Diablo II Resurrected came out last Thursday.
The outlook going into it was interesting – Blizzard had completely botched the Warcraft III Reforged launch and overall design, which should have been an easy layup, and that game’s launch sort of set the tone for modern Blizzard. Expectations of what the Diablo II remaster could be and what it would be were both sky-high but also easy to be cynical about. It had been done by a third-party studio, which became a Blizzard studio during the process. Diablo II is also a beloved classic game that came out in a weird era, meaning that it wasn’t particularly easy to play on a modern PC without a guide and some care, and dealing with the warts of technology – the limited 800×600 resolution and how that would be scaled and pulled into form for modern widescreens, mostly.
The short review is this: Diablo II Resurrected is a great remaster, which reflects what remasters should be – the very same base game with some layered-on improvements that don’t affect the core experience, and meaningful modernization that brings the classic experience up to modern standards. It has the same visual style and sheen, but in significantly higher resolution and gameplay smoothness through higher framerates. The core of the game remains untouched, and that means how much you’ll like it is unaffected by the remaster, unless you’re a graphics snob. If you loved Diablo II, it’s the same game, and if you hated Diablo II, it’s still the same game.
What I find interesting about remasters personally is how little interest I tend to have in them.
If a game I liked in my younger days is remastered, I always have a general interest in trying it, to see the differences in the experience. Final Fantasy X remastered looks great, but it also kind of feels like what would have happened if we had the Bleem emulator for PS2 games (remember Bleem?). What I have found from a few rounds of remasters is this – if a remaster is a game I loved as a younger person, I will buy it and then almost aggressively not play it past a few hours in, and so far, that is also true of Diablo II Remastered.
I will circle back to this, because first, I want to explain what Diablo II was to me as a teenager.
My Experience with Diablo II (Original)
Starcraft was the game that got me into Blizzard games, but Diablo II was the game that captured me and created the parasocial bond with Blizzard the company that makes the current news about them suck that much more. I spent literally hundreds of hours as a teenager playing Diablo II to death, not even getting that far – my highest standard toon was a level 50-ish Necromancer who did mostly Nightmare playthroughs. I’d come home every day after school, turn on the cable modem (a modem with a power button, what a world it was in the early 2000s) and spend the hours between the end of school and my parents coming home playing – the modem was off unless they turned it on and so being online when they got home was grounds for trouble.
One of my longest-term friendships was grounded in love of Diablo II – this friend was a Mormon whose parents would not let him play Diablo II, so we’d play at my house and discuss the game at length. Diablo II was, in effect, my hobby, and had I started blogging about games at that age, I probably would have discussed 3 games – Diablo II, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy X-2 (I loved it, don’t care what anyone says).
So the remaster should be appealing, then, right?
Remasters and the Value of Rose-Tinted Glasses
My memories of Diablo II are all good – no remembrance of frustrations, of awkward systems, of rough edges – it was a game that I loved and played a ton of in my youth. When I first booted up Diablo II Resurrected, it hit the nostalgia vein quite strongly…and then came the moments where the game systems butted up against my gameplay. Inventory limits forcing me to town portal repeatedly as I picked up everything to make some gold to set myself out right, running out of TPs and needing to run back to town, the Stamina system for running – all of these are interesting logical choices that impact the player early on, but they do feel somewhat at odds with the player. In a weird way, that early stretch reminded me of the parts of the Diablo II experience of my youth that I had forgotten about – the awkward early moments of feeling the game out.
I feel like my experience matches that of my friends. We haven’t discussed it yet, but I’ve noticed that most people on my Blizzard friends list log in, play for a smidge, and then log out. No one I play with is doing the multi-hour super-sprints through the game, and I find that quite telling in a way that reflects my own experience with the game. I like Diablo II, a lot, but a lot of that appreciation of the game is bound up in that moment in time – in turning on the cable modem without being punished by my parents, playing after school, talking with my friends about our character builds and the recent sessions we’d played – and while the final point on that list can still happen today and the rest is obviously dumb nostalgia, my experience with Diablo II is so bound up in those old moments. Long-time readers here might note this is identical to my stance on WoW Classic, and you’d be right to observe it – a lot of the same reason I feel pushed away from Classic stems from wanting to leave the memory as it was, with the rest being the distaste for the specific community around Classic that was chest-thumping hard at anyone who liked playing the modern game around the release of original Classic.
Diablo II Resurrected is a great game, because Diablo II was a great game and the remaster has complete respect for the source material and brings it up to modern standards in a really great way. But it also reminds me of the rough edges of the design, the elements that felt a bit off that eventually were ground down by leveling. That’s the interesting thing – a lot of what I feel about playing Resurrected now would be fixed in the same way – by just playing more. I’m not opposed to that, but I think that it is a bigger mental barrier than I would have expected it to be for me. It’s surprising, because it took me a long time in 2004/2005 to like WoW, but I liked Diablo II very quickly and it took root in my brain alarmingly fast, and yet I get the same sort of wary, arm’s-length playstyle with Resurrected I had with WoW Classic, albeit a little less reserved.
And I think that’s my thesis on remasters in general, really – the more magical and wonderful the memories of the original, the harder it generally is to get into the remaster. I won’t pretend that this is universal – obviously, remasters succeed on a huge scale to the extent that a lot of the release calendar for gaming is cluttered with remakes of games from long ago, but also even with games from barely a generation ago. WoW Classic is wildly successful, and Diablo II Resurrected will surely be a hit overall as well.
But for me, I suppose that in many ways, I just want to leave the memories alone.
(Also, I’ll probably try a character I never played like Paladin and that should refresh the experience suitably for me!)