Saying something new about a game that everyone’s played to death is tough. Surely I couldn't be blamed for turning to nefarious methods of inspiration? “Jam a soulstone in your forehead,” a friend suggested. “There’s no way that can go wrong.” And now: feelin’ fine!
Diablo II arrived two years after StarCraft?; by then, the world was aware of Blizzard as one crackerjack developer, but they had yet to cement their status as can-do-no-wrong entertainment demigods. Diablo II lifted them into that starry realm -- the game combined the stunning technology, addictive gameplay, and exceptional polish that we've come to recognize as characteristic of Blizzard releases.
Diablo's sequel sends you back to the generic-yet-effective dark fantasy setting of the first game; the warrior who beat Diablo has become corrupt and is working the Lord of Terror’s plans, freeing his brothers Mephisto and Baal, slaughtering innocents, and generally ruining everyone’s day. You take your pick of five available classes -- seven if you’re playing the expansion -- and head out to stop him.
The leap in quality and ambition over the first game is evident right from the get-go. Instead of one dungeon, you're faced with multiple dungeons, all spread across a vast and varied world. The skill tree is far more developed than in the first game, allowing you to unlock various abilities and give your character one of several different builds -- elements that would later be refined for World of Warcraft. You could hire a lackey, too, to carry your stuff and back you up, though, really, the best part of the game was playing it with your friends. Here Blizzard’s redoubtable Battle.net made matchmaking quick and painless. Some of the new skills were also designed expressly for multiplayer, including a number of abilities very much like WoW’s buffs.
The refinement of Diablo’s instant gratification model—click-kill-XP—can be spotted not only in WoW, and the countless games influenced by WoW, but also in the many Diablo clones, for better (Titan Quest) and worse (Sacred). As each new chapter of Warcraft does, Diablo II took existing models, improved them, added to them while keeping them simple, kept them fun, and made one hell of a game. Then they did it again with an expansion. In fact, Diablo II is still being played and modded nine years later even as a sequel is imminent, which testifies to its enduring quality.
My personal experience: nine years ago, 16 years old, playing Diablo II with my mother peering doubtfully over my shoulder, wondering aloud if I might be committing Satanism. “No, Mother, I’m killing the devil. This is fundamentally Christian.” And, just last year, while home on vacation, some friends and I went up to the ranch for a weekend with a trunk loaded with booze and -- because this is Texas -- firearms. We were blasting apart old action figures. Diablo took his place on the firing line after a shotgun dismembered Gambit. Diablo withstood two blasts before finally fragmenting. The soulstone remained intact.