While Diablo 2 was a defining game of my middle school and high school days – one that I would stay up entirely too late playing and get yelled at by my parents telling me to go to sleep – it’s also a game that I haven’t touched in almost 20 years. So my first hours with Diablo 2 Resurrected was a good reminder of three things:
Diablo 2’s music kicks ass
It’s still by far the best in the series when it comes to atmosphere and tone
It’s old as hell
That third point is especially notable because Diablo 2 Resurrected has received a wonderful fresh coat of paint that modernizes its visuals without ever losing that essential dreary atmosphere, painting the picture of a Diablo 2 as it would appear in the most rose tinted of memories.
But it also means that, for both better and for worse, Diablo 2 Resurrected still plays exactly as it did 20 years ago. Better, because it provides an alternative to Diablo 3’s much more streamlined and more forgiving gameplay, while also giving a less complicated alternative to a game like Path of Exile; worse, because in the 20 intervening years since Diablo 2, the action RPG genre as a whole has improved upon Diablo 2’s archaic mechanics in ways that make it a bit hard to go back.
But to start, let’s focus on the good. Diablo 2: Resurrected looks fantastic. This is absolutely not a case like Warcraft 3: Reforged with only marginally improved character models and a bump in resolution. Everything has been completely redone from the ground up, replacing the pixelated sprites with gorgeous 3D models, adding new lighting effects to the environment, and if for whatever reason you prefer the old style, you can switch between the two visuals seamlessly with the press of a button. In a deep dive panel on this remaster, Lead Artist Chris Amaral talked about how there’s a 70/30 philosophy where 70% of the art in any area is left alone as the “classic” art, and that extra 30% is then used to elevate that classic art, and that philosophy was definitely felt as I played.
It really makes a huge difference in atmosphere when you walk into a room with a five-pointed star made of fire, and that fire actually looks like… well, fire, and not just a bunch of copied and pasted fire sprites in the shape of a star.
One other notable difference is the fact that Diablo 2: Resurrected now has controller support, and it’s not just as simple as plugging in a controller and all of sudden all of the keys get mapped to buttons on the controller. When you use a controller, there’s a complete change in the UI, how enemies are targeted, how spells are equipped, and there’s even added functionality to help organize your inventory, since that’s such an important part of Diablo 2, and doing so with a controller is so much slower than using a mouse.
When you use a gamepad, there’s a new auto-sort button that automatically optimizes your inventory space, which is an absolute godsend, and I can only hope that Blizzard eventually adds it to the mouse and keyboard interface as well.
Even beyond just that though, you can map up to six different skills on to the face buttons and bumpers of the controller, as opposed to having to switch between them using the F-keys or mouse wheel on the keyboard and mouse. There’s added information in the character screen that lets you know what extra bonuses you’re getting from your gear outside of ones that just affect your stats, and overall, it goes above and beyond my expectations for adapting Diablo 2 to a controller by also optimizing it with a bunch of quality of life improvements.
Does It Hold Up?
The controller optimizations are where the quality of life adjustments begin and end, because the rest of Diablo 2: Resurrected is exactly as you remember it from 20 years ago, with the small exception of being able to automatically pick up gold now. And that’s where things get a little complicated.
In many ways, Diablo 2 can be a very frustrating game to play in 2021, because many of its mechanics have been dramatically improved in subsequent games within the genre. Potions taking up inventory space sucks, plain and simple. Diablo 2’s inventory space is already very limited thanks to larger weapons taking up as much as 20% of the inventory space alone, on top of also having to reserve space for charms and tomes. Having to add health and mana potions on top of that needlessly clutters up the inventory and makes it so that you constantly have to make trips to town to offload or sell whatever loot you pick up.
The stamina system also feels completely unnecessary and does nothing but slow down the pace of the early part of the game when you don’t have enough vitality to make it a non-issue; stat customization largely feels meaningless with how valuable vitality is compared to everything else for every class; and everything had to be identified either with a scroll or a trip back to town.
That said, there are also ways in which Diablo 2 succeeds in areas that Diablo 3 completely dropped the ball on. There’s a lot of strategy and planning that goes into your build, with meaningful choices that make a huge impact on how strong your character will ultimately become. Skill points could be held onto in preparation for dumping them all into a new skill once you reached the required level, creating a risk/reward situation where you would make things tougher on yourself in the short term by not adding points to skills that are useful now, in favor making a stronger character down the road by having more skill points to put into the more powerful skills.
Diablo 2 is also much tougher much earlier on than its sequel, which makes its combat encounters a lot more tense and enjoyable, while also making the loot drops much more exciting as well, since the challenge is always rising to meet your gear (as opposed to just letting to steamroll through its enemies like Diablo 3 tends to do up until you get to the end game).
So yes, the core of Diablo 2 still holds up 20 years later, even though there are some substantial frustrations to push through caused by certain outdated design issues. All in all, despite being in alpha, Diablo 2: Resurrected shows a ton of promise. It’s still got a way to go in terms of polish – there are framerate drops all over the place, the transition from the new graphics to the old graphics causes the game to stall briefly, and the load times feel longer than they should be – but as a remaster, this is shaping up to do what fans want from it: staying faithful to a beloved classic.
Mitchell Saltzman is an editorial producer at IGN. You can find him on Twitter @JurassicRabbit