I found that a lot of the time I only found chests, barrels, and potions by accident. Fortunately, placing your cursor over enemies and objects highlights them, so it is never really an issue in combat and can be considered a minor quibble.
The music, while not award-winning, was fairly effective at establishing the right tone. The music playing in the early levels reminded me a little of Nine Inch Nails, and a martial beat in some of the lower levels was memorable as well.
The sound effects also contribute to the atmosphere of the game (the sound of babies crying, while hackneyed, was particularly effective) with a fairly wide variety of monster sounds and appropriate sound effects for combat and for using each of the different types of objects.
I also enjoyed the fact that each of the monsters had its own kill animation: some of them would lose heads or limbs or become disemboweled and others would turn to ash or burst into flames. All in all, it made monster slaying pretty entertaining at times.
Although the audio and visuals of the game do not hold up well to modern games for obvious reasons, if you can get past that first impression, the excellence of the gameplay more than makes up for it.
I experienced one bug playing this game: after using a Phase scroll (which teleports you a short distance in a random direction) the level geometry was offset from its original position. This made it impossible for me to click on doors to enter rooms and in some cases pick up items.
I managed to get around this issue by going down a level and then coming back up: everything was still in the wrong spot, but the doors were now open so I could move through them. This may have been a rare bug, but you might want to be careful and save your game before using this spell the first time you try it.
Multiplayer and Mods
Diablo made a pretty big splash on its release by offering free multiplayer for up to 4 players via direct connection, modem, IPX (a legacy network protocol), and Battle.net. Graphical online multiplayer was still a fairly new phenomenon in 1997 and lacked some of the sophistication of contemporary games so it didn't take long for the servers to become a source of griefing and cheating much to the chagrin of new players.
Out of curiosity, I patched up my copy of the game (multiplayer requires the 1.09 patch, which can be found on the Battle.net web site; I have the original, 1.0 version) just to see if it was still active and being used. Much to my surprise, there were still a fair number of people playing it. Although I didn't give the multiplayer a go myself (I generally don't owing to time constraints), having played the single-player game, I can see why early reviewers would be inclined to compare it to Gauntlet, a hugely successful 4-player fantasy dungeon-crawler arcade game released in 1985 that was later ported to NES. (Anyone who's ever played Gauntlet will remember lines like: 'Warrior needs food - badly!")
While Diablo does not natively support modding, numerous mods were made after its release, including an "official" expansion known as Hellfire. Hellfire was created by Synergistic Software, a division of Sierra, and published by Sierra Online. It had the 'seal of approval' of Blizzard, but many players do not consider it an official part of the canon.
An independent partial conversion to give Diablo a Middle Earth theme was also begun, but never completed along with numerous other smaller mods. I'm not sure how many of these are still available, but at least one, The Hell, was still in active development as recently as 2010. If the vanilla gameplay isn't quite doing it for you, it might be something worth checking out.
All in all, Diablo still holds up fairly well after all of these years. Although the graphics are a little depressing, once the gameplay kicks in its still easy to spend hours clicking your way through hordes of deadly demons and gruesome undead looking for a better suit of armor or an interesting new spell. While Diablo's influence on the MMO genre is obvious because of its connection to World of Warcraft, I can't help but think that it has had a larger impact on the rise of casual gaming than is generally recognized.
While the game is short (approximately 20 hours) Diablo uses a fairly clever set of randomizing agents to ensure that each playthrough is just different enough to keep the game from getting too stale. The gameplay is straightforward, challenging, and fun, and while you won't find a lot of depth to the mechanics, what is there works like a well oiled machine to keep you playing long into the night.
If you haven't played it already, I highly recommend it.